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CLASICA SAN SEBASTIAN

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01.08.2015 @ 14:35 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The Tour de France is over and it is time for the traditional revenge match between the race's climbers. The Basque climbs - most notably the famous Alto de Jaizkibel - offer the perfect scene in the Clasica San Sebastian where many of the Tour stars mix it up with some of the high-profile absentees from the French grand tour to battle for the honour of winning Spain's biggest one-day race. For some, it's a final opportunity to benefit from the post-Tour condition, for others it's the first major objective in a long and hectic autumn season. That combination is set to produce a fabulous bike race as the peloton tackles the hilly roads around the beautiful Spanish holiday destination.

 

Spain is one of cycling's traditional powerhouses and the sport has a rich history in the country. However, the cycling culture is markedly different from some of Europe's most established cycling nations. While Belgium has always put its main emphasis on one-day races, those events play almost no role in the country on the Iberian Peninsula where it's almost all about stage racing. Many stage races have disappeared in recent years but Spain once had a fantastic calendar of hilly, multi-day events.

 

On the other hand, there has never been a rich one-day scene in Spain and those few Spaniards who have excelled in the classics, have never received much recognition in their home country - just ask Juan Antonio Flecha and Oscar Freire. However, one single-day event stands out from the rest of the races and has made it into the top echelon of the sport: the hilly Clasica San Sebastian.

 

While most other one-day races have esteem by virtue of their deep history, Clasica San Sebastian finds itself in a completely different situation. First held in 1981, it is a rather new event but from the onset, it attracted some big Spanish and foreign stars that were inspired by the hilly nature of the course and the passion of the Basque cycling culture. When the World Cup was created in 1989, Clasica San Sebastian made it into the select elite of one-day races despite its short 8-year history. When the ProTour (later renamed the WorldTour) was created in 2005, it was promptly included on the list of the most prestigious races.

 

That recognition is highly justified. As a well-organized event in one of the most cycling-mad parts of Europe, it always attracts a high-calibre line-up of climbers and Ardennes specialists that find the hilly course in the Basque hills to their liking. Held less than a week after the final stage of the Tour de France, the race has found its unique role on the cycling calendar as the perfect revenge match for the Tour's best climbers. Those Tour stars mix it up with some of the stars that were absent from the 3 weeks on the French roads, and for those latter riders the race is the first target in a long autumn season. Earlier the race was held one week later but the recent schedule change has given the race a further boost as it is now closer to the Tour and so makes it easier for the Tour stars to maintain their condition for the race.

 

Like many other Spanish races, the existence of the Clasica San Sebastian has come under threat in recent years, and in February 2012 organizers warned that neither the Clasica nor the Vuelta al Pais Vasco would be held if not a new major sponsor would step in. UCI considered intervening to save the historical races and finally the Spanish bank Sabadell Guipuzcano stepped in to secure the races' futures for a couple of years.

 

The race's main feature is the Jaizkibel climb which has traditionally been the place to create a selection before the mostly flat, high-speed run-in to the finish in the seaside city of San Sebastian. Wishing to add more difficulties to the race, the organizers decided to include another ascent of the famous climb for the 2010 edition of the race and since then the Jaizkibel and the subsequent Arkale climbs have been tackled twice. This has certainly added to the toughness of the race and made it much harder to control the final flat part of the race.

 

Last year the course was again changed. The organizers were frustrated not to be able to promote the city of San Sebastian sufficiently and so decided that a bigger part of the finale should take place in the centre of the race. After the riders had tackled the Jaizkibel and Arkale climbs twice, they headed to the finish line in the traditional way but they ended the race by doing a 16.2km finishing circuit. While mostly flat, it included a very tough 3km climb to the Hotel San Sebastian and its 9% average and maximum 22% gradient made it a hard affair. Summiting just 8.3km from the finish, it dramatically changed the dynamics of the race and made it much easier for the best climbers to come out on top. The organizers were pleased with the new course which will be used again in 2015.

 

The Clasica San Sebastian is usually one of the hardest races to predict as the condition of the Tour riders is always completely up in the air. Some finish the race with a boosted form, others are completely fatigued and often they make a very late decision on their participation as they need to see how well they have recovered from the hardships of the grand tour. Hence, the start list often undergoes dramatic changes until within 24 hours of the start of the race.

