This is the fourth Spanish stage race of the year so far, just to recap, and they've all been pretty exciting affairs. The Vuelta a Comunidad Valenciana kicked off proceedings for the year, as far as stage racing goes, the Vuelta a Andalucia saw some exciting mountain racing, and last week in Catalunya two Tour de France favourites met for the first time. This race is a bit like Catalunya, the main differences being that the climbs are shorter, steeper and even more numerous.
What's on the menu?
Hills, with a side of hills, and a garnish of hills. However, to balance things out, there's a time-trial at the end...with a hill in the middle of it. A lot of the stages of País Vasco tend to be touch and go as to whether a sprinter who can climb can get to the finish for the win, which is no surprise, considering the amount of short climbs littered around the Basque Country. I'd also like to point out the lack of long transfers in this race. All but one stage starts where the previous one finished, and that one (stage 3) starts only 20km from the uphill finish which will decide stage 2.
Stage 1: Etxebarria -> Markina-Xemein
This is one of those stages where a sprinter could make it, but you'd be worried about betting on it. While this stage is packed full of hills, it bears a striking similarity to stage five of the 2014 race, which was won by Ben Swift. The last two climbs are the same as on that stage, and it finishes in the same town. However, that doesn't mean it's a foregone conclusion by any means. Swift was the lone sprinter in the group of only twenty-two that made it to the finish in Markina-Xemein, and that stage was longer, and this one has more climbs packed into its 144 kilometres. That makes the pool of stage contenders quite large, from tough sprinters to climbers with fast legs. Fabio Felline will be targeting this stage however. He is a good climber, and possesses perhaps the best sprint of anyone in the race. Michael Albasini and Simon Gerrans should be on the case for Orica-GreenEDGE. However, if the racing is too aggressive for even them, the stage must fall to an attacker or a climbing sprinter. In the absence of Valverde, these could include Louis Vervaeke, Daniel Martin, Tony Gallopin, Tom-Jelte Slagter or Wilco Kelderman.
Stage 2: Markina-Xemein -> Amurrio-Baranbio
Didn't take them long to get started with the uphill finishes, did it? This stage is as flat as it gets for this race, at least until 2.7 kilometres to go, where an incredibly steep climb starts. The 12% slopes should decide the stage. This one is for the puncheurs, which makes Daniel Martin of Etixx-Quickstep my favourite for this stage. In a field of climbers and puncheurs in Catalunya he was the fastest up La Molina, and this sort of climb really suits his style of riding. Joaquím Rodríguez and Alberto Contador will be his biggest opponents on this stage, and the winner of it ought to take the leader's blue and yellow jersey.
This is the flattest road stage of the week, starting in the capital of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz, and the only one where 'sprinters' should be confident of a victory. Felline, again, is a good pick for this stage, as well as Gerrans.
Stage 4: Lesaka -> Orio
This is a very unpredictable stage, which goes over the Jaizkibel of San Sebastian fame, and then goes over the Aia gaina, which is that 25% climb that decided everything on the final two stages here last year. This stage may be decided there again, as it is climbed once more on each side at the close of the stage. If a move gets away, they will have to hold on over thirteen kilometres, including a bump at the end of the stage, which could also serve as a springboard for late attacks. Perhaps a break could manage to win this one.
Long a favourite of the Vuelta al País Vasco, the climb of Arrate has featured in the last seven editions. It's five kilometres long, before a one-kilometre flat section, and another kilometre of descent. While a tough climb, it is very unlikely to be decisive, the most sensational GC action that can be expected is for three or four contenders to sprint out the stage.
However, the GC guys will be the men contesting it. Alberto Contador is always worthy of a mention, but he won't win thanks to his lack of sprint. Of the people who could theoretically make the lead group, Bauke Mollema and Daniel Martin both can sprint, but Sergio Henao also has a pair of sprinting legs, and is my favourite for this stage.
Stage 6: Eibar -> Eibar
"Should we categorise the Arrate climb when they go up it backwards in the TT?"
"Nah, let's leave it as a surprise."
I expect the conversation between the race organisers went something like that when the race route was being decided upon, because that's what this climb is, a pretty large sting in the tail on the part of the race organisers. This means that it's pretty difficult to predict, well, along with the fact that Tony Martin is riding on the cobbles. However, Vasil Kiryienka is riding this race, and with his climbing skills and rainbow jersey, would be favourite for the stage. However, the presence of the climb to Arrate really makes it difficult to be certain about the outcome. While Kiryienka is skilled at time-trialling and climbing, the climb on this stage makes the time-trial perhaps more likely to be won by an overall contender. Which one is difficult to determine. Bauke Mollema can test, and test well when on good form, and so can Wilco Kelderman. Alberto Contador, also will hope to do well on this stage.
But who'll win the yellow jersey?
That TT really throws a spanner in the works. For the race as a whole, and for individual riders. There are a dozen people who could win this race if it wasn't there, and there are far fewer who can now it is, no matter how big a hill they throw in the middle of it. While Daniel Martin and Adam Yates are good climbers, and well suited to the hills in this race, the time-trial probably renders them out of contention. While such a difficult time-trial relies on form as much as ability, the two won't be able to hold off better time-triallists.
Who are those better time triallists? Well, it's difficult to say, it will all depend on form, but Sergio Henao, Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana are my three favourites for the race. All three of them have ridden the race before, and done well on similar time trials, with - if anything - less climbing, so they should all do well in this race.
Alberto Contador definitely is on at least a small amount of form. His attacks seem to pack more of a punch than they did last year, and while he was dropped by Quintana in the Volta a Catalunya, that was after eighteen kilometres of a nineteen kilometre climb, a sort of climb that cannot be found in this race. No, in fact where we have to look to find his form for this race is La Molina, where he was able to drop Quintana and the rest momentarily, to gain a few seconds in the last kilometre of the climb. If he can continue to do that on the short, sharp climbs of the Basque Country, he might just be able to win this race.
Sergio Henao, however, must also not be discounted. In Paris-Nice he played the part of superdomestique for Sky team mate Geraint Thomas, but was clearly climbing more strongly than the Welshman and eventual winner of the race, able to go with Contador when he attacked on all occasions on stage 7, but choosing to stay back and help Thomas to victory. The shackles are off the Colombian for this race, however, much as they were last year. If on form, the time-trial shouldn't trouble him thanks to the Arrate climb, and the punchy climbs suit his style of racing.
Nairo Quintana is probably on the best climbing form of any of the riders in this race, but will it help him when the race's highest point is 600 metres, rather than 2000? Well, yes, but will he be able to exert his form over Alberto Contador on the shorter climbs? Perhaps not, or perhaps not as much. However, will Contador be able to drop him? I don't think so.
Of course Bauke Mollema, Wilco Kelderman, Ruí Costa, Thibaut Pinot and Fabio Aru all stand a chance of victory, and so does Joaquím Rodríguez. Rodríguez won last year, profiting from an off-peak Quintana and some very steep gradients that suited his style, but this year we have proof that Quintana is on form, and there are more riders suited to Purito's ideal course.
So it's all going to come down to the time-trial, if you ask me. The climb to Arrate, and the descent from it. It's all going to come down to who is in the best form, and for the first time this year, I think it's going to be Contador.