Stage 5a - April 8: Altsasu - OƱati, 93 km

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45th Vuelta al Pais Vasco - PT

Spain, April 4-8, 2005

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Voigt finally comes good

Di Luca puts the hurts on Osa

Nine point three kilometres of time trialling in the cold and rain, around the ancient university city of Oñati, will decide who gets to keep the big floppy txapela hat as winner of this year's Vuelta al Pais Vasco after this morning's short, but gripping final road stage.

CSC's powerhouse, Jens Voigt, who dominated so much of last year's race, finally had his day today when he attacked after ten kilometres and stayed away virtually untouched for the next 83 to finish solo at the monastery on top of the Alto de Arantzazu. Voigt crossed the line, happy, arms briefly raised and finally able to get some respite from the 5 degree cold and the constant rain that was his only companion during his ordeal on the cold wet run down from Navarra into Guipuzkoa. In between, he had to pass through the ancient university city of Oñati, through the town of Bergara and up onto the range that separates Guipuzkoa from Bizkaia, before heading back down again before the final long drag up to the finish. His main obstacles along with the finishing climb the Cat. 2 ascents of the Alto de Aztiria and the Asentzio.

Behind Voigt's solo effort, two other games were being played out. Firstly the duel between the two 'little' teams of the race, the one excluded from the ProTour, the Vicente Belda directed Comunidad Valenciana, and the young, Basque milkmen of Kaiku. Their players David Latasa and Andoni Aranaga respectively had to decide which of them was going to take home the mountains prize. The second, the fight for the overall lead, is not by any means an affair closed off to its two current main players, but it was between them that this morning's event was focused. Danilo Di Luca started out this morning two seconds behind race leader Aitor Osa, but he completed this stage one second ahead of the chasing Baleares Basque. Di Luca trails Osa by just one second, with only this afternoon's time trial now available to separate them.

They are not the only contenders. Nine point three kilometres isn't a lot, but again the course isn't all that flat, it has a nice cuesta to climb in the middle and to sap the strength, and along with the day's wet and slippery roads, nothing will be a formality. Cast your eye over those within twenty seconds of the two: Rebellin, Halgand, Cunego, Menchov, Boogerd, Perdiguero, Serrano,Zaballa, Frigo, Contador, Valverde, Rogers, McGee, Julich, Etxebarria, Rubiera, Beltran or Moncoutié, not to name them all, and it's plain to see that one of them could put in an inspired ride to win the GC.

So there are two main options this afternoon: An Osa-Di Luca duel, or a ride that in the slippery Basque spring that is of such power and determination that it could bring one of that group who sit, just off the pace to the fore.

How it unfolded

The stage was only 93 km, but it was always going to be a hotly contested, nervous stage. Today with the continual rain and the temperature at 5 degrees, Jens Voigt decided to take advantage of his circumstances (he was over 12 minutes down), and the weather, to head off on a solo exploit either to try and upset the Baleares cool, on behalf of teammate Julich, or to salvage some personal glory for himself. He was initially accompanied by the perennial attacker of Cofidis, Luis Perez, rugged up to the ears and rain protected and the Guipuzkoan, Euskaltel's Gorka Gonzalez. But only for a while. Voigt managed to get rid of them but then others tried to follow. Latasa and Aranaga looking to finish off their mountains jersey duel chased, the two after yesterday were separated by a mere point. At first it was Eladio Jimenez who was around to help Latasa in his quest, and after Voigt crested the day's first climb, the Cat. 2 Alto de Aztiria, it was Latasa and Jimenez who stole the minor points from Aranaga.

By the time Voigt was heading through Bergara and about to start the trip towards Angiozar and onto the narrow steep Alto de Asentzio, he had a minute or so buffer over what was now a group of Latasa/Blanco and Aranaga/Palomares. A Valencia/Kaiku tag team match had been set up in the rain, cold and fog. The two non-ProTour teams decided it would be a battle to the death for the mountains prize. The rain was not making the constant climbing and descending easy for either the solo Voigt, the chasing tag team match, or the peloton three minutes behind the German.

At the point where you start to feel the climb to Asentzio commencing, the Valencians put a few metres into the milkmen and it looked like soon their years of experience might cut short the young Kaiku effort. Latasa and Blanco again took the minor mountain points, and headed across the ridge to Kampazar (that bar at the top must have been inviting) and the fast wide and for the most part straight main road descent back towards the next encounter. The Valencian effort had by this stage put an end to the milkmen's attempt to deliver their biggest prize in their short careers so far. Voigt down low, using all the four lanes of the new Kampazar descent, was making the most of his freedom holding a gap of 3'30 over the peloton, and over 2 minutes over Latasa and Blanco with only about 20 kilometres left to the summit and finish of Arantzazu.

The race was not over as Lampre decided, using the wide road which would not last for long, that it was time to drive the peloton in a real pursuit. They swept up Aranaga and soon, with only about 15 km to go, Gerolsteiner were also doing their share of pacemaking. With 10 km to go Voigt was still low on the drops seeking to repeat his stage win of last year, the two Valencians, still in between at 2'30 or so and the peloton, looking to drive to the climb to set up a battle and unseat the Baleares lead of Osa. Cunego, Di Luca and Rebellin obviously still fancying their chances in the overall, seemingly seeking to use the steepest ramps of over 11 to 13% that fall in the first 3 kilometres of the 8 kilometre ascent to the monastery at Arantzazu.

Voigt climbed these ramps, seated! on the tops, doing a perfect impersonation of Ullrich. Blanco behind was alone, Latasa after chatting with Vicente, now sure of the mountains prize, had sat up. Voigt didn't look like he was going to get caught at any point. He had, as Blanco commenced the climb, over two minutes on the Valencian rider. But behind things were about to start. As soon as the main group hit the steep ramps, Cunego and Di Luca jumped. They quickly made some space, but it was only Di Luca who could sustain the effort. Ahead Voigt was already going through the large Ikurina waving crowd that marked the end of the 13% section and from where on in the climb leveled to a gentler 5 or so percent.

Di Luca had already built himself a 7 second gap, and quickly dragged it out to 10, them 12 and then a bit more. In the bunch no one seemed to know who was meant to chase over this the hardest section of the climb. It was the man for all seasons, the sprinting, climbing, winning Baleares, super-domestique Alejandro Valverde, who took control and the initiative of pulling the head of the peloton. Di Luca, however, was still holding his gap. By now Voigt was only 2 km away from safety. Blanco stuck somewhere in between, obscured by both the weather and the tense situation behind. Then Di Luca only had 2 km to go, the peloton still not within reaching him, was it all going to fall apart for Osa?

Di Luca had a kilometre left as Voigt crossed the line ahead, a quick salute and surely not the podium, please first a warm shower in the bus. At last for the big German some respite and a win. Di Luca was working hard, the day grey, the road shining with the rain and his face like the others showing the pain of the climb and the conditions. The bunch had one kilometre to go and Aitor Osa who had been shepherded by Valverde till now, jumped and chased. This was his last ditch effort to save his chances. Blanco rolled in, while Di Luca was still fighting to keep away, but finally on his heels was Osa. One second apart.

Hasta pronto. Bets please...


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