 

This year several Tour stars will try to make use of their grand tour condition as Alejandro Valverde, Joaquim Rodriguez, Bauke Mollema, Michele Scarponi, Mathias Frank, Thibaut Pinot, Romain Bardet, Daniel Martin, Michele Scarponi, Ryder Hesjedal, Andrew Talansky, Jakob Fuglsang, Samuel Sanchez and Warren Barguil feature on the provisional start list. They will be up against several in-form riders who want to kick start their autumn season in the best possible way on the Basque road. Philippe Gilbert spearheads the list that also includes names like Daniel Moreno, Jelle Vanendert, Mikel Landa, Simon Spilak and Julian Alaphilippe.

 

Last year the new course made its debut and as expected it made the race more selective than usual. It all came down to a battle on the final climb on which Alejandro Valverde, Joaquim Rodriguez, Mikel Nieve, Adam Yates and Bauke Mollema escaped. Yates crashed on the descent and left the four remaining riders to decide the race. Despite being the fastest rider, Valverde went on the attack and he managed to stay away to take a second win in the race. Mollema beat Rodriguez in the sprint for second while Nieve had to settle for fourth. After having had successful Tours, Valverde, Rodriguez and Mollema will all be back in 2015.

 

The course

The Clasica San Sebastian has traditionally included an opening run through the Basque hills to tire out the riders ahead of the exciting finale and then everything has been decided on the final circuit with the Jaizkibel and the Arkale climbs. Since 2010, the circuit has been done twice before the riders have continued along mostly flat roads to the finish on the Boulevard in San Sebastian.

 

As said, the organizers decided to change the course significantly for last year’s race and the inclusion of a 16.2km finishing circuit with a very tough climb in the finale significantly altered the dynamics of the race. The first hilly section has been cut further down and now only features one climb. Like in the four latest editions, the riders will then do two laps of the Jaizkibel-Arkale circuit before going back to the finish and do a lap of the finishing circuit. As a WordTour one-day race, the distance has traditionally played a significant role but last year the race was shortened significantly. In 2013 the total distance was 232km but in 2014 the riders only did 219.0km with less climbing. Overall it was an easier race but the finale was harder. Apparently, the organizers were pleased with the result as the course is unchanged for 2015.

 

The race kicks off in San Sebastian at 11.45 local time and the riders have traditionally headed straight into the Basque hills. This year, however, they will travel along rolling coastal roads in the first part of the race and they won’t face any significant climbing before they reach the Alto Iturburua whose summit is located at the 59.5km mark. After the descent, it’s back onto rolling roads that lead to the start of the Jaizkibel-Arkale circuit.

 

This opening part is easier than it has been in the past and will mainly serve to create the early break. With less climbing, the escape may not necessarily include great climbers and may be easier to keep under control. Traditionally, the break has often been given a pretty big advantage but with the shorter distance they may be kept a bit firmer under control by the teams of the favourites who will start to accelerate by the time they approach the first lap of the key circuit.

 

The finale starts with 102.2km to go when the riders hit the bottom of the category 1 Alto de Jaizkibel (7.8km, 5.84%). The climb comes in two sections with an easier stretch in between and levels out a bit towards the top. The difficult parts both have a gradient of 7-8%. While it is still too early for the main favourites to play their cards, we often see some reshuffling of the breakaway. The steep slopes are enough to send many riders out the back - both in the peloton and the breakaway. At the same time, the main favourites don't miss the opportunity to ask their teams to ride tempo as this is where the race needs to be made hard.

 

A fast descent is followed by a short stretch of flat roads and the uncategorized Alto de Gaintzurizketa and then it is time for the category 2 Alto de Arkale (2.7km, 6.3%) which is a rather constant climb and whose top is located with 71.4km to go.

 

Instead of continuing all the way to San Sebastian, the riders head back up the Jaizkibel climb and this has traditionally been the time for the favourites to play their cards. The riders who have no hopes of winning a final sprint, have usually launched attacks and while the early break has now often been caught, it has often just been a small group of climbers that have crested the summit in the lead positions.

