Whilst many look the classics, one of the joys of pro cycling is its variety with different riders tackling different races. Today sees the start of the Tour of the Basque Country, another spring ritual that takes place in front of giant roadside crowds that rival the Flemish for support, enthusiasm and knowledge of the sport.
It’s a great race with a series of hilly stages and also a fine test of form ahead of the Ardennes classics.
Five stages and a time trial to settle the overall classification. Note the rolling nature of the race where one day’s stage finish is the next day’s stage start. And talking of rolling, the countryside is full of rolling hills, a corrugated landscape where flat roads are rare.
Stage 1: Elgoibar – Elgoibar, 156.5km
A stage for the sprinters? The final climb of the Alto de Aiastia is 4.8km long at 5.4%, just enough to eliminate out of form sprinters, they could get dropped outright or the day’s climbing is too much.
Stage 2: Elgoibar – Vitoria, 170.2km
Three climbs on the way to the finish but the slopes rarely exceed 4% meaning this a day for the sprinters. The finish is in Vitoria, known as Gasteiz in the local Basque language, and the second largest city in the Basque country.
Stage 3: Vitoria – Trapagaran, 164.7km
As the profile shows the stage finishes with some climbing but the 5.7% gradient label doesn’t reveal the sting in the tail: a 21% ramp to the finish line for the final 475 metres. Timing on such a steep ramp is everything.
Stage 4: Trapagaran – Eibar, 151.6km
The traditional summit finish on the Alto de Usartza sees the race speed past the Orbea factory of the Mondragon Coop before tackling the final steep climb. It’s short but has sustained sections at 7.5% before levelling off to the finish line.
Stage 5: Eibar – Beasain, 166.1km
What the stage lacks in altitude it makes up for with steep gradients. The Alto de Olaberria is climbed three times and its slopes hit 16%.
Stage 6: Beasain – Beasain, 24km time trial
As you’d expect from the hilly race there’s a climb trial with plenty of climbing to finish.
Basque, Vasco, Euskadi
The Basque country in the north of Spain has long been an industrial heartland in a country more often known for agriculture and tourism. It’s also known for its independence and strong separatist politics. There’s an obviously strong regional identity expressed via the Basque language. Whilst many European languages have similarities, the Basque language leaves linguists baffled as to where it came from.
One thing many Basques speak fluently is cycling. The region is a hotbed of Spanish cycling and the roadside crowds are amongst the most knowledgeable and supportive around, probably second only to the Belgians. Of course the region has its own team in Euskaltel-Euskadi. The orange riders have yet to win a race this year but will be counting on this race and its hilly stages to express themselves.
TV: two hours every day from 3.30-5.30pm Euro time. Be sure to tune in for the finish of Stage 3 and Stage 4 for their steep uphill finishes.
Home squad Euskaltel-Euskadi come with a full Basque squad, including Frenchman Romain Sicard, a step away from their new but so far unsuccessful model of hiring foreigners. Last year’s winner Samuel Sanchez was fifth on the Sant’Elpidio stage of Tirreno-Adriatico and should be there for the steep climbs whilst Igor Anton was third in the GP Miguel Indurain over the weekend.
Team Sky come with Richie Porte, still in form and in need of no introduction, the same for Alberto Contador of Saxo-Tinkoff who is backed by Roman Kreuziger. Tejay van Garderen is BMC’s overall hope with Philippe Gilbert a late addition to the team as he hones his form ahead of the Ardennes classics.
Garmin’s Ryder Hesjedal, Tom Danielson, Peter Stetina and Andrew Talansky have all had their moments to support Dan Martin’s win in the Tour of Catalonia. It’s not long until the Giro but last year Hesjedal was quiet in this race. OPQS bring Tony Martin who’ll find the steep climbs too much but I’ll be interested to see how he copes with the hills in the final stage; he’s joined by Peter Velits too. Andy Schleck’s comeback continues and if he’s probably still short of a result, look for him to make progress during the week whilst Radioshack veteran Andreas Klöden is capable of a top-10 place. Alejandro Valverde is in form but he’s not in the race, instead Nairo Quintana is Movistar’s man and the race will be a good test of his positioning. Can the Colombian rub shoulders and fight for his place before the steep climbs? Katusha’s Simon Špilak is a podium outsider, he’s just won the GP Indurain, the same for Ag2r’s J-C Péraud. Meanwhile FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot continues his quiet progress outside of France. Astana have several names to watch like Jacob Fuglsang and keep an eye on Francesco Gavazzi.
Finally if there are two stages for the sprinters there aren’t many sprinters. Michael Matthews is there for Orica-Greenedge.