PIC BY ASTANATEAM.COM
As a group of about 50 riders came into the finish of Saturday's San Sebastian Classic, all eyes were on the jersey of ProTour leader Alejandro Valverde, making his first race appearance since crashing out of the Tour de France more than a month ago. But as the ring rusty Valverde not surprisingly faltered in the last couple of hundred metres, Spain still managed to deliver a winner, albeit a totally unexpected one in a French team's colours as Xavier Florencio burst clear 150 metres out to finish ahead of Stefano Garzelli (Liquigas) and Andrei Kashechkin (Astana).
Former ONCE and Relax rider Florencio, 26, had just one previous victory before this race, a stage of the 2002 Tour de l'Avenir. But it was fitting that his long winless drought ended in Spain's biggest one-day race as it was here a year ago he agreed to sign for Bouygues after two seasons with Relax.
"I am as surprised as anybody I won this bunch sprint," said the Spaniard. "But it was a chaotic final kilometre and I jumped away early on. I had a tough time holding on, but I managed to keep a steady pace.
"I had a terrible spring, breaking my collarbone and spending six weeks off the bike, but this is a great sign for the Tour of Spain, which starts in a fortnight, and I hope to be up there in the sprints again."
After a break by Kaiku's Ion Bru, who was more than 15 minutes clear at one point, had been pulled back, the key action started on the race's toughest climb, the Jaizkibel, where Carlos Sastre (CSC), this week's Tour of Burgos winner Iban Mayo (Euskaltel) and Denis Menchov (Rabobank) went clear. They stayed ahead of the bunch until 4km from home.
Valverde looked the favourite then, but it would have been asking something even of the prodigiously talented Spaniard to win a bunch sprint in his first race back after five weeks off. "Xavier won fair and square, he surprised us with a great attack," said Valverde. "The sprint was really a crazy one. In the last curve I tried to pass on the right side but I was boxed in and after that I couldn't get back to the front. I feel very sorry because my team-mates did a fantastic job today and they really deserve a win to crown it. I really want to thank them for what they did for me today.
"I had very good sensations for the whole day. I am really satisfied because it was a very fast race and I was perfectly able to resist even without having the rhythm of racing in my legs. I rode the whole race in front and that is an excellent signal before the Tour of Spain. I've got two weeks now before it starts in Malaga and that gives me a margin to find perfect condition."
1 Xavier Florencio (Spa) Bouygues Telecom 225km in 5.32.45
2 Stefano Garzelli (Ita) Liquigas
3 Andrei Kashechkin (Kaz) Astana
4 Alexandre Botcharov (Rus) Crdit Agricole
5 Cristian Moreni (Ita) Cofidis
6 Mirko Celestino (Ita) Milram
7 Ricardo Serrano (Spa) Kaiku
8 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne
9 George Hincapie (USA) Discovery Channel
10 Franco Pellizotti (Ita) Liquigas
PIC BY ASTANATEAM.COM