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Who'll win the big Quintana-Contador battle in the Basque Country?

Photo: Sirotti




03.04.2016 @ 23:59 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

While most attention is focused on the cobbles of Northern Europe and strong men like Sep Vanmarcke, Zdenek Stybar, Peter Sagan, Fabian Cancellara 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 for 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, Joaquim Rodriguez 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 Tony Gallopin, Tom-Jelte Slagter, Tim Wellens 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, Alberto Contador, Thibaut Pinot, Simon Spilak and Fabio Aru 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. The 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 third 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 bit of a parade for Nairo Quintana who had dominated Tirreno-Adriatico just a few weeks earlier. However, the Colombian was not at the same level and he had a hard time following the more explosive duo of Joaquim Rodriguez and Sergio Henao on the short, steep climbs in the region. Rodriguez who was back after a bout of illness had kept him out of Catalunya, won two of the hardest stages and he and Henao were equal on time as they went into the TT. Littered with short, extremely steep climbs, it was a very unusual time trial which allowed the Spaniard to do the TT of his life, finishing second behind Dumoulin and claiming overall victory. Henao had to settle for second while Ion Izagirre overshadowed his captain Quintanaby taking the final step on the podium. Rodriguez will be back in an attempt to defend his title but will again be up against the strong pair of Henao and Izagirre, with the latter again expected to ride in support of Quintana.


The course

The course for the Vuelta al Pais Vasco always varies quite a bit but the different editions 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 2016 edition, the organizers have designed a much harder course than usual. The Vuelta al Pais Vasco has always been a hard race but with the climbs all being relatively short, the time trial has played a crucial role and has often separated the best climbers from each other. This year there will be much better options for the climbers who will have a very hard summit finish on the second day in addition to the traditional queen stage which always features on the course. 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, but for the first time it will be held on the penultimate day. Furthermore, it has been made much harder than in the past, with the inclusion of a passage of the well-known Ixua climb from a very steep side. If one adds the fact that the riders will face the brutally steep Alto de Aia in the finale of the fourth stage, half of the stages will offer opportunities to the climbers.


The race has usually included stages for strong sprinters but this year they may not get a single chance at all. This is reflected in the line-ups as only Orica-GreenEDGE have selected a real sprinter for the race. However, even if Michael Matthews is a splendid climber, he will have to dig  very deep to survive the many climbs in stages 1 and 3 which are his only potential opportunities in the race.


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 like last year, it’s difficulty has been given a further notch in 2016 as it includes a brutal wall with gradients of more than 20%. There will be no need for a time trial bike in a stage which is much more suited to climbers than to specialists. Furthermore, it has been shortened a bit, meaning that it’s an unusually hard edition whcih is more for climbers than it has been in recent years.


Stage 1:

There are never any real sprint stages in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco but the fast riders who can overcome some climbs, have usually had some opportunities early in the race. The opening stage has often been decided in a reduced bunch sprint and this could again be the case on the opening day of the 2016 edition of the race. However, this year’s opener has been made harder than usual and features significantly harder climbs, meaning that it could be a very small group of climbers that is left at the end of a course that requires the GC riders to be on their marks.


As usual in Pais Vasco, the 144km stage is a pretty short affair and brings the riders from Etxebarria to Markina Xemein. The first part sees the riders travel from the start to the finish, passing two small climbs along the way, the category 3 Alto de Gontzagaigana (3.6km, 5.69%) and Alto de Santa Eufemia (4.3km, 5.70%) along the way. Both are regular ascents that never get very steep. They will pass through the finishing city for the first time after 26km of racing and then embark on a circuit that includes the category 2 climbs of Alto de Zakarate (3.5km, 7.71%) and Alto de San Miguel (5km, 5.70%). The latter will feature in the finale as the final climb of the day and the riders will get a chance to acquaint themselves with the final part of the stage as they will cover the final kilometres before crossing the line for the first time at the 84km mark where the first intermediate sprint will be contested.


