Stage races can follow a pretty predictable pattern sometimes: a few days of sprints and small challenges while everyone settles in, followed by one or two especially difficult climbing stages and maybe a time trial, in no particular order. Riders can tell in January, at their team camps, when (several months later) they need to make their move. Sometimes the certainty of decisive action is a good thing and worth the wait, but a lot of the time everyone thinks the same way, and the result is a stalemate after four days of nothing.
So credit the sameness of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco for turning the script on its head. There isn't really a queen stage. There may or may not be a single sprint stage, though who survives to contest it will remain a mystery. There is a time trial, and it might be decisive, but it won't be the only possible decisive moment. Because every day is chock-a-bloc with short, often stabbing, climbs, and there is danger and opportunity lurking around every corner.
This is the Basque Country, the fiercely independent Iberian subregion, home to both infinite numbers of hills as well as people who like to watch others ride bikes over them. There are flat spaces in Navarre, but for the most part if you're really touring the Basque Country, you couldn't get away from the climbs even if you wanted to. And this is a good place to interject -- nobody there wants you to. So yes... climbs. Let's run through the menu briefly.
Stage 1: Elgoibar - Elgoibar, 156km
# of rated climbs: 6. This is as close as it gets to a prologue in these parts.
Worst of the worst: the Cat-1 Alto de Azurki, 5.5km with a block of 12% in the middle. At nearly 700 meters it's statistically the biggest deal. But later in the race the cat-3 Alto de Kalbario might hurt, getting over 10% as it rises.
Likely outcome? A climber who can sprint will poach an easy stage. The last climb and descent is close enough to the line to discourage regrouping. Actually, if any of the sprinters in the race can climb at all and descend like a stone, it's theirs. Not that there actually are any sprinters in the race.
Stage 2: Elgoibar - Vitoria (Gasteiz), 170km
# of rated climbs: 5
Worst of the worst: The Alto de Gatzaga, a cat-2 early in the race that spans 2.5km... and averages about 11%.
Likely outcome? The purpose of this stage is to determine if in fact there are any sprinters in the race. That's why the summit of the last climb is a full 10km from the line.
Stage 3: Vitoria (Gasteiz) - Trapagaran, 156km
# of rated climbs: 5. Don't be fooled.
Worst of the worst: The last one. The Alto de la Lejana will cause riders to wobble drunkenly as they cross the line. Of its 7.4km, about 2.5km of the first half are over 7.3%. But that's not the terrifying part. No, that would be then 400 meter ramp to the line at... 21%!
Likely outcome? A pure climber wins. Someone like, oh I dunno, Nairo Quintana?
Stage 4: Trapagaran - Eibar, 151km
# of rated climbs: 5
Worst of the worst: Impossible to choose. The entire stage is either climbing up at 8% or recovering from having done so.
Likely outcome? Somebody strong wins. I'll take Richie Porte.
Stage 5: Eibar - Beasain, 166km
# of rated climbs: 10
Worst of the worst: the Alto de Olaberria. Late in the game, climbed several times, and shaped like a gumrop, the Alto de Olaberria is 1.2km between 11 and 15%.
Likely outcome? Chaos and suffering.
Stage 6: Beasain ITT, 24km
# of rated climbs: 0. It's a time trial, for Pete's sake!
Worst of the worst: You read the last sentence, right?
Likely outcome? Whoever wins this will win the overall race.
A few things to think about...
- The weather is predicted to be pretty bad all week. Not that any of these stages get above 750 meters, so snow isn't the issue. Just misery.
- The Spanish media are all focused on defending winner Sammy Sanchez of Euskaltel, who employed his non-terrible crono skills last year to take the race from the terrible cronoman Joaquim Rodriguez. Rodriguez isn't here for Katusha and Alejandro Valverde of Movistar hit the deck in the Volta a Catalunya, so he's resting this week for bigger goals (which I think was the plan anyway). Anyway, this is the single biggest week of the year for the Basque Euskaltel team, barring someone taking yellow in France. Don't blow it Sammy.
- Several other teams are really loaded up for this one. Sanchez has Anton and the Izagirre brothers for help. Sky have Porte in charge, as well as Sergio Henao and intriguingly enough Joe Dombrowski (who is 21, so, you know, don't get your hopes up just yet). Movistar have Nairo Quintana (is he seriously their Plan B?), Rui Costa, JJ Cobo, and Jonathan Castroviejo. AG2R aren't messing around either, with JC Peraud, Carlos Betancur, and a cast of others.
- Saxo Tinkoff are pulling out all the stops for ALberto Contador, with a team includes Mick Rogers Nick Roche, Roman Kreuziger, and Chris Anker Sorensen.
- American fans won't just be treated to a rare Dombrownski sighting, but also as Tejay Van Garderen goes for the win for BMC. Then there's Garmin, with Tom Danielson supported by Ryder Hesjedal, Peter Stetina, Andrew Talansky, and for good measure (in case of sprint, break glass) there's Koldo Fernandez.
- And those are just the climbing studs (and their helpers). This says nothing about the long-range attackers, who might well turn up.