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Starting at 15.15 CEST you can follow the hilly first stage of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco on





06.04.2015 @ 12:30 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

While most attention is focused on the cobbles of Northern Europe and strong men like Sep Vanmarcke, Zdenek Stybar, Geraint Thomas and Alexander Kristoff,  some of the world's most formidable climbers and leading stage race riders prepare for 6 days of intense racing on the steep climbs in the cycling-mad Basque Country. Starting on Monday, the Tour of the Basque Country has a double purpose. On one hand, it is the perfect preparation for the upcoming Ardennes classics and on the other hand, it is a highly prestigious WorldTour stage race in its own right.


Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico play a special dual role as they both serve as the final, crucial preparation for the classics specialists and the first big test of the stage race riders. After the end of the Italian race, however, the next month has traditionally been almost entirely about the classics, with the one-day battles in Northern Europe taking all the spotlight.


That doesn't mean that the grand tour riders are doing nothing these days. Over the next few weeks, several stage races - highlighted by the WorldTour races Volta a Catalunya and Vuelta al Pais Vasco - take place in the southern part of the continent and even though they are partly preparation for the Ardennes classics, they are much more than that. For those of the grand tour riders that avoid the one-day races entirely, they are some of their biggest objectives in the early part of the season and usually the scene of some of the most exciting battles between the stars that will battle it out in the three-week races later in the year.


With the Basque Country being one of the most cycling-mad regions of the world, it is only natural for them to host one of the leading races. Like Flanders, the area is crowded with people who love the sport of cycling but while the Belgians are all devoted to one-day racing, it is stage racing that is dear to the hearts of the Basques. Hence, it is no surprise that their big event is one of the greatest multi-day events on the calendar.


First held in 1924, the race has a long history but after the 1930 edition it disappeared. An attempt to revive it was made in 1935 but had no lasting effect and the race wasn't held from 1936 to 1968.


In 1969, it was back on the calendar and right from the start, it was a high-profile event. The first winner of the revived race was no less of a figure than Jacques Anquetil and since then it has been won by many of the cycling greats. Luis Ocana is a double winner, Sean Kelly won it thrice, Stephen Roche is a former winner, and Tony Rominger has three titles on his palmares. In recent years, grand tour stars like Alberto Contador, Nairo Quintana, Andreas Klöden, Samuel Sanchez, Chris Horner and Denis Menchov have all been atop the podium to indicate just how prestigious the Basque race is.


The Basque Country is a very hilly region but has no big mountains. Their climbs are all short and steep, making the stages look like an Ardennes classic. As it takes place just a few weeks before the hilly one-day races, it is no wonder that the race has been regarded as the best preparation for the Ardennes triptych and the racing has usually offered a pretty good indication of who's on form for the races in Belgium and the Netherlands.


At a certain point, it seemed that the race was more preparation than a target in itself but with the invention of the ProTour and the later importance of WorldTour points, the trend seems to have been bucked. Nowadays, it clearly serves a dual purpose. While riders like Philippe Gilbert, Jelle Vanendert, Simon Gerrans and Michael Albasini have travelled to Spain with the sole purpose of sharpening their climbing legs ahead of their most important one-day objectives, Nairo Quintana, Tejay van Garderen, Thibaut Pinot and Jean-Christophe Peraud are at the start with the sole purpose of winning the event.


In recent years, Spanish cycling has been suffering and Basque cycling has been hit just as hard as the rest of the country. The Euskal Bizikleta - another big Basque stage race - has disappeared and the region's two WorldTour races, their big tour and the Clasica San Sebastian, have both been under threat due to economic difficulties. UCI had to step in and make a contribution to save them for the near future but unfortunately their long-term stability is very uncertain.


Furthermore, the Basque fans have also lost the chance to follow their local heroes on home roads. The Basques are renowned for their passion, and their own regional cycling team Euskaltel has always been a source of immense pride. They enjoyed a highlight in 2012 when Samuel Sanchez finally managed to win the race for the home team but for the second year in a row the orange colours will be absent. That shouldn't take anything away from their passion though and we can again expect to see them crowd the roads.


The race is usually one of the hardest of the week-long stage races. With almost no flat roads in the region, sprinters have limited opportunities, and it is no surprise that the fast men have always kept their focus firmly on the Northern classics. Instead, the race is littered with multiple (sometimes extremely) steep climbs of medium length, and it is the hard slopes, the concluding technical, hilly time trial and the torrential rain that usually determine the overall GC. Even though the race does not enter the high mountains and tackle the long climbs, the race is surely one for the strongest stage race riders.


The short climbs, however, usually mean that the race is determined by seconds and it is hard to open up massive gaps in the hills. The race always ends with a hilly time trial and that stage plays a crucial role in the outcome. The Basque fans may love their climbers but no one will win their national tour without possessing very solid time trialing skills.


Last year’s edition was expected to be a big battle between Alberto Contador and Alejandro Valverde and those two marked themselves out as the favourites already on the opening day when they went head to head on a very steep climb. Contador won the stage after dropping Valverde and in the final road stages – including the traditional queen stage to Eibar – they finished in the same time. Hence, it all came down to a battle in the final time trial where Contador did a great ride to finish just 7 seconds behind winner Tony Martin while Valverde had a bad day. As a consequence, Contador won the race for the third time in his career while Michal Kwiatkowski and Jean-Christophe Peraud used good time trial performances to move onto the podium. Contador is fully focused on the Giro and has ended the first part of his season, meaning that he won’t be back to defend his title. This could open the door for Kwiatkowski and Peraud who are both back in an event that suits them really well.


