Ingezonden

Stage 9: Andorra – Barcelona 196km

Vuelta a España 9: Gilbert scores in Barcelona

Gilbert snatched the win from race-leader Rodriguez (Photopress.be)

This article was originally published on on Cyclingnews.com.

After a year of frustration, Philippe Gilbert finally opened his
account as a BMC rider when he won stage 9 of the Vuelta a España in
Barcelona, outsprinting red jersey Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha). The pair
slipped clear on the climb of Montjuic in the finale, belatedly
illuminating a stage that had taken the best part of 200 kilometres to
ignite.

Rodriguez, a native of Barcelona, was eager to impress on home roads
and he shut down an attack from Alessandro Ballan (BMC) before bounding
clear of the main peloton with disarming ease on the day’s main
strategic difficulty, the 3rd category Montjuic, which came just four
kilometres from the finish.

The response from his rivals for overall victory was a sluggish one.
Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) had attempted a speculative
effort on the approach to the climb but the Spaniard – who returned from
suspension in early August – didn’t have the legs to follow that effort
up on Montjuic. Chris Froome (Sky) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)
were similarly marked absent as Rodriguez stretched out his lead.

It was left to Gilbert and Nicolas Roche (Ag2r-La Mondiale) to try
and make up the deficit, with the Belgian eventually leaving Roche
behind and inching his way across to Rodriguez’s rear wheel shortly
before the summit of the one-kilometre climb. After a brief discussion
on the pace-making duties at the beginning of the descent, the pair
collaborated smoothly thereafter to carve up the spoils between them.

“The team’s plan was for Alessandro Ballan to attack on the steep
climb and I was to wait for the sprint,” Gilbert explained afterwards.
“But I realised that the climb was longer than it seemed in the
roadbook. Ballan went a bit early and exploded a little, so when I saw
Rodriguez up there, I knew I had to follow him. On the last 50 metres of
the climb I went full gas and made it across.”

The picturesque descent from the Alto de Montjuic evoked images of
the destructive discord between Freddy Maertens and Eddy Merckx at the
1973 world championships, but Gilbert and Rodriguez seemed to quickly
understand that they both stood to gain from working together. “I knew
he was riding more for the seconds than the win and I knew I would be
faster than him in the sprint,” said Gilbert succinctly.

While Rodriguez may harbour some disappointment that he did not
triumph on home roads, he had the considerable consolation of
buttressing his overall lead still further. A disorganised pursuit
behind meant that Froome and Contador both came home 12 seconds down,
while the second-placed Rodriguez also picked up an 8-second time bonus
for his troubles.

As the Vuelta enters its first rest day, Rodriguez has extended his
advantage over Froome to 53 seconds, while he has a minute in hand on
Contador, with Valverde a further 7 seconds back in 4th. Rodriguez may
be set to struggle in Wednesday’s Pontevedra time trial, but he has
prepared accordingly by diligently accumulating seconds over the course
of the opening week.

Valkenburg calling

Sandwiched in between the Vuelta’s foray into the Pyrenees and the
lengthy rest day transfer across northern Spain, stage 9 seemed destined
from the outset to be decided wholly on the streets of Barcelona.

Inside the first kilometre of racing in Andorra, a four-man group
featuring Mickael Buffaz (Cofidis), Bert-Jan Lindeman (Vacansoleil-DCM),
Javier Chacon (Andalucia) and Martijn Maaskant (Garmin-Sharp) was
allowed to go clear, and the quartet dutifully built up a maximum lead
of around five minutes without ever threatening to stay clear for the
duration.

The break was duly swept up inside the final 25 kilometres thanks to
the efforts of a coalition of teams, including Rabobank, Argos-Shimano
and BMC, before Katusha began to flex their collective muscle in support
of Joaquim Rodriguez in the finale.

As was the case in Andorra on Saturday, and indeed, for much of the
2012 season, Team Sky attempted to take over as the road began to climb
on the approach to Montjuic, but their rhythm was upset by Contador’s
surprise attack. Although Richie Porte snuffed that move out, the scene
was set for aggression on Montjuic, and it was Rodriguez and Gilbert who
emerged as the strongest.

For Gilbert, the win comes as something of a liberation after a
torrid campaign. Winner of 18 races last season, there has been an
inexplicably large gulf between Gilbert’s levels of performance in 2011
and 2012.

“It’s been one year since I last won and I’m very happy to win with
BMC,” he said. “It’s a special victory because I had a hard season and I
had a lot of criticism from the Belgian press. I never answered but I
kept fighting from the beginning of the season to bring the shape back.”

After finding a spark of form on Montjuic, Gilbert will hope to stoke
the flames still further as he builds to the world championships in
Valkenburg in four weeks’ time. He may yet find Joaquim Rodriguez among
his rivals there, although for now, the Catalan has more immediately
pressing matters at hand.

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