The Clasica San Sebastian is another one of those Spanish races with poor coverage (it'll be on all the usual channels, but remember last year when they left the plane at home, or something), unstable funding, steep hills, and unpredictable racing. Take this year. Most of the favourites for the race have just finished the Tour de France, and would be just coming off their peak of form if this were a usual San Sebastian. But it isn't, as a lot of them are using it to prepare for a certain race coming up next week — a race that shares some qualities with San Sebastian.
What are the qualities of the Basque race? Well, a load of steep hills and a tricky finish. The course has changed slightly from the 2014 and '15 courses, which the Jaizkibel and Arkale climbs featuring prominently in the early stages of the race, with new climbs near the finish. The Bordako Tontorra was scrubbed from the route because the UCI said it was too dangerous, and it's been replaced with a new, slightly easier climb called the Murgil Bidea, and a couple of flat kilometres at the finish. This increases the race's length to 220 kilometres. The final climb has gradients of nearly 23% for a couple of metres, and an average slope of nearly 11% over around two kilometres.
The early climbs are traditionally used to force a selection, and to force a move. The early break will probably be caught with seventy kilometres to go, and another, doomed move may go soon after. However, the difficult climb near the end will probably force most of the big teams to keep it at the forefront of their minds, and use it as the centrepoint of the day. I do approve of the couple of flat kilometres at the end though, it should make the race more strategic, and slightly less a matter of who has the legs on the steep gradients.
Alejandro Valverde had the legs in 2014, and Adam Yates last year. Valverde's form is rarely a matter of debate, and having ridden the Giro and the Tour, and with a trip to Brazil coming up, he should probably hold it out for one more week. He was very strong in the Alps, can easily manage double-digit gradients, and is one of the top sprinters after tough climbs, so I call him the favourite for this race. Yates might be waning a bit however, looking less strong in the Alps, so I think he may just struggle. His brother Simon Yates is just back from a suspension, and celebrated that by promptly winning the warm-up race for San Sebastian. It's difficult to tell what his form is — the field in that race was a club ride compared to this, but he must be at a decent level at least.
In a genuinely shocking turn of events, BMC bring a linup that actually look very competitive indeed. They have Richie Porte who's just finished a moderately successful Tour, but their two leaders should be Philippe Gilbert and Greg Van Avermaet. Now, Gilbert is on the move, and if I were a cynical man, I might think they would prioritize Van Avermaet for the WT points. Van Avermaet was pretty strong here last year, and might have won if he hadn't been taken out by our old friend the motorbike. Gilbert took second in his stead.
Daniel Martin had his best ever Tour to finish in ninth, and is well suited to the course. However, he's never done too well here, with a best of seventh in the sprint last year. That said, he can clip off at any time, and will also be a favourite for next week. Bauke Mollema looked like finishing ahead of him, and could win a sprint from a small group. The Sky pair of Mikel Landa and Mikel Nieve were instrumental in bringing back attacks, but could ride for themselves, or indeed for Michał Kwiatkowski or Nicolas Roche.
That said, Joaquím Rodríguez is my favourite for the race. He was the only guy who could get away from the Sky train in the Alps, and was one of the best there. The steep climbs are very good for him, and I think he'll be able to make a race-winning attack there. While there may be a few kilometres of flat at the end, there shouldn't be enough to stop him if he's off the front, as the winner from the last two years has been. Also, I just don't want to pick Valverde.