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After seven riders had escaped on the final climb, Gilbert won the sprint to claim his first 2016 victory at the Vuelta a Murcia; Valverde was second and Zakarin third

Photo: ANSA / DAL ZENNARO - ZENNARO - PERI

ALEJANDRO VALVERDE

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ILNUR ZAKARIN

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PHILIPPE GILBERT

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VUELTA A MURCIA

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13.02.2016 @ 17:04 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Philippe Gilbert (BMC) got an important confidence boost by opening his account earlier than usual as he came out on top in a star-studded edition of the Vuelta a Murcia. The Belgian beat Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) into the minor podium positions when seven riders decided the Spanish one-day race in a sprint.

 

A few years ago Philippe Gilbert was dominating the hilly one-day races but in recent years his win rate has declined rapidly. Instead, Alejandro Valverde has returned to the top position of the Ardennes classics hierarchy while Gilbert has failed to clock up wins at his previous rate.

 

This year Gilbert is aiming for a return to his former level as he again sets his sights on the Ardennes treble. Today he faced an important test of his condition when he clashed with Valverde in the Spaniard’s home race, the Vuelta a Murcia, and the Belgian boosted his confidence significantly as he managed to beat his archrival after an exciting race under the Spanish sun.

 

After Valverde had opted for a strange tactic that saw him take off in an early move, Gilbert used his strong BMC team to reel the Movistar rider and his teammates Ion Izagirre and Ruben Fernandez in. He then sent Tejay van Garderen off in an attack on the final climb of Alto Cresta del Gallo and when it ultimately came down to a 7-rider sprint he used his fast turn of speed to best his rivals.

 

The 2016 edition of the Vuelta a Murcia was held on a 199.3km course that brought the riders from San Javier to the city of Murcia. After a flat start, the riders hit the category 3 Alto de Aledo and the category 1 Alto Collado Bermejo in quick succession at the midpoint of the race before they headed back onto flat roads. In the finale, the tackled the category 3 Alto Cresta del Gallo which summited just 13.1km from the finish and was followed by a difficult descent and a short flat section.

 

It was a great sunny day when 129 riders rolled out for their neutral ride. They got the race off to a fast start with numerous attacks as soon as the flag was dropped but the break was established relatively early.

 

Sander Helven (Topsport Vlaanderen) accelerated in the first kilometre and he was quickly joined by Miguel Angel Benito (Caja Rural), Artem Ovechkin (Gazprom-Rusvelo), Kleber Da Silva (Funvic), Benat Txoperena (Euskadi) and Kamil Gradek (Verva Active Jet). The sextet had to work hard to get an advantage as the gap stayed at around 30 seconds for a while but finally they were allowed to ride clear.

 

The gap reached a maximum of 7.55 before the peloton reacted and quickly brought it down to around six minutes. It remained relatively stable for a while and after 55km of racing it was still 5.55 as Movistar set a controlling pace with Rory Sutherland and Antonio Pedrero.

 

Movistar slowly upped the pace and had brought the gap down to 5.02 at the 73km mark. At the bottom of the Alto de Aledo, it was only 4 minutes and unsurprisingly, Movistar wanted to make the race hard. When Txoperena led Benito and Da Silva over the top, the peloton followed just 2.55 later.

 

As they hit the Alto Collado Bermejo, Jiri Polnicky (Verva Active Jet) hit the deck and was forced to abandon. Meanwhile, the front group split up as Da Silva, Helven and Benito were ropped, dropped, leaving just Gradek, Txoperena and Ovechkin to press on.

 

Movistar put the hammer down on the climb and brought the front trio back before they sent Ruben Fernandez, Ion Izagirre and Alejandro Valverde off in an attack. The trio crested the summit with a 56-second advantage over a 15-rider chase group.

 

The gap went out to 1.50 as the three teammates worked well together but with numerous BMC and Astana riders in the chase group, they upped the pace and managed to bring the break back before they hit the climb of the Alto del Cresta del Gallo.

 

Gilbert, Ben Hermans, Samuel Sanchez, Tejay van Garderen (BMC), Valverde Izagirre, Fernandez, Jose Joaquin Rojas (Movistar), Daniel Navarro (Cofidis), Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha), Luis Leon Sanchez, Tanel Kangert, Dario Cataldo (Astana), Victor de la Parte, Lukasz Owsian (CCC) and Garikoitz Bravo (Euskadi) were among the 19 riders that had made the selection but it all exploded to pieces as soon as they hit the steep climb. At the top, van Garderen had managed to distance everybody else and he crested the summit with a 17-second advantage over a group that included Valverde, Gilbert, Hermans, Sanchez, Kangert and Zakarin. Izagirre and de la Parte were next followed by Navarro and Cataldo.

 

The chasers managed to bring van Garderen back and the seven riders that had gathered in the front, stayed together until the finale. Here van Garderen and Hermans managed to set Gilbert perfectly up for the sprint and the Belgian held off Valverde and Zakarin to claim his first win of the year.

 

Most of the riders from today’s race will be back in action tomorrow when the riders face the second one-day race of the weekend, the Clasica de Almeria. It has a much flatter course and should be suited to the many sprinters that skipped today’s race to be fresh for tomorrow.

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