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After a perfect lead-out from Etixx-QuickStep, Meersman beat Schwarzmann and Cort in the bunch sprint on stage 2 of the Vuelta a Espana; Kwiatkowski sprinted to fourth and took the red jersey

Photo: Etixx-QuickStep / Tim De Waele












21.08.2016 @ 19:00 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Gianni Meersman (Etixx-QuickStep) bounced back from a few disappointing years when he claimed his first grand tour stage win on stage 2 of the Vuelta a Espana. After a splendid lead-out from Zdenek Stybar and Yves Lampaert, he held off Michael Schwarzmann (Bora-Argon 18) and Magnus Cort (Orica-BikeExchange) in the final dash to the line which Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) took the red jersey with a fourth place in the sprint.


A few years ago, Gianni Meersman was one of the hottest names on the transfer market. A strong year at Lotto Soudal in 2012 saw him join Etixx-QuickStep and he emerged as one of the biggest specialists in reduced bunch sprints after hilly races, winning multiple stages in races like the Tour de Romandie and the Volta a Catalunya.


However, the last 18 months have been difficult for Meersman who has failed to find his best form and until today he hadn’t won a race since last year’s Handzame Classic. With his contract expiring at the end of the year, he found himself under some pressure to deliver in the second half of the season after a disappointing sprint.


Meersman showed that he was on track when he finished second overall at the Tour de Wallonie in July and then went on to take a pair of third places and enjoy a stint in the lead at the Vuelta a Burgos. That set him up for the Vuelta a Espana where he has the rare chance to lead Etixx-QuickStep in the sprint finishes.


With none of the top sprinters in attendance, Meersman knew that he had a big chance to grab the opportunity and he did so right from the start. Today he took his first ever grand tour stage win in the first bunch sprint of the race.


After a very calm and slow stage, the early break was brought back by an increasingly nervous peloton with 17km to go. There was a big fight for position as they sped towards an uncategorized climb in the final kilometres of the stage.


Sky, Tinkoff, Dimension Data and Orica-BikeExchange led the peloton onto the final climb with Ian Boswell, Mauele Boaro, Svein Tuft and Jaco Venter. Boswell and Boaro continued to ride on the front while the first riders sat up.


Tiago Machado (Katusha) launched a strong attack and as no one reaction he soon got an advantage of 15 seconds. Kenny Elissonde (FDJ) took off in pursuit and then Mathias Frank, David de la Cruz and Jan Bakelants joined the Frenchman. Finally, Dylan Teuns (BMC) also made it across to make it a very strong chase group.


Giant-Alpecin and Trek reacted quickly and they gave chase, keeping the gap at a minimum as they entered the final 10km. The chasers were brought back before they crested the summit and Mchado was justa few metres ahead as they went down the descent.


Macahado was brought back with 8.5km to go where Tinkoff had taken control with Daniele Bennati. Christian Knees took over for Sky, with Michael Kwiatkowski and Peter Kennaugh on his wheel.


With 5km to go, BMC, Cofidis, Bora-Argon 18 and Lotto Soudal lined out their trains before Sky again took control with Michal Golas. Lotto Soudal was the first sprit team to take charge when Adam Hansen and Jelle Wallays hit the front with their sprinter Tosh van der Sande in third position.


Hansen led the peloton into the final 3km before Bora-Argon 18 and Dimension Data battled for the front positions. The latter team won the battle and it was Nathan Haas, Tyler Farrar and Kristian Sbaragli who seemed to be in the perfect position.


A crash took out Sergey Lagutin (Katusha) before Cristoph Pfingsten (Bora-Argon 18) gave some respite to Haas. The Australian was soon back on the front and the Wallays took a huge turn under the flamme rouge.


Farrar did the lead-out for Sbaragli but it was too early and instead Rudiger Selig (Bora-Argon 18) hit the front. That’s when the Etixx-QuickStep train kicked into action with Zdenek Stybar, Yves Lampaert and Meersman. The former two gave the latter a perfect lead-out and no one could come around the Belgian who took his first grand tour win.


Michael Schwarzmann narrowly edged Magnus Cort in the battle for second and that turned out to be costly for the Dane. Second place had been enough to take the race lead but now the red jersey went Michal Kwiatkowski who sprinted to fourth. However, he is still equal on time with nine other riders, with the Movistar pair of Jose Joaquin Rojas and Alejandro Valverde sitting second and third respectively.


