Echelons formed out of Barakaldo, Froome turned killer, Valverde was ambushed, the podium shook itself into shape early and a nice guy won. If that sounds exciting – it was.
The Vuelta may only be four stages old, but it’s shaping up to be one cracker of a race.
A break of five cleared off early and whilst it slowly decomposed on the last climb, world time trial champion Tony Martin (QuickStep) and Simon Clarke (GreenEDGE) held on doggedly to contest the finish.
David Harmon and Sean Kelly were debating who would win the sprint – but I remembered Simon from the Grenoble Six Day in 2006 and there was no doubt in my mind about who was going to win.
Clarke is another product of the Australian Institute of Sport’s team pursuit ‘production line’: he was a member of the winning 2004 world junior championship team, along with a certain Matt Goss.
In 2005 his domestic palmares were impressive; including a GC win in the Tour of the Murray River – but a third place on a stage of the Giro delle Regione showed that the European scene didn’t overawe him.
The following year saw him become Australian Madison champion with Miles Olman and win a stage in the Vuelta Ciclista a Navarra.
In 2007 there were more podiums in Italy at the Liberazione and Regione as well as one in the Australian U23 road race championship.
The following season he made the Aussie U23 RR title his own and racked up wins in Italy and Japan.
The pro ranks beckoned, but unfortunately it was the doomed Italian Amica Chips team with whom he signed; despite the limitations of the squadra he placed top ten in races like the Trofeo Laigueglia and Insubria.
As he told us at the time;
“I was with them for three months and then they folded, we did 1.1 and HC races, but no Pro Tour races.
“I spent the second half of the season with ISD.
“There were 25-odd people looking for a job when Amica folded but I was lucky that Luca Scinto was a pro with Mapei and the company still sponsors the Australian Under 23 team – so there was a connection, there.
“They were happy with how I rode for them, so I was retained for this year.”
When the team collapsed, there was that lifeline from Luca Scinto and his ISD team, for whom Clarke completed 2009 and rode for in 2010.
He rode a good programme with ISD, including Milan-Sanremo – but when he told them towards the end of 2010 that he was leaving to ride for Astana in 2011; they promptly stopped entering him for any races.
And as a ‘True Blue’ Aussie, he couldn’t say ‘no’ when GreenEDGE came knocking at the start of 2012, and now he’s grabbed them their second Grand Tour stage win – after Matt Goss’s Giro stage win.
The stage looked like it was going to be little bit of a damp squib, with the break 13 minutes clear and the peloton on cruise control on flat, featureless roads.
But then Flecha attacked to force an echelon, Valverde came down as the field ‘whiplashed’ and all of a sudden the damp squib had become a thousand Euros per ticket pyrotechnic display.
Valverde was forced to chase for the rest of the stage, first in company with three of his team mates and then with Ixausti, who management called back from the main group to assist their team leader on the final climb.
Inxausti and Cobo both spoke to Sky; asking them to relent and let Valverde rejoin – but it was; ‘no more Mr. Nice Guy’ from Froome.
As Valverde languished in the rear of four echelons in the helicopter ‘long shot,’ my phone rang.
A delighted Viktor enthused;
“It’s good to see that sportsmanship nonsense has gone out the window and Froome has them going like loonies because they’ve seen Valverde is down!”
Cycling just wouldn’t be the same if there was no Vik in my life.
Saxo-Tinkoff showed real restraint, doing nothing to aid Sky in driving – although they did step it up on the finish climb; with Contador and Froome again sparring.
But BMC added some real force to the head of affairs – so expect a BMC stage win with little reaction from Sky, at some point to come.
Valverde showed real grinta, never giving up, passing riders by the dozen on the climb; and in the end only conceding 55 seconds to Contador and Froome.
Rodriguez pulled on the red jersey of leadership as Valverde headed for the Sky bus to search for some answers.
The Tour organisers must be asking; ‘why couldn’t our race be like this?’
Tomorrow is a ‘sprinters’ stage,’ but in this race, I wouldn’t bet on it.