The rest of the stage is made up of a 60km circuit that includes four climbs. First the riders will again tackle the category 3 Alto de Gontzagaigana (3.6km, 5.69%) and Alto de Santa Eufemia (4.3km, 5.70%) with 52.2km and 41.2km to go respectively. This time they won’t go back to Markina Xemein and instead they will approach the final intermediate sprint which comes with 34km to go, and the only category 1 climb of the stage, Alto de Ixua (6.2km, 7.02%), whose summit comes with 25.9 to go. It’s a tough climb as the gradient doesn’t drop below 8% in the second half. Then it’s back to the bottom of the category 2 Alto de San Miguel (5km, 5.70%) which the riders will tackle for the second time after having contested the final intermediate sprint at the bottom 13.5km from the line. The climb is relatively regular with gradients of 5-7%. The top comes with just 8.3km to go and leads to a descent which ends at the flamme rouge. The final kilometre is flat and there are no technical challenges in the final 3km.


The first stage in the hilly Spanish stage races can always be pretty tricky. There aren’t many sprinters and they are all uncertain about what they can do in such a tough stage that was dominated by GC riders in the past. Hence, they are unlikely to do much chase work and so it will probably be up to the GC teams to make sure that a breakaway doesn’t gain some unexpected time on the first day. Tinkoff and Movistar are likely to take their responsibility but Michael Matthews may also have his eyes on this stage, meaning that it is likely to be decided in a reduced bunch sprint.


Markina Xamein hosted a stage finish in 2014 and back then the riders tackled the exact same finishing circuit. It ended as a very tough stage where only 22 riders arrived at the finish together and Ben Swift showed his impressive climbing skills by staying with all the climbers before beating Alejandro Valverde and Michal Kwiatkowski in the sprint. One day later Tony Martin won the time trial in the city while Alberto Contador sealed the overall win by taking second.



Stage 2:

There will be no chance to ease into the race for the GC riders who have to be on their toes right from the start. After the tough opener, the riders face what is likely to be the hardest stage already on the second day when a brutally steep wall at the end is likely to show who’ll be in contention for the overall win. It is the addition of this finale that makes the race significantly harder than usual and will give the climbers a better chance to distance the time triallists.


At 174.2km, it is a relatively long stage compared to usual Pais Vasco standards and it brings the riders from Markina Xemein to an uphill finish in Amurrio-Baranbio. Right from the start, the riders will go back up the category 2 Alto San Miguel (5.1km, 5.53%) that featured in the finale of the first stage, reaching the top after just 8.5km of racing. From there they will descend to a flat section as they travel in a southerly direction before turning to the west.


The climbing will start again when the riders hit the category 3 Alto de Untzella (3.2km, 8.75%) which has some very steep parts both at the bottom and near the top leads almost straight onto the lower slopes of the relatively regular the category 2 Alto de Krutzeta (4.3km, 7.33%)whose summit is located at the 56.3km mark. That climb leads them onto a plateau where they will stay for almost half of the stage before they descend to Amurrio where they will contest the first intermediate sprint at the 113.5km mark.


The riders will now tackle a relatively flat circuit that only includes the category 3 Alto de Mendeika (1.5km, 6.67%) with its 10% sections at the 127.2km mark before they return to Amurrio for the second intermediate sprint after 141km of racing. Then they will take on another circuit that has no climb and only includes the final intermediate sprint with 20.7km in Baranbio to go.


The final part of the stage is relatively flat but things will change abruptly when the riders return to Baranbio in the finale. Here they will hit the category 2 Alto de Garrastatxu which is a brutal wall that averages an impressive 11.67% over 2.7km. The first kilometre is already steep at 11.5% and then it only gets steeper, with the second kilometre averaging 13.5% and including 19% sections just before the flamme rouge. The final 700m are slightly easier with an average of 9.29%. The climb has two hairpin turns but the finishing straight is more than one kilometre long.