 

Now the climb comes farther from the finish and with a late climb in the finale to use as a launch pad for attacks, the favourites will bet more conservative. We will definitely see attacks from the peloton but there is a big chance that the climb will be used more to set a hard pace than to launch big offensives.

 

At the top, 53.9km remain and that’s a pretty long distance to keep a break alive. More riders will probably rejoin the favourites. The next flat section has traditionally been very difficult to control as the favourites have mostly had very few domestiques left but less aggression will make it a bit harder to escape the peloton’s clutches.

 

The Gaintzurizketa and Arkala climbs form the perfect launch pads for late attacks as we saw in 2014 but the latter has its top located 31km from the finish which makes it less important than it has been in the past. This time the riders continue all the way to the finish in San Sebastian and those final kilometres are mostly flat. The small Alto Miracruz which comes at the 3km from the line has often been the scene for late attacks but now it is unlikely to play any role.

 

After the passage of the line on the big Boulevard in San Sebastian, the riders take on the 16.2km finishing circuit that is mostly flat but has a nasty challenge at the midpoint. The 2.5km climb to the Hotel San Sebastian has a 9% average gradient and sections of up to 22% and this will be the scene for the big battle between the favourites. The climb is very irregular with 20% sections after 500m, 1.6km and 2.2km. The middle section is relatively easy so the difference probably has to be made near the summit.

 

The top comes just 7.3km from the finish and they can be divided into two parts. First it is a pretty technical descent and then it is a flat run for the final 3.2km to the finish on the Boulevard. However, there are several corners to negotiate, meaning that it is no easy place to organize a determined chase. The race comes to its traditional flat finish on the Boulevard in San Sebastian which has both been the scene of sprints from small groups, solo victories and a decision from a handful of attackers.

 

 

 

The weather

While the other big Basque race Vuelta al Pais Vasco is known for its cold and rain, that's certainly not the case for the Clasica San Sebastian which takes place at an entirely different time of the year. Usually held in very hot conditions, the heat often takes its toll on the riders and makes the race one of attrition.

 

This year it won’t be too hot though. Friday is forecasted to be a very rainy day but there is only a small risk that it will still be raining slightly when the race kicks off. The heat is set to return for Sunday and so the race will end under bright sunshine. However, it won’t be very hot as the maximum temperature will be only 23 degrees.

 

There will be a light wind from a northwesterly direction which means that the riders will have a crosswind almost all day. That will also be the case on the Jaizkibel while there will be a tailwind on the Arkale climb. There will be a headwind from the top of that ascent to the finish in San Sebastian. On the finishing circuit, there will be a cross- and a tailwind in the first part until the riders turn into a crosswind on the lower slopes of the final climb. Halfway up the climb, they will turn into a headwind and then it will be a crosswind and tailwind on the descent and final flat section.

 

The favourites

As indicated above, the Clasica San Sebastian has traditionally been one of the harder races to predict. The Tour stars mix it up with riders with very little racing in their legs and the form level of both groups is very difficult to gauge. At the same time, tactical savvy and luck have played a crucial role on the flat final part. Those kilometres have been very difficult to control for the few domestiques which have been left at this point in time and surprisingly often a late move has stayed clear all the way to the line. It is testament to the toughness of the course that no more than 3 riders have decided the race between them since Alejandro Valverde won a small sprint in 2008. Timing and brave riding are attributes that have often been rewarded in San Sebastian.

 

However, the new course has clearly made thing more controllable and made it easier for the strongest riders to come to the fore. The inclusion of the late, very steep climb has made it much easier to make a difference which was evident in last year’s race where the best climbers simply rode away on the ascent. With sections of 22%, this is a climb for the really lightweight and punchy climbers and the number of potential winners of the race has been reduced considerably.

 

That doesn’t mean that the strongest rider will always win. From the top of the final climb, there are still more than 7km to go and they can be very hard to control. Last year Joaquim Rodriguez seemed to be the strongest on the climb but as Alejandro Valverde joined him at the top, a five-rider group gathered. Being the overwhelming favourite in a sprint, Valverde found himself in the difficult position of having to respond to all attacks. To avoid that kind of responsibility, he surprised his rivals by making a race-winning attack. However, luck and timing play will play a key role to come out on top from the small group that is likely to be created on the climb.