The course

The course for the Vuelta al Pais Vasco always varies quite a bit but the different editions always have a pretty similar nature. The race includes a couple of stages that are suited to fast riders who can get over the climbs and win a sprint from a reduced peloton. However, there are no completely flat days in the hilly terrain and the pure sprinters won’t get any opportunities. There are a number of tough climbing stages which are always highlighted by the traditional queen stage to Eibar which usually comes on the fourth day. Finally, the race is always decided in a very hilly and technical time trial that is usually the single most decisive stage.


For the 2015 edition, the organizers have designed a traditional course but they have clearly made it a bit harder than it has been in recent years. Last year the race had three stages for the fast finishers and two big GC days before the final time trial. This year there is only one obvious opportunity for the fast finishers while there are two stages with very tough climbs near the end. The final half of the race is completely for the GC riders and will determine the overall classification.


As usual, the queen stage will incorporate the well-known Arrate finish that was "inherited" by the race from the now defunct Euskal Bizikleta stage race, and again it will come on the fourth day of racing. However, it may be the penultimate stage that creates the biggest time differences as the riders will finish at the top of a short, very steep ramp in Aia.


The time trial always plays a big role in determining the winner of the race and from 2010 to 2013, the leader's jersey changed hands on the final day of racing. It is always a very hilly affair but this year, It’s difficulty has been given a further notch as it includes some very steep climbs. Furthermore, it has been shortened a bit, meaning that this race is more for climbers than it has been in recent years.


Stage 1:

The race kicks off with a classic Vuelta al Pais Vasco stage that will require the GC riders to be on their guard right from the very start of the race. It is not a day to make a difference but a difficult climb in the finale makes it a pretty unpredictable affair.


As usual in Pais Vasco, the 162.7km stage is a pretty short affair and it starts and finishes in Bilbao. Compared to most stages in the race, it doesn’t have an awful lot of climbing. The first part is made up of a loop on the northeasterly outskirts of the start and finishing city and even though it has plenty of rolling terrain, there are no major climbs. The first categorized ascent comes at the 101km mark when the riders go up the category 3 Alto de Morga (2km, 4.50%). 16km later, they will tackle the category 2 Alto del Vivero (4km, 8.13%) before they return back to Bilbao. The climb is pretty irregular and has two kilometres with gradient of more than 9%. The steepest section comes near the top


Instead of crossing the finish line, the riders will turn around and head back along the same roads, they used in the first part of the stage. Here they will again tackle the Alto del Vivero (4.3km, 8.6%) but from another, more difficult direction. It has a very steep first kilometre at 10.5% and the third kilometre averages 10%. The final 300m have a similar gradient. The summit comes with just 13.5km to go and from here the riders head back to the finish via a long gradual descent which ends just 1.5km from the finish. From here, it is flat all the way back to the finish. There are no major technical issues, with the final turn coming with 700m to go and then it is straight all the way to the finish.


This stage is a very tricky opener to the race. The Alto del Vivero is a pretty steep climb and it will be hard for the fast finishers to make it to the top with the best. This also means that it is a stage with no obvious favourite and this could create a dangerous situation for the GC riders. The sprint teams may be unwilling to chase in a stage that they are unlikely to win and so a breakaway may have a chance. The GC is still close and it may be up to the GC teams to keep it together. If they fail to cooperate, we may see a repeat of the Catalunya opener where a strong break stays away. However, the GC teams are unlikely to repeat that mistake and so they will probably bring it back together. We may see some late attacks – even from some of the GC riders – but the stage is likely to come down to a sprint from a pretty small group.


Bilbao is one of the biggest cities in the Basque country but surprisingly it has not featured in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco for year. It played host to the Vuelta a Espana in 2011 when Igor Anton took a hugely popular home win as the Spanish grand tour returned to the Basque Country for the first time since the 70s.




Stage 2:

There are no flat stages in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco but like the recent Volta a Catalunya, the Basque race is usually a treat for the fast finishers who can overcome a few climbs. Due to the hilly profiles, all the big sprinters stay away from the race and this opens the door for some of the more versatile riders amongst the fast finishers. They will get their first chance on the second day of racing.


It's very rare for the Vuelta al Pais Vasco not to visit Vitoria-Gasteiz, and the major Basque city will again feature on the 2015 route. It is located on a plateau far from the coast in the western part of the region and the area is rather flat. Hence, stages finishing in Vitoria-Gasteiz often ends in a bunch sprint and it would be surprise if it should be any different in this year's edition of the race.


The stage brings the riders over 175.4km from yesterday's finish in Bilbao to Vitoria-Gasteiz. The start is very easy as the riders follow flat roads until they hit the first category 1 climb of the race. The Alto de Orduna (7.6km, 8.29%) is a long, regular climb that brings the riders onto the plateau and it is only follow by a pretty short descent.


From there, the riders continue in a southerly direction towards Vitoria-Gasteiz and even though the terrain is mostly flat, there are a few climbs to negotiate. The first one is the category 3 Alto de Salinas de Anana (2.3km, 6.52%) which comes at the 75km mark. After 113.4km of racing, it is time for the category 3 Alto de San Martin de Zar (1.4km, 5%) before the riders get to the key climb, the category 3 Alto de Zaldiaran (5.2km, 3.42%). It is a regular climb that gradually gets steeper and reaches its steepest section of 4.6% near the summit.


