Belgian rider Philippe Gilbert (BMC) edged out Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) in a sprint finish to take the 12th stage of the Tour of Spain on Thursday.
On the last stage favorable to the sprinters before a series of demanding climbs over the next week, the early pace was made by Fabricio Ferrari (Caja Rural), Romain Zingle (Cofidis) and Cedric Pineau (FDJ).
The breakaway group of three were eventually caught with around 18km to go allowing Roche to get up to claim second in the sprint past Port Aventura behind Ivan Basso (Cannondale).
Boasson Hagen looked set for victory in the 164.2km ride from Maella to Tarragona after being led to within sight of the line by teammate Rigoberto Uran. The peloton stayed together for a bunch sprint in the final kilometer and Boasson Hagen seemed to have it all in his favor as Uran pulled off the front with 500m remaining to give the Norwegian a clear run at the line.
However, Gilbert produced a late surge to take victory on the line with Maximiliano Ariel Richeze (Lampre) claiming his third podium finish of the race in third. Gilbert timed his surge to the finish to perfection as he came past Boasson Hagen to claim a fifth career stage victory in the Vuelta a Espana.
Victory was Gilbert’s first since winning the world road race title last year and he thanked his teammates and family for sticking by him during a difficult season.
“Firstly, I want to thank my family and all the people who have believed in me during what hasn’t been the best year,” he said. “This victory is very special for me because I have always done well in Catalonia and some of my family live here. It was a very fast stage and in the last few kilometers I stayed at the front because I knew the finish and I knew I couldn’t take risks for when the sprint started. I am very happy.”
In the overall classification, Italian Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) retained the leader’s jersey, but lost two seconds on Nicholas Roche (Saxo-Tinkoff).
The Irishman picked up two bonus seconds in the sprint to close to within 31 seconds with Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Chris Horner (RadioShack) both 46 seconds behind the leader.
Despite narrowing the gap on Nibali, Roche insisted the Giro d’Italia winner is still the strong favorite for the overall victory in Madrid on Sept. 15.
“Nibali has to be the favorite. He is in extraordinary condition, he is fresh and he’ll make things very difficult for us come the mountain stages,” he said.