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San Sebastian in Images... And Some Thoughts

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Alejandro Valverde partially made up for a disappointing Tour de France where he slipped off the podium in the last week by soloing in for his second win in the Spanish classic.

As the peloton, all grouped together after absorbing the early breakaway, churned into the final seventy kilometers of San Sebastian today under the impetus of Movistar's pace, they seemed unsure of how to tackle the new route which moved the iconic Jaizkibel and Arkale climbs further from the finish and added the new Bordako Tontorra climb, whose steep ramps summited six kilometers from the finish. In past years, the race has whittled down to a select group of 10-20 riders after the second time over the Jaizkibel and Arkale, setting up plenty of tactical racing on the run past the beaches into the center of San Sebastian. This time, the script seemed the same with a strong breakaway composed of David Lopez Garcia (Sky), Giovanni Visconti (Movistar), Alessandro De Marchi (Cannondale), Matteo Montaguti (AG2R), Alberto Losada (Katusha), Laurens Ten Dam (Belkin), and Jan Bakelants (Omega Pharma - Quickstep) getting clear over the Jaizkibel. With almost all the big teams represented with viable options (ok, save maybe Losada, who was just a placeholder to keep Katusha from chasing), it seemed like the group might stay away as their gap crept upwards to 40 seconds.

But, Orica-GreenEDGE and Trek were none to happy about having missed the move and massed on the front with even Simon Gerrans doing turns on the lower slopes of the Arkale to set up Michael Albasini. The break's slim advantage allowed riders to jump across the gap as others fell backwards. After a few kilometers, it was all back together save Andrei Grivko (Astana) solo up the road as the race plunged towards the finish line in San Sebastian. After the group passed through the finish for the first time and began a final circuit around town, Grivko was reabsorbed under the impetus of Katusha and Movistar, working for Joaquím Rodríguez and Alejandro Valverde respectively.

And so, it was a showdown on the final climb, whose gradients reached 20% on three separate ramps. A flurry of attacks saw Rodríguez summiting the climb with Valverde in tow and the trio of Bauke Mollema, Adam Yates, and Mikel Nieve just behind. Valverde pushed the descent, apparently only going faster when Rodríguez told him they were riding too fast, and soloed in some 14 seconds in front of the chasing group of Mollema, Rodriíguez, and Nieve. Perhaps indicating how furiously the descent was, Yates lost control on a fast right hand turn and crashed out of the chase.

While Rodríguez may be rightly frustrated with a loss after being the strongest on the final climb, Valverde's move to get clear demonstrated once again, in the aftermath of Vincenzo Nibali's steamrolling of his opponents on the cobbled fifth stage of the Tour de France, that bike handling is not just a luxury but often a tool riders can use to win. While he would have been the odds on favorite to win the sprint out of a group of five, Valverde instead used his descending skills to put his rivals on the defensive and, even if he was caught, make sure they were tired from chasing. It was a move that we saw Peter Sagan try on the second and seventh stages of the Tour this year, but where Sagan failed, Valverde faced a smaller group of chasers and more technical descent that made victory much more likely.

After seeing how the race blew apart on the murderous slopes of the Tontorra, teams will likely treat this as the crux of the race in the years to follow. Going on the offensive early, as used to pay off in San Sebastian, seems unlikely to pay off now, especially with how much time a fresher Rodríguez or similar rider can take out of a break on a steep climb like the Tontorra. Instead of twenty kilometers of interesting and tactical racing across mostly flat roads, San Sebastian now seems at risk of being condensed into only nine kilometers of action focused around who can go over one climb the fastest. Though a small group of riders will summit together on occasion, the ensuing action is unlikely to match the more interesting moments of prior editions. Of course, this is only speculation, but a San Sebastian that now appears one-dimensional seems set to join the ranks of the redesigned Giro di Lombardia, Tour of Flanders, and Flèche Wallone as races where riders and fans know exactly what to expect and are left merely watching the inevitable play out. Is this good for the sport, or a function of increasing equality within the peloton rather than course design? We can't know just yet, but they are questions that we will be grappling with for the next years.

All images by: David Ramos, Getty Images Sport

Results:

1. ESP MOV Alejandro Valverde
2. NED BEL Bauke Mollema +14
3. ESP KAT Joaquim Rodriguez +14
4. ESP SKY Mikel Nieve +14
5. FRA LTB Tony Gallopin +26
6. BEL LTB Jelle Vanendert +26
7. ESP TFR Haimar Zubeldia +26
8. BEL BMC Greg Van Avermaet +40
9. ITA MOV Giovanni Visconti +40
10. CZE OPQ Zdenek Stybar +43
11. RUS KAT Alexandr Kolobnev +43
12. FRA FDJ Arnold Jeannesson +43
13. COL LAM Jose Serpa +43
14. NED GRS Tom Jelte Slagter +43
15. FRA FDJ Anthony Roux +43