Astana's stage-race dominance in the pro peloton is continuing this week with yet another stage-race in Spain, the Vuelta a Pais Vasco, or Tour of the Basque Country, the northern, culturally and linguistically distinct region of Spain that is crazed with cycling.
Defending champion Alberto Contador and his Astana team are back to get their Spanish leader a repeat victory in the Basque region.
This time Contador is backed up by a solid Astana squad featuring key domestique riders like Haimar Zubeldia, Chris Horner, Chechu Rubiera, and Yaroslav Popovich.
While Contador had a weaker assembly of Astana riders to support him at Paris-Nice last month (some say that is the reason he could not hold onto the overall lead), no such excuses can be made with this solid squad.
The six-day race, which started on Monday, features a very high count of categorized climbs, making this a race for a strong climber who can also hold his advantage on the sixth day's time trial, such as Contador, but also key challengers Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto), Damiano Cunego (Lampre), Olympic champion Sammy Sanchez (Euskatel-Euskadi), and Paris-Nice winner Luis Leon Sanchez (Caisse d'Epargne).
Monday's Stage One featured nine categorized climbs, but none were particularly challenging to the strong overall contenders. The race finished in a bunch sprint, although the sprinters themselves were absent because they couldn't keep the pace.
Among those who can climb and sprint, Paris-Nice winner Luis Leon Sanchez (Caisse d'Epargne) took the win ahead of Olympic champ Sammy Sanchez (Euskatel-Euskadi) and Jerome Pineau (QuickStep).
On Tuesday's Stage Two, Bouygues Telecom's Yuri Trofomov powered away from his breakaway companion, Rein Taaramae (Cofidis), who both came in a minute ahead of a diminished peloton, no doubt bogged down by the day's six categorized climbs. Sanchez kept the overall lead, but Contador was looming in the shadows.
Contador unleashed one of the terrifying attacks that spectators have seen out of him in the last month of racing and claimed the stage win and the overall lead on Wednesday's Stage Three, the designated "queen" stage due to its level of difficulty as being one of the hardest stages of the event.
Cadel Evans and Sammy Sanchez led home the limping peloton 10 seconds behind Contador's final mountain assault.
Contador currently holds a nine second advantage overall behind Sanchez and Evans going into the fourth stage.
It should be played out as a stage for the overall contenders to stick together and let a breakaway go up the road. They will be thinking of the sixth stage's 24-km time trial, a distance in which Contador has proved himself already this year.
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