The riders will tackle the traditional queen stage in Eibar on the penultimate stage but history proves that the time gaps there are always pretty small. There is no doubt that stage 2 is a much better chance for the climbers to really make a difference. Such a steep finishing climb can create relatively big time gaps and will put the heavier guys at a significant disadvantage. It’s still a relatively short climb and so it is perfectly suited to the puncheurs that shine on the walls that traditional characterize the Vuelta al Pais Vasco but at almost 3km, it’s definitely not a bad stage for less punchy riders like Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana who will have their first big battle already on the second stage.


The climb has never hosted a finish before.



Stage 3:

This year’s very hard course doesn’t leave much room for the sprinters and they will have to bide their time for another day. The third stage may not have an uphill finish but with three very steep climbs in the finale, it is a very typical Pais Vasco stage that will allow the GC riders to battle it out on some of the walls that characterize the region. With a flat run to the finish, it is not a stage where the race can be won but it can definitely be lost here.


At 193.5km, it is the longest stage of the race and it will take off from Vitoria-Gasteiz which usually hosts a sprint stage but has been relegated to a role of being a starting city in 2016 and will end in Lesaka. The city is located on a well-known flat plateau and so the first start of the stage is a completely flat easterly run. In Irurtzun, the riders will turn to the north to approach the coast and this signals a change in the terrain. Having contested, the first intermediate sprint at the 87km mark, the riders will tackle the category 3 Alto de Uitzi and the category 2 alto De Usategieta in quick succession, with the latter summiting after 104.7km mainly flat racing.


After the climb, the riders will descend from the plateau to hit another flat part of the Basque Country which brings them to the city of Oiartzun where the second intermediate sprint comes with 34.5km to go. From here hell will break loose. Instead of going straight to the finish in Lesaka, the riders will head into the hilly terrain south of the finishing city where they will tackle three walls in quick succession.


First up is the category 2 Alto de Aritxulegi (4.4km, 7.48%) which is a relatively regular climb with a gradient of around 7% for most of the time. It leads almost straight onto the lower slopes of the category 2 Alto de Agina (4.3km, 7.21%) which is another pretty regular climb. The top comes with 20.2km to go and from there the riders will descend to Lesaka where they will contest the final intermediate sprint 12.5km from the finish. From here, they take on a circuit that includes the category 2 Alto de la Piedad (2.1km, 8.81%) which is a very regular climb with a gradient just below the 9% mark for most of the time. The top comes with 9.1km to go and after a short descent, it is a flat run to the finish. The final turn comes with 600m to go and the final kilometre is completely flat.


The final part of the stage is pretty hard and the three climbs all include sections of more than 10%. This will make it too hard for the sprinter, probably also for Michael Matthews. As time gaps have opened up, this means that this stage will probably be less controlled and it could be a very good day for a breakaway. As there are no bonus seconds in the race, the GC riders will have less of an incentive to organize a chase. However, some of them are likely to test their rivals on the final climb and it could come down to a sprint from a small group. With a flat run-in to the finish, this is not a day to win the race but you could very well lose it here.


Lesaka hasn’t hosted a stage finish for more than a decade.



Stage 4:

One of the most feared climbs in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco is the brutally steep Alto de Aia. It was first used in 1999 when it hosted a mountain time trial and since then it has been climbed in 2008, 2010 and 2015. Last year it played a new role as both the penultimate stage and the final time trial ended very close to the top. This year it is back on the course but unlike last year it will be the well-known finish with the flat run-in to Orio.


The fourth stage will bring the riders over 165km from Lesaka to Orio. The first part is completely flat as the riders travel to the coast, passing through Irun where Alberto Contador’s famous steak stems from. Then the riders will hit some very famous terrain as they will tackle two of the landmark climbs of the Clasica San Sebastian which – for some reason – have rarely featured in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. First they will tackle the famous category 1 Alto de Jaizkibel  (8.4km, 5.24%) whose summit comes at the 29.4km mark and then they will descend to the category 3 Alto de Arkale (3.3km, 5.45%) just 18.4km later.


