Astana hogged the top three spots on stage 1 of the Vuelta Ciclista a la Región de Murcia with Pello Bibao taking the honours after a late attack, and teammates Omar Fraile and Luis Leon Sanchez completing the set. World champion, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), finished fourth in the bunch sprint to the line, while Bilbao leads the race with one stage to go.
The day belonged to Astana, who caught the early break, set a furious pace on the final incline and then launched attacks, first through Leon Sanchez, then Danish rider Jakob Fuglsang, and finally through stage winner Bilbao, who came into the race with strong form after a recent third place overall in Valenciana. It was the 28-year-old's first win since the penultimate stage of last year's Criterium du Dauphine.
"It is a very nice victory for me! Honestly, it was not easy to do the decisive move today, because it was supposed to be a day for sprinters," Bilbao said in a press release issued by his team.
"We have fast guys in the team, but maybe not for the pure sprint. So, this was the reason we decided to do the last climb really hard to try to reduce the group to have more opportunities in the final. The team did an impressive work on the climb and we did not expect to create such a small leading group. Anyway, we decided to continue going 100% until the finish line. In the end, when we realized we arrive in this group, we started to attack thinking on stage victory. Luis Leon did a very strong attack, hard to follow, but Alejandro Valverde could close the gap. Immediately, Jakob made his attack, but he also was caught. My attack was the third one and I could get a small gap, which made me possible to arrive alone at the finish. So, for sure, it was an impressive team work and amazing team strategy at today's stage. We can be proud with the result," Bilbao added.
The win represented Astana's second victory of the season after new signing Ion Izagirre won the overall title in Valenciana.
Luis Leon Sanchez, now 35, has been a consistently high performer since the season started in January with the Tour Down Under. The veteran rider picked up four top ten placings - and fourth overall - in Australia and then returned to European racing in Valenciana with another third place on stage 3 before helping Izagirre to victory.
Fraile only made his season debut in Valenciana this month but his second place on stage 1 was a firm indication that his condition is improving as he looks ahead to races such as the UAE Tour and Tirreno-Adriatico, where he will target stage wins.
"Of course, I am happy with this team success! That's something great!" an overjoyed Fraile said in the team's release.
"The first half of the race was quite calm, while we increased the pace on the climb. The group split in parts and we could go away. We all worked really hard in our leading group to keep the advantage. In the final Luis Leon attacked first, but later Pello counterattacked and very fast got a few meters of advantage. It was a nice move, which brought him a stage victory. And, in the sprint we just did our best. The main thing is that our team is looking very solid, we are in good form and happy with the way the race started for us. Tomorrow will be a hard day, so, we will keep on fighting."
The second and final stage of Murcia takes place on Saturday.