Kristian Sbaragli (MTN-Qhubeka) has claimed his first win of 2013 and the race lead in the opening stage of the 2013 Tour de Korea. The sprinter’s South African teammate, Martin Wesemann, forced the day’s decisive move to follow him until just inside the 5km banner, giving Sbaragli a backseat ride to a career highlight.
IMAGES: Aaron Lee (Official Tour de Korea race photographer)
The host country’s riders were notably absent from the final top ten but defending champion Sung Baek Park gave the locals something to cheer about, securing the Tour’s first KOM Jersey. Park made his move 25 kilometres into the 172km stage and was quickly joined by Huang En (Max Success Sports). Three additional riders bridged to the pair and another 25 later attempted the same maneuver. The group of 23 that finally formed contained Mart Ojavee (Champion System Pro Cycling Team) – who would finish third – and MTN-Qhubeka’s van Zyl. Team Nippo De-Rosa (PPO) was forced to chase on behalf of Julián David Arredondo; the rider who yesterday declared, “we are only here to win,” had missed this first major move.
Huang (MSS) again broke free and was joined by Feng Chun Kai (CSS); Park (KSP) recognised the quality of this selection and followed, accelerating to take the full six points on offer in the KOM classification. The three escapees surrendered soon after the descent and a new group of four edged forward into the headwind: Taiji Nishitani (Aisan Racing Team), Sebastian Balck (Christina Watches-Onfone), Songezo Jim (MTN-Qhubeka) and, yet again, Huang En (MSS). Six more riders leapt across the modest gap, including Sun Jae Jang (RTS Racing Team) – brother of pre-race favourite Chan Jae Jang (CSS). Jang threw his bike ahead of Canadian Zachery Bell (CSS) and Yasuharu Nakajima (AIS) to win the first sprint points of the Tour de Korea, 70.2km into the stage.
The breakaway group’s incentive to continue removed, the group of ten disintegrated, setting the stage for what became the stage’s pivotal moment. Fukushima and Wesemann separated themselves from the peloton, inviting Thomas Rabou from OCBC Singapore Continental Cycling Team (TSI) along for the ride. Gu Ying Chuan (MSS) and New Zealander Jason Christie (TSI) followed.
Over the second KOM, with 107km covered, the front quintet could boast of a 1:40 lead on the peloton. Fukushima crested the Cat 4 first, ahead of Gu then Wesemann. Christie was forced to drop back to the main field suffering from stomach cramps.
Chase groups formed, reducing the leaders’ advantage to 1:00 on the backside of an uncategorised climb which was more severe than the preceding Cat 4. A small pinch ate into the breakaway’s reserves, causing the riders to begin jostling for the shortest turn on the front. Behind them, the chasing group of 20 repeated that same procedure on a larger scale. It was Ojavee and Consantino Zaballa (CWO) who decided forward progress was critical at this juncture; Nakajima (AIS), Chan and Cheung (both HKG), Sbaragli, Candelario, Alberto Cecchin and Michael Cuming (Rapha Condor JLT) agreed.
The chase group got within 17 seconds of the lead four when Wesemann, hearing that teammate Sbaragli was closing, played his team’s next card and dropped his companions with 45km remaining. He quickly built a 55 second advantage and conceded just 12 seconds over the final Category 4 KOM. The final 17 kilometres of the race trended uphill to Muju, costing the South African half his lead as he passed the critical 10km-to-go signage.
The inevitable happened with just 4km to go. Cheung (HKG) elected to act before Wesemann was caught, reeling in and passing the MTN-Qhubeka rider who somehow summoned the energy to drag Sbaragli and the rest of the chasers back into the fold. Fukushima increased the pace for his teammate, Alberto Cecchin, but it was Sbaragli who capitalised on the Japanese rider’s work and swung to the centre of the road to take the win.
As the chase group was reeling in Wesemann on the uphill stretch to the final kilometre, Cheung King Lok (Team Hong Kong China) attacked, attempting to springboard past the MTN-Qhubeka rider. The 22-year-old Hong Kong rider, who won the final stage of the race’s 2010 edition, got 200m off the front but Wesemann used the last of his strength to quench any chance of a second stage win for Cheung. “I paced Kristian to him, or to within 3m of him, then I blew,” said Wesemann, who would finish 12th on the stage. “I had nothing left.”
With Cheung caught, it was the turn of Shinichi Fukushima (Nippo-De Rosa), hitting out at the apogee of the final pinch in what amounted to a long range lead-out for his team’s Italian sprinter Alberto Cecchin. As part of the same group, Sbaragli elected to keep his powder dry, minimising the cumulative effects of a stage which surprised both riders and team managers with its severity.
“The stage was quite hard,” noted Sbaragli. “I thought that it would be much easier. The riders started full-gas, finished full gas, and in the last 20km there was no flat. It was quite up and down, nothing flat.
A Nippo-De Rosa rider (Fukushima) tried to attack with one kilometre to go. I had to wait. I waited for 20 seconds and then luckily someone else started to sprint. I had to sprint a little bit longer than normal – from about 300m to go – because I saw the leader of the sprint had a gap. Luckily I passed him and got my first victory.
I’m happy for this win but I’m not the general classification rider for this team. We have two guys who are very strong and can fight for the podium and every general classification rider finished today in a big bunch. I don’t think anyone from (our) breakaway is a contender.”
The new wearer of the Yellow Jersey was also quick to praise the efforts of his teammates. MTN-Qhubeka had more than half of its riders in various escapes throughout the 172km stage: Songezo Jim and Johann van Zyl also pounced on early moves.
Sbaragli will attempt to keep the leader’s jersey in the immediate future but the team’s focus will soon shift to the fortunes of Louis Meintjes and Dennis van Niekerk. The latter netted 29 seconds over chief GC rival and 2012 race winner Sung Baek Park (KSPO) but it was Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies rider Alex Candelario who gained the most in the overall standings. The surfer from Bend, Oregon, conceded just three seconds to Park in 2012 and enjoys a 1:52 second lead over the Korean going into Stage 2.
As Wesemann explained, MTN-Qhubeka was merely following the game plan, albeit in a way that caused him to suffer on the bike. “We were always going to have someone in the break so that the rest of the bunch was forced to chase. That gave Kristian a really nice day, to be fresh for the sprint.”
Individual General Classification (Yellow jersey): Kristian Sbaragli (MTN-Qhubeka)
Points Classification (Blue jersey): Kristian Sbaragli (MTN-Qhubeka)
Young Rider Classification (White jersey): Chan Yat Wai (Team Hong Kong China)
King of the Mountains Classification (Polka-Dot jersey): Sung Baek Park (KSPO)
Teams General Classification: MTN-Qhubeka
STAGE 1 RESULTS
GENERAL CLASSIFICATION AFTER STAGE ONE