I know we all enjoyed the Ronde yesterday, but for the stage racing fan, Spain doesn't disappoint. The Vuelta Pais Vasco/Tour of the Basque Country/Euskal Herriko Itzulia was started in 1924, won by Francis Pelissier, and continued for a short 6 more incarnations before a 5-year hiatus leading to a Bartali win in 1935. However, a long sabbatical occurred until 1969, when another French great, Jacques Anquetil took the crown. It then kind of became a refuge for Spanish stage racers, with wins from Luis Ocana, José Antonio Gonzalez and Julian Gorospe, until Kelly came to town.
How do you know you're hard? When you finish on the podium in Flanders, go to an aerodrome in Wevelgem and fly to the Basque Country, win Pais Vasco, jet back to France and win Roubaix, that's when. But who could have achieved this feat? A man from Carrick-On-Suir named Seán Kelly. He did this an amazing twice, in 1984 and 1986. However, back then it was a slightly more achievable objective, as the race was five days, as opposed to the six it is today.
Recently, the race has really become the domain of the skinny climbers, Alberto Contador taking a trio of wins, as well as Sanchez and Quintana in recent years, due to the lack of flat kilometres, and despite the time trial. However, the time trial has limited effect when it contains a duo of decent climbs.
(Rafa Rivas, Getty/AFP)
To Now, Then:
Due to this race's proximity to the Giro, the majority of the GC contenders with their eyes on rosa won't be here, but some of the Ardennes heavyweights will be going to the Basque Country.
A lot of stage races have boasted their abundance of Tour de France competitors. This hasn't got so many, but there's little similarity between this and the Tour de France. With its punchy climbs and its added(!) ITT kilometres , this is for the climby puncheurs. Who's here: As the GC goes, Quintana, Mollema, Majka, van Garderen, SKY's 4th and 5th favourite GC riders (Henao and Nieve), Sanchez, Atapuma, Peraud, Talansky, Pinot, Rodríguez, Arredondo, Costa, Spilak and Kwiatkowski if he's not in his get-dropped-on-all-the-climbs mood. Bar Quintana, it's kind of a field of 2nd-class GC guys. As mentioned above, there are also an abundance of Ardennes specialists, like Kwiatkowski, Arredondo, Gilbert, Betancur (yeah, right), Formolo, Moreno, Rodríguez, Ulissi (it'll be interesting to see how fit he is), Wellens, the Brothers Yates and Gerrans. Sprinters fear to tread here, but Ben Swift won a stage that his bodily composition arguably had no right to, and Michael Matthews won a slightly more sane one. They'll be the only two sprinters within one hundred miles. Other guys include Dumoulin and Dennis.
(Rafa Rivas Getty)
Pais Vasco has a reputation for fast-paced stages with an abundance of difficult short climbs - the ideal formula for a stage race. This year doesn't disappoint. I count 32 climbs over 6 stages, an average of one every 26 kilometres, and none of them are little cat. 4s.
Monday, April 6: Stage 1: Bilbao - Bilbao (163km)
A rarity in Pais Vasco, this stage has "only" 3 climbs, but they're nothing to sneeze at, especially the final one. The Alto del Vivero is almost 5 kilometres at 8%, peaking just 13 kilometres from the line, and it should shake off the sprinters, as it were. If you remember last year, on another category two climb, Alberto Contador attacked the peloton to win a similar stage, taking over 10" on Valverde and half a minute on everyone else, to all but sew up the GC before 200km was ridden. However, neither Contador nor Valverde, the two aggressors that day, are here. This is a bona fide GC day, don't get me wrong, and anyone out of form will be caught out. However, I expect a group of about 25 to reach to finish together, and Kwiatkowski to win the sprint.
Tuesday, April 7: Stage 2: Bilbao - Vitoria-Gasteiz (175km)
Six climbs to break up the race, starting with the biggest one. A 900 metre category one climb should send a few guys out the back, possibly never to return, as the climbs come thick and fast from then on. Five more category threes should facilitate a strong break going clear, and they should win this one, especially if the radios continue to be as faulty as they have been in some recent races.
Wednesday, April 8: Stage 3: Vitoria-Gasteiz - Zumarraga (171km)
This is possibly the most exciting stage of the race. With eight categorised climbs, two category ones, four category twos and two category threes, including a steep category two, the Alto de la Antigua followed by a descent and a rise to the line at the end, I would not be willing to bet on the outcome of this stage. A climber who thinks they need more time despite the two summit finishes? An opportunist? Perhaps Rodríguez, that last climb looks steep. Tune in for this one, anything could happen.