From there, the riders descend to Vitoria-Gasteiz from where they start the finishing circuit which takes them back into the terrain south of the city.  On the outskirts of the city, they turn south to do a small loop that sends them up two small climbs. First up is the category 3 Alto de Vitoria (4.8km, 3.92%) whose only steep kilometre is the fourth one with its gradient of 6.5%. The top comes 29.3km from the finish and is followed by a gradual descent to the bottom Alto de Zaldiaran (2.8km, 5.36%) which the riders do another time in the finale.


The top comes 9km from the finish and then it is downhill almost all the way to the line. The descent is not technical and not very steep either. It ends 1km from the finish where the road becomes completely flat. The riders go straight through a roundabout at the flamme rouge and again 500m from the line and then it is straight and flat to the finish.


The finish will be well-known by many riders as the Zaldiaran and downhill run to the line has featured in the finale of the last three editions of the race. In 2012 and 2013, the stage ended with a bunch sprint from a group of more than 100 riders and in both cases, Daryl Impey took the win. Last year Orica-GreenEDGE continued their domination of the stage when Michael Matthews sprinted to the win. In the 2011 Vuelta, Daniele Bennati won a bunch sprint in the city while Kim Kirchen won another bunch sprint in the 2008 Vuelta al Pais Vasco.


History proves that the sprinters rule in Vitoria-Gasteiz and this year it is unlikely to be any different. The finale with the Alto de Vitoria and the Zaldiaran is identical to last year’s and the sprinters know that they can survive these pretty easy climbs. It may be their only chance in this race and so it is likely to be a day that is firmly controlled by the teams of the fastest finishers.




Stage 3:

In the first two stages, the GC riders have bided their time but on the third day, it is time for them to show their cards. The third stage is a typical Basque affair that has no long climbs but includes several short, steep ascents that leave little room for recovery. In the finale, the riders will tackle a typical short, steep ramp before they descend to the finish and this should set the scene for the first GC battle.


The 170.4km stage starts in Vitoria-Gasteiz and finishes in Zumarraga. The first part takes place on the plateau around the starting city and has plenty of flat roads and pretty easy climbs like the ones that characterized the first part of the stage. The first one is the category 2 Alto de Azazeta (3km, 5.57%) which comes at the 16km mark. Its descent leads directly to the bottom of the category 1 Alto de Iturrieta (12km, 2.58%) whose length is a bit deceptive. The first four kilometres have a gradient of 5-6% but from there it is almost flat with a few descents coming along the way.


The final climb on the plateau is the category 1 Alto de Urbasa (5.3km, 4.62%) which comes at the 62.3km mark. After that challenge, the riders follow a long gradual descent down from the plateau to get to the hilly terrain around Zumarraga. This is where the decisive challenges are all located.


First the riders go up the category 2 Alto de Urkillaga (2.7km, 7.22%) whose summit comes with 63km to go. It is followed by the final flat section that leads to the very difficult finale where the riders will tackle four climbs in quick succession. First up is the category 3 Alto de Gabiria (4.8km) which is very irregular and steepest near the top where it averages 7.1%. Then the riders descend to the key climb of the Alto de la Antigua (2.5km, 9.6%) which is a brutal wall. After an opening kilometre of 8%, it just gets steeper and steeper and the final 500m average a massive 16%. The top comes with 30.8km to go.


After the Antigua, the riders descend to the finish in Zumarraga where the start a lap of a finishing circuit that includes two climbs. First the riders tackle the easy category 3 Alto de Atagoiti (2.5km, 3.40%) whose summit comes 18km from the finish. It is followed by an easier section that is mainly downhill before the riders again hit the Alto de Antigua. The summit comes just 3km from the finish and they are almost all down a very technical descent. The real descent ends at the flamme rouge just after the final hairpin turn and then the riders continue along slightly descending roads until they do a U-turn with 350m to go where they hit the finishing straight which ascends at a gradient of 1%.


The finale of this stage is a well-known one as it was last used in 2011. On the brutally steep climb, Joaquim Rodriguez, Samuel Sanchez, Andreas Klöden and Chris Horner escaped and it was the former who won the sprint ahead of his compatriot and the German. 6 riders arrived 6 seconds later and were followed by several smaller groups.


The 2011 edition of this finale proves that it is definitely not a stage for the sprinters. Instead, it is a day for the really punchy climbers who excel on the steepest of gradients and who can make a difference on the Antigua. The final descent is a tricky one and descending skills are also important, especially if the roads are wet. This is the first chance for the climbers to make a difference and will give the first indication of who’s going to win the 2015 edition of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. While the GC riders will battle it out for time, a strong breakaway may hold off the peloton as it will be up to the GC teams to bring it back together. As the time gaps are probably pretty small, however, the most likely outcome is that it will be won by one of the main contenders.




Stage 4:

The fourth day is the day of the race's traditional queen stage. For many years, the finish with the Alto de Arrate and the short downhill run to the line featured in the queen stage of the Euskal Bizikleta but when that race disappeared, the organizers agreed with the Vuelta al Pais Vasco organizers to incorporate that stage into the biggest Basque race. Since then it has always featured as the end of the race's queen stage and in 2015 it will be no different.


