Running from April 8 thru 12, the 42nd edition of "Vuelta al Pais Vasco" ("Tour of the Basque Country") got underway on Morning afternoon in Zalla, a small town located in the Basque area of Spain.
The IC-2.HC, five-stage race features a very top-class field of participants, with many of the World's best stage racers, from last year's winner Raimondas Rumsas (Lithuania - Lampre-Daikin) to Russian teammate Pavel Tonkov, from ONCE's Joseba Beloki to Team Coast's Angel Casero, from Fassa's Francesco Casagrande to Rabobank's Boogerd and Leipheimer to Paris-Nice Champion Alexander Vinokourov. And don't forget to watch out for the local riders in what's one of the most cycling-mad lands on earth: not just Beloki, but also his teammate Gonzalez de Galdeano, TdF stage winner David Etxebarria, Criterium Internationale winner Alberto Martinez (who edged out LA by just one sec. in France) and many others may burst into spotlight in the five days of racing (until Friday, with a last stage divided in two halves).
The Participating Teams are as follows:
Spain: ONCE-Eroski, Euskaltel-Euskadi, iBanesto.com, Jazztel-Costa de Almeria, Kelme-Costa Blanca, Relax-Fuenlabrada;
Italy: Alessio, Fassa-Bortolo, Lampre-Daikin, Mapei-Quick Step, Saeco-Longoni Sport,
Germany: Team Deutsche Telekom, Team Coast,
France: AG2R Prévoyance, Cofidis,
THE STAGES are:
Stage 1 - (Monday, April the 8th): Zalla - Zalla, 139 km;
Stage 2 - (Tuesday, April the 9th): Zalla - Vitoria/Gasteiz, 183 km.;
Stage 3 - (Wednesday, April 10th): Vitoria/Gasteiz - Alasua, 170 km.;
Stage 4 - (Thursday, April the 11th): Alasua - Villabona, 154 km.;
Stage 5a - (Friday, April the 12th): Villabona - Elgoibar, 94 km.;
Stage 5b - (Friday, April the 12th): Elgoibar-Elgoibar - ITT, 15.2 km.
STAGE ONE Got underway on Monday afternoon at 2PM under sunny skies and a pleasantly hot temperature in Zalla, the Basque town where the finishing line is located too. 152 riders belonging to 17 teams got away to a steady start.
But the rolling, demanding parcours, encompassing 6 different ascents and as many KOM primes (5 third-category climbs and a second-category one) was appropriate for breakaway specialists and riders generally not aiming for a bunch sprint. And after the first KOM prime (Alto de la Escrita) the first serious attack came from Spain's Alberto López de Munain (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Germany's Thorsten Schmidt (Team Coast). Their lead on the chasing peloton went up to a maximum of 2 minutes, but the leading duo was later caught by six more riders who had managed to go clear: Unai Etxebarria (Ven - Euskaltel); Gonzalo Bayarri (Spain - Relax); Udo Bolts (Ger - Telekom); Igor Astarloa (Spa - Saeco); Francisco Vila (Spa - iBanesto) and Italy's Pietro Caucchioli (Alessio), with the gap still hovering around two minutes.
Basque rider Astarloa (former Mercatone Uno) won the KOM prime at the end of a new Alto de La Escrita cimbing, while in the chasing peloton Team Coast, Mapei and Fassa were up front to work hard to chase down the escapees. They were caught with some more than 40 kms. to go, but it was not time at all for a quiet "procession" until the finish line. Too many riders were not in the mood to go for a bunch sprint, and tried their through several break attempts.
Starting from one of the best-known Basque cyclists, Igor González de Galdeano, who managed to ride away from the peloton and gain some metres on his rivals. Another ONCE-Eroski man, Joaquín Rodríguez, got out of the bunch and tried to join his teammate at the front. but neither his attempt nor gGno's proved successful. They where brought back, but later many others tried to escape, including big names such Francesco Casagrande (Fassa Bortolo) and Michael Boogerd (Rabobank), as well as less-known Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel) and Juan José De los Angeles (Kelme).
