Itzulia Basque Country stage 6: Juan Ayuso takes overall title as Carlos Rodríguez wins final stage

A dramatic final day of racing saw the GC change and Mattias Skjelmose fall to third overall

Clock16:16, Saturday 6th April 2024
Carlos Rodríguez leads Juan Ayuso on the final stage

© Getty Images

Carlos Rodríguez leads Juan Ayuso on the final stage

UAE Team Emirates gave a tactical masterclass on the Queen stage in the Itzulia Basque Country as Juan Ayuso claimed the overall title and second place on the stage behind Carlos Rodríguez (Ineos Grenadiers).

Ayuso’s teammate Marc Soler nicked the final three bonus seconds on the line, just ahead of previous race leader Mattias Skjelmose (Lidl-Trek) and Oscar Onley (dsm-firmenich PostNL).

Skjelmose started the race’s final stage – a 137.8km loop starting and finishing in Eibar – defending a razor-thin lead of two seconds over Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe), with Ayuso another two seconds behind.

Soler gave Lidl-Trek the first warning as his attack on the brutal category 1 Krabelin climb powered him into the virtual race lead, with Skjelmose’s teammates dropping like flies.

Despite an impressive performance by Skjelmose to neutralise most of the day’s attacks, UAE’s squad depth told as they combined to harass Lidl-Trek and deliver Ayuso to the overall title in Eibar.

Rodríguez’s bonus seconds on the line propelled him to second overall, 42 seconds behind Ayuso, with Skjelmose relegated to third by just one second behind the Ineos rider.

UAE Team Emirates ended the race with four riders in the top ten, with Soler rewarded for his efforts with fourth overall, just ahead of Brandon McNulty, and with Isaac del Toro in seventh.

“It was an extremely complicated day, particularly for me," Rodríguez said after the finish. "[Ayuso] was extraordinarily strong today.

"It was planned [Ayuso gifting him the stage win], but we worked together. I’m very grateful for what the team did for me today and of course we will celebrate it tonight. I wasn’t one of the great favourites here so it’s a privilege to be up here, I just had to give as much as I possibly could as part of a strong team.”

How it unfolded

After a chaotic few days of racing in the Basque country marred by hideous crashes taking out most of the major favourites on Thursday, the day began on a more upbeat note.

Milan Vader (Visma-Lease a Bike) – who broke his spine in 11 places and spent 12 days in an induced coma following a crash at this same race two years ago – was reunited with the race doctor who saved his life. The Dutchman went over a crash barrier into a ravine on stage 5 in 2022, but underwent a miraculous recovery and was able to thank doctor Tomas Rodriguez on the podium before Saturday's stage.

But after a similarly hair-raising few days the riders took to the start line in Eibar knowing the GC battle would go down to the wire. Just thirty seconds separated all of the top 10 as the day’s action kicked off.

Sepp Kuss (Visma-Lease a Bike) called it, “the hardest stage of the whole season” when speaking to Eurosport earlier and it proved a brutal day in the saddle, with three category 3 climbs, three category 1 climbs and a category 2 for good measure, totalling around 3,300m of altitude gained, all crammed into just under 140km.

The stage started gently with around 10km of flat before the first climb, and there were attacks from the drop, including a short-lived push by a few riders including fourth-placed Kévin Vauquelin (Arkea-B&B Hotels) on that flat section.

A huge breakaway group featuring several high-quality riders was allowed to get away on the day’s first climb, the category 3 Elkorrieta. They were quickly joined by a chase group including Kuss, swelling their numbers to 25, the best-placed being Brandon Smith Rivera (Ineos Grenadiers) in 19th. Rein Taaramae (Intermarché-Wanty) attacked over the top of the category 1, 7.4% Azurki to claim maximum KOM points as the breakaway’s lead ballooned out to three and a half minutes on the descent.

Back in the bunch, Lidl-Trek were forced to work alone, paced by Tao Geoghegan Hart and Andrea Bagioli. They positioned Bauke Mollema as a satellite rider in the lead group, which also featured Kuss, Steven Kruijswijk (Visma-Lease a Bike), Onley and Esteban Chaves (EF Education-EasyPost).

Immediately after the descent of the Azurki the gradients shifted uphill again on the almost 10km long Gorla, a longer, less steep climb at 5.6%, which saw the breakaway’s first fragmentation as David de la Cruz (Q36.5) attacked with 2km still to climb. The Spaniard took the KOM points at the top and was first to tackle the narrow, technical descent, with the breakaway chasing hot on his heels and their advantage dragging out towards four minutes.

Kuss, Taaramae and Igor Arrieta (UAE Team Emirates) took the remaining KOM points, putting Kuss level with Louis Meintjes (Intermarché-Wanty) at the top of the classification and making the jersey another one in contention.

De la Cruz was collected on the descent as the break briefly split into two groups on the short, flat section before the next climb, with Chris Juul-Jensen (Jayco-AlUla) and Igor Arrieta (UAE Team Emirates) taking advantage of the gap to go clear at the front.

The whole group came back together on the approach to the day’s sternest test, the 5km category 1 Krabelin, which averages at 9.6% and maxes out at 17%.

