Blazin' Saddles

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Blazin' Saddles

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It's hard to imagine just how stage 19 of the Vuelta could
have gone any better for the Basque Country on its return to the race after a
33-year exile.

Save Miguel Indurain coming out of retirement to take
second-place in front of a traditional txistu ensemble fronted by Iban Mayo,
Joseba Beloki and David Etxeberria, while Vuelta director Abraham Olano
performed a dance wearing nothing but a black Basque-style beret on hearing
news of the quashing of all on-going cases against Igor Astarloa - save all that,
it's hard to see how things could have panned out more favourably.

In fact, the whole shebang followed the script so closely
that it's tempting to see it as a complete set-up - a Basque PR coup to end all
PR coups.

Not only was it two Euskaltel riders, Igor Anton and Gorka
Verdugo, who led the leading break over the summit of the Cat.2 Puerto de las
Munecas and into the autonomous community for the first time since 1978 - it
was Anton, the local boy from the nearby village of Galdakao, who went on to
take the spoils in the animated streets of Bilbao.

There was even time for a late attack from former Euksaltel
stalwart Haimer Zubeldia, the RadioShack veteran eventually finishing the stage
in fourth place.

What's more, the mastermind who founded the Euskaltel-Euskadi
team 18 years ago - Miguel Madariaga - was riding in the Euskaltel team car,
two years after handing over the reins to Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano.

This allowed for a tender moment when Anton, who came up
through the youth ranks at the Basque team and learnt everything he knew under
Madariaga, shook the hand of his mentor before kissing his orange shirt and
sending the whole of Bilbao beserk.

Saddles would be surprised if Madariaga, who looks like an
extra from a fictional Spanish version of The Sopranos, didn't shed a tear or
two: despite being in charge of the Euskaltel team for 16 years, he never saw
his riders race a Vuelta over the home roads of the Basque Country.

The local tourist board will have been chuffed too: the
nature of the route meant the peloton zoomed through the streets of the
region's capital Bilbao on three separate occasions, while a doubling back on
the second visit meant the city's most noticeable landmark - the delightfully
angular and glistening Guggenheim Museum - was passed on at least four

A cynic would say there's not much else to see in Bilbao
except the Frank Gehry-designed landmark, but Saddles will sit on the fence

You see, a few years ago Saddles spend a long weekend in
Bilbao and the neighbouring San Sebastian after a brief romantic liaison with a
Russian girl met a month previously in Moscow. The blending of Spanish and
Russian cultures was very Katusha, it has to be said, but all that aside, BS
has only good things to say about the Basque Country, whose roads and rugged
coastline and pintxos bar snacks he found quite breathtaking.

Team Sky will certainly hope that the Basque Country takes
Juan Jose Cobo's breath away on Saturday - for it will be Chris Froome's last
chance to overturn the 13 seconds he needs to win the Vuelta on Sunday.

Granted, Sky did try and distance Cobo a bit on Friday, but
it was rather half-hearted - a bit like an Andreas Kloeden attack moments
before throwing in the towel. The Alto del Vivero was not long enough and
Froome left it way too late to do any damage.

If only Froomey were a Basque - then things would have been
really exciting.

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