 

The new Clasica will be more about good climbing legs and less about tactics. However, descending skills are still important as there will be time to get back on. If a small group of favourites are still together after the descent, it will probably become the usual tactical race to the finish line but you need the climbing legs to be there. Finally, the flat finish means that a fast sprint is definitely no disadvantage in case a group arrives on the Boulevard together.

 

While the new climb makes the race harder, it also makes the early part less exciting. The best riders know that they can make the difference on the final ascent so they have no incentive to try their luck already on the Jazkibel. That makes it a much more controlled affair and we are unlikely to see any action from the big guns before we get to the finishing circuit. Instead, they can now use their teams to ride tempo on the first climbs and save their energy for the final climb. Even though the race will definitely be hard, we are unlikely to see the same kind of aggression on the traditional key climbs and it will probably be a bigger group than usual that descends the Jaizkibel. This also means that it is harder for anyone to create a surprise and the days when a plucky attacker can take the win are likely to be gone. The favourites are likely to have more domestiques at their side and this means that the run-in to San Sebastian will be easier to control. Even though we will probably see some attacks, most riders will save their energy for the final ascent.

 

What makes the Clasica San Sebastian very difficult to predict is the level of fatigue of the Tour riders. Many make pretty late decisions about their participations and most of them don’t know how they are really going before we are halfway into the race. Some riders who looked strong at the end of the Tour, are suddenly nowhere to be seen in San Sebastian while others suddenly turn things around after a good week of recovery. Last Valverde looked dead in the final week of the Tour and almost cracked completely in the final time trial. Nonetheless, he came out on top one week later in San Sebastian.

 

This year Valverde ended the Tour on a much better note. After years of bad luck, he finally achieved his big goal of being on the podium in Paris. The achievement was a result of a much better planning of his form. Last year he was flying in the first week and was in a class of his own at the Spanish championships one week before the Tour. However, he was clearly fatigued in the final week when he dropped out of podium contention.

 

This year he timed everything much better. He was far from his best in the first week where he suffered on the Mur de Huy which he has so often dominated. However, he gradually got better and there was no sign of slowing down in the final week.

 

This sets him up even better for another win in San Sebastian. While there is uncertainty about the form for most of the Tour riders, that’s definitely not the case for Valverde. The Spaniard is one of the most consistent riders in the peloton and he rarely enters a race without being in contention for the win. Last year’s turnaround is testament to his class and his pure talent simply means that one week of rest is always enough for him to return to a very high level even after three weeks of hard racing.

 

This makes him the overwhelming favourite for the Clasica San Sebastian. The course is tailor-made for him and the inclusion of a late climb is a clear advantage for him. In the past, the race has always been complicated for him due to difficult tactics. On paper the biggest one-day race in his home country suits the Movistar captain down to the ground but for some reason he had only won it once before last year’s race. The 2013 edition clearly exemplified why the race has always been a difficult one for the greatest Spanish classics rider. Valverde was left isolated in the small group that emerged after the final passage of the Jaizkibel and this made it impossible for him to control the many attacks in the finale. Hence, Tony Gallopin escaped and Valverde’s final sprint was only good enough for second.

 

With the new course, the race will be much more selective and it would be no surprise to see Valverde drop everybody on the final climb before using his good descending skills to extend his advantage. That is clearly the preferred outcome for Valverde as the final flat section will again be difficult to control. Everyone will be looking at him to close the gaps and that could again cost him a big victory as most recently did at last year’s Il Lombardia. It is not always an advantage to be the fastest rider but that can’t change the fact that Valverde is the man to beat. It is hard to imagine that anyone will be able to drop him on the final climb and unless he simply rides away on his own, he just has to control the attacks to make sure that he will take the win in a sprint.

 

The rider with the biggest chance to drop Valverde on the climb, is probably Joaquim Rodriguez. The Katusha rider is probably the best in the world on the steepest gradients and so the final climb is tailor-made for him. The old course made things very difficult for a punchy climber like Rodriguez but now he has a much better chance to come out on top.

 

Last year Rodriguez entered the race on the back of a strange Tour de France which he used to build form after his Giro crash. He was clearly far from his best level at the end of the grand tour and that made many wonder whether he would be a contender in San Sebastian. However, a week of rest made him benefit from three weeks of quality training and he ended up being the strongest on the final climb and it was only a late surge by Valverde that made the Movistar captain rejoin his compatriot at the top of the climb.

