ONCE-Eroski completed his absolute domination of the "Bicicleta Vasca" stage race with a great but hazarodous tactics on Sunday. But eventually the gamble piad off, and the boys in yellow and black took both th stage and Overall win, as Beloki made up for Thursday's disappointing performance by soloeing to victory, while Mikel Zarrabeitia bacmea Overall champpion of the race by minimizing (wth a little help from his non-ONCE friend ...) the losses after an all-out attack by Raimondas Rumsas.
B>STAGE REPORT - NARRATIVE: The fifth and final leg of the "Euskal Bizikleta - Bicicleta Vasca" got underway on Sunday's early afternoon in Iurtreta, not far from the Studios of the regional Radio-TV Broadcasting Company ETB (Euskal Telebista). The stage began without two Milaneza-MSS riders though, as neither Joan Horrach nor Angel Edo took the startline. And with ONCE's Mikel "Zarra" Zarrabeitia as Overall leader, with 27" on Lampre's Raimondas Rumsas and 49" on fellow Basque and teammate Mikel Pradera.
But unlike in other stage-races, this competition's final leg was not exactly an easy "procession" taking the already established winner to the finish line: the 148-km. ride from Iurreta to Arrate contained no less than 8 different ascents (three of them were 1st-Category climbs, with the top of the last one, Alto de Usartza, being located at just 2.4 km. from the finishing line). So if 32-year-old "Zarra" wants to keep his Blue Jersey until the end, he will have to struggle until the end. But a further incentive could be the fact that the race passes by his father's house.
The first kilometres of racing were marked by the abandon of Alessio's Andrea Ferrigato and a short breakaway attempt by Jazztel's José L. Martinez. The first KOM Prime of the day (Alto de Osma, Cat. 3) was taken by Kelme's Tino Zaballa ahead of Acqua e Sapone's M.A. Martin Perdiguero and iBanesto's neopro Koldo Gil. Those three riders, plus Pablo Soler (Mercatone) were part of a leading quartet that opened a 10" gap on the peloton. The four leaders were subsequently joined by Aleksander Nikacevic (Yug - Alessio).
On the following ascent (Alto de Aretio, Cat. 3) the leading group took a different shape, with new riders joining the break and others being dropped, such that when the escapees got to the top of the climb their bunch consisted of: M. Angel Martin Perdiguero, Koldo Gil, Relax-Fuenlabrada's Jorge Capitan, but especially two big names such as Oscar Freire and Joseba Beloki. They were subsequently joined by the former Jalabert's loyal domestique Iñigo Cuesta (Spa - Cofidis) and Sicilian Giuseppe Palumbo (Ita - De Nardi Pasta Montegrappa).
The seven leaders' gap increased by the km., such that at the top of Alto de Elgeta (Cat. 2, Perdiguero won ahead of Cuesta and Capitan) it was 2'34", and by the Intermediate Sprint in Eibar (where Capitan outsprinted Perdiguero and Palumbo) it had grown up to about 3'20".
After Stage 2 winner Outschakov (Ukr - CCC-Polsat) and ONCE's Abraham Olano abandoned, the riders tackled the third ascent of the day: Alto de Ixua (1st Category), where Freire lost contact to his breakaway mates, while one of the TdF's possible protagonists, iBanesto's Francisco Mancebo, rode away from the peloton. This was the preamble to a "subsitution" inside the leading group, because about 25 km. later Freire (who likely considered the first part of the stage as no more than a useful training) abandoned, but the breakaway remained 7-man strong as Mancebo bridged the gap to the leaders.
In the meantime, Acqua e Sapone's sprinter Miguel Angel Martin Perdiguero had won both KOM Primes at Alto de Ixua (Cat. 1, ahead of Cuesta and Capitan) and Alto de San Miguel (Cat. 2, where once more Cuesta took second). When Mancebo joined the breakway group, the gap to the chasing peloton was of 2'14".
A few kilometres later, Martin Perdiguero and Palumbo launched an attack and managed to put some time on the rest of the break, but Beloki's reaction came immediately and the duo was soon brought back. As for the chasing peloton, it was Once-Eroski's setting the pace up front; not a very fast one though, as they had Beloki in the leading bunch, and the double TdF podium place getter, no longer a GC threat in the Basque race (being 3'51" down to the Overall Leader), had many chances to win the stage.
In the following ascent, (Alto de Lizarreta, Cat. 2, won again by Perdiguero) the main peloton chased down Roberto Laiseka who tried to ride away from them, and reduced the gap to the leaders to only 1'55". After a 3-km. descent, a new climb (Alto de Azurki - 1st Category) started, and Italy's Giuseppe Palumbo made his move. The De Nardi-Pasta Montegrappa rider quickly put 20" on the rest of leaders, but one more time it was Beloki who countered his attack, caught and dropped the man from Siracusa, and went for a (decisive) solo break on the Alto de Azurki roads, with a little more than 30 km. to go. In the meantime another iBanesto rider (the boys in white and blue were particularly active today, perhaps just in order to reply to the race domination by their ONCE rivals), namely Santiago Blanco, got away from the main bunch, while the former breakaway group definitively splintered. Soon later also Jazztel's Ricardo Valdes attacked.