After further, failed attempts by Mikel Zarrabeitia (Once-Eroski) and, once again, Francisco "Patxi" Vila (iBanesto) the riders tackled the short but demanding Alto de Bezi ascent, with just 12 kms. to go; here the protagonists were Casagrande, but mainly iBanesto's Aitor Osa, with his own attempt to say goodbye to the rest of the leading peloton, and Euskaltel's Sanchez unsuccesfully trying to catch him. Bad news for Danilo Di Luca instead, as the Italian, blatantly far from his best condition, got dropped on the ascent.
During the following descent into Zalla, the peloton regrouped and a bunCh of some 30 riders formed, containing last year's stage 1 winner, Gerolsteiner's Davide Rebellin, who gained a few metres on the others, but was reeled in quite soon. Other top-class riders, such as Vinokourov and David Etxebarria, tried their luck with a couple of kilometres to go, but the Gods of cycling had decided: this stage full of breakaway attempts should end in a (small) bunch sprint !!
And that's what actually happened, with Beat Zberg forcing his way through the other riders and spritning to victory ahead of Rebellin, Mapei's Stefano Garzelli and crowd favorite Etxebarria, while a particularly active Francesco Casagrande took fifth. It was a bad day not just for Di Luca, but also for Lampre's Rumsas, Catalan Week Champion Juan Miguel Mercado (iBanesto.com) and Criterium Internationale winner Martinez, who came in 2 minutes after Zberg and co.
It was the first victory of the year for the Rababank's Swiss rider, who obvioulsy became also the first Overall Leader of the Basque race.
Tomorrow's second leg, the largest one, will start in Zalla and finish in the Basque Country's capital city, Vitoria-Gasteiz, after 183 kms. of riding and four climbs to tackle: La Barrerilla (Cat. 2), Zaldiaran (Cat. 3.), Ribas de Tereso (Cat. 2), La Herrera (Cat. 1.). Euskadi (The Basque Country) is definitely not the place to be for pure sprinters !!
RESULTS - TOP 20 PLACES :
1. Beat Zberg (Swi - Rabobank) 139 km. in 3h32'57";
2. Davide Rebellin (Ita - Team Gerolsteiner) - st.;
3. Stefano Garzelli (Ita - Mapei-Quick Step) - s.t.;
4. David Etxebarria (Spa - Euskaltel-Euskadi) - s.t.;
5. Francesco Casagrande (Ita - Fassa-Bortolo) - s.t.;
6. Gonzalo Bayarri (Spa - Relax-Fuenlabrada) - s.t. ;
7. Igor Astarloa (Spa - Saeco-Longoni Sport) - s.t. ;
8. Rik Verbrugghe (Bel -Lotto-Adecco) - s.t.;
9. Samuel Sánchez (Spa - Euskaltel-Euskadi) - s.t.;
10. Mario Aerts (Bel -Lotto-Adecco) - s.t.;
11. Alexander Shefer (Kaz - Alessio) - s.t.;
12. Aitor Osa (Spa - iBanesto.com) - s.t.;
13. Fernando Escartin (Spa - Team Coast) - s.t.;
14. Cadel Evans (Aus - Mapei-Quick Step) - s.t.;
15. Juan José De Los Angeles (Spa - Kelme-Costa Blanca) - s.t.;
16. Manuel Beltrán (Spa - Team Coast) - s.t.;
17. Marco Serrano Rodriguez (Spa - ONCE-Eroski) - s.t.;
18. Michael Boogerd (Hol - Rabobank) - s.t.;
19. Andrei Kivilev (Kaz - Cofidis) - s.t.;
20. José Azevedo (Por - ONCE-Eroski) - s.t.;
73. Levy Leipheimer (USA - Rabobank) - at 2'37";
74. Dario Cioni (Ita - Mapei-Quick Step) - s.t.;
106. Bobby Julich (USA - Team Telekom) - at 10'06";
115. Tyler Hamilton (USA - Team CSC Tiscali) - at 12'06";
DNF. Thierry Loder (Fra - Ag2r-Prevoyance)
KOM: Alberto Lopez de Munain (Spa - Euskaltel-Euskadi) - 10 points;
Points: Beat Zberg (Swi - Rabobank) - 25 points;
Intermediate Sprints: Francisco Vila (Spa - iBanesto.com) - 3 points;
TEAMS: Mapei-Quick-Step - 10h38'54";