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Pais Vasco Nationality Power Poll: Ahora la Hegemonia!

If you watched today's MTF stage of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, you saw two Colombians, Sergio Henao and Carlos Betancur, stop just short of crashing each other in a desperate battle for a really, really cool stage victory. The result is a dead heat atop the standings and with another MTF tomorrow, the promise of more fireworks ahead!

Really, the VaPV is such a lovely race, and every year I kick myself for not taking vacation so I can catch parts of it between obsessing over every single mis-placed cobblestone in Flanders or Roubaix. But with Jens managing the Northern Desk, I've had the chance to cozy up to Basque Cycling -- not so much cycling by Basque people but cycling that takes place in their midst. And it's fricking awesome.

Basque_mediumOK, that's not very descriptive, but the regular ups and downs of the stages, culminating today in a very tricky, unusual and thigh-snapping climb was an absolute visual and tactical feast. Statistics are next-to-worthless when you see 4km of climbing, then a long flat, then 400 meters' ascent to the finish. Those numbers don't tell enough; only the 21% gradient of those last 400 meters tells you something is up. But the five rated climbs, along with who knows how many unrated ones, and the toll it took on a rather classy peloton was the story of the day. In the end, Henao had enough in the tank to track down both Betancur and Giampaolo Caruso -- on the loose with a flat attack -- and hold them off for sole leadership of the race.

If you watched it, then you know all that, and maybe I have little to add. So let's do a quick power poll... with a twist. Let's face it, the purpose of this race is to put the spotlight on cycling fever in the Basque country, and although things are changing that has traditionally extended to their representatives in Orange. Without getting too political, it's safe to say that such divisions has led the rival Spanish teams and riders to take a keen interest in stealing the locals' thunder. But in the modern, international era, the VaPV belongs as much to the world which has embraced the Basque love of cycling, and which has supported the race's elevation to best-of-the-nongrand-tours status. With Americans and Germans winning recent editions and Colombians headlining today's event, let's pick apart the race thru the lens of national identity. Mind you, we fans are just as prone to root for shirts as individuals, so this poll will go beyond the licensing of the riders and consider the teams as well. Also, if you haven't figured this out yet, I am making this up as I go along. Hup!

1. Colombia

Their presence all over the front of today's race was dramatic enough for Colombian riders to earn the top spot here, even without the benefit of a Colombian team around. There is a Colombia team, and it's awesome, but they're not here. Still, three riders in the top four is impossible to dismiss, and with one more typical finishing climb stage (tomorrow) and a sneaky-nasty stage on Friday, any one of Henao, Betancur or Quintana could up their lead to Porte-proofing their status. Which they'll need to do, as none of the three rates too highly against the watch. Are we in for a lead-inspired surprise ITT? Maybe. Anyway, Colombians are making life very, very fun this year, and they're going to win a lot as well.

2. Spain

Not a great day for the backup host nation, but Spanish cycling can still count on the presence of Alberto Contador -- an OK time triallist -- and defending winner Sammy Sanchez -- an actual time triallist, albeit one who's gone native in his Euskaltel years. Plus emblematic squad Movistar had the good sense to buy low on Colombians, primarily Quintana, a climbing genius.

3. Australia

Only one card to play for the GC, but since Richie Porte is almost a lock to win the overall, and since Orica-GreenEdge started things off with two stage wins, I can see Oz creeping up to the top spot by Saturday.

4. Euskadi

Esteemed hosts, beloved by the endless throngs of fans, and showing off their lovely region to the world. None of that would count for much if Euskaltel didn't have two credible threats (Sanchez and Anton) in a strong position and Amets Txurruka providing the first real fuck-you ride of the season. Do you like apples, Euskaltel? Well I have a complete stranglehold on the climbers' jersey, and maybe points too. How do you like them apples?

5. Italy

Italians? Riding well in Spain? Now I have seen everything. Granted, Ulissi and Caruso both suffer from second-degree cases of Italian Cronoman's Disease, so enjoy this status while you can guys.

6. USA

Disappointing day today, as Hesjedal (yes, I know what Canada is) couldn't sustain his attack and Talansky couldn't benefit from it. Coming a fortnight after Dan Martin's breakthrough win in Catalunya, Garmin's hopes of a Spanish campaign that could wipe their Belgian campaign from our collective consciences has fallen apart. BMC, meanwhile, can't really expect Tejay van Garderen to do much more than keep it respectable -- 20% gradients aren't his specialty. Peter Stetina is still a serious hope for a top result, and we should know more tomorrow. But he'll be struggling to hold on against the watch. Talansky is the best cronoman, a shade ahead of Tejay, but they all need to move up tomorrow to have a chance at the podium Saturday.

7. UK

Is Britain the best colonizer ever? Rome was great, but they never got much farther than Hadrian's Wall. In terms of square miles, you can't top Mongolia, but they never got anyplace cool, like Ibiza or Bali. Too much Siberia for my taste. Great Britain, meanwhile, was the first colonizing nation to hook up in every interesting part of the world, setting the stage for a tourist empire than will survive long after the world economy has stopped producing anything tangible.

Anyway, nobody brings Colombians together with Australians to produce better results. Hell, none of this would have been possible if they hadn't made room for lunatic Australian media tycoons in the first place. Chapeau!

8. France

Speaking of buying success, Betancur is making AG2R glad they got in on the South American game when they did. But Jean-Christophe Peraud is a top-10 crono guy and a credible podium threat at 21" back. Gadret and Bagot are considerably more suspect in that discipline, but there's always tomorrow (and Friday). Looking good for the tertiary hosts.

9. Portugal

Rui Costa should be on the verge of a tidy victory here, in theory, but he's battling back to form after crashing out of Paris-Nice, an escapade that cost him some skin as well as some precious race miles. His team has options, but his country doesn't, which makes his standing in this pointless poll pretty dim.

10. Russia

Katusha never miss a show these days, do they?