After two third place finishes so far in this year's edition of the Vuelta al País Vasco, Karpin Galicia's David Herrero won the third stage from Erandio to Viana over 195 kilometers. The 28 year-old Basque beat compatriot Luis León Sánchez from Caisse d'Epargne and the Italian Paolo Bettini (Quick Step) to the line.
Herrero, taking his first victory since 2006, also extended his lead in the points classification while Egoi Martínez (Euskaltel - Euskadi) enlarged his lead in the mountains classification.
Astana was able to control the race on this transitional stage to keep its Alberto Contador in the overall lead, despite the efforts of two men, Team High Road's Morris Possoni and the Rabobank rider Paul Martens, to escape the field. They broke free of the peloton just 35 kilometres into the race, and the pair gained more than six minutes advantage in the long rolling section between the first and second mountains of the day. However, the duo suffered in the strong winds and rain, and Martens was dropped with just over 50 kilometres to go. Possoni soldiered on alone but was also brought down to earth by the Alto de Aguilar de Codes on the second time up with 15 kilometres remaining.
Herrero was overjoyed at the finish. "I like struggling for victories, but when you do so by almost winning in two stages, you know you are in a great form. But if you don't win, you despair. So, this victory is really a relief for me. This has been the most important win for me. Last year I had a bad year with a lot of injuries, but the team went on have confidence in me."
Thinking of the rest of the race, the stage winner said, "I don't see it as impossible to beat Contador in the time trial. Personally, I think that for me, I should be able to climb on the podium, or at least to be amongst the best ten riders, perhaps even amongst the best five."
In the Meta Volantes competition, Iban Mayoz (Karpin Galicia) also kept his lead. "The team helps me a lot, and now I hope to be able to win this classification," said Mayoz. "Today I tried to escape early to collect points, and in the end I have been able to be amongst the first three riders in the Meta Volantes classification."
How it unfolded
Erandio's schoolkids were happy this morning - distracted by the start to the third stage of the Vuelta al País Vasco in their village. The kids and their teachers attended the sign-in and enjoyed the chance to see their cycling idols in person. They cheered and applauded. The riders were visibly pleased by the attention and gave their attention to their small supporters.
At 11:00, the 149 riders started in direction to Bilbao. Carlos Barredo (Quick Step) was the only one who non-starter. As the stage was the longest and also a hilly affair, everybody expected many break away attempts. Two Spaniards were the first to fulfill the expectations. Mountains classification leader Egoi Martínez (Euskaltel - Euskadi) and Meta Volantes leader Iban Mayoz (Karpin Galicia) tried their luck at kilometer one. Gerolsteiner's Markus Fothen joined them, but the trio was discordant, and so the peloton regained them five kilometers later.
During the next 20 kilometers, many small breakaway groups formed and then were chased down by the peloton, until at kilometer 30, Team High Road's Morris Possoni and the Rabobank rider Paul Martens were able to escape. The peloton let them go, and the duo acquired a maximal advance of six minutes and four seconds, before team Astana got to work to close the gap.
Crowds at the first mountain sprint of the day, a category two Alto de Barrerilla, saw the Italian win. Euskaltel - Euskadi's Martínez was able to grab two points for his mountain account as he came in front of compatriot Joan Horrach (Caisse d'Epargne).
The riders had no time to enjoy the landscape of the four regions of Bizkaia, Alava, Castilla y León and Navarra with their cliffy tree-less hills beside the typical Basque green pastures and the famous vineyards of the Rioja Alavesa. Instead the riders were on to three more mountains. Possoni won all three KOMs, and again Martínez crossed them in third to enlarge his lead on his rivals also contending for the mountains jersey.
Then, it began to rain, and on the descent from the Alto de Aguilar de Codes, Martens crashed. Fortunately, he was able get back on and ride, but he never regained his break mate and he hung behind him at about one minute.
After 152.7 kilometers, the riders passed for the first time the small town of Viana, on the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James, with its beautiful, historic Old Town full of churches and hostels for pilgrims. After climbing for the first time the final 300m stretch to the finish, the peloton had still 42.3 kilometers left to race. Quick Step and Astana led the peloton, so that Possoni's advantage began to decrease quickly. Twenty-one kilometers before the finish line, the peloton dashed High Road's hopes for the second consecutive stage win as the pack caught the the last escaped rider.
The peloton raced together for the last twenty kilometers before it broke into many parts on the final ascent with its average grade of seven percent. Spaniard Luis León Sánchez (Caisse d'Epargne) went to the front before he was reeled in by his compatriot David Herrero. The Karpin Galicia rider crossed the finish line first, ahead of Sánchez and the defending world champion Paolo Bettini
Thursday's fourth stage will bring the peloton from Viana to the capital of the Basque country, to Vitoria. It will include five mountains (one first category, two second category and two third category) over 171 kilometers.
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