Clarke scales new heights with Vuelta stage win

Australia's Simon Clarke took his first professional win when he climbed to victory in the mountainous fourth stage of the Vuleta a Espana, while a controversial move saw Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) relinquish the lead.

I have been a professional for four years, and this is only my first professional win. It's been a long time coming, and I never imagined it would come in such a big way for me and the team. I couldn't be any happier.

Clarke edged ahead of time trial world champion Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) in the final metres of the 160.6km run between Barakaldo and the Estacion de Valdezcaray ski resort, which ended in the second summit finish of the race.

Spain's Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) took the race lead from compatriot Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) after he crashed earlier in the stage.

The 26-year-old GreenEDGE rider completed the stage in four hours, 30min and 26sec, with Martin just two seconds behind.

This edition of the Vuelta a Espana is Clarke's Grand Tour debut. It marks Orica-GreenEDGE's second Grand Tour stage victory after Matthew Goss won Stage 3 of the Giro d'Italia earlier this year.

"It is my first win as a professional, I've been a pro for four years. I have tried so many times, I have so many second and third places, I am just so happy," Clarke said.

Clarke and Martin were part of a five-strong breakaway group early in the stage, which was marked by tough weather with strong winds and temperatures that soared up to 39 degrees Celsius.

"I had always had a bit of a circle around this stage," said Clarke.

"Yesterday was a hard day, and it presented a chance to lose some time and move off the general classification, so I did that intentionally. I thought Movistar might allow the breakaway to go today as long as no one in the move was a threat to the race leader."

The leaders, Clarke, Martin, Assan Bazayev (Astana), Jesus Rosendo (Andalucia) and Luis Angel Mate (Cofidis) established their lead during the first hour of racing and continue to increase it until they were more than 13min ahead of the rest of the field. 

"Although we had such a huge gap, I never thought it was assured that we would stay away," admitted Clarke.

"There was so much wind, and I know what can happen in these conditions. When the field gets going, they can easily sit on 60 kilometres/hour, and the break can be caught out going more slowly. Even with 13 minutes, I wasn’t convinced that we were going to stay away."

Thirty kilometres from the finish crosswinds and a crash, which included race leader Valverde, split the field into four distinct groups. The first, headed by Team Sky, set a ferocious pace that would distance the riders that had missed out on the move and more than halve the gap to Clarke's breakaway before the base of the summit finish.
"I was getting a bit of information while I was in the break," explained Clarke.

"I didn't know about the crash, but I did know the Sky had attacked in the wind and the pace had picked up. I started to get nervous about that. Being out front for so long, it's not easy to decide to suddenly go ten kilometres/hour faster. We sat out there and kept doing what we had been doing, hoping we would have enough time for the finish."

The pair dropped their breakaway companions as they approached the foot of the Valdezcaray, the final climb, where they had a four minute advantage with just nine kilometres to go.

"It was such a long day with so much wind in the finish. I knew Tony was going to be really strong but I wanted to make it a really hard climb," said Clarke.

"Luckily, Tony was feeling strong, and we were able to work well together until we reached the top."

"I really backed myself in the sprint finish. I was confident I could beat Tony in a sprint, so I had to be careful that he didn't attack me in a moment of lost concentration in the closing kilometers. At the same time, I was a bit worried about Bazayev, who was only about 20 seconds behind us. I knew he wasn't far off our pace, and he's a fast finisher. I didn't want to go to the line with him."

"I wanted Tony to lead out the sprint, and I knew I needed to wait long enough to come around him."

"With a hilltop finish, you don't have a 400 metre sprint left in your legs, so it's important to wait. In the end, Tony was the one to go too early. I followed him and waited. I made sure I saw the 200 metre sign before I started my sprint. From there, I went for it and it worked out."

Bazayev finished in third, 22secs behind Clarke.

While the fight for stage honours unfolded at the front of the race, it was the middle of the peloton where the GC battle took place.

Rodriguez took the lead from Valverde, who was caught up in a crash involving several cyclists about two hours from the finish that caused him to drop out of the top ten.

Valverde of Movistar crashed just as a group of riders from Team Sky hit the front of the group in a crosswind section.

The Sky riders controversially continued their quick pace instead of waiting for Valverde to get back on his bike.

"I am angry and disappointed, sportsmanship should come above all else," Valverde told reporters at the end of the race.

"Sky formed an echelon and they're perfectly within their rights to do that. I'm not angry that I lost the lead because of this, but because there was no respect."

Sky's Chris Froome sits second on the GC, one second behind Rodriguez with Alberto Contador (SaxoBank-Tinkoff Bank) five seconds back.

Tomorrow's rolling 168km Stage 5 in Lorgono could well be a day for the sprinters.

Stage 4: 160.6km: Baracaldo - Estacion de Valdezcaray
1 Simon Clarke (AUS) Orica-GreenEDGE 4hr 30min 26sec      
2 Tony Martin (GER) Omega Pharma-Quickstep 0:00:02      
3 Assan Bazayev (KAZ) Astana  0:00:22      
4 Marcos Garcia (ESP) Caja Rural 0:00:55      
5 Nicolas Roche (IRL) AG2R La Mondiale            
6 Linus Gerdemann (GER) Radioshack-Nissan 0:00:57      
7 Laurens Ten Dam (NED) Rabobank            
8 Andrey Zeits (KAZ) Astana 0:01:01      
9 Bauke Mollema (NED) Rabobank 0:01:04      
10 Jan Bakelants (BEL) Radioshack-Nissan            

General Classification
1 Joaquim Rodriguez Oliver (ESP) Katusha 13hr 18min 45sec      
2 Christopher Froome (GBR) Sky 0:00:01      
3 Alberto Contador (ESP) SaxoBank-Tinkoff Bank 0:00:05      
4 Bauke Mollema (NED) Rabobank 0:00:09      
5 Robert Gesink (NED) Rabobank             
6 Rigoberto Uran Uran (COL) Sky 0:00:11      
7 Daniel Moreno Fernandez (ESP) Katusha0:00:14      
8 Nicolas Roche (IRL) AG2R La Mondiale 0:00:24      
9 Alejandro Valverde  (ESP) Movistar 0:00:36      
10 Laurens Ten Dam (NED) Rabobank 0:00:46     

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