Thirty riders with ten kilometers to the finish in the stunning seaside town of San Sebastian. Tapas and several bottles of Spanish cava await the hero.
Thirty guys with a chance to taste victory — top pros like Simon Gerrans, Richie Porte, Alejandro Valverde, Joaquin Rodriguez, Dan Martin and Olympic Road Race silver medalist Rigoberto Uran.
The Jaizikbel and Arkale are behind them now, 2,700 metres of climbing done, home stretch, red kite coming soon. Who do you put your money on? This is Spain and Rodriguez would kill for a win — maybe even sell one of his own kids. Dan Martin is fresh off his first Tour de France and itching for a big result.
Convicted doper Valverde is hoping he can pull off a masterful win like fellow doper Vinokourov in the Olympics. Gerrans is playing tactics and wishing Fabian Cancellara was there to tow him to victory. Porte and Gerrans, Team Sky’s workhorse slaves for Bradley Wiggins in his Tour de France triumph, would like a victory to call their own.
They all fail.
The 2012 Clásica de San Sebastián goes to the smartest man in the race, a consummate pro who year after year delivers a big win or two, the classy and stylish Luis Leon Sanchez.
Like his Tour de France stage win this year, Sanchez chose the moment of attack with a combination of experience and instinct and confidence. Unlike France, it wasn’t shaking loose from his breakaway group when Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) takes out a gel and loses his focus for a few disastrous seconds.
Sanchez sees thirty riders and a moment of confusion, a tactical lull, everyone trying to sort out the odds of a 1 in 30 shot, trying to work out who the danger men are, whose wheel to follow, determining who is strong and who is pretending.
Sanchez has already run those calculations, evaluated the scenarios, the permutations of who and how and when. He’s already won Clásica de San Sebastián once, has the roads memorized, knows every corner, where to be vigilant and where to launch an attack. Even a rider as tactically astute as Valverde is still sorting the numbers in his head — “the group is too big, how do I break this down?”
Sanchez goes hard, takes a gap and is gone. It’s not much — 10 seconds, then 13 — but reaction time isn’t fast with 29 riders all looking around, too much to organize, hesitating, everyone at the limit, worn by the heat and the climbs. Who nails this back?
The man in Rabo orange and blue is a Spanish time trial champion. Full gas, smooth, relentless, tucked in, aero and flying. The countdown builds confidence and delivers that crucial boost in wattage, eight kilometers, then five, three, so close. The Spanish fans on the roadside screaming, lifting him home, a psychological tailwind.
Porte and Rodriguez mount a counter attack but fate has already been decided, dice rolled, consequences stacking up. There is desperation in the pedal strokes and already the self-recrimination begins, the what-ifs, the should-haves. A great race but last move of the game missed.
Sanchez has time to milk this, savor his victory, number seven this year — stages in Paris-Nice and Romandie and that tour stage where he outfoxed Sagan, the fastest rider in the break, the sprinter in the green jersey.
As odds go, one in thirty isn’t that promising for a win. That is, unless you’re Luis Leon Sanchez.