Hilly finale of Tour of the Basque Country stage one prompts attacks from GC contenders, but all are reeled in to set up a bunch sprint

Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb) won the opening stage of the 2017 Tour of the Basque Country in Spain, and earned the early race lead after taking the bunch sprint.

Matthews topped an all-Australian one-two-three to take his first victory of the season, finishing ahead of compatriots Jay McCarthy (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Simon Gerrans (Orica-Scott). Britain’s Ben Swift (UAE Team Emirates) finished ninth.

The relatively straightforward day was shaped by a three-man escape group comprising Lluis Mas (Caja Rural), Yoann Bagot (Cofidis) and Igor Anton (Dimension Data).

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The first half of the stage was punctuated by two ascents of the second-category Erro climb, followed by a haul up the third category Mezkiriz.

With early King of the Mountains points on offer, Bagot crested the two passes of Erro first to claim the climbing classification jersey.

With the sprinters’ team eager to keep the break closely under control, the trio were never really allowed to gain significant time. The gap hovered around the two to three-minute mark until it started to be significantly chipped away in the final 40km.

Tour of the Basque Country 2017 stage one profile

The break’s outing was over with 21km to go, as the peloton wound up the pace into the stage’s finale.

On an unclassified climb with 4.5km to go, Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) took the opportunity to attack out of the bunch. However, Alaphilippe suffered an untimely rear puncture, with his bike’s rear end slithering all over the place and he was promptly caught.

The Frenchman’s catch signalled a momentary slowing of the pace and the fragmented peloton reassembled briefly before Nicolas Roche (BMC Racing) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) attempted to break free.

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However, this dangerous pairing were soon swept up by a chase group containing Matthews. After a sharp right-hand bend inside the final kilometre which caught out a few riders, Matthews positioned himself perfectly to take the victory.

Defending champion and leading overall contender Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) came over the line around a minute behind the lead group, reportedly having suffered a fall. As the incident occurred within the final 3km, he should be given the same time as the peloton.

“It was in the last 700 meters,” Contador said of his crash. “Two riders went straight, and I had no choice but to go [off the road] with them. Luckily, we fell on the grass and so without a problem because it was a crash that could have been hard.”

Alaphilippe wasn’t so lucky, as he lost over two minutes to stage winner Matthews by the finish thanks to his puncture, which happened outside the 3km-to-go limit.

One notable non-finisher, however, was Irish sprinter Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe), who pulled out of the race after just one kilometre, reportedly suffering from bronchitis.

The 2017 Tour of the Basque Country continues on Tuesday with stage two, from Iruñea to Eltziego which on paper looks as though it should be a day for the sprinters. The six-day WorldTour race concludes on Saturday, April 8.

Result

Tour of the Basque Country 2017, stage one: Iruñea to Eguesibar-Sarriguren, 153.3km
1. Michael Matthews (Aus) Team Sunweb
2. Jay McCarthy (Aus) Bora-Hansgrohe
3. Simon Gerrans (Aus) Orica-Scott
4. Jhonatan Restrepo (Col) Katusha-Alpecin
5. Sean De Bie (Bel) Lotto-Soudal
6. Maximiliano Richeze (Arg) Quick-Step Floors
7. Rigoberto Uran (Col) Cannondale-Drapac
8. Anthony Roux (Fra) FDJ
9. Ben Swift (GBr) UAE Team Emirates
10. Gregor Mühlberger (Aut) Bora-Hansgrohe, all same time

General classification after stage one
1. Michael Matthews (Aus) Team Sunweb
2. Jay McCarthy (Aus) Bora-Hansgrohe
3. Simon Gerrans (Aus) Orica-Scott
4. Jhonatan Restrepo (Col) Katusha-Alpecin
5. Sean De Bie (Bel) Lotto-Soudal
6. Maximiliano Richeze (Arg) Quick-Step Floors
7. Rigoberto Uran (Col) Cannondale-Drapac
8. Anthony Roux (Fra) FDJ
9. Ben Swift (GBr) UAE Team Emirates
10. Gregor Mühlberger (Aut) Bora-Hansgrohe, all same time