I like to start my previews with an angle. This time, the angle was handed to me, but boy was it dispiriting. When we were divvying up writing, I offered to cover the Tour of the Basque Country. Chris’ response, in full: “I can’t even think about Spain right now.”
Ah, cobbles fever. The boss contracted a terminal case back when PdC still ran on punch cards and a steam-powered server, but anyone who hangs around here long enough will be feeling that way as March rolls into April. Who can think about Spanish cycling when there are two monuments away to the north?
So, here’s the deal. I’m not going to try and convince you this is the best race of the next ten days. I won’t harp on about any of these things, though they are all true and right:
- This is a world tour stage race with a loaded startlist.
- There’s a quality tune-up in store for the Ardennes and an early look at plenty of Tour hopefuls.
- We might not be in cycling’s primary heartland, but this is a region with a deep and abiding love of the bike, and of bike racing. There are plenty of reasons for that, but one is that the towns are folded into steep hills and verdant valleys, so great racing is brought right to people’s doorsteps. The parcours for this race is, as ever, incredibly fan-friendly.
- The geography, culture, language and food of the Basque Country will all repay your time and attention. Even if you don’t spend much time on that, expect drool-inducing heli-shots. For those of you with long memories on this site, Albertina would expect you all to practice your Basque. I would ask you all to be grateful you never had to share your flat with her Basque homework sheets.
I won’t harp on about any of those things because, quite simply, Chris is right. Nobody’s attention is on this race. Still… there are six fallow days between Flanders and Roubaix. Schedleprijs may divert you for a few minutes, maybe even an hour or two if the weather is bad. There’s the reviews and post-mortems of Flanders, and the previews and prognostications for Roubaix to fit in, but I know this about my fellow café denizens:
- If there’s a live thread about any race at all, people will turn up and watch it together.
- This race has big riders and a good parcours, and significant stakes, so quite a lot of us will watch at least some of it.
- It is a cat-3 FSA-DS race, so people are going to want somewhere to talk about their teams.
With that, I’m just going to leave this here. A preview for the week’s forgotten World Tour race. No rush – it’ll be here when you need it, just as stage one goes live on TV, around lunchtime on Monday.
It is pretty self-evident that the parcours of any race is defined by the landscape in which is raced. Still, with some races the parcours speaks deeply of a landscape, and of the way in which people move through it. That is part of the beauty of Flanders, of course – that tiny corner of steep little hills and farmland that we’re all thinking about even as I try and talk about the Basque Country – but it is just as true of this race. Euskadi is hilly. Not mountainous, exactly, but very hilly. Moreover, people live on the hills, not just in the valleys. There aren’t many towns with outdoor escalators, but you get ‘em here. The race reflects that. Don’t go looking for sprints. This is a race of short, sharp, ultra-selective climbs, every day. It isn’t a race with a definite Queen stage, but every stage will need attention for riders hoping for GC success.
Until this year, I’d have said that you can extend that even into the time trial. The last few have been raced up and over a sharp hill near Eibar, and although the ITT has moved about, it has been ages since it was truly flat. This year, though, the organisers have found a flat route in the Basque Country. I mean, sure, it isn’t straight, but at least it doesn’t go up and down too much. They’ve also moved it forward – it is no longer the concluding stage, but runs on Thursday as stage four.
Monday – stage one
A typical stage for the race – 160km and barely a flat road. 5 categorised climbs, the last of which is 9% for 2 and a bit kms, before a 5km fast run downhill to the finish, back in Zarautz where they started. Early GC separation is likely.
Tuesday – stage two
The riders leave Zarautz again, this time heading for Bermeo. It’s 153km away and again we finish with a categorised climb (this time about 5km at about 5%) to San Pelaio, and then another quick descent. Still tough, but maybe marginally less selective than day one.
Wednesday – stage three
The organisers take (relative) pity on the riders, with a longer stage (187km) but up onto a plateau, finishing in Valdegovia. Far from flat, but no categorised climb in the last 90km. There are uphill launchpads in the last few kms, but the finish is flat enough for any sprinters still standing to have a chance.
