Stage 5 - April 13: Lekunberri - Oiartzun, 169 km

47th Vuelta al País Vasco - PT

Spain, April 9-14, 2007

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Cobo back in yellow

It may be his birthday but Angel Vicioso, but the Relax-Gam rider received no presents from the Saunier Duval-Prodir team today, with Saunier's Juan José Cobo spoiling the party and taking both the stage win and the overall lead in the Vuelta al País Vasco.

Showing the same climbing ability which won him the opening stage, the 26 year old Spaniard raced to a 1'03 victory over Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi). Cobo’s team-mate Koldo Gil was third, 1 minute and 38 seconds back, while Vicioso had a tough fight and came in 9th, 1’55 down, just enough for the Relax-Gam rider to slip out of yellow by one second.

Cobo was on a mission today, riding aggressively for much of the stage and going clear with twelve others on the Alto de Usategieta. They caught the leading trio of Alberto Contador (Discovery Channel), Aitor Hernández (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Maxime Monfort (Cofidis) soon afterwards and while a crash destroyed the unity in this front group, he avoided trouble and pressed on with several others.

Cobo then forged ahead with Samuel Sánchez on the first category Jaizkibel and subsequently dropped the Euskaltel-Euskadi rider on the final climb of the day, the Alto de Erlaiz, soloing to the stage win and the overall lead.

That sets things up for an exciting finale tomorrow. The Vuelta al País Vasco concludes with a 14 kilometre time trial in Oiartzun and with Cobo and Vicioso separated by the narrowest of margins, the race against the clock is of crucial importance. Sánchez is third overall but is 1’20 down and surely too far back to challenge for the final honours.

How it unfolded

Today’s penultimate stage was another toughie, with the riders facing more unseasonably bad weather and six categorised climbs along the way from Lekunberri to Oiartzun. The second category Alto de Huitzi and Alto de Usategieta were the first two mountains on the menu, then after a long decent and some flat roads the first cat Alto de Agiña and second category Alto de Aritxulegi lay in wait. After that, the cat 1 Alto de Jaizkibel (best known for its role in the Clasica Ciclista San Sebastian) and the second cat Alto de Erlaiz remained, with a fast 18 kilometre descent down to the finish line.

2005 winner Danilo Di Luca was one those not to take to the start this morning, with team-mate Alessandro Spezialetti, Morris Possoni (Lampre-Fondital), Tour de France stage winner Matthias Kessler (Astana), Bjorn Schröder (Team Milram) and Pierrick Fedrigo (Bouygues Telecom) also not signing on.

First to attack was Vuelta a España King of the Mountains Egoi Martínez (Discovery Channel), the Spaniard launching himself clear after six kilometres. He was joined a little later by Tino Zaballa (Caisse d'Epargne), then 2004 Tour of Britain champ Mauricio Ardila (Rabobank) made it three at the front after some 25 kilometres. He was second to Zaballa in the Meta Volantes sprint one kilometre later.

They were brought back almost immediately, though, after which Paris-Nice and Vuelta a Castilla y Leon winner Alberto Contador went clear on the Alto de Huitzi with Aitor Hernández (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Maxime Monfort (Cofidis). An energetic Martínez was one of twelve riders who bridged across on the next climb, considerably increasing the size of the break. The other riders were Patxi Vila and Giampaolo Caruso (both Lampre-Fondital), Iñigo Landaluze and Mikel Astarloza (both Euskaltel-Euskadi), Pablo Lastras, David Arroyo and David Pérez (all Caisse d'Epargne), Ezequiel Mosquera (Karpin-Galicia), Anthony Charteau (Crédit Agricole), Oscar Sevilla (Relax-Gam) and Juan José Cobo.

Hernández led Monfort and Cobo over the top of the Alto de Usategieta. At the 64 kilometre point the leaders had a 25 second advantage over the peloton, but their unity was shattered when several of them came down in a crash. Monfort pulled out of the race as a result.

Five riders pressed on, namely Cobo, Lastras, Vila, Charteau and Astarloza and, after 77 kilometres of racing, had a slender 45 second lead over the chasers. Three others then succeeded in getting across, namely Carlos Barredo (QuickStep), David Pérez and Luis Pasamontes ( Cobo was first to the top of the first category Alto de Agiña, ahead of Astarloza, and the two put the hammer down to open up a lead on the others.

They stayed clear over the top of the next climb, the Alto de Aritxulegi, but Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel Euskadi) and Aitor Pérez tore down the descent and made it four in the lead. However, Cobo and Sánchez pressed ahead on a rain-soaked Jaizkibel, opening up a lead of almost a minute and a half over Arrieta and Astarloza by the top. Behind, Koldo Gil (Saunier Duval-Prodir) and 2004 Giro d’Italia winner Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Fondital) were amongst the most active on the climb, putting Vicioso’s Relax team under a lot of pressure.

The gap was almost two and a half minutes at this point. Cobo had started the stage third overall, 1 minute and 54 seconds down, so he was race leader on the road. However, despite the risks taken by Cobo and Sánchez on the wet, foggy descent, the chase group were drawing closer. They reeled in Astarloza and Cunego on the descent and cut the lead to under two minutes before the start of the next climb, the Alto de Erlaiz.

Vicioso was fighting hard to stay in yellow but was soon under attack on the final ascent of the day. Gil, second-placed José Angel Gómez Marchante and Alejandro Valverde (Caisse D’Epargne) got clear of him, and were 26 seconds ahead with about twenty kilometres remaining. Cobo and Sánchez were by now approximately a minute ahead.

Team-mates Marchante and Gil left Valverde and closed the gap to 45 seconds, with the 2006 ProTour winner and Cunego dropping a further 40 seconds back. Cobo then attacked and left Sánchez behind, descending quickly to open up a lead. Behind, Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner) and Frank Schleck (CSC) crashed on the downhill and, soon afterwards, Gil and Marchante also hit the ground. They had been close to catching Sánchez at this point but lost their chance.

Marchante was recaptured by the Vicioso group but Gil stayed clear, riding hard all the way to the line. However Cobo was too far ahead, taking the win by 1 minute and 3 seconds over Sánchez. Gil was a further 36 seconds back in third, while Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) took fourth, 1 minute and 50 seconds down. Vicioso was just off the back of this group and lost yellow as a result. The birthday cake is on hold, but he could be celebrating tomorrow if he can pull out a good time trial.


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