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Itzulia: The Best (Not Quite Mainstream) Race There Is

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vasco David Ramos - Velo/Getty Images David Ramos - Velo/Getty Images

Cycling is, in my home of Ireland and most markets, a niche sport. I think Euskal Herriko Itzulia is one of the best illustrations of why. It’s always a very well-designed, close race that’s ridden in an entertaining way, but it’s packaged and marketed very poorly. Sandwiched as it is between two of the three biggest days of racing of the whole year, it’s not hard to see why, while it is hard to see when else it could be ridden, but it still seems that a race like the one coming our way this week could be treated better. I think the main problem will of course be the visuals of a dodgy signal from a motorbike that’s too close to the riders. Footage will be lost twice per stage and graphics will be minimal. But there’s not a whole lot I can do about that so I’ll get on with my task of previewing the action.

It’s not the most gruelling Euskal Herriko Itzulia I’ve ever seen (spoiler alert, the gruelling ones have no flat stages) but it still qualifies as maybe my favourite one-weeker. I’ll have a quick look through the stages, though as always predicting the results individually will be pointless.

The race starts with what I think is an underutilised sort of stage — a time-trial that can’t be classed as uphill or flat. I’ll come up with a term, hmmm, oh I have it: time-trial with a hill in it.

Not just any hill, either — it includes a kilometre at an average of fourteen per cent and at only twelve kilometres, that will probably make a road bike look like a pretty attractive prospect. This is the one stage I can predict with any degree of intelligence (I would like to think) so I’ll give it a go — Kwiatkowski seems ideally equipped for it, and this whole race. You’d think he’d have won it at some point but he hasn’t, with his best finish coming in 2014 when he was soundly beaten into second by Alberto Contador on his last good year. And I could go down that rabbit hole and say how fun it would have been if he hadn’t crashed in the Vosges, but I won’t do that. He and Geraint Thomas should share leadership of Sky and it’s my suspicion the Pole will be on much better form. This is a stage that should split up the field quite a bit, leaving the GC race reasonably clear-cut from early on.

Stage two brings something pretty new — gravel sections. However, they are pretty far out and presumably harmless enough unless (and maybe even if) it pours with rain. The final kick up to the line should ensure a little drama.

Stage three should quite similarly fail to split up the field to a huge extent, yet also finishes on an uphill ramp. The time-trial winner should retain the offensively yellow jersey through this stage.

Stage four looks a little more interesting — there’s a properly difficult climb to split things up for a tricky finale including a no-doubt fast descent.

Unlike Catalunya, this is a race that likes to shake it up in terms of start-finish towns from time to time, yet it always returns to the classic Arrate stage, with the (can I call it iconic) iconic Usartza climb the final spectacle. Not the hardest, not high altitude, but hard enough to break down a stage race field like tarmacadam electrolysis.

The race winner will finish alone or in a small group at the very front of this stage.

This race used to routinely finish with a time-trial, but I’m glad they’ve moved away from that because this could be a fun final stage.

It’s very short and I don’t think I’m being too defamatory if I say inspiration might have been taken from the Paris-Nice closing stages that have been such a success in recent years. Ideally I’d have liked them to have found two climbs that were closer together to finish things off but it’s a solid effort. Overall an eight out of ten from me on the course, it could have done with another hilly stage in the middle but this remains my favourite crowd of race directors. If you’re a sprinter, stay at home. You can’t even win the flat stages.

If we look at who’s likely to win the whole damn thing, we must start with Julian Alaphilippe who, on the form he showcased in March, looks like he could win anything from the Tour of Wallonie to a Tony Award, should he put his mind to either of those noble causes. Looking similarly strong only a few weeks previously, mind, was the entirety of Astana who bring the cycling equivalent of a Pick n’Mix. And how good is it that the sport has changed so that the cycling equivalent of a Pick n’Mix is no longer a Swiss pharmacy. Anyway, Astana bring February sensation Lutsenko, February sensation Fuglsang and the February sensation Izagirres to what is, for the latter pair, their home race. A Just Go Mental approach may prosper them, though much will depend on who stands where after the time-trial.

Movistar are always strong here (mind, they’re always weak at the Tour of Flanders so we’ll see how far form gets us here) and they bring Mikel Landa as leader. He won a stage in Italy so he may just be ready to reignite his career. Bahrain bring Dylan Teuns who is the value pick for this race and if I were to encourage a bet, it would be on him at fifty to one. I’ve already mentioned Kwiatkowski and if he is near his peak he will win. Now come the DMarts, Martin and Martinez. The former has been his usual battling self but if he retains any of his punch this race will suit him, with the warning that he always seems to be on a low point of his peaking curve here before attacking the Ardennes. Dani Martinez is on an EF team that must be brimming with confidence and he is another outside shot. Sam Oomen and George Bennett could fill out the top ten. Finally there’s Adam Yates who has a real shot to win; betting against a Yates in 2019 has not profited anyone.

So there you have it, Alaphilippe vs Kwiatkowski vs Landa vs Yates vs Astana. Kwiatkowski gets my vote.