Stage 4 - April 7: Gasteiz - Altsasu, 167 km

45th Vuelta al Pais Vasco - PT

Spain, April 4-8, 2005

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Valverde again - this time by more than just

He did it again! The Illes Baleares sprinter who climbs, who does just about anything, including playing super domestique to the race leader all day. Alejandro Valverde, came from nowhere, yet again, to prove that he is one of the fastest around when it comes to a contested race to the line. As the sprint into Altsasu started this afternoon, following a strong lead out by CSC's Arvesen, it seemed that Perdiguero, Di Luca, Julich and co. were going to have it to themselves today. But then from what seemed way back amongst the swelling head of the bunch, Valverde decided to jump. Down the right hand side, while everyone else was battling it out on the left he flew. And that was the end of the day's contest.

Valverde, who always made himself available to the press after each stage of last year's Vuelta a España, is always quick to give a comment and a smile. Today he was succinct. "It was good to win and I showed them that today I was clearly the fastest." A reference of course to his narrow win over Lombardi yesterday. Valverde made it clear that tomorrow he is there to do the job of supporting the race leader Aitor Osa, who is set, but still not ensured, of his second Itzulia victory.

How it unfolded

170 riders set off from Vitoria to the Navarran Altsasu. Those who didn't start this morning where Liberty's Marcos Serrano and Franco Pellizotti of (Liquigas-Bianchi). The frantic pace of the race continued to takes its toll when Valencia's strong man Carlos Garcia Quesada pulled the pin not long after the start.

The day saw an early break jump away as soon as the course left the capital and as has become the norm the Kaiku milkmen were again present with Andoni Aranaga finding himself with Matthieu Sprick (Bouygues Telecom), Benoît Poilvet (Credit Agricole), Philippe Gilbert (Française de Jeux) and Alessandro Bertolini (Domina Vacanze). The group was soon after joined by another Vicente Belda team move when Comunidad Valencia's David Latasa and David Muñoz jumped across. They quickly built up an advantage of over four minutes and crossed the Cat. 1 Opakua - Latasa, Aranaga and Poilvet was the order - before heading off to cross the Alto de Urbasa.

Illes Baleares again marked the pace in the peloton with the escapees over five minutes ahead, but after the descent of the Urbasa, now well into Navarra, they had brought the gap down to 4'15. The gap swung back and forth. At the meta volante as the route passed through Altsasu for its loop out through the ranges that include the next three categorised climbs, the escapees had managed to find another half a minute and rode 4'45 ahead of the peloton as they prepared themselves for the first of two ascents of the Alto de La Cadena. Andoni Aranaga delivered for Kaiku on the climb by taking the points ahead of Comunidad Valencia's Navarran David Latasa. With today's effort, the two have started to set themselves out for a mountains jersey duel. Meanwhile behind, with the stage still having some 70 km to travel, Saunier Duval decided to join Illes Baleares at the front of the peloton.

As they headed towards Altsasu on the way across the valley's undulating, narrow wooded roads, Phonak decided it was time that the escapees were brought under control, they massed to the front, and picking up the pace they obviously were thinking about remedying the Perdiguero drought so far in this year's race. They quickly brought the gap down to very close to 3 minutes as they passed the finish line but still with 49 km to go. The next encounter was the meta volante in the small village of Olatzi before quickly hitting the day's penultimate climb. By this point the gap had already fallen below 2 minutes.

On the climb of Altamira, Gilbert finally livened things up by attacking his six companions. But without luck, they were all together on the winding open descent and heading back across the valley floor toward La Cadena. Position on today's stage is always important. From here on in it was the tricky part of the day. Selections are often made on the final descent of la Cadena and the twenty kilometre run into the finish. Thus the riders in the break, as well as in the chasing bunch, needed to keep their wits about them.

Aranaga crossed the summit first but Gilbert's action served to liven things up; so much so, that their advantage jumped out to 2'25. Behind on the descent and across the valley, the frenetic pace caused the peloton to fracture into three groups. It then reformed into two, with the second 15 seconds behind, and strung out in a long line as they tried to get back on. At the front of the leading peloton, Phonak continued to pull hard in pursuit of the break.

The gap from the Phonak chase to the escapees was again falling, now with less than 30 km to go and the final climb looming it was down to around 1'40. The strain was starting to show in the break as those arguments commenced, as they do at times like this, regarding who was pulling through and who was not.

On the start of the last climb Aranaga, Latasa and Sprick left the others quickly behind. The gap was falling now to under a minute as more teams, Lampre, Saunier and Rabobank in particular, joined in. Sprick jumped and then was chased by Latasa. Latasa, at home, kept going, the others strung right out, as Valverde started to drive the peloton up the climb. Latasa crested but with no more than a 20 second gap on the frantic peloton.

Down a narrow, twisting forested road, that then opens out onto green pastures for the final run across to the finish, which in itself is one long steady drag up to Altsasu, the main group soon had Latasa in sight and he seemed to realise that they day's adventure was over. The bunch was spread right across the grey strip that cut right through the verdant Navarran pastures. 17 kilometres to go and it was over. Phonak's lighter shade of green clearly visible against the grey and green backdrop.

From here on in it looked like another day that the sprinter's teams were going to control to the finish. Through the forest, with trees still awaiting the coming of spring after the harsh snowy winter, CSC, Phonak, Lampre and Illes Baleares all were up the front. Soon they were onto the main roads and the pace was high, but still with 9 km left, Luis Perez launched one of his late solo efforts. The Cofidis rider who hails from Madrid specialises in this sort of effort, they are thrilling daredevil stuff, but in many of his attempts, Perez has still yet to score. Before the five kilometre banner he was caught and it looked again as things were settled. Until...

In the lull, Vinokourov jumped. He got some space and Brad McGee followed him. Within no time they were holding a mere four or five seconds as they set into their two up time trial mode. They passed a large building, its wall advertising Patxaran (if you don't know what that is you haven't lived) and they had 5 seconds! A Fassa rider tried to chase and the three seemed to get together, but then with not much more than 2km to go it was over.

There was one long thread of bikes wavering across the road. There were some more little flings, but none with the power of the previous. Euskaltel's Camano was driving off the front, he got away and was caught up again and just became part of the head of the snake. Into the last kilometre, a couple of corners, right, left and Arvesen was leading it out for CSC. Into the straight he pulled off, Perdiguero was screaming at the front of a group of five who it seemed would contest the sprint. They were in the centre of the road, a little to the left as they jostled. Then, from five, six back, he came again, hard down the right, solo, passing them all, two bike lengths at the end, both hands raised, Valverde, two in a row.

Tomorrow morning we have the mini-stage, always fast and always tricky and with a hint of rain in the air, it may not be a cinch. Following that is the short and not so flat afternoon time trial. And as the way some of these sprints are being contested and these late attacks keep occurring suggest, we won't know the final result until that big floppy hat is plonked on the winner's head tomorrow afternoon in Oñati. As Danilo Di Luca said after the stage today, "Tomorrow is a very technical day, the road stage is crucial, the time trial is fundamental."

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