Unlike in the Basque one-day race, they won’t head to San Sebastian and instead they will travel along mainly flat roads to the finish in Orio which they will reach after 85.5km of racing. This is when the serious part of the stage starts as the riders will tackle the final part of the stage in the opposite direction, climing the brutally steep category 2 Alto de Aia (4.6km, 5.87%)from its easy side. The top comes after 100kmof racing and then there will be a final easy section that leads to the first intermediate sprint at the 123.5km mark.


The real finale starts when the riders go up the category 2 Alto de Garate (2.8km, 9%) which has a very steep final 800m of 13.38% and whose summit comes at the 131.5km mark, leading to the second intermediate sprint. The descent is followed by the brutal double climb back to the top of the Alto de Aia. First the riders will tackle a category 2 climb (3.4km, 8.38%) which is pretty regular and whose top comes with 17.4km to go. Then a short descends leads to the final category 2 wall (1.8km, 12.22%) whose summit comes just 13.1km from the finish. It’s a brutal climb, with the gradient staying between 11.5% and 13.5%, the steepest part coming near the top. From there, it is a descent to the final intermediate sprint four kilometres from the line and then there’s a small little 7% climb of 1km. It ends with 1200m to go and then 700m of descending lead to the flat final 500m. The final challenge is a roundabout at the bottom of the descent with 500m to go.


The Alto de Aia is a real beat and history shows that the best riders can really make a difference here. It’s a perfect climb for the really punchy riders who find so much terrain to their liking in the Basque Country. There is no doubt that the GC riders will test each other here and we could see important time gaps. However, there is still time for a regrouping and we probably won’t see a lone rider arrive at the finish. Like in the previous stage, there is a big chance that a breakaway will make it as the final climb is too hard for the sprinters while it is not a stage that can be won by the climbers either.


Laurent Jalabert won the time trial when Alto de Aia was used for that in 1999 while Michael Boogerd won the morning stage to Orio. In 2008, Damiano Cunego won a 6-rider sprint ahead while Alberto Contador sealed the overall win in the time trial one day later. In 2010, Joaquim Rodriguez made a successful long-distance attack to hold off Alejandro Valverde, Samuel Sanchez and Chris Horner who attacked on the Alto de Aia while Horner won the time trial one day later. Last year Mikel Landa emerged as the strongest from a breakaway while Tom Dumoulin won the time trial on the steep climb one day later.



Stage 5:

The fifth 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 2016 it will be no different. The stage has mostly come on the fourth day but for the first time it will be the final road stage of the race.


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 159km and starts in Orio. The first part of the stage consist of a flat run along the coast until the riders turn inland to go up the gradual rise to the top of the category 2 Alto de Itziar (6.4km, 2.97%). Then the riders will tackle the category 3 Alto de Calvario (2.4km, 7.63%) before they will reach Eibar for the first time after 58.5km of racing.


The next part of the stage consists of a big circuit that includes many of the climbs that have usually featured in this stage. First it’s the category 2 Alto de Karabieta (6.3km, 7.22%) which is a very regular ascent and whose descent leads straight to the first intermediate sprint and the bottom of the category 2 Alto de Kanpazar (3.4km, 5.50%). Then there’s a very short flat section before the riders got up the category 2 Alto de Asentzio (3.4km, 7.35%), another very regular climb. After the descent, flat roads lead past the second intermediate sprint and back to Eibar.


Here they start another loop around the city. It kicks off with the hardest climb of the day, the category 2 Alto de Ixua (3.7km, 10.95%) which always plays an important role in this stage. It's a very tough one and this year they will climb it from a new side where the second kilometre averages an impessive 19.8%. This time it even comes pretty close to the finish as there are only 35.3km to go. The next challenge is the category 2 Alto de San Miguel (5.1km, 5.53%) which is a rather easy climb until it gets slightly steeper near the top where it averages 8.36% over a kilometre. The final intermediate sprint is located, the stage is identical to last year’s edition.


