Astana Pro Team played a very strong hand on stage four's critical final four-kilometre ascent to Santa Lucia hermitage, with Luis León Sánchez and Merhawi Kudus – second on this climb in the 2017 Vuelta a España – very active on the lower slopes, and Pello Bilbao shadowing Izagirre towards the summit.
Although Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) proved unmatchable in his ferocious twin acceleration, Izagirre’s fourth place enabled him to move into the lead, with Bilbao now lying in third place overall to create an Astana GC ‘sandwich’ around world champion Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).
This is Izagirre’s first stage race lead since the Tour de Romandie in 2016 and, barring disaster, Sunday’s straightforward flat stage into Valencia will end with him claiming his first overall victory in a stage race since the Tour de Pologne in 2015. It will also be Izagirre’s first victory for his new team.
2That final climb was really tough and we went up it flat out,” Izagirre told a small group of reporters afterwards. "Movistar gave it a real blast at the bottom, Rubén [Fernández, of Movistar] went for it, and I told Luisle [Sánchez] and Merhawi to pull that back.
"But then Adam Yates attacked really hard, he virtually did the whole of the last kilometre and a half alone and it was all we could do to stay on his wheel."
"I tried to get Valverde to react in the last 200 metres by testing things a bit, but he wasn’t having any and we couldn’t try to go for the stage win. But the important thing was the overall, and there we are, in first and third place now."
With a slight but sufficient advantage of seven seconds over Valverde, and no time bonuses in play in the race, Izagirre should – on paper – be the outright winner on Sunday afternoon in Valencia. But a late split or an unexpected attack could yet lay waste to all that, and the Basque racer was understandably cautious about his options.
"I’m closer to winning and tomorrow on paper should be a stage for the sprinters, and hopefully we’ll be able to round off this week with the victory, we’ve certainly worked hard for it in the team.
"Strategically we played today a bit differently to the previous two stages, we knew that the key to the whole race was in the last climb and that turned out to be right."
After two years at Bahrain-Merida without a win, for Izagirre to start life in Astana Pro Team with a probable victory in the bag would be an ideal outcome to his first race in the light blue kit of the Kazakh team. It was, after all, why he left Movistar at the end of 2016 – to have his own freedom to manoeuvre.
On this occasion, with victory over his old leader Valverde all but certain, his gamble would appear to have paid off in spades. Or as Izagirre concluded, “I was in Bahrain for two years and I couldn’t give them the victory they deserved. Here I’m very close to winning, and that’d be great.”
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