Vuelta a España 9: Gilbert scores in Barcelona

Rodriguez adds a few more seconds to his lead

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After a year of frustration, Philippe Gilbert finally opened his account as a BMC rider when he won stage 9 of the Vuelta a España in Barcelona, outsprinting red jersey Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha). The pair slipped clear on the climb of Montjuic in the finale, belatedly illuminating a stage that had taken the best part of 200 kilometres to ignite.

Rodriguez, a native of Barcelona, was eager to impress on home roads and he shut down an attack from Alessandro Ballan (BMC) before bounding clear of the main peloton with disarming ease on the day’s main strategic difficulty, the 3rd category Montjuic, which came just four kilometres from the finish.

The response from his rivals for overall victory was a sluggish one. Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) had attempted a speculative effort on the approach to the climb but the Spaniard – who returned from suspension in early August – didn’t have the legs to follow that effort up on Montjuic. Chris Froome (Sky) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) were similarly marked absent as Rodriguez stretched out his lead.

It was left to Gilbert and Nicolas Roche (Ag2r-La Mondiale) to try and make up the deficit, with the Belgian eventually leaving Roche behind and inching his way across to Rodriguez’s rear wheel shortly before the summit of the one-kilometre climb. After a brief discussion on the pace-making duties at the beginning of the descent, the pair collaborated smoothly thereafter to carve up the spoils between them.

“The team’s plan was for Alessandro Ballan to attack on the steep climb and I was to wait for the sprint,” Gilbert explained afterwards. “But I realised that the climb was longer than it seemed in the roadbook. Ballan went a bit early and exploded a little, so when I saw Rodriguez up there, I knew I had to follow him. On the last 50 metres of the climb I went full gas and made it across.”

The picturesque descent from the Alto de Montjuic evoked images of the destructive discord between Freddy Maertens and Eddy Merckx at the 1973 world championships, but Gilbert and Rodriguez seemed to quickly understand that they both stood to gain from working together. “I knew he was riding more for the seconds than the win and I knew I would be faster than him in the sprint,” said Gilbert succinctly.

While Rodriguez may harbour some disappointment that he did not triumph on home roads, he had the considerable consolation of buttressing his overall lead still further. A disorganised pursuit behind meant that Froome and Contador both came home 12 seconds down, while the second-placed Rodriguez also picked up an 8-second time bonus for his troubles.

As the Vuelta enters its first rest day, Rodriguez has extended his advantage over Froome to 53 seconds, while he has a minute in hand on Contador, with Valverde a further 7 seconds back in 4th. Rodriguez may be set to struggle in Wednesday’s Pontevedra time trial, but he has prepared accordingly by diligently accumulating seconds over the course of the opening week.

Valkenburg calling

Sandwiched in between the Vuelta’s foray into the Pyrenees and the lengthy rest day transfer across northern Spain, stage 9 seemed destined from the outset to be decided wholly on the streets of Barcelona.

Inside the first kilometre of racing in Andorra, a four-man group featuring Mickael Buffaz (Cofidis), Bert-Jan Lindeman (Vacansoleil-DCM), Javier Chacon (Andalucia) and Martijn Maaskant (Garmin-Sharp) was allowed to go clear, and the quartet dutifully built up a maximum lead of around five minutes without ever threatening to stay clear for the duration.

The break was duly swept up inside the final 25 kilometres thanks to the efforts of a coalition of teams, including Rabobank, Argos-Shimano and BMC, before Katusha began to flex their collective muscle in support of Joaquim Rodriguez in the finale.

As was the case in Andorra on Saturday, and indeed, for much of the 2012 season, Team Sky attempted to take over as the road began to climb on the approach to Montjuic, but their rhythm was upset by Contador’s surprise attack. Although Richie Porte snuffed that move out, the scene was set for aggression on Montjuic, and it was Rodriguez and Gilbert who emerged as the strongest.

For Gilbert, the win comes as something of a liberation after a torrid campaign. Winner of 18 races last season, there has been an inexplicably large gulf between Gilbert’s levels of performance in 2011 and 2012.

“It’s been one year since I last won and I’m very happy to win with BMC,” he said. “It’s a special victory because I had a hard season and I had a lot of criticism from the Belgian press. I never answered but I kept fighting from the beginning of the season to bring the shape back.”

After finding a spark of form on Montjuic, Gilbert will hope to stoke the flames still further as he builds to the world championships in Valkenburg in four weeks’ time. He may yet find Joaquim Rodriguez among his rivals there, although for now, the Catalan has more immediately pressing matters at hand.

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