Simon Clarke of Orica-GreenEdge has won Stage 4 of the 2012 Vuelta, beating fellow breakaway rider Tony Martin of Omega Pharma-Quick Step in a two-way sprint at Estacion de Valdezcaray on a day that will perhaps be best remembered for Alejandro Valverde losing the race lead to Katusha's Joaquin Rodriguez in controversial cicumstances. Team Sky's Chris Froome moves to second overall, with Alberto Contador third.
Overnight leader Valverde crashed moments after Team Sky forced the pace at the front of the group around 40 kilometres out to take advantage of strong crosswinds and was distanced by his rivals for the overall win as echelons formed. Valverde headed for the Team Sky bus after the stage to remonstrate with them for continuing to ride hard as he struggled, but Movistar are unlikely to get much sympathy having themselves been criticised for employing similar tactics in other races earlier this season.
The peloton had evidently decided to let the day’s break go away and contest the win when the pivotal action of the stage happened as a number of riders, including Valverde, crashed shortly after Team Sky’s Juan Antonio Flecha and Ian Stannard put down the hammer to take advantage of strong crosswinds.
As the pace increased and riders fought to get onto the wheels of the men ahead, Valverde, in a group of riders perhaps 12 or 15 off the front, hit the deck, as did several of his Movistar team mates.
The crash happened in open countryside with about 40 kilometres left to ride and with Team Sky and others continuing to force the pace, the peloton was soon splintered into five separate groups, echelons forming as the wind continued to sweep across the road.
Valverde, who had several team mates for company, found himself in that final group on the road but managed to rejoin the group in front and, with judicious use of the shelter afforded by vehicles in the race convoy, was able to get into a big group that had reformed behind the lead one containing the other favourites for the GC.
Those included the three men with whom Valverde had fought out the finale of yesterday’s Stage 3, Katusha’s Rodriguez, Team Sky’s Froome, and Contador of Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank.
Two Movistar riders who had avoided being caught up in that crash, defending champion Juan Jose Cobo and Jonathan Castroviejo, who lost the race lead to his team mate Valverde yesterday, came to the front to remonstrate with Flecha and other Sky riders, but there appeared to be little sympathy for Movistar’s plight.
The Spanish team itself had attracted criticism during Paris-Nice when it forced the pace after Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Levi Leipheimer was caught up in a series of crashes, and last month during the Tour de France, Movistar’s Jose Ivan Gutierrez ignored requests from Team Sky riders to ease off the gas during Stage 3 following a crash that saw the British team’s Kanstantsin Siutsou suffer a broken leg.
While BMC Racing and Katusha had helped set the pace at the front of the main group on the flat section following today’s incident, on the final climb it was Saxo Bank, working for Contador, that came to the front.
Their efforts quickly caused some big gaps to open in that lead group, with Movistar’s Benat Inxausti, who had been second on GC overnight, dropping back to help Valverde who was clearly struggling as a result of his earlier efforts.
At one point on the final climb, Froome, Contador and AG2R-La Mondiale’s Nicolas Roche were on their own ahead of that main group, but the Irishman rode away from the two men many expect to fight it out for the GC as they dropped back into the bunch containing Rodriguez, who would go on to take over the race lead.
Roche, who would finish fifth, was joined by Laurens Ten Dam of Rabobank and RadioShack-Nissan’s Linus Gerdemann plus Caja Rural rider Marcos Garcia, and that quartet would cross the line a little under a minute after the winner, with the group containing Froome, Rodriguez and Contador a few seconds further back and Valverde ceding 55 seconds to his rivals.
It’s the first pro win for the 26-year-old Clarke, who joined Orica-GreenEdge at the start of the season from Astana. The Australian had got away early in the stage with Martin, Astana rider Assan Bazayev, Luis Angel Mate of Cofidis and Andlaucia’s Jesus Resondo.
By the time the crash involving Valverde happened, it was clear that the stage winner was going to come from that group which had an advantage of more than 12 minutes, but the subsequent pace being set by Sky and others meant Clarke and Martin had to fight perhaps harder than expected to ensure they contested the stage win, the Australian tucking in behind the German before outsprinting him for the line.
Following the stage, Team Sky Sports Director Marcus Ljungqvist spoke of the decision to keep riding following the crash in which Valverde was brought down.
"We haven’t seen a replay of the crash yet but let’s be clear, we are not the type of team who would ever try to benefit from some else’s misfortune, and there is always two sides to the story," he explained.
"It was clear that the peloton was nervous because of the crosswinds, and it was only a matter of time before one team hit the front. We took that responsibility because it was vital Froomey was well positioned, and then unfortunately the crash came soon after that.
"There’s always a lot of confusion straight after a fall and it takes time to know who’s been affected, and who’s been held up behind. Before we knew Valverde was down we were already 50 seconds in front and we had to keep chasing the break before the last climb of the day.
"It’s really unfortunate that it was the race leader who was caught up, but we didn’t have any choice but to keep going by the time we found out because there were other teams riding hard as well.
"As for Froomey, he showed he was really strong again and that was good to see. That last climb was the toughest of the tour, but he handled himself really well and is in a really good position on the GC."
Vuelta Stage 4 Result 1 CLARKE, Simon OGE 4h 30' 26'' 2 MARTIN, Tony OPQ + 2'' 3 BAZAYEV, Assan AST + 22'' 4 GARCIA, Marcos CJR + 55'' 5 ROCHE, Nicolas ALM 6 GERDEMANN, Linus RNT + 57'' 7 TEN DAM, Laurens RAB 8 ZEITS, Andrey AST + 1' 01'' 9 MOLLEMA, Bauke RAB 10 BAKELANTS, Jan RNT 11 NIEMIEC, Przemyslaw LAM 12 MARCZYNSKI, Tomasz VCD 13 MORABITO, Steve BMC 14 CARDOSO, Andre Fernando CJR 15 FROOME, Christopher SKY 16 ANACONA, Winner LAM 17 MONFORT, Maxime RNT 18 RODRIGUEZ, Joaquin KAT 19 HENAO, Sergio Luis SKY 20 SEELDRAYERS, Kevin AST Last man home on Stage 4 196 DALL'ANTONIA, Tiziano LIQ + 20' 27'' General Classification after Stage 4 1 RODRIGUEZ, Joaquin KAT 13h 18' 45'' 2 FROOME, Christopher SKY + 1'' 3 CONTADOR, Alberto STB + 5'' 4 MOLLEMA, Bauke RAB + 9'' 5 GESINK, Robert RAB + 9'' 6 URAN, Rigoberto SKY + 11'' 7 MORENO, Daniel KAT + 14'' 8 ROCHE, Nicolas ALM + 24'' 9 VALVERDE, Alejandro MOV + 36'' 10 TEN DAM, Laurens RAB + 46'' Points Classificatino after Stage 4 1 CLARKE, Simon OGE 27 2 VALVERDE, Alejandro MOV 25 3 DEGENKOLB, John ARG 25 4 RODRIGUEZ, Joaquin KAT 20 5 MARTIN, Tony OPQ 20 Mountains Classification after Stage 4 1 CLARKE, Simon OGE 16 2 LIGTHART, Pim VCD 11 3 VALVERDE, Alejandro MOV 10 4 MATE, Luis Angel COF 10 5 MARTIN, Tony OPQ 8
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.