Kwiatkowski will have a hard time defending his jersey in stage 3 which is expected to be the first day for the GC riders. After a flat start, the riders face a category 3 and a category 2 climb as a warm-up for the brutal final challenge, the Mirador del Ezaro. It may only be 1.8km long but with an average gradient og 13.8%, the wall will be the scene of the first battle between the climbers.


A day for the sprinters

After yesterday’s team time trial, the sprinters were expected to come to the fore in stage 2 which brought the riders over 160.8km from Ourense to Baiona. After a flat start, the riders tackled a long category 3 climb at the midpoint before they descended to flat roads. In the final 40km, there were two uncategorized uphill drags, with the final top coming 10km from the finish. From there it was a downhill run to a flat finish.


The riders had beautiful conditions when they gathered for the start in Ourense and all riders were still present when they headed out for their neutral ride at 13.46. As soon as the flag was dropped, there were attacks but Giant-Alpecin attentively shut everything down.


Pichon and Benedetti attack

Four riders briefly got clear but things were back together at the 2km mark. Moments later, Laurent Pichon (FDJ) and Cesare Benedetti (Bora-Argon 18) managed to get a small advantage which had grown to 12 seconds after 5km of racing.


Bryan Nauleau (Direct Energie) took off in pursuit and at the 7km mark, he found himself 28 seconds behind the leaders and 14 seconds ahead of the peloton. As the bunch slowed down, he made it across and after 11km of racing, the front trio was already 1.52 ahead of the peloton.


The sprint teams start to chase

Sky took control and allowed the gap to go out to 3 minutes at the 23km mark and ten kilometres later it was even 3.42. It reached a four minutes before the peloton ended the first hour at an average speed of just 39.8km/h.


Trek and Giant-Alpecin came to the fore to lend Sky a hand and it was Markel Irizar and Tom Stamsnijder who traded pulls with Ian Boswell, David Lopez and Christian Knees. They allowed the gap to reach a maximum of 4.25 at the 43km mark before they increased the pace significantly. After 50km of racing, the gap was already down to just 2.18.


Pichon wins the KOM sprint

As the front group started to climb towards the only KOM sprint, the gap again started to grow. Irizar, Lopez, Boswell, Knees and Stamsnijder slowly paced the peloton up the climb and kept the gap stable at around 3 minutes. When the climb started to take its toll on the front group, the gap again started to come down and it was only 2.15 when the fight for the KOM points started.


Nauleau tried to surprise his rivals by launching a long sprint but as Benedetti closed it down, it turned into a bit of track sprint match. For more than a kilometre, the trio watched each other until Pichon narrowly edged Benedetti out to become the first leader of the mountains competition.


A game of cat and mose

Gatis Smukulis (Astana) hit the front of the descent and thus gave Lopez, Irizar and Stamsnijder a small break while also reducing the gap to 1.00 as they entered the final 70km.


The peloton slowed down to avoid and early catch and so the gap slowly went out to 2.15 before Lopez and Stamsnijder again started to ride on the front. Irizar soon took over from Lopez and together with Stamsnijder, he reduced the gap to 1.30 with 45km to go.


Gilbert attacks

Stamsnijder and Irizar again tried to slow down again but as the fight for position slowly intensified, the gap soon came down to less than a minute. That again forced the peloton to hold something back and the gap stabilized at 50 seconds.


The peloton almost fell asleep as they went up a small calimb and so they were caught by surprise when Philippe Gilbert (BMC) attacked. In a matter of seconds, he bridged the gap to the three leaders. That forced Stamsnijder and Irizar to up the pace and they crested the summit 25 seconds behind the leades.


The break is caught

The peloton was not too concerned and they just kept the gap stable at 20-25 seconds as Movistar, Sky, Tinkoff and Dimension Data lined their troops out next to Stamsnijder and Irizar. However, the gap started to come down inside the final 25km when the fight for position really intensified.


Gilbert dug deep as he wanted to win the intermediate sprint with 19.1km to go and he accomplished his mission when he beat Pichon and Nauleau in the battle for bonus seconds. As soon as he had crossed the line, the group slowed down and with 17km to go, they were brought back by a very nervous peloton. That set the scene for the sprint which ultimately allowed Meersman to take the victory.



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