Team High Road added another one-two finish to its results page, this time in the fourth stage of the Vuelta al País Vasco where Luxembourg's Kim Kirchen took the bunch sprint ahead of his rapidly improving young Italian team-mate, Morris Possoni. Kirchen sprinted to victory in Vitoria after a mountainous 171 kilometer stage, just seconds after catching the day-long break which included Possoni, who held on to take second ahead of points classification leader David Herrero (Karpin Galicia). It was stage win number two for the 29 year-old after his triumph in stage two, and the second one-two finish for High Road in a week after the Hel van het Mergelland.
Overall leader Alberto Contador maintained his slim three second lead over Ezequiel Mosquera (Karpin Galicia). The main breakaway of the day, with Possoni, Australian champion Matthew Lloyd (Silence Lotto) and Basque rider Amets Txurruka (Euskaltel – Euskadi) was caught with just 50 metres to the line, and mixed in with the bunch gallop with Possoni coming second, Lloyd fifth and Txurruka in seventh.
Kirchen explained that it wasn't his first choice to pass his own team-mate to take the win, but with the speed of the bunch he had no choice. "Today it was a pretty fast stage, and we had a fairly young boy in the breakaway group. He could have won, but at the end I had to pass him because we were going too fast and anybody else could have won; happily it was me." He was happy with the team-work on such a hard stage. "I had a good team that worked for me, and so I could win. I would like to dedicate this victory to the young rider I passed, he was in the break yesterday, and in the break again today. I am sorry for him, but I think that a victory is too important to let other teams win."
The young Amets Txurruka was very disappointed in the finish. "What a pity that they chased us down at only some meters to go. You always hope that you could win, even if we knew that it was very difficult. Really, it is a pity. We gave everything. We [Euskaltel – Euskadi] are trying every day, and today it was my turn. I tried and I really was able to select the right breakaway group," admitted the Basque.
How it unfolded
Viana, 11:45 pm. The first buses of the teams appeared and attracted the attention of the public to the 146 remaining riders. The leaders of the different classifications and their team-mates had the good luck that after a rainy night the sun decided to appear and to illuminate the picturesque town of Viana. One hour later, the peloton started the fourth and perhaps most difficult stage of this year's edition.
The route lead them today through the famous vineyards of the Rioja Alavesa, the mountains of Alava and the little villages of the neighbour regions Burgos and Castilla y León. The first difficulty of the day, the Alto de Herrera, a mountain of the first category, awaited the riders after just 57 kilometers.
The racing was hot from the gun, with a break of four hitting out straight away: Jorge Azanza Soto (Euskaltel - Euskadi), Iban Velasco Murillo (Euskaltel - Euskadi), Alexandre Botcharov (Crédit Agricole) and Alejandro Paleo (Karpin Galicia). They were caught and quickly countered by Jérémy Roy (Française des Jeux), Xabier Zandio Echaide (Caisse d'Epargne), Egoi Martinez De Esteban (Euskaltel - Euskadi) and Daniele Righi (Lampre) at kilometre give.
Tom Stubbe (Française des Jeux) and Koos Moerenhout (Rabobank) bridged across to the leaders, but held a tenuous gap on the peloton. Stubbe attacked solo at kilometre ten, while the rest of the breakaway decided to head back to the comfort of the bunch. Several riders came across to Stubbe, and while not all made the ultimate breakaway, a group of five settled in for the long haul up front: Txurruka, Possoni, the Australian champion Matthew Lloyd (Silence Lotto) and Liquigas rider Dario Cataldo from Italy.
The peloton let them go, but when the advantage climbed to three minutes and twenty seconds, Saunier Duval reacted and began to work. The fans on the Alto de Herrera saw Possoni crossing the summit in the first position, ahead of Txurruka, Lloyd, Cataldo and Stubbe. During the descent, it began to rain and four riders crashed down in the peloton, amongst them the world champion Paolo Bettini. The Italian continued, but dropped out later in the stage.
The quintet in front reached a maximum lead of four minutes before encountering a strong crosswind. The summit of the next difficulty of the day, the Alto de Zaldiaran (category two) was reached first by Txurruka, ahead of Possoni and Cataldo. Then, the peloton passed through Vitoria, the Basque capital, for the first time before heading out for another lap of 67 kilometers. The diminutive Basque rider took the intermediate sprint at the line ahead of the Belgian and the Italian.
During the last 58 kilometers, the peloton had to climb over three mountains, two of the third category where Txurruka and Lloyd hit the top first, while Cataldo lost contact on the second at kilometre 144 while the break enjoyed just over one minute's lead. With ten kilometers before the finish line, the leaders hit the Alto de Zaldiaran (2nd category), reached first by Lloyd ahead of Txurruka and Possoni where Stubbe was the next to drop off the pace and head back to the peloton which was hot on the heels of the leaders, just 35 seconds behind.
The five struggled with all their remaining strength, but to no avail: the peloton chased them down at 50 meters to go, and Kim Kirchen overtook his team-mate Possoni who finished second. Third was, once again, the Basque David Herrero from Karpin Galicia.
Tomorrow's fifth stage will be the "key stage", as Alberto Contador and Mikel Astarloza suppose. From Vitoria to Orio over 162 kilometers with four mountains, three of the second and one of the third category. The last chance for everybody to reach a stage victory before the final time trial in Orio on Saturday and to make time in the general classification for those who will not be able to count on their abilities as time trialists.