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Welcome back to stage 19 of this year's Vuelta, coming to you from the Basque country. Today's route promises fast racing in the battle to hold an escape clear, but also some possible GC action at the two intermediate sprints and the last climb, a Cat. 2 raced twice outside of Bilbao. There are only 14 kilometers from the summit of El Vivero to the finish line!
At the moment, we have a four-man breakaway up the road: Igor Anton and Gorka Verdugo (Euskaltel), Marzio Bruseghin (Movistar) and Aleksandr Dyachenko (Astana). They have five minutes over the peloton. The race is travelling eastwards along the Atlantic coastline of Northern Spain and features four categorized climbs, of which the last one (Alto El Vivero, Cat. 2) will be the highlight of a finishing loop on the outskirst of Bilbao.
For a quick overview of the stage's key points, this is where the sprints and climbs are located:
km 019,7: Sprint
km 042,0: Puerto de la Granja (Cat. 3) - 6,0 km @ 5,7%
km 059,5: Puerto de las Muñecas (Cat. 3) - 4,9 km @ 5,9%
km 114,1: Alto El Vivero (Cat. 2) - 4,2 km @ 8,6%
km 126,9: Sprint
km 144,2: Alto El Vivero (Cat. 2) - 4,2 km @ 8,6%
We have thus the first of the four climbs already behind us. The four-man break is doing a great job and with two Euskaltel riders in the lead, the orange crowds of the Basque country will be partying.
This is what happened until now:
There were 167 riders at the start in Noja today, with one athlete calling it quits: Tony Martin (HTC). From the gun, the peloton raced a furious pace as many riders thried to get away. But with the first intermediate sprint at km 19, Team Sky held the field together in order to get a chance to make second-placed Chris Froome grab some precious bonus seconds.
With time bonuses of 20-12-8 seconds awarded to the first three riders in the finish, and 6-4-2 available at intermediate sprints, every second could count on the way to Madrid. Before the stage, Juan-José Cobo (Geox) led Froome by only 13 seconds.
But the points jersey is also still highly contested, and so it was Katusha's Joaquin Rodriguez first at the sprint, taking the most points. Geox rider David de la Fuente was second, and Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) third. The Dutchman lies in second position in the points classification.
Mountains classification leader David Moncoutié (Cofidis) was next to attack, as well as Thomas Rohregger (Leopard) - but all in vain. No-one was able to get away until km 29, when a quartet finally got a gap: Euskaltel riders Igor Anton and Gorka Verdugo, joined by Marzio Bruseghin (Movistar) and Aleksandr Dyachenko (Astana).
As the race came up to the first climb, Cat. 2 Puerto de la Granja, the peloton split in two parts, with overall leader Cobo however safely in the first group - together with the other GC contenders. The breakaway's advantage grew rapidly, with best-placed rider on GC being Bruseghin in 17th place at 9'58" of the red jersey.
The race has just passed the second climb of today, the Puerto de las Muñecas, and entered the Basque country after 33 years of absence!
Naturally, Euskaltel riders Anton and Verdugo crossed the summit before Dyachenko...
Green jersey wearer Rodriguez was seen as the race doctor's car earlier. He is still suffering from his crash three days ago, but by winning the first intermediate sprint, now leads Mollema with 110 points against 102.
The heat has returned upon the Vuelta, and the air temperature is currently 35° Celsius...
The gap has increased further to 5'50. Anton and Verdugo are the main forces in lead group, highly motivated to do well today and win in Bilbao.
Back in the bunch, Geox is controlling the pace. There is still one intermediate sprint to go before the finish, at km 129. It's located mid-way on the circuit below Bilbao, between the two ascents of the final Cat 2 Alto El Vivero (4.2 km at 8.6 percent average gradient).
OK, some more figures: the gap has passed the six-minute mark and the thermometer shows 38° Celsius...
The bunch will shortly get to the feed zone and grab some well-deserved food and drink.
The leaders have been handed their goodie bags, while in the bunch Garmin-Cervelo and Liquigas are starting to help Geox in the chase.
The bunch is pretty strung out now as it looks like the pace has been upped. The race reaches the outskirts of Bilbao, where a lot of spectators have skipped their siesta to watch the race and cheer the riders on.
Indeed, with 59 kilometres to go, the leaders' advantage has come down to five minutes.
The bunch is racing through the city centre of Bilbao, led out by a Liquigas rider followed by some Garmins.
The streets are lined with orange-clad fans very excited to see two Euskaltel men in the lead.
This is the first time the Vuelta has come to the Basque Country since 1978 - a historical moment and the cycling fans here in this beautiful city certainly honour it.