 

This year Rodriguez is clearly in much better condition. He had a complicated Tour with lots of bad luck and inconsistent riding and he was generally a disappointment in the Alps. However, he ended the race on a high in the stage to Alpe d’Huez which he used to build confidence by proving that he could match the favourites in a direct battle. In fact, he beat both Vincenzo Nibali and Alberto Contador in that stage.

 

Rodriguez is suited to the final climb but he would have preferred the finish to have come at the top. He is reasonably fast in a sprint but he has no chance in a direct battle against Valverde. Hence, he needs to get rid of his compatriot before he gets to the line. His best chance is of course the climb but he could also make a late attack in the flat section. Last year he finished third but this year his better condition may allow him to escape on the ascent to add his home race to his impressive palmares.

 

Daniel Martin hasn’t won a lot but impressively he has already added the two hilly monuments to his palmares. The Irishman is a master in timing his attacks and rising to the occasion which has turned him into one of the best classics riders in the world. The Clasica San Sebastian is one of the big races still missing from his palmares but there is no reason that he won’t be able to win a race that suits him down to the ground. He has rarely given it a real shot but this year he will be ready to strike.

 

Martin had a complicated Tour. He looked very strong in the first week where he was close to the win on both the walls and took another second place in the Pyrenees. Unfortunately, he fell ill in the second week and so he was far from his best in the final part of the race. However, he still showed signs of improvement in the end, especially in the Alpe d’Huez stage.

 

Martin has never been a stage racer and he has done nothing to hide that he loves the classics a lot more. His recovery is not able to match the best stage race specialists and so he will benefit a lot from one week of rest. The new course suits him down to the ground as he is one of the best on short, steep climbs, is a great descender and has a fast sprint. Like everybody else, he is not going to beat Valverde in a sprint so he has to make his move a bit earlier. However, he is a master in timing his attacks as he did in last year’s Il Lombardia and if he can repeat that performance, there may be another big one-day win in store for Martin.

 

The Clasica San Sebastian has often been dominated by Tour de France riders but a few in-form contenders from the Tour de Wallonie have often been in the mix too. This year Philippe Gilbert leads the line of riders coming from the Belgian race. The former world champion missed the Tour due to a knee injury but he has had a remarkable return to form. He won his comeback race GP Cerami in an uphill sprint and he was in a class of his own in the two hardest stages in Wallonia. Only a failed chase in the opening stage prevented him from winning the race.

 

However, Clasica San Sebastian is obviously a much more difficult race and the new course has probably not done him any favours. The final climb is probably a bit too steep for Gilbert who is a bit heavier than the real climbers. He usually struggles a bit on the steepest gradients and for several years he claimed that he would never win Fleche Wallonne due to the finish on the Mur de Huy. However, he managed to come out on top in that race in 2011 which proves that it is certainly not impossible for him to survive the final climb.

 

Unfortunately, Gilbert openly admits that he is still not at his best and it will be hard for him to match the Tour de France riders. He will have to dig deep on the final climb and it may be possible for him to rejoin the first group on the descent. Usually, Valverde is faster in a sprint but they are pretty equally matched. If anyone is going to beat Valverde in a sprint, Gilbert is the man.

 

Last year Bauke Mollema finished second in this race which has always been one of his favourites. In fact, he achieved that result on the back of a Tour de France which he clearly ended on a bad note. Nonetheless, he managed to turn things around in time for the Spanish classic.

 

This year Mollema seemed to be getting stronger in the third week and in fact he delivered he best performances in the final two mountain stages. That sets him up for an even better performance in San Sebastian which suits him really well. The new course is clearly an advantage for the Dutchman who is among the best riders on short, steep ascents. This was evident in last year’s race and it is certainly no coincidence that he has been one of the most regular riders in the Ardennes classics. Furthermore, he is very fast in a sprint but like everybody else, Valverde will be impossible to beat. He needs to attack in the flat, final section which he definitely has the form to do.