Thursday, April 9: Stage 4: Zumarraga - Arrate(Eibar) (171km)
Despite this race's almost formulaic route (not that I'm complaining), it tends to have different start towns and finish towns for every stage. Except this one, a stage has finished on the short climb to Eibar. Last year Wout Poels attacked early in the climb to hold on for the win, but the better example to take is from 2013. Quintana attacked near the top to pad his GC win, and a group of six other GC contenders finished hot on his heels, two seconds behind. Same winner, same situation is my pick.
Friday, April 10: Stage 5: Eibar - Aia (156 km)
For a change in recent years, in case we hadn't broken up the peloton enough, the devilish organisers have added yet another summit finish, about 3 kilometres to go up 300 metres of the Alto de Aia. Steeper than Eibar the next day, and no pesky little descent to limit losses. The stage starts with two category three climbs, followed by a category two, and then the biggest climb of the day, a category one. However, the real difficulty of the day will be the last twenty kilometres there are three horribly steep category two climbs. This should weaken the legs before a puncheur takes of. Rodríguez to take it, if he's fit. If not, maybe one of his team mates.
Saturday, April 11: Stage 6: ITT, Aia - Aia (18 km)
If you can still see in your pre-Roubaix excitement, you'll be treated to the always-fun Pais Vasco TT. 1Eighteen kilometres starting with a nine km of descent before two incredibly difficult climbs, a time-triallists usually wins a stage of this genre, but the GC winner, who is on fire, always comes in the top 5. On a stage similar to this in 2013, Tony Martin won from Quintana. While that's unlikely this week, it will be similar. If Martin can hold off Dumoulin and Dennis, which he should, he'll take this one.
Who Takes Home the Jersey?
The always conspicuous leaders jersey for this race stays the same, but who'll win it? Well, as I may have hinted strongly at, I think that Nairo Quintana is perfectly placed to win this. I was hugely struck and impressed by his performace in Tirreno-Adriatico, where he attacked on Monte Terminillo, nobody could follow him, and in my opinion he catapulted himself up to Tour de France favourite. He has won this race before, can TT when he needs to, and has a great attack.
(Susie Hartigan, Podium Cafe)
The rider who came closest to Quintana on Terminillo was Bauke Mollema, of Trek Factory Racing. After coming 10h in the Tour last year, he announced his move to the American outfit, and his performance should improve. Should Quintana be out of form, or slip up, Mollema will be there to collect, and this would be a huge feather in his cap.
(Susie Hartigan, Podium Cafe)
World champion Michal Kwiatkowski looked good in Paris-Nice, finishing 2nd, and only losing 8 seconds on the summit finish. He's even had some cobbles success recently. These short climbs suit him, but he may be vulnerable to constant attacks. However, should he lose less than 20 seconds before the TT, he can beat Quintana and take home the jersey. He'll win, or he'll finish outside the top 30.
Despite losing a boatload of minutes on stage three of Catalunya, American Tejay van Garderen rebounded the next day to win the mountain stage on La Molina, staying clear of Contador and Porte, which is seriously impressive, whichever way you look at it. His form should stay as it was, and if he avoids another crash, is seriously well placed to take this. His team is stocked with Sanchez, a former winner, and Atapuma, who also showed form in Catalunya, his TT is one of the strongest in the peloton, and if he's doing it to take his first ever World Tour stage race, he could snatch it from Quintana.
Doug Pensinger, Getty
While we were glued to our television/computer screens last Sunday for Gent-Wevelgem, over in the sunnier climes of Corsica, Jean-Christophe Péraud, 2nd in last year's Tour, was beating the competition, including Thibault Pinot. He edged out a forty second lead, before a minor capitulation, but held on to retain his Criterium International title. While I can't see him beating Quintana, he finished on the podium last year, can TT, and will be hoping to repeat that feat.
(Pascal Pochard AFP Getty)
There's your top 5. Other guys include Joaquím Rodríguez, who despite showing little this year, is always a threat on steep climbs, the SKY pair of Sergio Henao - who did well here last time he rode it, in 2013 - and Mikel Nieve, who leads SKY for the first time that I can remember. Also there is the very quiet Rafal Majka, who has quite disappeared since winning his home Tour last year, but is wearing the #1 dossard, and maybe is back on form. Other names are Katusha's back up pair of Spilak, who was 5th in 2013 and Moreno, Andrew Talansky, Thibault Pinot and Tim Wellens, if you're Belgian and optimistic.
You can see this in most countries. Americans - there's paid streaming from Universal. Catalans - E3 Sport are showing it live. Europeans - Eurosport have all the stages. As to Basque station EITB, available to all Europe. Links here.