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Having been part of a 31-rider breakaway, Landa was clearly the strongest on the 30% wall in Aia, taking the win in stage 5 of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco; Henao defended the lead while Quintana lost time

Photo: Sirotti

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ITZULIA BASQUE COUNTRY

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MIKEL LANDA

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SERGIO LUIS HENAO

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10.04.2015 @ 18:15 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Mikel Landa (Astana) confirmed his great ability to win the hardest stages in tough stage races when he emerged as the strongest from a big 31-rider group on the penultimate stage of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. On the brutally steep Alto de Aia, he distanced Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) and Tom Danielson (Cannondale-Garmin) to take a solo win while Sergio Henao (Sky) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) managed to distance Nairo Quintana (Movistar) by 12 seconds, with the Colombian defending his overall lead.

 

In 2011, Mikel Landa emerged as a great climber when he won the big Vuelta a Burgos queen stage on the Lagunas de Neila climb. Having been signed by Astana as a key domestique in the mountains, he confirmed his potential in 2014 when he added the Giro del Trentino queen stage to his palmares.

 

This year he has been given the role of being a support rider for Fabio Aru in the Giro d’Italia and so he has had a slow start to the year. However, he has gradually been building condition for his first goal, his home race Vuelta al Pais Vasco.

 

Having looked strong in the first stages of the race, Landa had marked himself out as one to watch in the final road stage of the race which finished with three passages of the brutally steep Alto de Aia inside the final 20km. With a maximum gradient of 30%, the final 1.5km to the finish were perfectly suited to the Basque climber who was attentive right from the start when a big 31-rider group got clear.

 

Landa had his teammates Rein Taaramae and Valerio Agnoli at his side and the Astana trio did everything right. The Italian sacrificed himself completely for his teammates and almost single-handedly led the front group for most of the stage.

 

In the peloton, Sky allowed the group to get a gap of 4 minutes before Katusha finally started to chase. However, it was too late for the Russian team and as they hit the final climbs, it was clear that the stage winner was one of the escapees.

 

After Agnoli had swung off, Taaramae kicked into action. He did a fabulous job to attack at the first passage of the wall before he was caught by Landa, Tom Danielson and the Lotto Soudal duo of Tony Gallopin and Tim Wellens on the descent. The Estonian now worked completely for his teammate and set the pace all the way until they hit the bottom of the final ramp.

 

Here Danielson tried to wear the opposition down by setting a strong pace that sent both Gallopin and Taaramae out the back door. However, Landa always looked comfortably and easily responded when Wellens made his big attack with a few hundred metres to go. When the Belgian faded, the Basque hit the gas and easily distanced his talented rival before crossing the line to add the hardest stage of the Basque race to his palmares.

 

Further back, the big GC battle was on. Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-QuickStep) had made a brave move during the first passage of the climb but he was caught by the favourites on the final ramp. Here Simon Yates (Orica-GreenEDGE) had anticipated the favourites before Nairo Quintana (Movistar) made his big move.

 

The Colombian was unable to get clear and a bigger group again gathered behind Yates. As they approached the top, it was Henao who made the next move and only Rodriguez who had to dig very deep, managed to keep up with the race leader.

 

The duo nearly bridged the gap to Yates who held them off by 3 seconds to take 6th on the stage. However, Quintana had been distanced and lost 12 seconds to drop to fourth on GC, 5 seconds behind Yates in third.

 

Henao and Rodriguez are still equal on time and Henao still leads the race on a countback. It will all be decided in tomorrow’s final time trial which is a very special affair. At 18.3km, it first includes 10km of gradual descending before the riders tackle the Alto de Aia twice like they did in the final of today’s stage, with the finish line again coming at the top of the 1.5km ramp.