While the finale is unchanged from year to year, the early part of the stage varies a bit. This year the stage has a length of just 162km and starts in Zumarraga. That city is located very close to the finish in Eibar and the first part of the stage consists of a sinuous system of loops in the hilly area west of those two cities.


After a rather flat start, the hostilities start after 36.7km of racing when the riders hit the category 2 Alto de Asentzio (2.7km, 8.33%) which has a rather steep middle section. The descent is followed by a flat section that leads to the bottom of the category 2 Alto de Karabieta (5.8km, 6.81%) which is a very regular ascent.


After the descent, the riders travel along slightly rolling roads back to Eibar where they start another loop around the city. It kicks off with the hardest climb of the day, the category 1 Alto de Ixua (3.8km, 10.39%). It's a very tough one with a very steep final part and features on the course every year. This time, however, it comes pretty far from the finish as there are still 64.2km to go.


Instead of heading to the finish in Eibar, the riders travel along a short flats section to a tricky series of three climbs that come in quick succession. First it is the category 3 Alto de Gontzagaigana (5.9km, 4.24%) which is a relatively easy climb that gets steeper and steeper. The top comes with 43.8km to go and after the descent it is time for the category 3 Alto de Santa Eufemia (3.9km, 6.92%) which is a very regular climb and summits with 31.7km to go. Finally the riders take on the category 2 Alto de San Miguel (4.6km, 5.54%) which is a rather easy climb until it hits the final 600m which average 10.83%.


From the top 19.6km remain and they start with a fast descent that leads to a short stretch of gradually ascending valley roads that lead back to Eibar. Now it is time to head up the famous category 1 Alto de Arrate (7.3km, 6.71%) which is located on the northern outskirts of the city. It's a very regular affair as the first 6km have a gradient of 7.5% but then the road flattens out with a gradient of just around 3% for the final 1.3km.


The KOM sprint comes with 2.2km to go but the road will be ascending until the riders reach the flamme rouge. The riders will all know the final section well as it features at the race every year. The final section is a fast technical downhill where there is no time for regrouping and the time differences are usually maintained all the way to the finish. It's a technical affair that has several turns inside the final kilometre. The final right-hand one comes just 100m from the line and history proves that the winner is the one who enters it in first position.


This stage has traditionally been the one where the climbers can make the biggest difference but history also proves that it is usually a stage that is decided between the best climbers. The final climb is not hard enough to gain massive amounts of time and very often a small group has arrived together at the finish. This year the stage doesn’t seem to be very hard and the late climbs are not as hard as they have been in the past. The steep Ixua is pretty fast from the finish and may be used by the GC riders to make it tough. However, the battle between the GC riders will come down to the final climb where they will go head to head in a big battle.


The stage debuted in the race in 2009 when Alberto Contador rode to a solo win 8 seconds ahead of Cadel Evans and Samuel Sanchez but since then it has been Sanchez' domain. The local hero won it thrice in a row from 2010 to 2012, arriving at the finish as part of a trio twice and with an 11-rider group once. The technical descent has suited him perfectly and he has always known how to time his sprint ahead of the final corner to come away in the win. In 2013 he was finally beaten when he failed to make it into the 7-rider lead group and this time it was Nairo Quintana who excelled on the descent to win ahead of Sergio Henao and Alberto Contador. Last year Wout Poels made a late move on the climb and he arrived at the finish a few seconds head of a 13-rider group that was led home by Alejandro Valverde and Sanchez. The finish also featured in the 2012 Vuelta when Valverde, Joaquim Rodriguez, Alberto Contador and Chris Froome arrived at the finish, with Rodriguez doubtlessly regretting that he didn't sprint all the way to the line as he was passed by Valverde just before the finish.




Stage 5:

In recent year, the final road stage has often been one for the GC riders but last year the organizers deviated from the script. This year they have again made it a day for the best climbers as they will return to the brutally steep Alto de Aia that has created some dramatic racing in the past. Furthermore, they have added an extra twist to the stage by including a summit finish on a brutal wall and this will make it a very tough affair where the climbers can gain time on the eve of the final time trial.


The 155km stage brings the riders from Eibar to Aia and is probably the hardest of the entire race as it is up or down all day and is littered with the short, steep climbs that characterize the Basque Country. After a flat start, the riders reach the category 3 Alto de Kalbario (4.3km, 4.72%) which has a very steep second half, after just 17.3km of racing. There is little room for recovery as it is followed by the category 3 Alto de Itziar (5km, 4.2%) and category 2 Alto de Garate (2.9km, 8.69%) which come in quick succession. The latter is clearly the hardest as it has a second kilometre with an average gradient of 10.6%.


After a short, flat section, the riders get to the longest climb of the day, the category 1 Alto de Urraki (8.6km, 6.63%) which comes after 79.7km of racing. It has a pretty hard first part while it get significantly easier after the halfway point. The descent and a short, flat stretch lead to the category 2 Alto de Alkiza (4.2km, 6.79%) which is followed by the category 2 Alto de Andazzarate (5.8km, 6.27%) which are both regular climbs.


