Time to saddle up the Classics stars again. This most breathless of cycling seasons never seems to stop or even pause much, a phenomenon that will be worse than usual from here on out, thanks to the Olympian elephant on the calendar. Consequently, Saturday's Basque Classic, the Clásica San Sebastián(Donostia-Donostia Klasikoa in local speak), isn't just a wonderful, beautiful, fun race in a land of Cycling-mad Basque fans. It's also the Olympic tuneup.
This doesn't mean Olympic hopefuls from somewhere outside Spain will be extra motivated to win. Guys like Cunego, Evans(?), Rebellin, etc. will probably be there to test their legs, with all the big names either looking to see what they have left after the Tour, or to see how their legs respond to a quiet July. In the end, the Spaniards will be the favorites. But the proximity to Beijing does make for one heck of a start list.
The official site has fired doper Vlad Gusev listed on Astana, so I'm ignoring it. Instead, let's try CyclingFever's: Defending champ Bertagnolli leads Liquigas, along with Kreuziger, Nibali and Pellizotti. Then there's Contador, Valverde, Karpets, Joaquin Rodriguez (second in '05), Arroyo, Carlos freaking Sastre!, Schleck, Arvesen, JJ Cobo, Jose Angel Gomez Marchante, Popovych (but not Evans?), Freire, Menchov, Rebellin, Gilbert, DiGregorio, Sammy Sanchez, Astarloza, Zubeldia, Gerdemann (who?), Lovkvist, Siutsou, Boasson Hagen, Dessel, Voeckler, Bettini, Garate, Barredo, Visconti, Chavanel, Monfort, Cunego, Ballan, Bruseghin, and former winner Xavier Florencio. Or, about enough wattage to power Los Angeles for a few days.
One of the more interesting sights will be the return of what's left of Saunier Duval, now known as Scott-American Beef. No clue what the kit looks like, or what reception JJ Cobo will get. I haven't located an official website, and Saunier Duval has thoroughly scrubbed the old ones.
The course looks pretty typical, with the Alto de Jaizkibel, a nearly 500-meter bump rising up almost from sea level, dominating the late stages of the race. Coming at 39km remaining, the Jaizkibel can't be counted on to finalize the results, but it always shells the pretenders, and a few favorites too. Last year Valverde set up the final selection but watched Bertagnolli and Juan Manuel Garate slip away unattended off the final Gurutze climb. In 2006 Florencio beat 50 guys to the line in a mass finish. In '05, Constantino Zaballa sauntered away from a 7-man group in the final kms. With names like Bettini, Rebellin, Armstrong, Casagrande, Indurain, and Theunisse among the winners, it's a race that rewards climbers... except when it doesn't. See Erik Dekker, Udo Bolts, Claude Criquelion, etc.
My pick is Rebellin. First, I'm hoping for a cleaner race than some past editions, which should winnow the field and make for successful breaks, what with so many climbs and 240km to ride. Of the Tour guys versus non-Tour guys, the former will be more likely to try to win, while the latter doing what they can to stay fresh for one more week. Or put another way, the non-Tour guys will have extra matches to burn, while the Valverdes and Sanchezes guard their precious energy reserves carefully. Davide Rebellin is usually a pretty motivated guy when his chances come along, and after no wins in the Ardennes, plus the magical Olympic-Varese Worlds season of golden opportunity, he's got to be salivating over the thought of a winnable race right now. San Sebastian can reward any of 75 guys on the startlist, so picking is more of a crapshoot than ever. But you can put me on record: Saturday will be Tintin's day in the Txapela!
Live video on Cycling.TV, along with some other sources. And we'll be blogging the heck out of it, as usual.