 

The hardest stage

After yesterday’s tradition queen stage, it was time for the hardest stage of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco which brought the riders over 155km from Eibar to Aia. No less than 9 categorized climbs were spread throughout the course but it was the final three that were expected to do the damage. Inside the final 20km, the riders would climb the brutally steep Alto de Aia no less than 3 times from different sides and it was a brutal affair as it included 30% sections. The final 1.5km were all uphill, with the gradient never dropping below the 12% mark.

 

There were two non-starters when the riders gathered for the start under a cloudy sky in Eibar. Carlos Verona who crashed yesterday and his Etixx-QuickStep teammate Gianni Meersman decided not to continue the race.

 

Wellens takes off

Like yesterday the race got off to an incredibly fast start with lots of attacks and it was Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) who made the first promising move. The Belgian was 10 seconds ahead at the 5km mark and he worked hard to get a bigger gap.

 

20 riders gathered behind Wellens to form a big chase group but before they got to the 15km mark, it was all back together. Instead, Amets Txurruka (Caja Rural) took off and he had a 30-second advantage after 15km of fast racing.

 

A big group gets clear

Txurruka was the first rider to crest the summit of the first climb whose slopes had been enough to make the fast-moving peloton splinter. Moments later, the Basque was brought back and the uncontrollable attacking continued for a long time.

 

On the second climb, the aggression paid off for 29 riders who managed to get clear. At the 30km mark, Bruno Pires, Chris Anker Sørensen (Tinkoff-Saxo), Rohan Dennis (BMC), Giovanni Visconti, Igor Anton (Movistar), Carlos Betancur, Matteo Montaguti, Mikael Cherel (Ag2r), Daryl Impey (Orica-GreenEDGE), Sebastien Reichenbach (IAM), Nick van der Lijke (LottoNL-Jumbo), Mikel Landa, Valerio Agnoli, Rein Taaramae (Astana), Tony Gallopin, Louis Vervaeke, Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal), Tony Martin, David de la Cruz (Etixx-QuickStep), Matteo Bono (Lampre-Merida), Tom-Jelte Slagter, Tom Danielson (Cannondale-Garmin), Julian Arredondo, Laurent Didier (Trek), Omar Fraile, Antonio Molina, Amets Txurruka (Caja Rural), Yoann Bagot and Romain Hardy (Cofidis) were 1 minute ahead. Fraile led Txurruka over the top.

 

Conti and Molard bridge across

Valerio Conti (Lampre-Merida) and Rudy Molard (Cofidis) managed to bridge the gap and the escapees were constantly increasing their advantage. At the 45km mark, it was 2 minutes and 5km later it was 2.30.

 

The gap stayed around that mark for a little while before the peloton again started to lose ground. After 66km of racing, the escapees had an advantage of 3.50 while Sky had taken control of the peloton.

 

Pate leads the chase

Danny Pate was doing the early work for Sky to keep the gap at around 4 minutes as they went up the only category 1 climb of the day. Fraile again led Txurruka over the top.

 

On the descent, Agnoli briefly got a small gap but he decided to wait for his companions. Meanwhile, Oliver Zaugg (Tinkoff-Saxo) had a bad crash that forced him to withdraw from the race.

 

Katusha start to chase

Pate managed to reduce the gap to 3.30 on the descent but as they hit the next climb, Agnoli was going gull gas. When Fraile led Txurruka over the top, the gap was 4.03.

 

Katusha had now started to chase with Maxim Belkov who took over from Pate who abandoned the race. Antoio Molina (Caja Rural) briefly escaped on the descent before Agnoli went back to work. Molina won the first intermediate sprint ahead of Danielson and Fraile.

 

Strange move by Gilbert

Agnoli was losing the battle against Belkov as they went up the next climb where Fraile took maximum points ahead of the Italian and Visconti. In the peloton, Sergey Lagutin was now working with Belkov and at the top the gap was only 3.20.

 

Philippe Gilbert (BMC) launched a short-lived attack on the descent before he again decided to wait for the peloton which had brought the gap down to 2.10 with 30km to go. As they went down the descent, Bauke Mollema and Frank Schleck (Trek) hit the deck and the former had to work hard with his teammate Bob Jungels to rejoin the peloton.