From the top of the latter, 54.3km remain and the first part of those is made up of the easiest section as the riders follow a long, gradual descent to the finishing town of Aia. From there, they tackle a small circuit that will see them go up the brutally steep Alto de Aia twice, albeit from different directions. First the riders use the famous, very steep side (1.7km, 12.06%) which is an impressively tough small ramp. The top is located 18.3km from the finish and after the descent, they go straight up the climb again from another direction. This time it is a 3.5km ascent with an average gradient of 8.71%. Here only the first kilometre is very steep with a gradient of 12.5% and then it gets easier and easier until the final 500m average just 5.2%.


The summit comes with 4.2km to go and they consist of a very short descent that leads directly to the bottom of the final 1.5km ramp to the finish. It is a brutal affair as the first 500m average 12%, the next 500m have a gradient of 15% and the final 500% kick up at 17%. The final sharp right-hand turn comes just 200m from the finish.


This stage offers the climbers a great chance to gain time before the final time trial and it could be the stage that opens the biggest time gaps. The many climbs mean that it is a day with constant challenges and a strong team can really tire riders out before they get to the difficult finale. The first passage of the Alto de Aia is a really brutal affair and the road is so steep that a big selection will be made. It is probably too early for the favourites to maintain any gaps and there is no doubt that a bit of regrouping will take place. The second passage of the Alto de Aia and the final steep ramp are separated by only a very short descent which means that the rider can approach it like it was one climb. This means that we can see some attack already on the Alto de Aia. In any case, it will be a very small group that reaches the bottom of the final ascent. It is so steep that pretty big time gaps can be opened in just 1.5km and the riders will be crossing the line one by one. The stage is an obvious goal for riders like Joaquim Rodriguez and Nairo Quintana but as the terrain is pretty hard to control, it may be a day for a breakaway to take the win.


The Alto de Aia last featured in the 2010 edition of the race when an impressive Joaquim Rodriguez made up for a disappointing performance in the previous stage by attacking on the steep ramp which came 18km from the finish. The tiny Spaniard held off his chasers and took a beautiful solo win in Orio. One day later it was also on the course for the time trial where Chris Horner beat Alejandro Valverde to take the overall win in the race.




Stage 6:

True to tradition, the race ends with a time trial around the city where the previous stage has ended and as usual, it incorporates parts of the finale of stage 5. Compared to recent time trials, it is the typical hilly and technical affair but with a distance of just 18.3km, it is shorter than usual. Furthermore, it includes more climbing and includes some very steep sections, meaning that it is less suited to time triallists than usual.


The stage takes place on a short circuit on the northern outskirts of the start and finishing city of Aia and sees the riders go to the city of Orio before returning to the point of departure. It can be splut into two halves as the first part is one for the specialist and the second half will see the riders tackle the very difficult finale from yesterday’s stage.


The first 10.7km consist of a long, gradual descent that suits the really powerful riders. It leads to the northernmost point of the course and then the riders turn around to head back to Aia. Here they hit yesterday’s course and this signals the start of the climbing hostilities.


First they go up the Alto de Aia from the same direction as they did during the second passage of the ascent in the previous stage. It means that it is a 3.5km climb with an average gradient of 8.71%. Only the first kilometre is very steep with a gradient of 12.5% and then it gets easier and easier until the final 500m average just 5.2%.


The summit comes with 4.2km to go and they consist of a very short descent that leads directly to the bottom of the final 1.5km ramp to the finish. It is a brutal affair as the first 500m average 12%, the next 500m have a gradient of 15% and the final 500% kick up at 17%. The final sharp right-hand turn comes just 200m from the finish.


This stage is a very interesting mix of different terrain and it is a very difficult affair for the specialists. They may be able to gain a lot of time in the first part which is all about power but they will suffer massively in the second part. The final 7km are mostly uphill with just a very small descent inside the final 4km and include some extremely steep gradients that will be very hard to tackle on a time trial bike. We may see riders make a bike change at the bottom of the Alto de Aia and it is likely that there will be a big difference between the top 10 at the time check and at the finish. On paper, this should be a stage more for climbers than for time triallists and will underline the fact that the 2015 Vuelta al Pais Vasco is one for the riders who excel on the ascents.


The Alto de Aia last featured in a time trial in 2010 when Chris Horner beat Alejandro Valverde to take the overall win in the race. Back then, however, they climbed it from the steep side and




The favourites

Together with the Volta a Catalunya, the Vuelta al Pais Vasco is the most mountainous stage race on the WorldTour calendar but there is a big difference between the two races. While the Catalonian race usually has no time trial, the Vuelta al Pais Vasco always ends with a hilly TT that is usually the single most decisive stage. Furthermore, the climbs in the two races are very different. In Catalonia, the ascents are long and mellow while the Basque climbs are short and steep.


This means that the Vuelta al Pais Vasco is a race for the true stage race specialists who can both climb and time trial. Due to the nature of the climbs, it is more suited to the punchy riders than the pure climbers and this makes it perfect preparation for the Ardennes. Furthermore, the time trials are never the usual flat ones for the specialists. In fact, they are often very technical and very hilly and even a rider like Damiano Cunego has nearly been on the podium in a Basque TT. Nairo Quintana has even finished second in one. This means that it is not the usual TT skills that are favoured.


