Stage 3 - April 6: Ortuella - Gasteiz, 176 km

45th Vuelta al Pais Vasco - PT

Spain, April 4-8, 2005

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Valverde's turn, but only just

Alejandro Valverde came out on top in a nail biting finish to win the third stage of the Itzulia in the Basque capital of Vitoria-Gasteiz this afternoon. Valverde just beat CSC's Giovanni Lombardi to the line in a sprint that only came to be in the last 500 meters. Valverde said after the race, "Today was a day when everyone was a little tired, but the team worked so well - first to keep Aitor in the lead and then in the end to give me the stage victory. It was a really hard sprint but in the end I got it, but only just!"

How it unfolded

Earlier in the day even before reaching the first meta volante in Vitoria, the list of abandons grew quickly: Kaiku's Dioni Galparsoro, Fabien Sanchez (Francaise des Jeux), Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel), Andreas Klöden (T-Mobile), Jose Angel Gomez (Saunier Duval) and Koldo Gil (Liberty) had all jumped off the bike. At around the stage's halfway mark, a group finally escaped after earlier solo efforts by Mayoz and Pasamontes. This group consisted of Ruben Lobato Elvira (Saunier Duval), Alexandre Kolobnev (Rabobank), Iker Camaño (Euskaltel Euskadi), Javier Pascual Rodriguez (Comunitat Valenciana) and Kaiku's Ruben Oarbescoa.

The quintet quickly opened up a gap of 1'44 while Illes Baleares controlled the rhythm of the peloton. By the time they reached the meta volante in Vitoria, the escapees had managed to increase their gap to 2'15 with 64 km to go. Oarbescoa, took the main points followed by Kolobnev and Lobato Elvira. The race then headed south for two crossings of the Cat. 2 Zaldiaran and into a zone that is typically treacherous for its cross winds.

As soon as the group reached the Zaldiaran for the first time to cross south into the Rioja wine growing area of Araba, there were a number of attacks, principally from Oarbescoa and Pascual Rodriguez. The excitement didn't break them up but did see Lobato Elvira win the fight with Oarbescoa for the points at the top, and with 55 km remaining the peloton passed 2'15 later. Into the Rioja Arabese, the roads narrow and become a little rougher and much more open. Soon after, the break hit the day's second meta volante which was taken by Kolobnev ahead of Lobato Elvira and Pascual Rodriguez. The Baleares boys were strung out on the narrow roads single file, protecting their race leader Aitor Osa. As Liquigas came to their aid, the gap started to fall under 1'30 with 42 km to go.

Soon after Liberty Seguros started to mass near the front of the road, bringing to memory last year's Euskal Bizikleta when they split the field apart using these narrow roads and the wind. FDJ, with McGee in tow, also started to try and force their position as the main group rode no more than two or three abreast.

The Russian champions Kolobnev attacked his breakaway partners on the unclassified Alto de San Martin and was later joined by Lobato. Their gap over the rise was 1'05 on the peloton, as Pascual Rodriguez joined them on the descent. Camano and Oarbescoa did their best to try and come back as the road widened going down, but the trio maintained a 15 second gap on them as they headed into the last meta volante of the day in Trevino which came with 29 km to go. The gap to the Camano and Oarbescoa increased, while at the same time, the peloton closed in on the luckless local duo. At the meta volante Kolobnev passed first followed by Elvira Lobato and Pascual.

They continued to hold a steady gap on the chasing bunch, which was still dominated by Liquigas and Illes Baleares. From here the race headed back towards the Zaldiaran, this time in the opposite direction for the run into the finish in the capital Vitoria-Gasteiz. As the climb approached Phonak started to impose themselves on the front, probably with a Perdiguero win on their minds. Three teams, Illes Baleares, Liquigas and Phonak all had their mind on the sprint finish.

Coming into the last climb of the day with just over 12 km to go, the remnants of the day's break were slowly being reeled in. Suddenly the Comunidad Valenciana team, which had Javier Pascual Rodriguez ahead, decided to mess things up by attacking with two riders, Eladio Jimenez and David Blanco. Pascual Rodriguez, who was with the Russian champion Kolobnev and Saunier's Lobato Elvira, got the word over the airwaves and kept looking back, and it wasn't long before his teammates joined him. They were soon followed by yesterday's winner David Moncoutié (Cofidis). The complexion at the front was changing completely and as the peloton neared the top. Bradley McGee jumped the fold and also decided to join them.

What had been progressing as a fairly normal and uneventful affair, with the leader's team controlling the day dutifully, suddenly came to life. Seven riders, three of them Comunidad Valencia, were now powering down the slopes of the Zaldiaran with only ten kilometres to go. The peloton strung out on the descent chased and the gap was not huge at about 20 seconds. The road leveled and with 8 km to go, McGee started to work with the three Valencianas in an attempt to stay away. The gap was yo-yoing between 12 and 20 seconds. With Moncoutié and McGee ahead, there was all the more reason for the other contenders' teams collaborate in the chase.

With 5 km to go, the course hit the wide streets of Vitoria, flat, but constantly interrupted by large three lane roundabouts. Only two Valencianas were left and they were now only accompanied by Moncoutié and McGee, who stood twenty seconds behind Osa on the general. At 4 km to go, they worked together like a dream, heads down, on the drops, each pulling through quickly and without fuss. They kept going, and at 3 km to go, it was as if only because of the roundabouts they were keeping away. The peloton behind was like a huge amoeba, swelling and contracting across the road at such a pace that at any moment it would suck them up whole. Over these kilometres the gap seemed to hang at no more than 20 or so metres. At 1 km, they were within touching distance - a 4 second gap - but they continued, willing themselves to the end. Our colleague, Fernan Aramendi of the Basque television station EITB, was screaming "oh how very beautiful this is". But it was not to be. The sprint was gearing up and they were sucked in and spat out. The sprint started and it was Valverde who imposed himself to keep this race in the Baleares camp.

Tomorrow is a classic Itzulia run across the mountains of Araba into Navarra with five classified climbs, the first two possibly being the toughest. The cat. 1 Opakua opens the day's proceedings after only 38 km, followed by the Cat. 2 Urbasa, on which Aitor Osa set up his victory back in 2002. In fact, the stage, which has in the last half of its 167 km three more categorised climbs and a lot more humps in between, is almost identical to that one which Osa will recall so dearly.

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