The Tour of the Basque Country, Vuelta al País Vasco or indeed Euskal Herriko Itzulia is perhaps one of the most overshadowed races on the calendar. Heck, given that I write this line at eight o'clock on the evening before the race starts makes me one of the people helping the classics overshadow it, and I bloody love this race. I once spent the week it was on without Internet and had a very enjoyable Saturday afternoon watching highlights of all six excellent stages. Which is the first "Did you Know" I have for you!
Did you Know? I'm not the only one who likes this race. In fact we fans of the Basque race in the quite distinguished company of Ernest Hemingway, who donated a page or two of The Sun Also Rises to the race, his character sitting to dinner with the riders in San Sebastian, and noticing a few of their habits:
There was a bicycle-race on, the Tour du Pays Basque, and the riders were stopping that night in San Sebastian.
In the dining-room, at one side, there was a long table of bicycle-riders, eating with their trainers and managers. They were all French and Belgians, and paid close attention to their meal, but they were having a good time...The next morning at five o’clock the race resumed with the last lap, San Sebastian-Bilbao. The bicycle- riders drank much wine, and were burned and browned by the sun. They did not take the race seriously except among them-selves. They had raced among themselves so often that it did not make much difference who won. Especially in a foreign country. The money could be arranged.
Did you Know? Hemingway writes about only the second edition of the Vuelta al País Vasco. The character Jake even met the leader of the race:
The man who had a matter of two minutes lead in the race had an attack of boils, which were very painful. He sat on the small of his back. His neck was very red and the blond hairs were sunburned. The other riders joked him about his boils. He tapped on the table with his fork.
He's talking about Auguste Verdyck, aged twenty-three at the time. Verdyck was a pretty good Belgian rider in the 1920s, with that 1925 edition of the Vuelta al País Vasco his crowning achievement in a career involving wins in Paris-Nantes and the Tour of Belgium, and a few years at the all-conquering Alcyon team.
Did you Know? In 1924, just a year before Hemingway's book was written, the race was dominated by the Pélissier brothers? Well, it was cycling in the 1920s, so that makes it quite likely that you did, but in any case it was Francis Pélissier who won the opening edition of the Spanish race, with a gap of fourteen minutes to his brother Henri in second place. The first eight editions had some pretty accomplished winners, before the race was discontinued for er...reasons [Cough, Franco, cough]. Maurice Dewaele, Victor Fontan, Nicholas Frantz and Gino Bartali all took the honours in the Basque race, before its abrupt stop in 1935.
Did you Know? All those winners probably got a txapela for winning the race? Yes, the txapela, or Basque beret, is now a staple podium prize in most Basque races - they're given to the GC winners and stage winners - and thus, like Tirreno-Adriatico, the Vuelta al País Vasco is one of the few cycling races with a practical trophy.
Did you Know? It rains in the Basque Country, much like everywhere else famed for verdancy (that may be the swankiest word I've ever used in an article). The misty, light rain that fogs up all the sunglasses in the peloton is so ubiquitous in the Basque Country that it's been given a name: txirimiri.
Did you Know? I could spout random facts about this race all evening, but if I did that they'd be in the middle of the sprint on stage one by the time I got to talking about it, so onto the 2017 race we go.
Did you Know? When I went onto the race website last week to check the composition of the race, I was pretty disappointed. Last year, there were six very hilly, very unpredictable stages over six days whereas stage one of the 2017 race looks pretty nailed on to be a sprint. It should be between Sam Bennett, Michael Matthews and Ben Swift, two of whom have a pretty good history here, and one of whom is from Carrick-On-Shannon. Stage two could also end up with a bit of a gallop if a move doesn't get away on a couple of small hills near the end.
Did you Know? The race begins to hot up on stage three. Ending in San Sebastian, the Wednesday stage goes over six categorised climbs. The decisive ones are, however, not as steep as loyal Itzulia viewers may be accustomed to.
Mind you, I think they might need the granny gear for the climb peaking at 131.7 kilometres, if that's drawn correctly.
Stage four has just two categorised climbs. Attackers will be encouraged by the latter one - five kilometres at eight per cent - but discouraged by the five flat kilometres at the end.
Did you know? Friday's stage five is the first real GC day, and if you've been paying attention I know you know where it finishes - Eibar, after the Arrate climb. Oh, and Did you Know? The Eibar cycling club ran this race for the five first years of its renaissance in the 1960s and '70s.
Did you Know? This year the other side to usual of the Arrate climb is used. It's much more difficult than the usual way of climbing it, which will help spread out a GC that will likely be quite nuclear at the foot of it. It's got sections at twenty per cent, and is just generally more difficult than the usual side. The climb usually thins down the GC contenders to a group of two or three, who sprint it out. I see no reason why that shouldn't happen again.
Did you Know? The stage six time-trial will decide the race. It always does and likely will until they decide to change the format. Or time-trials are banned by a rogue UCI President.
The riders go up what I believe is the easier side of the Arrate climb, descend it and have a flat run to the finish. It's similar to the time-trial Contador won to nick the GC last year, but with ten extra flat kilometres.
Did you Know? I can't mentally picture a scenario where Alberto Contador or Alejandro Valverde do not win this race - you can't look at a startlist for the names of the guys fighting for third? Fine. Ion Izagirre, Sergio Henao, Primoz Roglic and Simon Yates - and I think it all hinges on the time-trial. Valverde seldom comes to this race, but the last time he did only an off-day in the time-trial kept him from fighting for the win. His Catalunya form was impressive enough to win three stages including a bona fide mountain-top finish. I don't know how Valverde's intending to keep his form going for the Ardennes, but with him it's always safe to assume that where others have peaks and troughs, Valverde has one horizontal line at a very high position on the y-axis. What I expect is for Valverde to nick a few seconds on Arrate and maybe a couple on the earlier stages. That would give him around ten seconds of a buffer in the time-trial, which on one day he could defend easily, and on another lose.
Did you Know? I'm embracing the madness. Valverde to win!