The time trial has usually been the most decisive stage and this year it will be no different. In 2015, however, it seems that the balance has been tipped more towards the climbers while the complete riders may suffer a bit more. First of all the riders will be able to make a difference in stages 3, 4 and 5 which give them more opportunities than usual. Secondly, the finale of stage 5 is a very tough one that allows the climbers to open bigger time gaps than they have usually done. Finally, the time trial is shorter than usual and includes much climbing up some very steep gradients which means that it may even suit climbers better than specialists.


This means that the 2015 Vuelta al Pais Vasco is likely to be won by one of the best on the ascents and time trialling skills will be less important than usual. However, it is a very specific kind of climbing skills that are rewarded in this race. The finale of stages 3 and 5 both include short, very steep ramps which make them perfectly suited to the punchy riders who can sprint up this kind of walls. As the time trial includes the same kind of steep gradients, this is a race for punchy climbers who can also do well on the final day. The queen stage on day 4 will be more suited to traditional climbers but history proves that the differences between the best riders in that stage are very small. There will be no bonus seconds in the race.


Nairo Quintana may not be the usual kind of punchy climber that excels in this terrain and he is no excellent time triallist either. Nonetheless, it is very hard not to pick the tiny Colombian as the man to beat. In 2013, he proved that he has the skills to win this race and this year marks his return to the race that was the scene of his big breakthrough in the WorldTour.


What makes Quintana the clear favourite is his impressive showing in Tirreno-Adriatico where he crushed the opposition in the queen stage. While the headwind made it hard for riders like Alberto Contador to make a difference, the Colombian simply soloed clear with a powerful surge and extended his advantage all the way to the top. The performance underlined that he is back to his best after a difficult start to the season where he was set back by the effect of his crash in the 2014 Vuelta and another tumble in his national championships road race.


Quintana usually excels on longer climbs and some of the ascents in the Basque Country may be a bit too short for him. On the other hand, he is very strong on the steepest gradients and this year’s edition of the Basque race is loaded with brutally steep ramps. Apart from Joaquim Rodriguez, none of his biggest rivals are really punchy climbers and there should be ample opportunity for Quintana to make a difference in stages 3, 4 and 5.


The main challenge for Quintana is of course the time trial which has never been the Colombian’s specialty. However, one has to remember that Quintana actually won the 2013 edition of the race by virtue of a very good ride in the final race against the clock. In that stage he nearly beat world champion Tony Martin after he had gone into the day with time to make up on Sergio Henao and Richie Porte. The latter was the overwhelming favourite to win the race overall but the Colombian defied expectations.


The Tirreno-Adriatico underlined that Quintana is far from the best stage racers when it comes to your usual flat time trial that is all about power. On hilly courses, however, he does pretty well. This year’s time trial should suit him extremely well as it has some very steep climbs where he will probably be the fastest. There may be GC riders going stronger on the final day but Quintana won’t be far off the mark. As Quintana should be in a class of his own on the climbs, we expect the Colombian to win the race for the second time.


Thibaut Pinot has never been very strong in this race which he has mostly skipped. The importance of the time trial has not made in an obvious fit for the strong Frenchman who has often preferred to do the Tour de Romandie and the Volta a Catalunya. However, Pinot has improved massively in the time trials and while it was once a weakness for the FDJ leader, it is now a clear asset.


Pinot first underlined his progress with his splendid ride in the penultimate stage of the Tour de France but that stage is usually a bit more about recovery than actual TT skills. What really has marked him out as one to watch in the time trials are his performances in 2015. He impressed massively in both the prologue and the final time trial in Tirreno-Adriatico where he was one of the best GC riders in both tests. Last week he was a fantastic fourth in the short Criterium International time trial.


The time trial in Pais Vasco should suit him much better. Already last year he was 10th in the final test here and this year he should be among the best on a course that is even better for him. Furthermore, he is very strong on the steep climbs and is pretty punchy too. He excels in the bad weather that usually marks this rainy part of Spain and has all the skills to do well in this race.


Pinot showed excellent condition in Tirreno-Adriatico but he was less splendid in the Criterium International queen stage. Here his repeated attacks failed to make much of a difference. However, he made a strong surge in the steep part near the top to reduce his deficit to Jean-Christophe Peraud massively. Afterwards, he admitted to having been on a bad day and we can expect him to be back at 100% for this race. Due to his improved time trialling skills, Pinot is one to watch in this race.


Last year Michal Kwiatkowski finished second in this race and this year he hopes to do even better. However, this year’s course has more emphasis on climbing and less focus on time trialling and this makes it less suited to the world champion.


Last year, however, Kwiatkowski proved that he can match the best on the short, steep climbs in the Basque Country and he only really suffered in the queen stage which was marked by a longer climb. That’s no surprise as the Pole is among the best riders in the Ardennes classics and as a podium finisher in Fleche Wallonne, he excels on short, steep climbs.


In the past, he has suffered on the longer climbs and so the queen stage could again be a tough affair for him. In Paris-Nice, however, he proved that he has stepped up his level massively as only Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas were stronger than him in the hardest stage. That’s a clear proof that he is now able to be a genuine contender in week-long stage races and this race offers him a great opportunity to prove so.


This year Kwiatkowski has confirmed his potential in the time trials with great rides in San Luis, Algarve and Paris-Nice. Among the GC riders, he should be one of the very best on the final day and with his improved climbing, he will be tough to get rid of in the mountains. This turns him into an obvious favourite.