Thursday – stage four
The aforementioned flat ITT. 19km and quite a few bends and turns, but much less technically demanding than a climber’s TT, and probably one for the power riders in the field.
Friday – stage five
Back to basics here, with a 163km stage finishing in Eibar. The first half is on the plateau, but after the descent towards sea level there are any number of uphill sections. There’s 20km after the last classified climb, but the finish is on a tough false flat and will hurt some riders.
Saturday – stage six
You know how I said there isn’t a definite Queen stage? Well, that wasn’t true. There is, and is the concluding stage. Saturday’s race is a monster, with 8 categorised climbs and numerous other kicks littering the 120km between Eibar and Arrate. There’s a couple of kms after the final climb, so this isn’t a true MTF, but the “hill” they finish on is a brute.
Yes, that’s 3.5km at 12% or more, with a 2km, 15% slope in the middle. Queen stage indeed. Unless something has gone very wrong in a previous stage, the winner of the overall will come from the front few in this race.
It’s a good one. The teams are the one’s you’d expect – the WT outfits, plus local lads Euskadi, Caja Rural and Burgos. Cofidis bring their pro-conti squad over the border. Sprinters are only being brought here if they are being punished for something, but Nacer Bouhanni, alas, doesn’t line up. Michael Matthews is here tuning up for Amstel Gold and will like his chances on stage three, and any others where he can stick with the lead group.
As you’d expect, Movistar bring a good team to this race, though they’re led by Mikel Landa in the absence of defending champ Alejandro Valverde. He’s from Murgia, which makes him a Basque native and will presumably motivate him as much as the ongoing battle for supremacy in the Movistar ranks. Bardet (who’ll love the downhill finishes but not the TT), Porte (whose preferences are diametrically opposed to Bardet’s) and Nibali head up strong squads, too. Mitchelton-Scott might just have the strongest team of all, with Yates (Adam, though I no longer know whether he’s the right one or not) supported by Albasini, Haig, Nieve and Verona. Zakarin, Allaphilippe, Roglic, Mollema, Costa and Uran all head teams in a race where they’ll hope for some reward.
There’s more! Landa isn’t the only local lad with a chance, as both Izagirre brothers turn up to represent Ormaiztegi and Pello Bilbao for Guernica. If the clock could be turned back, Igor Anton (from Galdakao) would be one to watch, but I fear those days are gone. Sky have a team without an obvious leader, though the alphabet gives Castroviejo their number one dossard. Kwiatkowski will line up a day after Flanders and might not be ready for stage one, so this could be a first shot at glory for magnificent seven representative Pavel Sivakov. You see what I mean about loaded? That’s before we even look at potential stage hunters like Latour, Ulissi and Teuns.
This isn’t easy. I’ll note here that there are no stage time bonuses, so the key to success is staying in the right groups on stages 2, 3 and 5, staying at the front in stage one, and going well in the time trial – then having a good day in the final stage. We’re looking for an excellent punchy climber who can time-trial, in essence, and the flat time trial will change things from previous years.
Stage one – Romain Bardet should be able to put on a descending masterclass
Stage two – A sprint from a reduced group. I’ll say Dylan Teuns takes it.
Stage three – This ought to belong to Michael Matthews.
Stage four – I’ll go for Primoz Roglic, springing a semi-surprise ahead of Porte and Castroviejo
Stage five – We might just see a breakaway and I’ll back Gorka Izagirre to continue his year of being better than his more illustrious year.
Stage six – I can see a Basque 1-2 here, with Mikel Landa taking it from Pello Bilbao.
As for the overall, I think that 19km is enough flat time trialling for Richie Porte to regain whatever seconds he loses in the most explosive moments of climbing. He can win this ahead of Landa and Nibali. Bilbao, Yates, both Izagirres, Bardet, Zakarin and Uran will finish off my top ten, in some order.