A dramatic last-ditch charge for the line saw Gatis Smukulis (HTC-Highroad) fend off the pack for the first pro win of his career and the overall lead in the Volta a Catalunya’s hilly opening stage.

Better known as a Classics rider, the 23-year-old Latvian formed part of a day-long break that inched clear in the first hour of racing on rugged terrain inland of the start and finish town of Lloret de Mar. And unexpectedly, the break stuck.

Not only that, Smukulis and the break’s three other riders, Ben Gastauer (Ag2R), Julian Sanchez (Caja Rural) and Javier Ramirez (Andalucia) ended up gaining 14 minutes midway through the 166 kilometre stage.

That looked like a promising advantage, but the bunch suddenly woke up to the fact that a World Tour race lead was up for grabs and the pace picked up behind quickly.

Ten kilometres out, and only Gastauer and Smukulis remained on the slowly descending terrain towards the coastline and Lloret de Mar. And in the streets of Lloret, the HTC-HighRoad rider left the Luxembourg-born rider behind for an impressive solo win.

“It was close, very close,” Smukulis said later. “I didn’t think I was going to make it.”

“But on the first stage of a race, sometimes the teams don’t react quickly enough. That’s what happened this time. I was lucky.”

Whilst Smukulis said his chances of defending the lead were pretty small – “until Wednesday at most” – two overall favourites, Carlos Sastre and Denis Menchov (Geox-TMC) lost over 13 minutes in the fast final hour.

Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank) on the other hand, finished tenth, and is looking good for the upcoming mountain stage into Andorra on Wednesday.

“Today was pretty tough, the break went and although the bunch took it easy for a while, in the last part we were going all out again,” Contador said afterwards.

“Hopefully tomorrow will be a bit calmer.”

A lot more than the Volta a Catalunya is at stake for Contador this week. By March 24, the Saxo Bank rider should know about the UCI’s decision over a possible appeal on his clenbuterol positive, too.

The seven-stage, UCI Worldtour-ranked Volta a Catalunya concludes on Sunday March 27. Tuesday’s second stage runs from Santa Coloma de Farners to Banyoles, 169.3km.

Results

Volta a Catalunya 2011, stage one: Lloret de Mar to Lloret de Mar, 166.9km

1. Gatis Smukulis (Lat) HTC-Highroad in 4-08-48


2. Alessandro Petacchi (Ita) Lampre-ISD at 28 secs

3. Jose Rojas (Spa) Movistar

4. Rigoberto Uran (Col) Sky

5. Jan Bakelandts (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto

6. Maxime Bouet (Fra) Ag2r

7. Paolo Tiralongo (Ita) Astana

8. Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing

9. Bauke Mollema (Ned) Rabobank

10. Alberto Contador (Spa) Saxo Bank-Sungard at same time

Other

14. Daniel Martin (Irl) Garmin-Cervelo at 28 secs

69. Chris Froome (GB) Sky at 28 secs

Overall classification after stage one

1. Gatis Smukulis (Lat) HTC-Highroad in 4-08-48

2. Alessandro Petacchi (Ita) Lampre-ISD at 28 secs

3. Jose Rojas (Spa) Movistar

4. Rigoberto Uran (Col) Sky

5. Jan Bakelandts (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto

6. Maxime Bouet (Fra) Ag2r

7. Paolo Tiralongo (Ita) Astana

8. Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing

9. Bauke Mollema (Ned) Rabobank

10. Alberto Contador (Spa) Saxo Bank-Sungard at same time

Other

14. Daniel Martin (Irl) Garmin-Cervelo at 28 secs

69. Chris Froome (GB) Sky at 28 secs

Daniel Martin, Volta a Catalunya 2011, stage one



Irishman Daniel Martin

Gatis Smukulis wins Volta a Catalunya 2011 stage one



Gatis Smukulis wins solo

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