The race travels out of town now, heading towards the Vivero climb. The gap is 4'40, so the attackers still do have a chance on staying clear.
Garmin, Liquigas and Geox are the first riders at the front of the bunch, with Sky still hiding. Cyclingnews blogger Sylvain Chavanel has come to the front, too. He's still looking to win here in Spain.
There was a moment of hesitation but now Sky has moved up to the front. The leaders are already on the climb, a narrow and twisty road, being cheered on by the crowds.
Bruseghin leads the four up the ascent. Both in front and in the peloton, nobody moves at the moment.
The Basque fans are giving their all as the break hits ramps of ten percent.
The gap is down to 3'35. The four better get on with it if they want to stay away... but unfortunately for them, we still might see some fighting for the overall podium in Madrid, which may not leave the break with a chance of victory. All depends if Sky attacks Cobo on this climb - perhaps not now, but the second time around.
Löfkvist has been making the pace for a while now for Froome and Wiggins, with Cobo sitting on Wiggins' wheel.
The break has crossed the top of the climb.
The bunch crosses the KOM at 2'36 minutes from the leaders. Chavanel is back at the end of the group.
Fortunately, the descent is not as narrow as the uphill. They come down a two-lane road without complications.
The second intermediate sprint of the day (and its bonus seconds) is in ten kilometres, but the bunch won't get there ahead of the leaders.
Still the gap is coming down further to 2'12 with 36 kilometres to go.
The race is back in Bilbao as Anton desperately tries to keep their advantage above two minutes - but fails. Löfkvist is doing a hell of a job: he has been leading the bunch out on the climb, in the descent, and now on the flat.
Wiggins is at the back of the peloton, waiting for his team car.
In the breal, Astana's Dyachenko has been preserving himself quite a lot. We might see him go for it on his own on the final climb.
1'46 is the gap as the bunch comes through the finish line.
Verdugo has a flat and now has to chase back on - what a terrible moment to lose contact!
Ah - he is back in the group.
Alberto Losada (Katusha) has attacked out of the bunch! And Dyachenko has just had to let go of his companion's wheels... OK, so we were wrong, he just hadn't got it in him.
Froome is sitting just behind Cobo in the bunch, as they perpare to tackle the Vivero one last time. Losada should still be betwee groups.
The Movistar team car cos up to Bruseghin and he has a chat.
This could be Froome's last chance to take 13 seconds and the red jersey from Cobo. Löfkvist is still pulling - but how long can he hold this up?
Verdugo has to let go. He looks like he's very furious at not being able to hold on.
Behind, the bunch has also become smaller, we are left with a 25-rider group.
We are at the foot of the climb. Anton attacks Bruseghin! The crowds are delighted.
Rodriguez has also tried to get away from the chasers, but is reeled back in.
Verdugo has been caught by a group around Chris Sörensen, which also includes Mathieu Perget (AG2R).
Wiggins is leading the group up, at2'18 of the sole leader Anton.
Wiggins is putting on a contious fast pace but no attacks from Sky.
Brusgehin is at 19 seconds from Anton, who is making his way through a corridor of shouting fans.
Nibali has been dropped.
Bruseghin is losing ground, he is now at 27 seconds of the Basque rider.
Rodriguez, too, gets dropped, as Wiggins pulls Froome through the crowds. Cobo sits on Froome's wheel.
Froome attacks, and Cobo follows him!
Anton is on the descent now.
Froome and Cobo are with Perget now.
Froome goes again, but Cobo hold on to him.
Cobo is in control, there won't be any GC turnaround this way.
Mikel Nieve from Euskaltel is there with them, and now makes the pace in the descent.
Anton looks good, he has 32 seconds over Bruseghin with ten k to go.
The Basque rider is flying down the descent, putting his head between his shoulders. Cobo, Froome and Nieve are back inside the bunch.
The Basque country is behind Anton, who may be the hero of the day. If he wins, the celebration will be massive.
Bruseghin looks like he's beaten. He can't make up any time on Anton and we are now on the flat.
Haimar Zubeldia (RadioShack) has attacked out of the bunch.
He is followed by Nerz (Liquigas).
Anton has one kilometre to go.
The crowd goes berserk!
This is a huge moment for Basque cycling. The celebration awesome.
Bruseghin comes in as second.
The bunch came close to the chasing Nerz, Zubeldia and Sörensen. But finally Nerz takes third and the last remaining bonus seconds.
Thanks for having joined us again today, tune in tomorrow for the penultimate stage of La Vuelta. Hasta luego!