Beloki got to the top of penultimate ascent of the day with a 1'08" lead on Palumbo, and a 4-man group (Koldo Gil, Mancebo, Blanco, and Valdes as unique non-Banesto rider) just 12" further behind the Italian, who was caught by the all-Spanish quartet on the following descent. The main peloton, containing Zarrabeitia and Rumsas, came in 1'35" behind Joseba Beloki.
In the town of Elgoibar (with less than 15 km. to the finishing line) Beloki had a 1' lead on the chasing quintet, with the main peloton at 1'38". But 3 chasers (Blanco, Valdes and Palumbo, as both Gil and Mancebo were dropped) bridged the gap down to 36" by the km. 139 mark (Eibar, where the Intermediate sprints was won by Beloki), just before the beginning of the last ascent, the Second Category Alto de Usartzi. The peloton was 1'23" down to the ONCE-Eroski Basque.
On the final ascent, the drama finally came: while Palumbo (first) and Valdes (subsequently) proved unable to stay on Blanco's wheels, and the latter started his (vain effort !!) solo chasing of Beloki, in the main peloton the overall runner-up Raimondas Rumsas made his move, and put a few seconds on Zarrabeitia. The blue jersey didn't counter personally, but let teammate Azevedo do the lion's share of the work. The Portuguese didn't chase the Lampre's Lithuanian down anyway; he just took care of not letting the Baltic open too a high gap.
Or maybe Azevedo simply dind't have the legs to bring Rumsas back, as he didn't hold on for long, and "Zarra" was soon in big trouble, as the Overall leader had no more teammates beside to help him, while his most dangerous challanger, also joined by Leonardo Piepoli, gained more time on him and came close to bridge the 27" gap separating the two riders at the beginning of the stage.
Basque fans, and TV commentators as well, were expecting a race end similar to last year's, when Beloki took 22" (out of the 25" he needed) on Dominguez in the closing part of the leg, putting the latter's final victory in danger, and at the same time they kept questioning ONCE's tactics: was it so good to have a man going for a stage victory, but not representing a GC threat at all, while they had on overall leader in trouble and without teammates around, such that his position atop the ranking was highly at risk ? Wouldn't it be better to tell Beloki to stop and help Zarrabeitia ? Or was it too late perhaps ?
But all these doubtful guys forgot that life is not made of teammates only: there are also friends and ... fellow townsmen. And Zarrabeitia was lucky to find a man which has both qualities: David Etxebarria. Both riders come from Abadiño town (in the Vizcaya province of the Basque Country) and are good friends, and even former teammates, so the Euskaltel-Euskadi captain had no probs in giving the struggling blue jersey a fundamental help, while Piepoli didn't take the anti-ONCE stance one might expect from an iBanesto rider, and opted for sitting on Rumsas' wheels rather than helping the Lithuanian.
So the Spaniard managed to limit his loss to some 15" at the top of Alto de Usartzi, while Beloki's gap on Blanco was steadily increasing. And eventually it was a great double couple for the boys in yellow and black, as Beloki took the stage honours in Arrate, with Blanco coming in second 1'35" behind, while Zarrabeitia lost only 16" second (1" in the two, predominantly flat, final kms.) to Rumsas (third place getter in the stage) and claimed overall victory.