 

Agnoli finishes his job

Agnoli had now finished his work and instead, Pires, Hardy, Molard, Wellens, Vervaeke, Molina and Fraile were working hard in the break. Their effort paid off as the gap stabilized around 2 minutes.

 

Going into the first passage of the Alto de Aia, the fight for position was intense and it was now Movistar hitting the front with Jonathan Castroviejo. Meanwhile, Vervaeke launched the first attack from the front group – winning the next intermediate sprint ahead of Txurruka in the process – but he was quickly brought back.

 

Taaramae gets clear

Wellens was the next to try but it was the subsequent move by Taaramae which worked. The Estonian distanced the rest while the chase group splintered to pieces.

 

While Gorka Izagirre (Movistar) was setting the pace in the peloton, Martin, Wellens, Landa and Gallopin gathered to form a first chase group. They were briefly joined by Arredondo and Bagot but both dropped off again.

 

Kwiatkowski takes off

As they approached the summit, Wellens got clear before being joined by Gallopin and Landa. At the top, Wellens led Gallopin and Landa over the line a few seconds behind Taaramae.

 

Kwiatkowski and Pawel Poljanski (Tinkoff-Saxo) attacked out of the peloton before the former distanced the latter. Behind, Benat Intxausti (Movistar) set the pace in the splintering peloton which was 1.50 behind Taaramae at the top.

 

A front quntet is gathered

Danielson, Wellens, Gallopin and Landa joined Taaramae on the descent while a group with Anton, Visconti, Hardy, Arredondo, Molard, Bagot, Slagter, Txurruka and Cherel gathered a little further back. De la Cruz had waited for Kwiatkowski who got some assistance from the Spaniard before jumping across to Martin who had also waited.

 

Taaramae led Landa and Gallopin across the line in the final intermediate sprint and was doing all the work as they went up the Alto de Aia again. Meanwhile, a 50-rider main group had gathered and was still led by Intxausti.

 

Landa makes his first attack

Martin and Kwiatkowski picked up Conti before they hit the climb and were now 37 seconds ahead of the peloton. Here David Lopez (Sky) set the pace before Visconti and Anton dropped back to do some work.

 

Approaching the summit, Landa made his first attack but Danielson and Wellens both managed to follow him. Taaramae also managed to rejoin them and he went straight to work.

 

Katusha chase hard

Martin and Kwiatkowski had caught the first big chase group and as they continued their fast riding, only Slagter could keep up with them. However, they were losing ground to the peloton which was now led by Daniel Moreno (Katusha) and they were only 15 seconds ahead when they reached the summit. Taaramae had led Danielson and Wellens over the top 1.15 earlier.

 

Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) was now chasing in the peloton which had been whittled down to less than 15 riders, with Mollema being among the victims. As they hit the descent, Ion Izagirre took over while Slagter managed to rejoin Martin and Kwiatkowski after having been dropped on the descent.

 

Quintana makes his move

As they hit the final ramp, Danielson upped the pace which spelled the end for Taaramae. In the peloton, Simon Spilak set the pace for Katusha before Yates launched an attack to bridge across to Alexis Vuillermoz (Ag2r) who had made an earlier move.

 

Martin had now dropped off while Kwiatkowski also lost contact with Slagter. Meanwhile, Quintana made his big attack but was closely marked by Spilak, Rodriguez and Henao. As the pace went down, a bigger group again gathered.

 

Landa takes the win

Wellens launched the next attack but Landa stayed glued to his wheel. When the Belgian started to fade, Landa surged clear to take the win.

 

Furhter back, Henao made the big attack and Rodriguez had to dig very deep to stay with him. They flew past Kwiatkowski, Slagter and Vuillermoz and nearly caught Yates who managed to stay clear to take 6th while Quintana followed in a small group 12 seconds later.

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