From the top 19.9km remain and they are the same as last year. and from here 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 finale 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 and history 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 seems to be harder than usual as there are more climbs and the steep Ixua coms closer to the finish. This means that we may see bigger time gaps at the finish. It’s a very prestigious stage that everybody wants to win so this is a day that will be decided by the GC riders.


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. In 2014 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. Last year Joaquim Rodriguez took his second win in a row by winning a sprint from a 12-rider group.


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 6:

True to tradition, the race ends with a time trial around the city where the previous stage has ended. It has often incorporated parts of the finale of stage 5 but this year things will be different. The riders will still climb to Sanctuary of Arrate but they will go up it from a harder side. Compared to recent time trials, it is the typical hilly and technical affair but with a distance of just 16.5km, it is shorter than usual. On the other hand, it’s the second year in a row with more climbing than usual and it includes some very steep sections, meaning that it a stage for climbers and not for time triallists.


The stage takes place on a short circuit on the northern outskirts of the start and finishing city of Eibar and there won’t be much time to find the rhythm. After 1.8 flat kilometres, the riders have left Eibar and will start the climb immediate. The riders will reach the Sanctuary 3.5km later and then it’s uphill for another 900m.


At the 6.2km mark, the riders hit a slightly descending sectionwhich leads to the real descent which starts after 8.3km of racing. From there it is downhill until the 12.5km mark where the powerful riders finally get a chance to make a difference. The final 4km consist of a flat loop on the western outskirts of Eibar which the riders will tackle before they head to the finish along flat roads.


The climb is simply brutal. The first kilometre averages 5.8% but from there all hell breaks loose. The second kilometre averages 15.4% and includes section of 22%. The third kilometre is almost equally steep at 14.1% with 18% sections and then things finally get a bit easier with the fourth kilometre averaging 8.9% before it levels out after the Sanctuary. The organizers have paved the road to use it for this stage.


There may be a short, flat section at the end but don’t be fooled by this stage. This is definitely not a time trial for the specialists who are way too big for this kind of brutally steep ascent and unlike last year there is less flat terrain for them to make up for their time loss. There will be no need for a time trial bike in the first part but some may consider a bike change to get more aerodynamic for the more traditional second part. Like last year we could see punchy riders like Joaquim Rodriguez and Sergio Henao do better than usual and be close to victory. In the end, the stage will crown an unusually hard edition of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco that is definitely one for the climbers.


As said, the Arrate climb has never been tackled from this side before. The most recent winners of the time trial are Tom Dumoulin (2015), Tony Martin (2014, 2013 and 2011), Samuel Sanchez (2012), Chris Horner (2010) and Alberto Contador (2008 and 2009). That list may be dominated by specialists but it doesn’t really reflect the fact that the Basque time trials are usually much better for climbers than the traditional TTs.



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 finished second in one and last year Joaquim Rodriguez was the runner-up. 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 is unlikely to be any different. However, the race is much harder than usual and will offer a lot more chances for the climbers to gain time before we get to the final day. History shows that the time gaps in the Arrate queen stage are very small and as it has often been the only summit finish, many riders have been almost equal on time by the time we get to the queen stage. This year the brutally steep wall at the end of stage 2 has the potential to create significant time gaps that could make the stage even more important than the TT even though it’s a relatively short wall.


Stages 2 and 5 are the best chances to make a difference but the remaining three road stages can’t be underestimated. The Alto de Aia is a very hard wall and even though it comes a bit further from the finish than it did in 2015, it will create some time gaps between the GC contenders, with a small group likely to arrive at the finish together. The final climbs in stage 3 are also pretty hard and could be used as a test of the rivals. That stage won’t create gaps between the best but it’s a day when the race can be lost.


