Itzulia (st. 5) / Circuit de la Sarthe (finale)
Spaniard from Movistar Team claims second victory atop mythical Basque climb -his 8th success in 2017, the 16th for the Blues so far this year-, leads País Vasco GC less than 24h from its end with a demanding, 28km ITT in Eibar
The most winning rider in UCI cycling so far in 2017 continued to extend his astonishing streak in the early season on Friday. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar Team) was again valiant and intelligent on his way to success on the Queen stage of the Vuelta al País Vasco, finishing in Arrate after six climbs in just 139km from the start in Bilbao, claiming the 105th victory of his pro career, his eighth in this season and the Blues' 16th in less than three months. The Arrieta / Jaimerena-led squad's good protection work all day long, continued by pressure at the front from Sutherland, Moreno, De La Parte and Rubén Fernández into the closing ascent, was crowned by the attacks from the 36-year-old Spaniard, courageous like no other GC contender in the race.
Bala's accelerations, always followed closely by Sergio Henao (SKY) and Alberto Contador (TFS), led into a sudden change of strategy, Valverde setting a continuous pace over the final slopes of the climb to reach down Mike Woods (CDT) and Louis Meintjes (UAD), who had profited from vigilance behind to open a serious gap, and reach the sprint in pole position. Valverde narrowly got past a hard crash from Samuel Sánchez (BMC), at the short descent towards the sanctuary, and went through the final turn first to secure his stage win.
Alejandro, already victorious at the Eibar climb in the 2012 Vuelta a España, also takes over the lead in the 'Itzulia', with still eleven riders within 22" before Saturday's decisive ITT (27.7km) in Eibar, which includes the Karabieta climb, a fast descent and a second part full of ups-and-downs towards the finish.
Alejandro Valverde: "We set Rubén at the front to pull hard and pick the pace up heading into the climb; Yates jumped at the first slope and, when I saw him, I quickly tried to counter his move and make the GC contenders suffer. I attacked and attacked, the other struggled, but I also suffered and it was difficult to create a gap. At the final stretch of the 'new' climb I decided to just set a steady pace, without any attacks, to catch Woods and Meintjes. That way, I could contest the sprint, where I knew I'd be the fastest. I knew the finish perfectly – one who doesn't do might have his doubts about how to tackle that final turn, on full steam or braking a bit before going for the final straight. I knew I had to go full gas, that's why I took the lead with 300m to go and never let anyone go ahead. I was second through the last turn when I won in the Vuelta a España, and was lucky to just pip Purito over the very finish line. That's why I kept clear in mind I had to go through first.
"I'm really happy about this victory. It makes me feel already satisfied about what I've achieved in this race. We'll surely chase the overall win at the TT tomorrow, we've got no pressure on our shoulders and a GC victory would be a huge plus for my palmarès, I can't deny I want to take it as I haven't got an Itzulia – but I'll feel happy all the same if I don't win. I've claimed eight victories so far this year, two GCs, lots of second and third places – everything that happens now will not change my happiness. We also know that some good specialists are behind us, really close, and it will be tough to conserve the jersey. Alberto was strong today, despite his crashes on Thursday, and Ion is a splendid time trialist, and only lost 15" today.
"The key on tomorrow's TT route will be both the ascent and the flat after the Elgeta descent. You've got to climb fast and profit from that long downhill to recover because, even though there are some generous stretches into the flatter part to just throw your bike and not pedal, you'll also need some power on your legs to cope with some difficult sections. I know it well, I actually went on a recce of it last Friday, and today's finale went through some of its roads. I'm confident I can do well."
Circuit de la Sarthe: Double final podium
Over at their second race of the week, the 65th Circuit de la Sarthe, the Movistar Team sealed at Saint-Calais' sprint showdown on Friday (187km) their third place overall with Jonathan Castroviejo -behind Lilian Calmejane (DEN) and Arthur Vichot (FDJ)-, the Laguía-directed team having enjoyed a TT win and brief GC lead with Alex Dowsett in Angers on Wednesday. The telephone squad, which also stepped onto the final podium as winners of the team GC, also claimed third-place stage honours with Daniele Bennati -5th in the final classification-, the Blues featuring at the front early in the stage with a breakaway by Spanish youngster Jorge Arcas.
Picture ©: Photo Gomez Sport