Its easy to get caught up in Flanders week and with Paris-Roubaix just a week later with Gent-Wevelgem smack dab in the middle one almost HAS to get caught up in the excitement. To paraphrase Herbie Hancock, if you ain't excited now then you're dead.
But sneaking into the middle of the ultimate cobble classics of the year is a tidy stage race in Spain, the Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco or the Tour of the Basque Country. In its own right we cycling fans should pay attention to this Monday-Saturday stage race as it carries huge implications for future races. It has a rider list that equals anything that the cobbles races throw at us. In fact, most of the riders who will dominate the rest of the season (outside of green jersey sideshows) will be in Spain next week. Yes, I'm saying that the probable winners of both the Ardennes classics as well as the Grand Tour GC winners will be here. That's quality.
That said the winner of this race won't necessarily be the one to watch out for in the Ardennes; often the big names that win a week after this is over have seemingly mediocre performances in Spain. Just take last year where we saw Danilo Di Luca not make it to the start of the 5th stage in the Basque country only to finish 3rd @ Amstel, 3rd, @ Fleche, and 1st @ LBL.
Still, there is a loose correlation with doing well at Pais Vasco and doing well in the Ardennes. Last year:
- Amstel saw five of its top ten race PV.
- In Fleche, the top three and eight of the top ten raced PV.
- LBL saw nine of its top ten race PV.
If you look past the Ardennes races you get into Grand Tour time. Now I don't know about you but the slightly aggravating thing about the three Grand Tours is that we don't have the same riders in each one. Don't you wonder how Di Luca would have fared vs Contador? I mean its nice in a 5 year old T-ball game everybody wins a slurpee! way that we have lots of winners and all but sometimes I'd like to see an undisputed king of the roads and unfortunately the three Grand Tours splinter the rider lists up too much. So its fun to watch Pais Vasco because most of the GC contenders will be in the same race, and it will be probably the only race of the season you can say that. Again since its before the Grand Tours the riders aren't necessarily going all out. I almost wish this race took place in the early fall and that it was the World Championship stage race... Imagine the fireworks! One can dream.
On the flip I'll look at the teams and select riders- see who this race is important to as practice and who wants to win. Follow me...
This first team to look at is important because they always put a high priority on winning this race. They have the defending champ in JJ Cobo (and 8th in last year's LBL), but they also have Ricco (my Giro winner pick), Marchante, and Piepoli as well, meaning that they are once again hunting for bear. This is Ricco's first time in this race and he hopes it sets him up for victory in the Ardennes and Giro, his two main goals for the year. The other three are Pais Vasco vets but they haven't followed it up with an Ardennes campaign, showing that Saunier Duval targets this race to win.
If SD targets pais Vasco, Gerolsteiner is all about using this race to set up their Ardennes campaign. They compete in the cobbles, yes, but its the Ardennes that they stake their year on. Look at the names:
Rebellin- 6th in PV last year followed by a 2nd @ Amstel, 1st @ Fleche, and 5th @ LBL.
Schumacher- 1st @ Amstel
Kohl- Did not race PV last year but finished 13th @ Amstel, 10th @ Fleche, and 28th @ LBL.
Wegmann, 13th @ Amstel, 10th @ Fleche, and 28th @ LBL.
Then you have the curious case of Marcus Fothen. What do you think- could he grow into a GC contender? He started off well this year with a 4th overall in Tirreno - Adriatico but in my mind he needs a solid Pais Vasco to boost his hopes for the year. He needs something that tells him that he can compete with the big boys so I'll be keeping my eye out for him. He did not race Pais Vasco last year.
As of now the start lists don't have Valverde, 5th last year in the race this year and that surprises me. They do have the promising LL Sanchez, Shaggy Karpets, and Joaquin Rodriguez (9th last year and 11th @ Amstel) plus some good workhorses so I expect them to be high in the general classification here.
*Lotto of course is putting a huge effort into the cobbles of course but they do have one Cadel Evans who's had a very nice start to his season. He finished 13th last year before finding middling success in the Ardennes. My guess is that he'll do better this year. No Popovych here though so it looks like Evans will be on his own.
Speaking of being alone, The Accountant is here looking to improve on his 14th place finish last year what with that chip on his shoulder. (He and Evans had very similar Pais Vasco/Ardennes experiences a year ago.) he has Chris Horner with him but no Kloden or Leipheimer, Gusev, Brakjovic or Ruberia so we'll see if the likes of Colom, Paulinho, Noval, and Iglinskiy can help.
QUICKSTEP & AG2R- LA MONDIALE
An Efimkim apiece, Vlad has barely started the season while Al had a nice, um, Paris-Nice. AG2R also has Nocentini (off to a good start as well) and Arrieta while Vlad has QS help in Garrate and one Paolo Bettini. Unlike Rebellin, Bettini is not a regular at Pais Vasco but he's using it this year to round off his love handles before the Ardennes come calling. Neither of these teams has much of a history in this race so we'll see how they do...
EUSKALTEL - EUSKADI
But of course THE Basque team does have a history. They come stocked this year with Astarloza (18th last year), Igor Anton, and Landaluze, but oddly enough and like Valverde, Sam San, 3rd last year, is not listed. We'll see if that holds. Sam San parlayed his 3rd last year into a solid 15th @ Amstel, 26th @ Fleche, and 12th @ LBL.
The guy who finished right behind Sam San last year, Damino Cunego, is back this year along with Marzio Bruseghin. Recall Cunego followed up his 4th place finish to a 7th @ LBL.
It would be fun to have the CSC/Flanders team face off with CSC/Pais Vasco. Chris has written about the deep Flanders team so here is what they can bring to this race:
- Schleck, Frank: 8th last year with a 10th, 6th, and 3rd coming up @ Amstel, Fleche, and LBL.
-Schleck, Andy; Sastre, Julich, Kolobnev, Sorenson and Cuesta.
Not bad. Not bad at all. Then you have:
Who sport Dekker and Gesink with Ten Dam supporting. Dekker didn't finish Pais Vasco last year but then went on to 12th @ Amstel. Gesink didn't race PV last year but then got 8th @ Fleche. Considering how important the Ardennes are to Rabobank and with Boogerd retired, these two kids are looking for a big springboard effect here.
The last team I mention, HR has Lovkvist, Kirchen, and Pinotti present. Kirchen nabbed 14th last year en route to his 14th @ Amstel and 9th @ LBL. Lovkvist was 26th here last year and has a very nice start to his 2008 campaign.
There you have it. I forgot to mention Botcharov, Casar, and Beltran but with all the names here I hope you understand.
So here's a question. I see the three Grand Tour winners in this race in Ricco (Giro), Evans (TdF) and Contador (Vuelta). How about you?