Ultimately, it will all be decided in the final time trial and we are very curious to see which riders will do well in that test. It’s not a mountain time trial but it’s probably as close you’ll get to a TT for the pure climbers as the climbs is extremely steep and we can expect riders like Quintana, Rodriguez and Henao who are usually not TT specialists to post some of the best intermediate times. The final part of the stage is more about power and will suit those riders less so it’s a pretty mixed TT. Still the first half will be far more important so there is a real chance that a pure climber will come out on top at the end of the race. As usual, there will be no bonus seconds in the race so sprinting skills will be less important.


To summarize things, the race will be decided by stages 2 and 6. Some of the best climbers may gain a few seconds on each other in the queen stage too. In stages 3 and 4, some of the GC riders may lose some but the best riders should arrive at the finish together. There is a big chance that the time gaps between the two best climbers who are probably Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador will remain unchanged after stage 2 and then things will be decided on the final day


The Volta a Catalunya ended as a very exciting duel between Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana and those two riders are expected to battle it out for victory again. In Catalonia, Quintana came out on top but the inclusion of a time trial could tip the balance. Both are past winners of the race and especially Contador who is still without a stage race win after three previous attempts, will be keen to get a victory before he puts an end to his spring season.


Alberto Contador is a real climber and so he likes longer, grueling climbs more than the short, steep walls in the Basque Country. In fact, he has often had a hard time on the steepest gradients and he has often found it hard to follow the likes of Joaquim Rodriguez on Basque climbs. On the other hand, the inclusion of a time trial has always suited him well and it is definitely no coincidence that he has only failed to win the race once since he took his first victory here in 2008.


This year Contador should find the harder course even more to his liking. The wall at the end of a stage 2 is a bit longer than it is usually the case and it should suit him pretty well. He has always been very good in the queen stage and it won’t be easy to distance him on a climb that has a pretty easy finish. Before his suspension, he was one of the best time triallists in the world but since his comeback he has been unable to return to his previous level. However, things have been very different on the hilly courses where he has done extremely well. He almost beat an unstoppable Tony Martin in the 2014 TT here and last year he would have won the long Giro TT if he hadn’t had worse weather conditions than Vasil Kiryienka.


On paper, Contador and Quintana are a step above the rest when it comes to climbing and even though some of the punchier guys should be closer to them in a race like this, those two riders are still likely to be the best. We doubt that they will be able to distance each other in the queen stage so they will probably have to decide the race in stage 2 and the time trial.


Contador came up short against Quintana in Catalonia but he is usually stronger than the Colombian on more explosive climbs. Furthermore, he is a better time triallist than the Movistar leader and usually he should beat his rival in the final stage. This TT is very special and so the hierarchy may be changed here but with a power section in the end, Contador must have the upper hand.


Contador may have failed to win a race but he has been in excellent form. The Paris-Nice course was too easy for him and in Catalonia he paid the price for a poor team which forced him to chase down all attacks in the queen stage. That probably cost him a bit in the end. In Pais Vasco, he will have a much stronger team at his side and he will have learnt the lesson from Catalonia. He claims to have the legs he had during his glorius 2014 season and so he is our favourite to win.


His biggest rival will be Nairo Quintana. The Colombian is a former winner of this race so he has proved that he can do well in this terrain even though it is definitely tailor-made for him. Quintana excels on long, brutal climbs and this race is too explosive for him. That was evident in 2015 when he went into the race as the overwhelming favourite on the back of a storming ride at Tirreno-Adriatico but he failed to match puncheurs like Sergio Henao and Joaquim Rodriguez on the walls.


This year the course is harder and the climbs are longer and this should suit Quintana well. Furthermore, he is evidently in excellent form. On the other hand, it was the same in 2015 and back then he was not at the same level in the Basque Country. Furthermore, the time trial will always be a disadvantage for Quintana as Contador is a better time triallist and to win the race, he will probably have to drop the Spaniard in stage 2. On the other hand, the TT is very special and in 2013 Quintana actually won the time trial. Quintana is still work in progress and it seems that he is even stronger than he was in 2015. A harder course, a harder time trial and excellent form mean that Quintana may be able to beat Contador in this race.


