Basque cycling brings visions of guys like Roberto Laiseka tapping out a rhythm up to Luz Ardiden, surrounded by a sea of Ikurriña flags and orange shirts. It's the high mountains and the mountain goats, doing the impossible in front of a sea of screaming fans.
But the reality is that the Basque country is impossibly hilly more than mountainous. It's between the Pyrenees and the Cantabrian ranges, and if you're looking for mega-climbs, you're close enough. But it's a race like the Klasikoa Donostia -- the Clasica San Sebastian -- that probably describes the landscape as well as any event. Recall this year's Vuelta al Pais Vasco, where the climbs were neither especially long nor high, but plenty steep enough to put a hurting on anyone outside the top climbers. That's the Basque Country for ya.
And that's the terrain the peloton will be winding over tomorrow, at the 33rd running of the Klasikoa. It's the same as last year, according to the relatively sketchy info out there -- the Jaizkebel (455 meters) and the Arkale (210 meters) occur twice each, in rapid succession, over the last 90km of the race. Big splits should happen, and chances to get away will abound from the last two climbs to the screaming descents to the little bump in the road entering San Sebastian. It's pretty selective, in the grand scheme of things, but not enough to eliminate everyone but the winner. Chances are we'll see an elite group of 5-20 riders looking to play their cards in the final ten minutes of the race. Most years, this is a wildly fun and gorgeous race.
Missing from the lineup is Luis Leon Sanchez, sort of the perfect rider for this event, at least if you can set aside some of the alleged reasons as to why he's been a clear winner twice in the last three years. Climbing gets you in the game, but from there, a combination of bike handling and the ability to finish off an attack are often decisive. Other recent winners include Gilbert, Valverde and Bettini, in sprints or narrow escapes. Like a good classic -- and this is a VERY good classic -- there are plenty of ways to win.
So who ya got? The news sites are saying boring shit like "watch for Valverde and Quintana," as if the former were news and the latter were accurate. Lord knows I love Quintana, but not for his descending and sprinting. Here's a full startlist. Loads of big names like Gilbert, Mollema, Gesink, Porte, Contador, Hesjedal, Kreuziger, Cunego. Cadrius is there, on a course he might like. Albasini too. But all of those guys are coming off the Tour de France, and it's hard to imagine them having much in their legs.
Which is why I'm picking Greg Van Avermaet. He's hot as a pistol, was part of the chasing peloton seven seconds behind LuLu last year, and is not coming off three weeks of Mont Ventoux and Alpe d'Huez reps. Who ya got?