 

Orica-GreenEDGE nearly took an upset win in last year’s race when Adam Yates continued his amazing neo-pro season by joining the elite group on the final climb. Unfortunately, he crashed out on the descent but the performance was still encouraging as it proved that he has the skills to match the best on this kind of course.

 

This year Adam is back for more and he will be joined by his brother Simon to form a very strong duo of outsiders. Both have just completed their first Tour de France and so it is definitely a question whether they will be able to recover in time for this race. However, they both looked pretty fresh in the final week and ended the race on a high in the Alpe d’Huez stage where Simon dropped Contador and Nibali in the finale and Adam stayed with Froome for a long time before cracking in the end.

 

While Adam has had an injury-marred season, Simon has impressed in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, the Tour de Romandie and the Criterium du Dauphiné where he proved that he can match the best on the climbs. He also finished in the top 10 in the Mur de Huy stage of the Tour. Meanwhile, Adam proved his skills by finishing in the top 10 in the first mountain stage of the grand tour so there is no reason that they won’t be with the best on the final climb. Both are fast in a sprint and as they still enjoy a bit of an outsider status, they could be the riders to escape in the finale.

 

Romain Bardet is mostly known for his stage race results but in fact he is also an excellent classics rider. He has been in the top 10 in Liege twice and on paper the Clasica San Sebastian probably suits him even better. Of course he is not as explosive as the likes of Valverde and Rodriguez but he has a decent kick on these climbs. Furthermore, he ended the Tour de France really well and was clearly one of the strongest riders in the final week. He is no fast sprinter so he needs to escape in the finale but he definitely has the form to be in winning contention.

 

Another rider who finished the Tour amazingly well is Michele Scarponi. The veteran Italian was far from his best in the first week but in the Alps he was absolutely flying, staying with the best until less than 10 riders were left. In the Clasica San Sebastian, he should be able to take his own chances and he has often proved that he is a great one-day rider. He has been on the podium in Il Lombardia and two years ago he was maybe even the strongest in Liege-Bastogne-Liege. He is strong on this kind of short climbs but as he is no fast sprinter, he has to escape before he gets to the finish.

 

A big dark horse is Julian Alaphilippe. The Frenchman had an amazing Ardennes campaign where he defied expectations by finishing second behind Valverde in both Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. He continued his success in the Tour of California but the heavy amount of racing finally caught up with him as he was clearly fatigued in June. Since then he has been recovering and no one really knows how he will be going in this race. It will probably be a bit too early for him to mix it up with the Tour riders but with a big talent like him you never know. He has proved that he is one of the best on this kind of climb and he is one of the select few with a chance to beat Valverde in a sprint.

 

Gilbert is obviously the BMC captain but the American team have several cards to play. A strong second option is Samuel Sanchez who is riding on home soil after having ended the Tour de France strongly. The Spaniard was initially a domestique but took over leadership duties when Tejay van Garderen abandoned. As usual, he was riding well in the third week and that puts him in the perfect position to do well in this race. Of course he is no longer the rider he once was but at a time when fatigue has started to set in, he is strong. He has been one the podium in Fleche Wallonne so he knows how to handle the final climb, he is fast in a sprint and he knows how to time his attack.

 

Scarponi is not the only Astana rider to watch in this race. Mikel Landa will make his return to competition after his marvelous Giro d’Italia and he has often been very strong in his home race. The new course should suit him even better as he can now make use of his climbing skills to make a difference. As he is building condition for the Vuelta, he is probably not at his best yet. However, that has never held him back in past editions of this race. There is a solid chance that he will be with the best on the final climb but of course he needs to escape in the finale to win the race.

 

Rodriguez is clearly the Katusha captain but it would be a good idea to watch out for Simon Spilak. The Slovenian is definitely not a classics rider as he lacks the explosiveness to shine on short, steep climbs. However, it is no coincidence that he is always among the best climbers in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco whose stages are very similar to the Clasica San Sebastian and he generally does much better than most would think. He is making his return to competition after his Tour de Suisse win and so no one knows how he is going. Usually he is not very good in the summer as he doesn’t like hot conditions but you can’t count him out. This year he has upped his level massively and he could find himself in the select group after the final climb. He won’t win a sprint but he knows how to time a late attack and will probably be able to count on Rodriguez to disrupt the chase.

