Mikel Landa surprised both himself and most of the cycling world by taking an impressive victory on the brutally steep Alto de Garrastatxu in stage 2 of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. Having attacked with Wilco Kelderman (LottoNL-Jumbo) on the lower slopes, he benefited from the hesitation from the favourites to hold off his chasers before beating his companion in the two-rider sprint. Sergio Henao (Sky) used his devastating kick to drop his biggest rivals and make it two Sky riders on the podium.
One year ago Mikel Landa got his season off to a disastrous start as illness forced him to postpone his season debut until the Volta a Catalunya in late March. A few weeks later he won a stage at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and this set him up for a memorable season that saw him finish third in the Giro d’Italia.
After today’s second stage of the 2016 edition of the Basque race, it is hard not to have a feeling of déjà vu. Just like it happened 12 months ago, Landa has been forced to postpone his debut due to illness and like last year he started his season in late March, this time at the Settimana Coppi e Bartali.
The lack of racing meant that he had little expectation for his home race but he surprised both himself and most of the pundits by claiming victory in the first big summit finish of the race. On the wall of Alto de Garrastatxu, he anticipated all the favourites and they failed to bring him back in time as there were no domestiques left to chase.
Everything had been brought back together at the bottom of the ascent where Enrico Battaglin hit the front for LottoNL-Jumbo. He set the pace for the first few hundred metres, immediately creating a big selection on the wall which averaged 11.67% over 2.8km.
Battaglin stayed on the front until Alexis Vuillermoz (Ag2r) launched the first attack. Landa was quick to join the move but an attentive Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) shut it down.
The favourites were watching each other and this allowed Vuillermoz and Landa to get clear again before Wilco Kelderman bridged the gap. The strong Dutchman went straight to the front and without getting any help from his companions, he quickly put 10 seconds into the peloton.
The peloton had exploded to pieces and as none of the favourites had any domestiques had any domestiques left, they were all watching each other. Hence, the pace was relatively slow and the gap kept growing. Nonetheless, Dan Martin (Etixx-QuickStep), Daniel Navarro (Cofidis), race leader Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana) and the Yates brothers were distanced.
Serge Pauwels started to ride on the front for Dimension Data but he could not prevent the gap from going out to 16 seconds with 1.5km to go. Meanwhile, Vuillermoz had to surrender and he was quickly brought back.
Louis Vervaeke (Lotto Soudal) took over the pace-setting in the peloton before Landa finally moved to the front just as they passed the flamme rouge. At the exact same point, Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) made the first attack in the group of favourites but Contador shut it down with Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Sergio Henao on his wheel.
Landa upped the pace but Kelderman stayed glued to his wheel while Simon Spilak (Katusha) made a failed attack in the peloton. That’s when his teammate Joaquim Rodriguez made his big attack but the Spaniard only drifted backwards when Samuel Sanchez passed him.
Contador and Henao responded immediately but the former was quickly dropped. Instead, it was Henao emerging as the strongest as he easily sprinted past Sanchez and creating a big advantage.
A few metres further up the road, Landa was riding on the front, constantly watching Kelderman, until he accelerated a few metres from the line. The Dutchman had no response and Landa had time to celebrate his win, crossing the line 1 second ahead of Kelderman. Henao sprinted to the line five seconds behind his teammate, with Sanchez and Contador losing 9 and 11 seconds respectively. Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) was next while Quintana arrived in a 6-rider group that lost 15 seconds.
With no bonus seconds in the race, Landa now lead Kelderman by one second. He should get an easier day in the saddle tomorrow when the riders are set to spend most of the day on a flat plateau. After two climbs at the midpoint, they will descend to the difficult finale where three climbs will come in quick succession, with the final summit coming just 9.1km from the finish
A brutal wall
After yesterday’s sprint stage, it was time for the first big GC day at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco when the riders travelled over 174.2km from Markina-Xemein to a summit finish in Baranbio. After three early climbs, they spent most of the day on a flat plateau before they descended to a lumpy final part with one small climb. However, the real challenge was the brutal wall that greeted the riders in the end where they went up the Alto de Garrastatxu which averaged an impressive 11.67% over 2.8km.
All riders who reached the finish yesterday were present when the peloton eople gathered for a rainy start in Makina-Xemein. With a category 2 climb right from the beginning it was no surprise that it was an eventful opening where the peloton had already been split when Nicolas Edet (Cofidis) beat Davide Villella (Cannondale), Jonathan Lastra (Caja Rural) and Hubert Dupont (Ag2r ) in the the first KOM sprint after 7.5 kilometers of racing. However, there was a regrouping after 10km of fast riding.
