A group of 168 riders rolled out of Bergara, the small Basque town in the Gipuzkoa province where also the finish line of the 44th "Vuelta al Pais Vasco" (or "Euskal Herriko Txirrindulari Itzulia", if you prefer the picturesque Basque/Euskera language) opener was located, at 13:45 hours local time (CEST), under cloudy skies and in a temperature of about 16°C. After a group of seven staged the first -failed- breakaway attempt, the first two real protagonists of the event came into action: Spanish veteran Vicente "Chente" Garcia Acosta of Illes Balears-Banesto and German Jens Voigt of Team CSC broke away early in the stage and quickly opened a gap of 45" over the pack.
The Spaniard, whose palmares features a TdF stage win at Draguignan in the year 2000, and a Tour of Spain stage triumph two years later (and -why not?- also a 7th place finish in February's Clásica de Almería so far this season), was first over the top of the opening climb of the event, the third category Alto de Itziar. Voigt obviously took second, while UK-born Italian Dario David Cioni (Fassa Bortolo) completed the top three spots, a few seconds ahead of the bunch. García Acosta and Voigt opened a maximum gap of some 4 minutes; then the peloton reacted, with the "orange warriors" of the most glorious local team, Euskaltel-Euskadi (not surprisingly) moving to the front to lead the chase, and kept bringing their advantage down.
Fifty-six km. into the stage, at the foot of the Cat. 2 Alto de Elosua, the front-runners were leading by 03'40", and the peloton further reduced the gap over the climb. "Chente" won the second KOM Prime too, while the peloton came in three minutes behind, though another Spaniard, Lander Euba of Costa de Almería-Paternina, anticipated the bunch and snatched third, 02'40" down on the leaders. After being "outsprinted" by his Spanish breakaway companion two times at the top of as many climbs, Voigt took revenge when he captured the "Meta Volante" as the leading duo reached the line at Bergara for the first time, with 77 km. gone and 62 to go.
The "orange warriors" were still doing the lion's share of the work at the front of the chasing peloton, but also asking for help from other team. Nevertheless, they managed to shrink the gap to about 02'20" as the race hit the third climb of the day, Alto de Deskarga (Cat. 2), and to 01'30" over the ascent. Later García Acosta scored the hat-trick as he won the points also at the top of this climb (km. 88), with the gap to the bunch further reduced to about a minute anyway.
A dozen kilometres later, Kelme's Basque new signing Jon Odriozola Mugarza (one of the few active riders that finished all three GTs in the same year, it happened in the 2000 season) rolled out of the bunch and embarked on a solo chase of the two leaders. While Odriozola was going for some glory, another -more famous- Basque, was going through bad moments: Joseba Beloki got dropped, and soon later pulled out of the race. Definitely a bad start of the season for the TdF multiple podium finisher. Fellow Basque Andoni Aranaga of Chocolade Jacques-Wincor Nixdorf was a DNF in the stage too.
The peloton kept riding hard, and put a end to Odriozola's adventure with 35 km. from the line; their next target were the two escapees, and the target was hit soon later, as both Voigt and García Acosta were caught with about 33 km. remaining. Kudos to the two brave riders, that stayed clear longer than two hours; but now a different kind of race was about to start.
A kind of race that "kicked off" on the way to the final ascent, with the Lampres giving some help to the Euskaltel-Euskadi squad at the front of the pack. And soon later also two or three of Tyler Hamilton's and Alex Zuelle's Phonak teammates, as well as a few Liberty Seguros blue jerseys, and even some Rabos, were seen riding tempo. Before tackling the last climb, the regrouped peloton got to the finish line at Bergara for the second time at the km. 121 mark, with the Italian teams Lampre and Saeco (the "Red Army" is fielding both Danilo Di Luca and Gibo Simoni at this Touir of the Basque Country) sharing the top places.
The fireworks (re)started soon later, over the second Category Alto de Asentzio, with the Saecos forcing the pace, but the above mentioned Dario David Cioni as first rider to attack, with about 15k to go. The Fassaman from Tuscany put a few dozen metres into the bunch, but the Saeco-led pack countered his move and -even if it took a few minutes- Cioni was reeled in.
Then the climb kept taking its toll on many riders, and splitting the peloton, with about a dozen riders of several different teams taking a few seconds out of the rest. And a Saecoman going on the attack: it wasn't neither Di Luca nor Simoni, but younger Damiano Cunego, who gained a few metres, but was soon caught. He stayed up front anyway, and kept forcing the pace, with fellow Italian Davide Rebellin right behind him, and the rest of bunch (now consisting of more than a dozen riders) following.
Until the next guy made his move, and it seemingly was the right one: Illes Balears-Banesto's Russian Denis Menchov was the one that went on attack in the final metres of Alto de Asentzio, with David Etxebarria, Davide Rebellin and Danilo Di Luca following his move and trying (in vain) to join him. Menchov won the KOM Prime at km. 131, eight seconds ahead of Rebellin, crowd favourite Etxebarria and the fairheaded Italian Di Luca, with the splintered bunch following a few seconds back.
The Russian slightly increased his advantage (over a 15-20 strong chasing group) to 13" halfway through the descent into Bergara, but with just 3 km. remaining the chasers had brought the gap down to 7-8 seconds. The last couple km. turned into a pursuit race, with Menchov riding hard to save his lead and the Liberty Seguros-led bunch doing the same in order to chase him down. The pursuers succeeded, and the brave but unfortunate Russian was caught with less than one km. to go.
Time for a small bunch sprint, and time for Comunitat Valenciana-Kelme's strongman Alejandro Valverde to add a new jewel to his sensational early season palmares by scoring his sixth success so far this year, as he powered to an easy win ahead of fellow Spaniard Angel Vicioso (Liberty Seguros) and Italians Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) and Danilo Di Luca, followed by Jorge Ferrio (Costa de Almería-Paternina). Crowd favourite David Etxebarria (Euskaltel-Euskadi) snatched sixth, while both USPS Portuguese Josè Azevedo and Montanan Rabo-boy Levi Leipheimer were in the Top 10 spots.
Needless to say, young Valverde also became the first GC leader of the Basque stage-race, which will continue with tomorrow's gruelling second leg, going from the same Bergara to Zalla (Bizkaia province), over 180 kilometres, and with the Alto de Krutzeta (Cat. 2), Bikoitzgane (Cat. 2), Garate (Cat. 3), Humaran (Cat. 3), Beci (Cat. 3, to be climbed thrice) and Avellaneda (Cat. 3, to be climbed twice) ascents.
Stage 1 (Bergara-Bergara, 139 km.) - Top 10 Places
1. Alejandro Valverde (Spa - Com. Valenciana-Kelme) - 03h25'49"
2. Angel Vicioso (Spa - Liberty Seguros) - s.t.
3. Davide Rebellin (Ita - Gerolsteiner) - s.t.
4. Danilo Di Luca (Ita - Saeco) - s.t.
5. Jorge Ferrio (Spa - Costa de Almería-Paternina) - s.t.
6. David Etxebarria (Spa - Euskaltel-Euskadi) - s.t.
7. Aitor Osa (Spa - Illes Balears-Banesto) - s.t.
8. Koldo Gil (Spa - Liberty Seguros) - at 03"
9. José Azevedo (Por - USPS) - at 03"
10. Levi Leipheimer (USA - Rabobank) - at 03"
More detailed results to follow.