Stage results - TOP 20 Places & Selected Riders:
1 - BELOKI, Joseba - Spa - ONE 3h'59'08
2 - BLANCO, Santiago - Spa - iBanesto.com - at 1'13
3 - RUMSAS, Raimondas - Lit - Lampre-Daikin - at 1'25
4 - PIEPOLI, Leonardo - Ita - iBanesto.com - at 1'25
5 - VALDES, Ricardo - Spa - Jazztel-Costa de Almeria - at 1'27
6 - ETXEBARRIA, David - Spa - Euskaltel-Euskadi - at 1'41
7 - ZARRABEITIA, Mikel - Spa - Once-Eroski - at 1'41
8 - AZEVEDO, José - Por - Once-Eroski - at 1'41
9 - ATIENZA, Daniel - Spa - Cofidis - at 1'41
10 - FRITSCH, Nicolas - Fra - Francaise des Jeux - at 1'41
11 - SERRANO, Marcos - Spa - Once-Eroski - at 1'41
12 - FERNANDEZ, Bingen - Spa - Cofidis - at 2'09
13 - FOFONOV, Dmitri - Kaz - Cofidis - at 2'09
14 - PALUMBO, Giuseppe - Ita - De Nardi-Pasta Montegrappa - at 2'22
15 - WIELINGA, Remmert - Hol - De Nardi-Pasta Montegrappa - at 2'22
16 - GENTILI, Massimiliano - Ita - Acqua e Sapone-C. Tollo - at 2'22
17 - MAYO Iban - Spa - Euskaltel-Euskadi - at 2'22
18 - LOBATO ELVIRA, Rubén - Spa - Acqua e Sapone-C. Tollo - at 2'22
19 - LAVARINHAS, Rui - Por - Milaneza-MSS - at 2'36
20 - PASCUAL RODRIGUEZ, Javier - Spa - iBanesto.com - at 2'47
27 - WEGELIUS, Charles - Gbr - Mapei-Quick Step - at 2'
54 - PRADERA, Mikel - Spa - Once-Eroski - at 7'40
75 - VAZQUEZ, David - Spa - Relax-Fuenlabrada - at 20'41
FINAL GC - TOP 40 PLACES
1 - ZARRABEITIA, Mikel - Spa - Once-Eroski - 19h44'33"
2 - RUMSAS, Raimondas - Lit - Lampre-Daikin - at 1"
3 - AZEVEDO, José - Por - Once-Eroski - at 49"
4 - SERRANO, Marcos - Spa - Once-Eroski - at 1'03
5 - ETXEBARRIA, David - Spa - Euskaltel-Euskadi - at 1'44
6 - ATIENZA, Daniel - Spa - Cofidis - at 1'47
7 - FRITSCH, Nicolas - Fra - Francaise des Jeux - at 2'03
8 - BELOKI, Joseba - Spa - Once-Eroski - at 2'10
9 - FOFONOV, Dmitri - Kaz - Cofidis - at 2'24
10 - CAMAÑO, Iker - Spa - Phonak Hearing Systems - at 2'35
11 - PIEPOLI, Leonardo - Ita - iBanesto.com - at 2'40
12 - FERNANDEZ, Bingen - Spa - Cofidis - at 2'43
13 - MAYO Iban - Spa - Euskaltel-Euskadi - at 2'43
14 - WIELINGA, Remmert - Hol - De Nardi-Pasta Montegrappa - at 2'44
15 - BLANCO, Santiago - Spa - iBanesto.com - at 3'03
16 - GENTILI, Massimiliano - Ita - Acqua e Sapone-C. Tollo - at 3'13
17 - VALDES, Ricardo - Spa - Jazztel-Costa de Almeria - at 3'16
18 - LOBATO ELVIRA, Rubén - Spa - Acqua e Sapone-C. Tollo - at 3'51
19 - PASCUAL RODRIGUEZ, Javier - Spa - iBanesto.com - at 3'56
20 - GOMEZ GOZALO, José Javier - Spa - Kelme-Costa Blanca - at 4'06
21 - FERTONANI, Marco - Ita - Phonak Hearing Systems - at 4'20
22 - ARRIETA, José Luis - Spa - iBanesto.com - at 5'10
23 - WEGELIUS, Charles - Gbr - Mapei-Quick Step - at 5'16
24 - LAVARINHAS, Rui - Por - Milaneza-MSS - at 5'28
25 - SERPELLINI, Marco - Ita - Lampre-Daikin - at 5'30
26 - GIUNTI, Massimo - Ita - Acqua e Sapone-C. Tollo - at 5'33
27 - CHARRIERE, Christian - Swi - Phonak Hearing Systems - at 5'39
28 - FRAGNIERE, Cédric - Swi - Phonak Hearing Systems - at 5'43
29 - ZABALLA, Constantino - Spa - Kelme-Costa Blanca - at 6'22
30 - LANDALUZE, Iñigo - Spa - Euskaltel-Euskadi - at 6'37
31 - GIL, Koldo - Spa - iBanesto.com - at 7'44
32 - PRADERA, Mikel - Spa - Once-Eroski - at 8'28
33 - VIDAL, José Angel - Spa - Kelme-Costa Blanca - at 9'00
34 - CAÑADA, David - Spa - Mapei-Quick Step - at 9'10
35 - MARTIN PERDIGUERO, M.A. - Spa - Acqua e Sapone-C. Tollo - at 9'13
36 - GONZALEZ, Santos - Spa - Acqua e Sapone-C. Tollo - at 9'42
37 - FERRARA, Raffaele - Ita - Alessio - at 10'04
38 - TESTI, Fabio - Ita - De Nardi-Pasta Montegrappa - at 10'34
39 - ELMINGER, Martin - Swi - Phonak Hearing Systems - at 10'45
40 - GARRIDO, José - Spa - Jazztel-Costa de Almeria - at 10'53
75 - GOLBANO, Carlos - Spa - Jazztel-Costa de Almeria - at 1h02'58
OTHER COMPETITIONS - WINNERS:
POINTS: ZARRABEITIA, Mikel - Spa - Once-Eroski - 74 pts
MOUNTAINS: MARTIN PERDIGUERO, M.A. - Spa - Acqua e Sapone-C. Tollo - 29 pts
INTERMEDIATE SPRINTS: PICCOLI, Mariano - Ita - Lampre-Daikin - 10 pts
TEAMS: ONCE-EROSKI - 59h13'29"