Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) notched up a second victory in as many years on the Arrate climb in the Tour of the Basque Country. But he had barely come off the podium before he said he was disappointed that he could not wrestle the overall lead from Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) in the process.
Sanchez was the fastest of a group of 11 riders that tore across the finish line at high speed, a kilometre after they had crossed the summit of the Arrate climb.
Traditionally decisive, on this occasion Arrate failed to shake up the race. With temperatures well into the thirties, the combination of extreme heat and seven classified climbs in the 100 final kilometres of the stage severely dampened the spirits of all the favourites in the peloton and the race looks set be decided in Saturday's final time trial.
The only real attack on Arrate's densely wooded slopes came thanks to Frank Schleck (Leopard-Trek) and 2010 Paris-Nice stage winner Xavi Tondo (Movistar). The two opened up a gap of around a dozen seconds as they forged a path through the massive crowds, but a major acceleration by Sanchez brought first Schleck and then Tondo back into the main group.
Following a twisting, fast descent, Sanchez darted away for his second victory on Arrate in as many years. It was a popular win for the local Euskaltel-Euskadi squad, but despite the big cheers for Sanchez on the podium the applause couldn't hide the fact that the race's toughest stage had actually been a bit of a damp squib.
Fourth across the line, Rodriguez was hardly satisfied either. He will almost certainly remain in the lead until Saturday but is a notoriously bad time triallist and will be very vulnerable in the final day's medium length race against the clock.
Rodriguez most dangerous rival will arguably be Andreas Klöden. A former winner of the Basque Country, albeit 11 years ago, the Radio Shack veteran is tied on time with Rodriguez overall and is clearly in good shape. But with 11 riders still within 18 seconds of the lead, the 2011 Tour of the Basque Country remains wide open.
Tour of the Basque Country 2011, stage four; Amurrio - Eibar 179km
1. Samuel Sanchez (Esp) Euskaltel-Euskadi 4-42-34
2. A Klöden (Ger) RadioShack
3. A Vinokourov (Kaz) Astana
4. J Rodriguez (Esp) Katusha
5. R Hesjedal (Can) Garmin-Cervelo
6. X Tondo (Esp) Movistar
7. C Horner (USA) RadioShack
8. R Gesink (Ned) Rabobank
9. B Intxausti (Esp) Movistar
10. D Lopez (Esp) Movistar all at same time
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