Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) scored the narrowest of sprint victories over Olympic Champion Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) in a thrilling finale to the opening stage of the Tour of the Basque Country today.
Rodriguez and Sanchez were two of the four riders that went clear over the top of the ultra-steep La Antigua climb close to the finish in Zumarraga, with only two former winners of the Basque Country, Chris Horner and Andreas Klöden (both RadioShack) able to follow them.
After a breakneck plunge down to Zumarraga, Rodriguez just outpowered Sanchez for a much-needed first victory of the 2011 season.
Almost in tears at the finish, the former ProTour winner and Tour of Spain leader Rodriguez said that victory in the Basque Country represented a real turn-around in his fortunes.
"It's been an awful start to the season, just problems and more problems," Rodriguez, who finished fourth in the race last year, said. "Now, at least, I'm back in the game."
"I had no idea if I could win, that last part went on for ever but finally I got a victory I really needed."
"I'll be defending this leader's jersey as long and as hard as I can, it's too important a race not to do that."
Short and treacherously steep, the La Antigua climb certainly did a good job of making a first selection of the race, forcing some riders who were blocked in by the massive crowds at the summit to walk the last few metres.
Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) had been active at the front of the first group of 70 riders that hit the climb, but it was Horner and Rodriguez that managed to go clear with Klöden and Sanchez.
Finally Schleck was only 18 seconds adrift on the leading quartet, in twentieth place on the stage. But amongst the big losers on the day were Sky's Michael Rogers and HTC-Highroad's Tony Martin, the recent winner of Paris-Nice. Rogers lost over eight minutes, and Martin over nine.
Tour of the Basque Country, stage one: Zumarraga - Zumarraga 151.2km
1. Joaquin Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha 6:02:42
2. Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi
3. Andreas Klöden (Ger) Radioshack
4. Christopher Horner (USA) Radioshack at 1 sec
5. Ryder Hesjedal (Can) Garmin-Cervelo at 6 secs
6. Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre
7.David Lopez (Spa) Movistar
8. Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank
9. Danilo di Luca (Ita) Katusha
10. Xavier Tondo (SPA) Movistar
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