PIC BY TDWSPORT.COM
It was perhaps fitting that the last rider to win a major race in Euskaltel's unmissable orange colours in the final Spanish race of last season should be the first of the team's riders to taste success this season. In the middle of last October, and for the second year in a row, the hugely talented but underperforming Samuel Sanchez won the Montjuich hill-climb, and almost six months on from that victory the rider from Asturias won today's second stage of the Tour of the Basque Country, taking the overall lead in the process.
During those six months, the Euskaltel team have been warned by their sponsor that they must offer more of a presence in major events, and so far this year they have done all they can to achieve that. Until today, things just hadn't worked out for them.
Their home tour in the Basque Country both offered a chance to redeem themselves on roads they knew and the challenge of riding in front of fans who turned against them last year when they failed to challenge at all in the Pais Vasco. On stage one they had Unai Etxebarria in the break of the day and he ended up in the mountains jersey for his efforts, today I¤aki Isasi was one of five riders who led for much of a stage that took in no less than 12 climbs.
This group was overhauled on the only 1st-cat climb of the day, the Aztiria, the 10th of the dozen hills. Saunier Duval's Ruben Lobato did the initial damage, flying past the quintet. He was then joined by team-mate Jos Angel Gomez Marchante, who pressed on alone when Lobato suffered a mechanical meltdown.
All the time, the Caisse d'Epargne team of race leader Alejandro Valverde were in control, although without looking entirely comfortable. Valverde had just one team-mate on the penultimate climb, and lost even him when Cofidis' Leonardo Bertagnolli attacked on the final hill and was joined by Liberty Seguros pair Alberto Contador and Aitor Osa. The former did most of the hard work as this trio sped to the top of the final hill, from there were just 7km to the finish.
Their lead was about 15 seconds, which was effectively nothing at all to a rider like Sanchez who has spent most of his career racing on these roads. He attacked Valverde's group on the descent and got across to the leaders as they approached the finish town of Segura.
The hopes of these four seemed to have gone when Valverde and another dozen or so riders also bridged the gap as the road flattened out. As the pace eased, Sanchez went again, perhaps knowing there was another downhill section into the town of Segura, and Contador was quickly on his wheel.
As the road turned slightly uphill again with 300 metres left, the Liberty rider made his move. For a moment it seemed he done enough, but Sanchez countered, came through on the right and had enough time to point at his team's name as he celebrated at the line. Valverde led the outfoxed chasers in a couple of seconds later.
Stage 2, Irun-Segura
1 Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi 155km in 4.10.55 (37.06kph)
2 Alberto Contador (Spa) Liberty Seguros
3 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne 0.02
4 Patrik Sinkewitz (Ger) T-Mobile
5 Davide Rebellin (Ita) Gerolsteiner
6 Michael Boogerd (Hol) Rabobank
7 Leonardo Bertagnolli (Ita) Cofidis
8 Frank Schleck (Lux) CSC
9 Aitor Osa (Spa) Liberty Seguros
10 Patxi Vila (Spa) Lampre
1 Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi 7.33.22
3 Valverde 0.02