Until last year, San Sebastian had a lumpy start, before two laps over two climbs named the Jaizkibel and the Arkale. Then, the last twenty kilometres would be flat, with a tactical finale. (Tony Gallopin took advantage and won) However, the race was changed for last year, adding the biggest climb, the Alto de Iturburu, and another climb, the Bordako Tontorra late on. The race was also shortened, from 240 kilometres to 219, and only a short flat section after the Tontorra. The riders seemed slightly confused about how to tackle it. For the most part they held back, well, apart from a few, and the race was reduced to a sprint up the Tontorra and a tricky descent. Adam Yates, set for a podium, crashed on that descent, but the race was won for the second time by Alejandro Valverde. Why am I telling you this? Because the course hasn't changed.
There's the profile. The Iturburu isn't particularly steep, but the Jaizkibel (have I said how great that sounds?) and Arkale are, and the Tontorra is even steeper, at an average of 9% and with three sections at 20%. I think that Movistar's best chance of winning is hoping for a repeat of last year - keeping the peloton together until the last climb, and launching the Valverde.
Movistar's team is probably the strongest in the race, so they probably will be able to control it for Valverde. Katusha also have a strong side, and they'll be supporting Joaquim Rodríguez - but also Dani Moreno, who missed the Tour de France and will be one of the few favourites to go into the race fresh. Sky aren't sending a particularly strong team, and it looks like their leader will be Nico Roche, who does like this race, with a best finish of 5th in 2013...but that was a different course and it was the year he came fifth in the Vuelta. Oh Roche's form, Roche's form, wherefore art thou, Roche's form? Still, if he does end up with Sky behind him, he could do...something other than win. Peter Kennaugh is also riding, after abandoning the Tour de France.
Quickstep are bringing a host of potential challengers. Rigoberto Uran won't win, but Julian Alaphilippe has won on a mountain this year, and Pieter Serry has just finished 2nd to Philippe Gilbert on an uphill finish. Over in Camp Tinkov, Alberto Contador is taking a break until February. Kreuziger will have a go. Astana bring ex-carrot Mikel Landa and also Luis Leon Sanchez, who's had a lot of success here. BMC will be led by Gilbert, who's just won a sprint to the Citadel of Namur (which reminds me: the Tour's over, can we have CX now? Can we can we?) Orica are led by the Yates', Costa's back for revenge for Lampre, Bardet and Vuillermoz lead AG2R and Gallopin's back for Lotto. Bauke Mollema will hope to improve on last year's second place for Trek, Daniel Martin looks like the perfect rider for this race, and will be ably supported by Cannondale. The pro conti teams will get in the break, led by Amets Txurruka.
Top 5 Favourites:
Alejandro Valverde is everyone's pick for this, and it's easy to see why. He's been far stronger in the Tour de France this year than last, and won last year on the same course. He's also got four placings in the top 2, and has the shortest odds in the bookmakers by quite some margin. While he seemed to lose out a little on the punchy climbs in the Tour, we mustn't forget his Ardennes success, and he really doesn't look like losing.
(ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images)
Julian Alaphilippe is a bit like his world champion team mate, only better. He climbs better than Kwiatkowski, he sprints better than Kwiatkowski, he's "The New...eh, Someone" according to French media, and he finished second in Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège - at 22. If you can finish 2nd in Flèche, you can get over these climbs, and I can see him making a mark at the Vuelta. (He's riding the Vuelta, right?) However, beating Valverde uphill is not something I can imagine him doing, and nor is outsprinting him. Supposing an early move gets away, he could be in it.
Dan Martin is
a biased pick. a rider well suited to this sort of race. He has good legs in a sprint, uphill or flat, and wrote that his form was coming back after his illness in the second week in the Tour de France. He only managed 25th last year, but it was only his second race day since that ill-fated Giro TTT. He had three top-5 inifhes in the first eleven stages of the Tour, but got sick before the final week. If the week off has helped him recover from his bronchitis, which he has said wouldn't have hindered him if he was in the break on Alpe d'Huez. You can all have my pinch of salt for that interview. His cousin Nicolas Roche is leading Sky, and another pick.
( LUK BENIES/AFP/Getty Images)
Joaquím Rodríguez looked every inch the KOM winner after stage 17 of the Tour. Not going for GC, close to the jersey, and strong. Or so it looked. On stage 18 he got dropped, and Chris Froome went challenged only by Romain Bardet, winning the jersey. Rodríguez lost out, and may bounce back here. He could only manage the lowest step of the podium last year (and if you look at the title picture, you'll notice it's on the right side), but that was after a very bad Tour. The climb really suits him. Watch out.
Philippe Gilbert is also a former Txapela owner, and is busy in Wallonia, winning uphill sprints near CX courses. Admittedly, the field isn't great, but the Belgian had a fantastic Giro, and will hope to win here. Is the 2.8 km Tontorra a step too far? Well, maybe, but probably not. Gilbert won in 2011, and will have a go here.
Also watch out for Bauke Mollema, Adam Yates, Simon Yates, Alexis Vuillermoz, Luis Leon Sanchez, Romain Bardet, Tony Gallopin and Warren Barguil.
The race is being shown on Eurosport, Sporza, RAI, all the usual places on Saturday.