 

On paper, the course is tailor-made for Daniel Moreno. However, the Katusha rider has not been at his best since he dominated the early part of the 2013 Vuelta a Espana and now he even finds himself in the difficult position of probably having to find a new team. The classics campaign was another disappointment and he rode poorly at both the Tour de Suisse and the Tour of Austria. He is building condition for the Vuelta a Espana and so he has hopefully improved. However, he has never been very good in this race. It will require him to suddenly find his 2013 legs to be a contender in this hard race but if he can manage to do so, his fast sprint will make him one to watch.

 

Warren Barguil ended the Tour de France on a relatively bad note. After strong performances throughout most of the race, he cracked in the final two mountain stages which cost him a spot in the top 10. It remains to be seen how he has recovered for this race but on paper the course suits him well and he will have a full team at his disposal. In 2014 he was very strong at the end of the Vuelta and he seems to recover pretty well. This could make him one to watch.

 

We are curious to see how Alexis Vuillermoz will do in this race. On paper, the short steep climb in the finale suits him very well and he has a pretty fast sprint too. However, he was clearly not at his best in the final two weeks of the Tour and it will be hard for him to turn that around in time for this race. He finished in the top 10 in this year’s Fleche Wallonne but apart from that he has never really been a contender in the classics. Nontheless, he has the skills to do well in this kind of race.

 

As opposed to this, Jelle Vanendert has always been one of the most consistent riders in the Ardennes classics. The flat finish has always made the Clasica San Sebastian difficult for him but the new, harder course should provide him with opportunities. He was left disappointed in the Ardennes classics where he crashed several times but he showed glimpses of the form that has allowed him to shine in the one-day races in the past. He rode relatively well in the Tour de Wallonie and last year that set him up for a good performance in this race.

 

Usually, Greg Van Avermaet would be one of the favourites for this race. However, the Belgian left the Tour de France early to be with his wife for the birth of their first child and he is unlikely to have been too focused on his training. In fact he has admitted that he would have preferred to skip this race and he is likely to be a domestique for Gilbert. Furthermore, the final climb is probably a bit too steep for a big guy like Van Avermaet. On the other hand, he is one of the most consistent riders in the peloton and if he can make it back to the best on the final descent, he will have opportunities.

 

Rigoberto Uran has never had much success in the classics but on paper he has the skills to do well in a race like this. He is pretty explosive and is suited to short, steep climbs. His Tour de France was never very good but he delivered a few decent performances along the way which indicates that his form is not too bad. He is likely to have benefited from a week of recovery and that could make him one to watch.

 

Finally, Miguel Angel Lopez deserves a mention. The Colombian has had an injury-marred neo-pro season but when he was finally back at 100%, he rode an outstanding Tour de Suisse. Since then he has done no racing so he has been unable to build on the momentum. However, the performance in Switzerland proved that he is a future top climber and he should find the steep gradients in the finale to his liking.

 

NOTE: The start list is likely to undergo a lot of changes as many Tour de France riders usually make a late decision about their participation in this race.

 

***** Alejandro Valverde

**** Joaquim Rodriguez, Daniel Martin

*** Philippe Gilbert, Bauke Mollema, Simon Yates, Adam Yates, Romain Bardet, Michele Scarponi

** Julian Alaphilipe, Samuel Sanchez, Mikel Landa, Daniel Moreno, Simon Spilak, Warren Barguil, Alexis Vuillermoz, Jelle Vanendert, Greg Van Avermaet, Miguel Angel Lopez, Daniel Moreno

* Jakob Fuglsang, Thibaut Pinot, Ryder Hesjedal, Pieter Serry, Tom-Jelte Slagter, Nicolas Roche, Steven Kruijswijk, Andrew Talansky, Mathias Frank, Roman Kreuziger, Arthur Vichot, Damiano Caruso, Wilco Kelderman, Jarlinson Pantano, Ruben Plaza, Fabio Felline, Bob Jungels, Yury Trofimov, Lars Petter Nordhaug, Peter Kennaugh, Amets Txurruka, Angel Madrazo, Pello Bilbao, Tiesj Benoot, Jan Bakelants, Egor Silin, Sebastian Henao, Rui Costa, Tim Wellens, Julian Arredondo, Rudy Molard

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