No daily previews but a quick look at this special race in the Basque Country. A big field, a tough course and one of the hotbeds of cycling in Europe make this one of the best spring stage races. It’s live on TV too.
Monday – Stage 1 starts as the race will carry on, a series of steep climbs to test every rider from the start. The final climb is the Alto de Gaintza, 2.5km at 13%, a springboard for the GC candidates to jump away because there’s only 6km to the finish and down a winding descent, a gap at the top can be preserved to the line.
Tuesday – Stage 2 is for the sprinters… only there are not many sprinters in the field. A quick detour into France is included.
Wednesday – Stage 3 features two late climbs before the race heads to Vitoria. The roads are wider and a sprint is likely but don’t expect one big bunch to arrive together.
Thursday – Stage 4 includes the classic finish over the Alto de Usartza to Arrate. It’s the local version of Alpe d’Huez, smaller at 5km but still bendy and with big crowds, this is the decisive stage.
Friday – Stage 5 is another chance for the fast-finishing sprinters but it’s possible a breakaway goes.
Saturday – Stage 6 is the final stage and a long time time trial at 25.9km, the longest time trial seen so far this year. This matters because it will decide the race, the time gaps so far should be small but this should change here. Two hills are on the route but it’s a more predictable course than last year’s technical fiesta.
Route summary: up and down every day this is a climber’s paradise. There’s no high altitude at all, just repeated efforts on difficult roads. The final time trial will decide the race.
Apparently Alberto Contador isn’t going to do the Ardennes classics so this is his spring swansong before a holiday and going back to work on his Tour de France bid. He’ll be able to give it everything and is backed by Roman Kreuziger. What can stop him? Well local farmers might still be irate after he claimed his clenbuterol positive came from Basque beef. Hopefully the opposition is sporting. Alejandro Valverde seems unstoppable this year but the time trial could be too much, that’s conditional.
BMC have a fascinating team with Cadel Evans wearing the 51 number. We’ll know if his bid for the Giro is back on track after he quit Tirreno-Adriatico. Meanwhile Tejay van Garderen is in great shape and it’s a rare moment for the two to race together, all while backed by Samuel Sanchez who has long thrived in his adoptive home race. I’d put van Garderen as the second pick and it’ll be good to see how he copes with the aggressive racing given we know he can time trial and pace on the long climbs.
We’ll see Michał Kwiatkowski’s form. The Pole had a great start to the season but faded in Tirreno-Adriatico. A blip, a bug or a real downwards trajectory in his form? Ag2r La Mondiale have Carlos Betancur as leader and he could be good but Jean-Christophe Péraud is also in top shape and will fancy his chances for the podium here given the time trial suits him. World Champion Rui Costa‘s one to watch because he’s twice a winner of the Tour de Suisse and is supposed to be in GC mode this year.
Others to watch include Andy Schleck, the Ardennes classics are a target and there’s almost no time to improve form so it’s hit or miss this week and a race that could describe the first half of his season. Philippe Gilbert‘s form is one to watch too, he too is approaching his target races in the Ardennes. Tony Martin‘s riding and will target the final time trial, he’s ridden three solo time trials this year and “lost” them all. Belkin bring Bauke Mollema and Robert Gesink who should feature but won’t take wild risks to win, they want to build up to the Ardennes. Garmin-Sharp’s T-J Slagter is a GC outsider, a pick for the uphill finishes. Warren Barguil is another punchy finisher too. I’ll also be watching Europcar’s Natnael Berhane who is very powerful and could surprise but his form’s been off, is he on the up?
As for the sprinters, Orica-Greenedge have the best picks with Michael Matthews and Simon Gerrans, the latter isn’t a pure sprinter of course but he can poach a win here and there. Sky’s Ben Swift is the big name and beyond this we’re left casting around among Tinkoff-Saxo’s Michael Mørkøv, Belkin’s Jonathan Hivert and BMC’s Peter Velits, Katusha’s Simon Špilak and Cannondale’s Danmiano Caruso although the latter three are more all-rounders.
TV: it’s on TV with Eurosport and others and the finish every day is expected for 5.10pm. As ever cyclingfans and steephill have pirate feeds and TV schedules to help you out. If you had to pick two stages, today’s opener and Thursday’s Arrate-Eibar finish look the best.
Weather: many associate Spain with its arid landscapes but the Pais Vasco is next to the Atlantic from where Mother Nature brings humid air to the Basque mountains and the result is regular downpours. This week’s forecast looks kinder than usual with only a few showers this week rather than the typical downpour and skating-rink roads.
Daily Previews: time’s limited and I found doing daily previews for the Volta a Catalunya took plenty of time but when I wanted to look at other races and explore issues from Tramadol to TV rights. So no daily previews here but the good news is that Mikkel Condé is doing daily stage previews over at C-Cyling
Basque bullet points:
- The Basque Country is another semi-autonomous region of Spain with a distinct culture including a linguistically unique language which appears to have very little connections to any other language. You’ll see some of this on the TV race graphics and the race name, the Euskal Herriko Itzulia
- It’s the first year in a long time without a local team given the Euskaltel-Euskadi team has gone. But the pro team was the top of a large pyramid and the base has survived with a UCI Continental team and more U23 squads. Riders come from all over Spain and even southwestern France to ride for these teams
- 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
- The popularity can be traced back to the region’s industrial revolution when manufacturing meant bikes were built among many steel goods, from handguns to ships. With the bike workers could travel from home to the factory or field and from this came a cycling culture
- The Queen Stage to Arrate sits above Eibar where bike firm BH started out, it had been making gun barrels and rifles but turned its tubing expertise to bicycle frames
- A recent Humans Invent podcast saw Lionel Birnie and Andrew Hood discuss big crowds at the races in Spain. They missed one big point: chronic unemployment. One in four Spaniards are out of work meaning a lot of people have the spare time to go and see a free show
- But the rate is significantly lower in the Basque Country, around 15% and it remains one of Spain’s most prosperous regions with plenty of manufacturing including bike brands like BH, Orbea and Exteondo
- The race is run by local newspaper Diario Vasco