Frenchman Rudy Molard took the overall lead of the Vuelta a Espana on Wednesday after a serious accident on last year’s edition, while Team UAE Emirates’ Marc Soler gave the home fans a win as stage five finished at Bilbao.
South African Daryl Impey of Israel Premier Tech was second and Briton Fred Wright of Bahrain Victorious was third after the main contenders allowed an escape group to get away in the Basque Country hills.
Groupama’s Molard ended the 187.2km stage run on narrow winding roads through forested hills just 2sec ahead of Wright in the overall standings.
Molard also wore the Vuelta a Espana overall leader’s red jersey for four days in 2018, but has had a turbulent time since then.
“I had a bad accident and didn’t know if I’d make it back, then I got a very severe case of Covid, but here I am leading a Grand Tour, it’s a very emotional moment,” said Molard.
Molard got caught in a pile-up on the 2021 Vuelta and was transported to a Santander hospital where he began a slow recovery process.
The 32-year-old, who suffered a punctured lung in the crash, said it was a big day for him on Wednesday and he had felt it ahead of the race.
“I told my team-mates it was possible to do it today and I did it today. It feels so good,” he said.
It was an agonising moment for Wright who would have donned the red jersey on Thursday had he pipped Impey to the line.
“I’m sure there will be better days. It’s a shame, but I tried. What can you do?” said the 23-year-old Londoner.
Wright, however, leads the under-25s category.
Soler broke away near the top of the Alto de Vivero climb, the fifth such ascent of the stage, and always appeared to have the legs to take the break all the way.
“It was amazing,” said the Catalan.
“It was very difficult to get in the escape this morning. I tried my luck at the end and did well on the descent,” he said of the run into the city-centre finish line near the city’s landmark Guggenheim Museum.
The Tour de France 2023 starts with three days in the Basque Country and the organisers were in Spain to get a taste of the upcoming cation.
“We can’t wait to see that on the Tour, all the fervour and passion from the fans,” said Tour de France chief Christian Prudhomme.
With temperatures creeping up past 30 degrees on sections of the route on Wednesday, crowds came out in numbers, dressed in their orange Vuelta t-shirts lining the hill routes.
Victor Langellotti took the polka dot climb points jersey while Sam Bennett retained the sprinters’ green jersey
Thursday’s stage is the first true mountain challenge for the pretenders to the title as the race goes through the back country of Santander to culminate in a 13km climb with steep gradients.