Simon Spilak always flies under the radar in the spring as he is not a grand tour contender. However, the talented Slovenian is a perennial contender in the WorldTour stage races in the first part of the year. With his combination of good time trialling skills and great climbing legs, he is perfectly suited to these races and he loves rainy and tough conditions like the ones in the Basque Country. It is no coincidence that he has finished in the top 10 several times and last year he narrowly missed the podium when he ended the race in fourth.


Spilak has proved his condition in Paris-Nice where he finished an excellent third and was second in the Col d’Eze time trial. He is no real TT specialist but he is very strong on hilly courses and he has always been among the best in the Pais Vasco time trial. There may be stronger climbers than him in this race but like in Paris-Nice, he should be able to limit his losses before he strikes back with a great performance on the final day.


Rui Costa was hugely disappointed after Paris-Nice where he missed out on a spot on the podium by less than a second. Since then, he has prepared for the Ardennes classics and he will use the Vuelta al Pais Vasco to get ready. On paper, the Basque race suits him down to the ground as he is very strong on short climbs that are suited to his explosive climbing skills. Some of the climbs in this race may be a bit too steep to his liking but the punchy nature of the course is great for him.


Costa is no time trial specialist but as he has proved so many times in the Tour de Suisse, he is very strong on a hilly course. This makes the final day an obvious one for the former world champion who proved his good condition in Paris-Nice where he was third in the Col d’Eze time trial. The main issue for Costa is his recovery after the heavy training burden that he has had in recent weeks. Last week he was not at his best in Pais Vasco and it remains to be seen if he has recovered and is already back at 100% for this race.


While Costa’s main goal lies in the Ardennes, this race is the main target for Tejay van Garderen. The American is focusing on the many WorldTour stage races in the first part of the year but until now he has had no luck. He proved his good condition in the Tour of Oman where he narrowly missed out on the victory. In Paris-Nice he looked strong in the queen stage before he paid the price for a poor preparation on the very cold penultimate day.


One of the big question marks in this race is Joaquim Rodriguez. The Spaniard was surprised by his poor condition in the early part of the season but showed signs of form in Tirreno-Adriatico. That made him confident for his title defence in the Volta a Catalunya but a bout of illness took him out of contention for that race.


This made him make a late decision to include the Vuelta al Pais Vasco on his schedule and he will be back in the race for the first time since 2012. The Basque race has always been a tricky one for Rodriguez. On paper, the short, steep climbs are tailor-made for him and it is no surprise that he has won several stages in the past. On the other hand, the importance of the time trial has made it impossible for him to be in contention for the overall win.


This year he may have his best ever chance to win the race as the course suits him better than ever. He is famously known for his poor time trialling skills but he has improved a lot and the routes in the Basque Country have always suited him well. This year the time trial is shorter than usual and includes some very steep climbs which are excellent for the tiny Spaniard. Furthermore, there are more climbing stages and they include those short, steep climbs on which Rodriguez is the best in the world. If he is at 100%, he should be the strongest in this terrain and this should allow him to gain some time before the final time trial. He will regret the fact that there are no bonus seconds though and it will be hard for him to limit his loses in the time trial sufficiently. Furthermore, it remains to be seen whether he has recovered from his illness and this makes his condition very uncertain.


In the Volta a Catalunya, his bad luck hadn’t ended as he crashed on stage 3 and so dropped out of GC contention. However, he proved his good condition by winning the queen stage and he continued to ride aggressively in the final part of the race.


With the importance of the time trial, this race should actually be perfectly suited to van Garderen. However, the tougher course with the many short, steep ramps may make it hard for the American to win the race. The climbs are both too short and steep to suit him perfectly as he lacks the punch to go with the explosive climbers in this terrain. Furthermore, the time trial doesn’t suit him too well. He is a great time triallist on flat courses and he has proved that he can do well in mountain time trials that are not too steep. However, he has never really excelled in the Basque TTs whose nature simply doesn’t suit van Garderen. The steep climbs in this year’s TT will make it even tougher for him. However, he should be very strong in the first part and with his improved climbing and could form he will be one to watch.


Last year Jean-Christophe Peraud finished on the podium in this race after he had had an outstanding start to the year. In 2015, he has had a slower build-up as he has been set back by injury but he has gradually improved his condition. He showed the first signs of form in Paris-Nice before he delivered a major surprise by winning the Criterium International.


Peraud didn’t expect that result as he had planned the Vuelta al Pais Vasco to be the first race where he could be really competitive. He turned out to be stronger earlier than expected and this makes him a contender in the WorldTour race that suits him best. Last year – most notably in the Tour de France – he proved that he doesn’t have to fear anyone on the climbs and he is an excellent time triallist, especially on hilly courses. Hence, he has always been among the best in the TT in this race.


Furthermore, Peraud is a former mountain biker and so he excels on short, steep climbs. In short, this race is tailor-made for him. The main issue is whether he is already ready to contend for the win in a WorldTour race. He was strong in the Criterium International but that race was obviously at a different level. Here he faces some of the best riders in the world and he needs to prove that his condition is good enough to follow them.


A rider who has had a very good start to the year, is Bauke Mollema. The Dutchman has been keen to hit the ground running for his new Trek team and he has been riding strongly until now. He was great already in Mallorca and Murcia but lost a bit of momentum when he was forced to abandon in Andalucia. However, he delivered one of his best performances in Tirreno-Adriatico where he finished second behind Nairo Quintana after also having been second in the queen stage.


