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It may be hard to believe, but until today's opening stage of the Tour of the Basque Country Oscar Freire and Alejandro Valverde had only gone up against each other once before in a bunch sprint, and that hardly counted as a contest as both were riding for Spain at the 2004 World Championships in Verona.
Freire proved the quickest that day, largely thanks to the lead-out he got from Valverde, but the tables were turned today in Irun as Caisse d'Epargne leader Valverde took the stage. Mind you, it could not have been closer as the pair crossed the line together and replays were hardly conclusive in Valverde's favour. But after much delay from the race judges, Valverde was given the nod and awarded the first txapela (Basque beret) of the race.
The stage featured five climbs, the last two of them, the Erlaitz and the Jaizkibel, first-category hills. On the first of these, Unai Etxebarria (Euskaltel) and French champion Pierrick Fedrigo (Bouygues Telecom) dropped breakaway companion Alessandro Vanotti, but their gap was only a minute as they started up the final climb.
Initially, they were chased by Sylvain Chavanel, but the Frenchman was soon swamped as a succession of attacks came from a large group speeding up behind him, and Etxebarria and Fedrigo were quickly absorbed as well. The pick of these attacks was started by Saunier Duval's Jos Angel Gomez Marchante, who was joined by Cofidis rider Leonardo Bertagnolli and then Liberty Seguros' Aitor Osa, and these three led over the Jaizkibel with 12km to the finish.
Over those 12km, what had been a chasing group of 20 or so riders swelled to more than double that size on the fast run down into Hondarribia and then on towards the border town of Irun. Rabobank and Caisse d'Epargne riders worked hard to keep the group together and managed pretty well apart from a brief flurry from Euskaltel's Samuel Sanchez.
The final sprint was led out by Phonak's Miguel Perdiguero, initially chased by Chris Horner. But both were passed with ease by first Freire and then Valverde. The Rabobank rider had a bike length's advantage 50 metres from the line, but he'd lost that and apparently a few millimetres more on the line itself.
Battle continues tomorrow on a stage containing no less than 12 categorised climbs in its 155km to Segura, where a better indication of the likely contenders for the Basque Country title should be given.
Stage 1, Irun-Irun
1 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears 130km in 3.22.27 (38.53kph)
2 Oscar Freire (Spa) Rabobank
3 Davide Rebellin (Ita) Gerolsteiner
4 Miguel Angel Martin Perdiguero (Spa) Phonak
5 Frank Schleck (Lux) CSC
6 Chris Horner (USA) Davitamon-Lotto
7 Ruggero Marzoli (Ita) Lampre
8 Yon Bru (Spa) Kaiku
9 Aitor Osa (Spa) Liberty Seguros
10 Ricardo Serrano (Spa) Kaiku
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