Four riders get clear
The many attacks finally allowed Stefan Denifl (IAM), Simone Petilli, Louis Meintjes (Lampre-Merida) and Angel Madrazo (Caja Rural) to get clear, and they had a modest advantage of 1.30 after 31kmof racing . It quickly went out to 2.16 after a first hour with an average speed of 40 km/h.
When they hit the second climb, Petilli distanced before Madrazo won the KOM sprint ahead f Denifl and Meintjes. The surviving trio continued and had increased the gap to 2.45 at the top.
On the third climb, Lampre-Merida's participation in the break ended when Meintjes was also dropped, and it was again Madrazo who beat Denifl in the KOM sprint. The duo managed to increase its lead to 4.20 after 63km of racing before Meintjes rejoined them. Five kilometers later, the gap had gone out to 5.15.
While Quentin Jauregui (Ag2r), the peloton suddenly increased the pace and had reduced the gap to 2.35 after 81km of racing. However, they quickly calmed down again and the gap had gone out to 3.55 with 72km to go. At this point, Meintjes had again been dropped from the break and was already swallowed up by the peloton.
Astana in control
Astana were controlling the pace with Paolo Tiralongo and Artyom Zakharov and they kept the gap between 3.30 and 4.00 for a while. At the same time, the sun came out and this created less stress in the peloton which was relatively relaxed as they entered the final 65km.
Tiralongo single-handedly led the peloton for the next 15km, keeping the gap stable at around 3.30 while Meintjes abandoned the race. At the same time, the organizers had to make a late change to the course as oil on the road forced them to cancel the two intermediate sprints in Aranbio.
KOM point for Lastra
With 50km to go, the front duo hit the penultimate climb and it was Madrazo who led Denifl over the top. Further back, Lastra and Edet attacked in the fight for the final KOM point and it was the Spaniard who easily dropped his rival to cross the line in third position.
Lastra and Edet gathered after the climb and like yesterday they were arguing heavily. Edet decided to continue the attack, with Lastra staying glued to his wheel.
Katusha come to the fore
The escapees had pushed the gap out to 4.20 as they entered the final 40km and this prompted the peloton to react. Katusha and Orica-GreenEDGE joined Astana in the pace-setting and started to cut the lead. Meanwhile, Lastra and Edet decided to wait for the peloton.
While Sergio Paulinho (Tinkoff) left the race, Maxim Belkov, Jhonathan Restrepo (Katusha), Amets Txurruka (Orica-GreenEDGE) and Tiralongo reduced the gap to 3.45 at the start of the final 32km. The big favourites were taking the final opportunity to go back to the team car and get ready for the finale. Kiel Reijnen (Trek) who was back to pick up bottles, was involved in a solo crash but managed to get back on his bike. Due to the fast past, several riders had to work very hard to rejoin the peloton
Katusha take control
The gap was now coming down quickly after Tiralongo had ended his work and Txurruka, Restrepo and Belkov had reduced it to 2.40 with 27km to go. Txurruka quickly ended his work and left it to Christian Meier to do the work for Orica-GreenEDGE.
Katusha really showed their intentions as they lined up the entire team on the front and when Denifl beat Madrazo in the only intermediate sprint with 20km to go, they had reduced the gap to just 1.30. Edet moved ahead to pick up the final point and increase his lead in the sprints competition.
Mechanical for Contador
Egor Silin, Restrepo and Belkov again got some help from Txurruka and Meier as they entered the final 20km and they reduced the gap to less than a minute during the next five kilometres. Katusha again took complete control while all the big teams fought hard for position.
A mechanical put Alberto Contador on the defensive as he had to work hard to get back to the front end of the peloton. Hence, Tinkoff were nowhere to be seen when Sky, Movistar and Cannondale lined out their troops on the front after Katusha had disappeared.
Sky hit the front
With 11km to go, the break was brought back and now Contador had returned to the front just as Orica-GreenEDGE took over the pace-setting with Michael Albasini and Ruben Plaza. Movistar, Cannondale and Sky moved up next to them,
With 9km to go, Sky took control on a small climb as they lined up Lars Petter Nordhaug, Vasil Kiryienka, Phil Deignan, Sebastian and Sergio Henao on the front and they strung out the group on a small climb where many riders got dropped.
A big fight for position
Vasil Kiryienka took over on the descent until Michael Albasini moved up with the Yates brothers, leading the peloton under the 5km to go banner. Lotto Soudal took over with Tosh van der Sande while Michael Valgren dropped Contador off near the front.
The Spaniard was jumping from wheel to wheel while Sky again hit the front with Kiryienka. However, it was Orica-GreenEDGE that won the battle and led the peloton onto the climb.
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