As an Ardennes specialist, Mollema is suited to the Basque terrain and the short, explosive climbs. The main issue for him will be the final time trial. A few years ago, he had improved a lot in the discipline and even finished on the podium in one of the Basque time trials. Last year, however, was a disaster for the Dutchman who performed very poorly in all his TTs. This year he seems to be back on track as he rode solidly in Tirreno-Adriatico. However, it will be hard for him to limit his losses sufficiently compared to the biggest specialists.


On paper, this race is a very good one for Andrew Talansky who had made it a big goal to shine in Paris-Nice, Volta a Catalunya and Vuelta al Pais Vasco. The young American was confident ahead of the French race which marked his season debut but he was far off the mark on the climbs. He showed signs of improvement in stage 3 in Catalonia but when it came to the business end of the queen stage, he was again distanced.


Pais Vasco is now his final opportunity to achieve a major result but he has to improve a lot to be a real contender. On the other hand, the race suits him pretty well as he is a great time triallist, especially on hilly courses. In last year’s Dauphiné, he showed that his climbing level is at the top level and there is no doubt that he has the skills to win this race. It all comes down to a question of form.


Rafal Majka was hoping to have a strong spring campaign and seemed to be on track for great things when he was among the strongest in the Tour of Oman. Since then, things have unraveled for the talented Pole who was far from his usual level in both the Volta a Catalunya and Paris-Nice.


Majka will have to devote himself to Alberto Contador in the Tour de France and so he needs to capitalize maximally on the opportunities he gets in the spring. This race is one of them but it doesn’t suit him very well. However, he showed that he can do well on short climbs when he won the Tour de Pologne and in last year’s Giro he did very good time trial on a rolling course. To e acontender, however, he has to improve his condition massively.


Last year Adam Yates proved that he is destined for big things when he won the Tour of Turkey and mixed it up with the very best in the Dauphininé. His most impressive performance came at the Clasica San Sebastian where he was one of only a select few who was able to follow Joaquim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde on the final climb.


This year Yates confirmed his potential when he mixed it up with the best in Tirreno-Adriatico and the short, steep climbs in Pais Vasco should suit him even better. However, the young Brit is no great time triallist and the final stage will probably prevent him from achieving a top result even if he turns out to be one of the best on the climbs.


Samuel Sanchez is a perennial contender in this race where he has dominated the queen stage for years. However, the Spaniard has been slightly off the pace in the last few years. Last autumn he proved that he still has what it takes to be with the best when he finished 6th in the Vuelta and was one of the strongest in Lombardia. In the final part of his career, however, it seems that he needs a lot more time to reach his best level.


This year he has had a very slow start as he only signed a contract in late January. He has done very little racing and didn’t really shine in the Volta a Catalunya. However, the Basque race is his big goal and he recently expressed some confidence in an interview with Biciciclismo. In the past, he has proved that he can do very well in this race which suits him really well. He is very strong on short, steep climbs and even though it seems that he has lost the edge in the time trials, he suddenly delivered an excellent performance in the Vuelta TT. If he can do so again, he could be a contender in this race.


BMC have lots of cards to play and one of the big jokers is Rohan Dennis. The Australian proved his massive talent in the Tour Down Under but after he set a new Hour Record, he has been quiet. He was second in the Paris-Nice prologue but mainly used the rest of the race as training. However, he has made it clear that he aims to finish in the top 10 in a WorldTour stage race and the Vuelta al Pais Vasco could be a goal for him. In Australia, he showed his skills on short climbs and he is obviously one of the best time triallists in the world. It remains to be seen what kind of condition he has but if the favourites fail to distance him in the mountain stages, he will be a big threat on the final day.


We wouldn’t be surprised if Mikel Nieve turns out to be one of the strongest on the climbs. The Basque generally flies under the radar but he has proved that he is one of the very best climbers in the world. In this race, he is even the Sky leader and will get a rare chance to ride for himself. However, Nieve is a very poor time triallist and even though he should be able to do better on this hilly course, he will lose a massive amount of time in the final stage. He may have to focus on stage wins but if he is at 100% in the mountain stages he could create a surprise.


***** Nairo Quintana

**** Thibaut Pinot, Michal Kwiatkowski

*** Simon Spilak, Rui Costa, Joaquim Rodriguez, Tejay van Garderen, Jean-Christophe Peraud, Bauke Mollema

** Andrew Talansky, Adam Yates, Samuel Sanchez, Rohan Dennis, Mikel Nieve, Michele Scarponi, Sergio Henao

* Daniel Moreno, Vasil Kiryienka, Tom Dumoulin, Johan Esteban Chaves, Tony Gallopin, Tim Wellens, Davide Formolo, Tony Martin, Darwin Atapuma, Sebastien Reichenbach, Rein Taaramae, Luis Leon Sanchez, Benat Intxausti, Ion Izagirre, Gorka Izagirre, Robert Kiserlovski, Alexis Vuillermoz, Carlos Betancur, Pieter Weening, Simon Yates, Jarlinson Pantano, Mikel Landa, Maxime Monfort, Bart De Clercq, Alberto Losada, Ilnur Zakarin, Tom Danielson, Tom Jelte Slagter, Haimar Zubeldia, Julian Arredondo, Sergip Pardilla, Daniel Navarro, Nicolas Edet



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