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Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) made it three-in-a-row at the Arrate summit with victory in Wednesday’s 164km third stage at the Vuelta al País Vasco and took over the race leader’s jersey.
Chris Horner (RadioShack-Nissan), a winner in 2010 and second last year, played his card midway up the 10km climb, laying down a punishing acceleration that split up the peloton.
Joining him were Sánchez and Joaquím Rodríguez (Katusha), and the trio ended up taking an important 12-second gap on the chase group that included Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step).
Horner and Rodriguez both tried to shake Sánchez, but the Olympic champion knew the road well and pounced in the final corners with 300m to go to win for the third consecutive year, crossing the line with three fingers held high on each hand.
“I am very happy. Of all the climbs we have in the Basque Country, this is one of the most mythic and most important,” he said. “If someone was going to bet on me winning this morning, I wouldn’t have made that bet. Even though it looks easy after what I’ve done, it’s not easy.”
Horner proved he’s up for contention for overall victory by taking the initiative in the decisive middle part of the climb to score third on the stage and move into second overall. Hot off his second-place at Tirreno-Adriatico, Horner will be looking to defend his position going into Saturday’s decisive time trial.
With no time bonuses, Sánchez, Horner and Rodríguez, now third, are all knotted up with the same time.
Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda), who finished with the lead chase group at 12 seconds adrift, climbed into fourth.
Also looming at 12 seconds is Martin, the reigning world time trial champion who is back in top shape after suffering through crashes and the flu so far this spring.
“Nothing’s decided until Oñati (Saturday’s time trial). Tomorrow we have to control the stage and that’s no easy task,” Sánchez said. “The team has been up to the task so far. Everyone is motivated and working phenomenally. For a modest, small team, we continue to do well at the international level. I am very proud of them.”
Horner lights it up
Three riders hit the base of the final climb to Arrate nursing a narrow, 35-second lead on the chasing bunch. Angel Vicioso and Giampaolo Caruso (both Katusha) were joined by Movistar’s José Herrada.
But with four riders from Euskaltel leading the chase, their chances were slim. Herrada gave up the chase, leaving the two Katusha riders to brave it out alone on the short, but explosive first-category summit.
“We tried it from a long way away, but there wasn’t as much collaboration in the group as we needed to make it,” Herrada said. “We will keep trying. If not in a breakaway, then at the end of the stage. We have a strong team here.”
With 6.5km to go, the leaders moved to the fore, with three from Liquigas-Cannondale taking pulls at the front. Horner was in good position on the fifth wheel as the road started to turn upward.
The pace continued on the rivet until Horner uncorked the first major attack with 5.5km to go. Marking his wheel was Robert Kiserlovski (Astana), with Horner driving a five-second wedge to the leaders.
With 4.6km to go, others bridged across, including Rodriguez, Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) and Sánchez.
Rodriguez took over at the front, dropping everyone except Horner. With 4km to go, Sánchez quickly bridged across to the two leaders. That broke the back of the pack and the leading trio had 15 seconds with 3.5km to go.
The threesome plowed through huge crowds lining the final kilometers to the finish line, proving yet again that the Basques love their cycling.
Leading the chase were Scarponi and Lampre, Kiserlovski, Dani Moreno (Katusha), Bauke Mollema (Rabobank), Sergio Henoa (Sky) and Martin.
With 2km to go, they were within reach of the leaders, but the false flat near the summit gave the leaders some legs.
Horner positioned himself at the front with 1km to go, with the chasers coming under the red kite at 11 seconds adrift. But Sánchez surged forward and sling-shotted through the final corners for the win.
Mollema led the chase group across at 12 seconds later with Martin — a dangerous threat for Saturday’s decisive time trial — coming through with the same time in sixth.
Hesjedal kept alive his GC hopes, crossing with the front chase group , but his teammate Tom Danielson slipped across the line at 35 seconds back.
The 54th Basque Country tour continues Thursday with the five-climb, 151km fourth stage from Eibar to Bera. Four second-category climbs will soften up the bunch, and likely deliver a stage-hunting breakaway, before the final, first-category climb to the finish line at the Ibardin summit.
Steeper and longer than Arrate, the climb should produce more gaps among the GC contenders.