Martínez PROVES CREDENTIALS AS A GC LEADER FOR INEOS GRENADIERS
Ineos Grenadiers’ first WorldTour stage race overall victory of the 2022 season was also a first victory for the team on European roads for Dani Martínez, and a significant breakthrough moment in the Colombian’s career.
Martínez already impressed hugely during his debut season for the team last year, especially at the Giro d’Italia, where he played a crucial role in sealing overall victory for Egan Bernal while finishing fifth himself on GC. But this season he’s taken another step to become a GC leader, following an impressive third overall at Paris-Nice last month with overall victory here in the Basque country.
The foundations for his win were laid with some fast finishing kicks, a hitherto hidden talent the 25-year-old possesses. He was the surprise winner ahead of Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl) on stage four’s uphill sprint, and again won the group sprint on the following day’s steep finish to place second and gain yet more bonus seconds, raising him up to second overall on GC just two seconds behind Remco Evenepoel (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl).
With victory in sight, he was able to capitalise when Evenepoel was dropped on the climactic queen stage, and had the climbing legs to follow all the attacks made against him.
This was a strong performance all-round from Ineos Grenadiers. Although Adam Yates did not have his best legs, Geraint Thomas looked in resurgent form as he, after placing fourth in the opening time trial, spent much of the race doing big turns at the front of the peloton. And young Spaniard Carlos Rodriguez also landed his first win as a professional with a very strong climbing breakaway performance on stage five.
It’s been a tricky year for Ineos Grenadiers, who appear to have fallen behind both Jumbo-Visma and UAE Team Emirates in the stage race hierarchy, but this was them looking more like their best again, and in Martínez they have yet another bonafide GC contender.
EVENEPOEL CRACKS AGAIN ON QUEEN STAGE
Remco Evenepoel put in a real gutsy ride throughout the week, but the way he lost the overall lead on the final stage confirms that he has real difficulties on steeper, longer climbers.
Evenepoel had worked his way up to the overall lead in impressive fashion, finishing second and gaining time overall all his GC rivals bar Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) in the opening time trial, then distancing the Slovenian with an attack on stage five’s uphill finish to take the yellow jersey from him.
But faced with having to defend a slender lead against the hungry horde of quality climbers on the final, mountain-packed stage was always going to be a huge test for the 22-year-old. Although he stayed impressively calm and dug in resiliently to rejoin the group of favourites after being dropped on a horribly steep climb, the final climb up Alto Arrate proved to be too much for him, and he ultimately fell off the podium altogether to finish fourth on GC.
One thing the Belgian deserves huge credit for is his selfless rides for Julian Alaphilippe in the early stages. He produced a series of devastating lead-outs during the race, the first on stage two leading to a victory for Alaphilippe, and the others on stages three and four seeing the Frenchman fall just short and finish second instead.
Perhaps he paid for those efforts in the final stage, or perhaps the team is to blame for not giving him the support during the final stage that he was able to give them. But whatever the reason, Evenepoel clearly has issues on the really select, queen stages of stage races, and will need to address them if he’s to compete for top honours in the major stage races.
Roglič CITES SORE KNEE IN RARE STAGE RACE DEFEAT
Before this week, Primož Roglič had won six of the last eight World Tour week-long stages races he’d appeared at since first triumphing at the Itzulia Basque Country in 2018. He has looked almost unbeatable, with the only two races he failed to win during that time being hindered by crashes.
When the Slovenian stormed to victory on the opening time trial, it appeared that he was well on his way to yet another overall title, especially after he comfortably followed the attacks on stages three and four.
So it came as a huge shock when he failed to follow the selection that was made on stage five’s uphill finish.
He turned into a domestique from the point on for Jonas Vingegaard, who had remained in GC contention by going with that move. But Vingegaard wasn’t able to gain the time he needed on the final stage to get onto the podium, meaning Jumbo-Visma had to settle for sixth and eighth respectively on GC — a big drop from the first and second they pulled-off last year with the same two riders.
After the final stage, Roglič revealed that he’d been suffering from a knee injury, which he cited as a reason for not being at his best. That would certainly explain a lot, and also continue his four-year run of having not been defeated in a week-long World Tour stage race in which he has not been affected by injury.
The good spirits he showed in interviews throughout the race suggest Roglič isn’t too perturbed by the injury, so we will hopefully see him back to his best before long.
DRAMATIC FINAL DAY SEES IZAGIRRE FINISH SECOND
A fantastic final day saw Ion Izagirre (Cofidis) take a stage win, and jump from fourth to second thanks to the bonus seconds he gained by doing so.
Up against such a quality field, Izagirre wasn’t counted among the very top favourites in the GC race. But the Basque rider always excels in his home race, having made the podium here in four of his last five appearances, and once again raised his game to add yet another podium finish.
He did so in dramatic circumstances, too. Just minutes before he crossed the line in triumph, it appeared he’d lost all hope of doing so after going down following a touch of wheels with Jonas Vingegaard (who may be an unpopular figure in the peloton right now having also seemed responsible for an uphill crash towards the line the previous day that also saw Bora-Hansgrohe’s Aleksandr Vlasov go down).
But he wasn’t done yet, and, seemingly fuelled by sheer adrenaline, he surged back up to the leaders after remounting, then still had enough left to win the finishing five-man sprint.
It was Izagirre’s first win for Cofidis having signed for this season, and the French team — who are one of those at risk of relegation from the WorldTour under the new UCI system — will be delighted that he’s delivering exactly what they recruited him for.
HILLY ROUTE MAKES FOR THRILLING RACING
The route created by the organisers of this year’s Itzulia Basque Country proved to be an inspired one, and produced some of the most exciting racing of the season.
Every day featured plenty of climbs and plenty of attacks, yet for all the action there was very little to choose from between the top contenders, leaving the fight for overall victory wide open heading into the final stage.
That final stage was when the excitement peaked. The situation was ever-fluctuating, with Remo Evenepoel being dropped and looking like he was falling out of contention one moment, to increasing his overall lead in an intermediate sprint a matter of minutes later, having rejoined the leaders.
At one point, after Evenepoel and Martínez had found themselves in a group languishing behind Vlasov, Pello Bilbao (Bahrain-Victorious) and Enric Mas (Movistar), the race was so finely poised that the top five on the virtual GC were separated by a mere two seconds.
Credit should go to Bilbao (who also won stage three in a sprint ahead of Alaphilippe) for the way he exploded the race to pieces on the descent to drop Martinez, and Vlasov, who was aggressive in his attacks on the Alto Arrate. But the organisers also came up with a brilliant route, that helped make this one of the races of the season so far.
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