Skjelmose under attack

William Junior Lecerf (Soudal Quick-Step) was the first to test Lidl-Trek, launching an attack with around 3km left to climb, and Soler – only 47 seconds behind Skjelmose at the start of the day – quickly bridged across to him just before the Krabelin’s most brutal ramp.

Soler dropped Lecerf as strong winds buffeted the riders while the front group was whittled down to just eight, including Kuss, Arrieta, Mollema, Kruijswijk and Onley, and its advantage shaved down to 2:15.

Kuss claimed the virtual climber’s jersey by taking the ten KOM points on offer at the summit, which he would retain at the end of the stage. A determined-looking Soler caught the breakaway’s stragglers, including teammate Sjoerd Bax (UAE Team Emirates), on the sweeping roads of the descent.

The lead group’s gap over those stragglers held at around 1:45 as the terrain flattened out, with the peloton around another minute behind. Lidl-Trek were outnumbered in the bunch and Bora-Hansgrohe rallied the troops to work with them, eyeing the crucial bonus seconds on the line for leader Schachmann and wary of the UAE threat.

The gaps continued to narrow on the flat road as the peloton moved within 1:30 of the break with just 50km left to race, just behind Soler’s expanded group at 55 seconds back.

The Spaniard piled the pressure on again on the next climb, the short, punchy third-category Trabakua, joined only by Lucas Hamilton (Jayco-AlUla) as the rest of the group struggled to hold their wheels. Arrieta dropped back to shepherd Soler – now the virtual race leader – to the front group on the Trabakua’s descent, joining them just before the 40km to go mark as the gradient ramped up again.

A minute back was the very depleted peloton: Skjelmose’s hold on the GC continued to look shaky as the Dane was isolated with just Geoghegan Hart for company chasing down attacks. That position was made more perilous by the multiple teams in the front group working together alongside Arrieta for Soler, driven by the possibility of the stage win as the kilometres ebbed away.

Soler claimed the maximum three bonus seconds at the intermediate sprint, with Mollema’s efforts to limit the damage to his leader coming too late as he took just one second behind Arrieta.

The race-winning move

The final major peak of the day came with 27.8km to go: the category 1 Izua, a 4.1km incline topping out at 9.2%, which blew the race apart. Arrieta delivered Soler onto the climb and fell away after a kilometre as the lead group splintered. Chaves – who looked comfortable all day despite the intense climbing – attacked, soon followed and dropped by Onley.

With just over 2km to the top of the climb Skjelmose made his decisive move, but he couldn’t shake Ayuso or the attacking Rodríguez, and Mollema cracked on the steepest slopes to leave the race leader on his own.

UAE’s tactical blinder continued as Ayuso powered on past and was collected by Soler, who turned domestique on the climb, along with Kruijswijk and Chaves. Onley established a roughly 25 second margin on that chase group with Skjelmose and Rodríguez a further 15 seconds behind.

The Dane put in an astonishing performance on the descent to rejoin Ayuso’s group – minus Kruijswijk – alongside Rodríguez, and with Onley caught soon after the stage win and overall GC was in the hands of this elite group of six.

On the day’s final climb, the more gentle, 4.8% Urkaregi, Soler emptied the tank to set up another push from Ayuso. Only Rodríguez was able to follow as Skjelmose was caught out of position and a gap of 15 seconds quickly opened up with just 15km left to race. Soler sat on behind Skjelmose and Onley with the two leaders’ advantage expanding over the final descent to 45 seconds.

A huge grin broke out on Ayuso’s face as a race motorbike delivered the news of the unassailable time gap with 5km to go, and he and Rodríguez worked together before the Ineos rider took the stage win uncontested – and third place overall as an added bonus.

Skjelmose was pipped to third place on the stage by Soler, the mastermind of a hugely successful day for UAE Team Emirates. By denying him the bonus seconds Soler ensured the Dane finished the race down in third overall, behind a Spanish one-two at the close of Itzulia Basque Country.

Ayuso also swept the best young rider classification having worn the blue jersey almost all week. This was a well-deserved first WorldTour stage race victory for the 21-year-old after second place at Tirreno-Adriatico earlier this year, while Rodríguez’s surprise second overall and Queen stage victory marked an improvement to Ineos Grenadiers’ underwhelming start to the season.

Race Results

1

es flag

RODRIGUEZ Carlos

INEOS Grenadiers

3H 37' 13"

2

es flag

AYUSO Juan

UAE Team Emirates

"

3

es flag

SOLER Marc

UAE Team Emirates

+ 41"

4

dk flag

SKJELMOSE Mattias

Lidl-Trek

"

5

gb flag

ONLEY Oscar

Team dsm-firmenich PostNL

"

6

nl flag

MOLLEMA Bauke

Lidl-Trek

+ 1' 31"

7

us flag

MCNULTY Brandon

UAE Team Emirates

"

8

es flag

BILBAO Pello

Bahrain Victorious

"

9

co flag

CHAVES Esteban

EF Education-EasyPost

+ 1' 33"

10

mx flag

DEL TORO Isaac

UAE Team Emirates

+ 1' 41"

Provided by FirstCycling

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