Vuelta finally returns to Basque country


BILBAO, Spain — Igor Anton won the 19th stage of the Spanish Vuelta on Friday in the classic race’s return to the Basque country after a 33-year absence, and Spanish rider Juan Jose Cobo held on to the leader’s jersey.

The 28-year-old Anton, who rides for Euskaltel-Euskadi, finished the 158.5-kilometre ride from Noja to Bilbao all alone in three hours 53 minutes 34 seconds for the Basque team’s first stage win.

Anton, who had won three stages in previous editions of the event, said this was his biggest career victory.

"It is incredible to win here in front of my family and friends. I never would have imagined it," Anton said. "The fans have helped me a lot. After 33 years, it’s very important for the team."

British rider Christopher Froome, Cobo’s closest chaser, tried to break away late but Cobo latched on to his wheel and both finished 1:33 behind Anton in a pack of 20 riders.

"We knew (Froome) was going to attack on the last uphill climb, but I felt good and responded," Cobo said.

Cobo’s overall lead on the Sky rider remained 13 seconds while Froome’s British teammate, Bradley Wiggins, stayed 1:41 behind. The rest of the race favourites are more than two minutes off Cobo’s pace.

On Saturday, the riders face a decisive a 185-kilometre course from the northern coastal town to the Basque capital of Vitoria, before the traditional finish in Madrid a day later.

"(The win) is only one step away, but it is a huge step," said Cobo. "We’ll have to see how we prepare for the attacks by Sky."

The Vuelta had not run in the Basque country since 1978 due to political unrest related to separatist group ETA. The group’s announcement of a ceasefire last January opened the way to the race’s return to the northern Spanish region.

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