Since 2013, Sergio Henao has only done this race twice and he has been on the podium and led the race every time. Last year he looked poised to win the race but was beaten by Rodriguez in the time trial. However, it was still a remarkable result as it was just his second race after he broke his knee cap at the 2014 Tour de Suisse.


To come back with such a performance in a race that is regarded as the hardest one-week race speaks volumes about Henao’s potential in this race. Henao may not be able to follow the best on the long climbs but on a steep wall, he is one of the very best. This year he has been absolutely flying and he is likely to be much better than he was in 2015. Back then he was already better than Quintana on the walls so there is no reason that he won’t be able to distance his compatriot in 2016. The climb in stage 2 may be a bit longer than he would have preferred but it’s still a finale that is tailor-made for him. He is less suited to the Arrate stage and here he may come up short against Contador and Quintana.


The big challenge for Henao will be the time trial. Last year he did a very good TT and with a wall on the course, he should again deliver a good ride. However, it will still be hard for him to beat Contador in a test like this so to win the race he will probably have to win stage 2. However, that’s definitely not impossible.


Last year, Simon Spilak was poised to win the race overall. The Slovenian had been brutally strong on the climbs and went into the time trial in the perfect position to strike. However, a mechanical right from the start took him out of contention and so he was unable to continue his excellent run of success in the Basque race.


Spilak has developed into one of the best one-week stage racers in the world. He has always been up there in Paris-Nice and the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, he has been second thrice in a row in Romandie and last year he won the Tour de Suisse. This year he has had a slightly slower start than usual as a mechanical took him out of contention in the Race to the Sun. However, he still looked reasonably strong on the climbs and it will be a surprise if he is not excellent in Pais Vasco.


Spilak is not an explosive climber but for some reason he always manages to stay close to the best on the walls. However, his main asset is the time trial. He may not be a specialist but he is one of the best in the world on a hilly course. That was evident in the TTs in Romandie and Switzerland and even though the climb on the TT course will be a bit too steep for him, he will be one of the big favourites for the time trial. If he can produce another outstanding TT, it may finally be time for him to win this race.


Thibaut Pinot has never really done well in this race. The short, steep climbs don’t suit him and the importance of the time trial has always made it difficult for him. However, he goes into the race with a much better chance than usual. His TT skills have developed massively and the discipline has suddenly become an asset for the Frenchman. Most recently he won the Criterium International TT where he beat a real specialist like Jerome Coppel. However, he still seems to do slightly worse in longer TTs and even though this course should suit him really well, he has to make another step up to be in contention for the win here.


On the other hand, his progress is massive and there could be another outstanding ride in store. The climbs are a bit too explosive for him but it is evident that he has improved his climbing too. His win in Criterium International has boosted his confidence and this could be his time to win a stage race on the WorldTour.


The Yates brothers have had an amazing start to their professional career and no one knows how far they can get. Until now, Adam has had the most remarkable results as he has already won the Clasica San Sebastian and the Tour of Turkey. Simon has flown a bit more under the radar but people tend to forget that he was 5th in both Pais Vasco and the Dauphiné last year.


This year both riders will be at the start in Pais Vasco but Simon will be the leader. He has shown better form than his brother, most impressively with his seventh place in Paris-Nice whose easy course didn’t really suit him. Last year he improved massively in the time between that race and Pais Vasco and we can expect him to come out flying for this race.


Yates is not a pure climber and has the perfect explosive skills to well in the Basque terrain. He is still progressing massively so he should be much closer to the best here. The main challenge for him is the TT but he has improved his skills against the clock. Last year he was 12th in both the Pais Vasco and Romandie TTs and with a hilly course, he should be able to limit his losses well.


Last year Ion Izagirre went into the race as a support rider for Quintana but he actually ended up being stronger than his leader. He did a great time trial on the final day and it is hard not to wonder what would have happened if he had not been working in the mountain stages. This year he will again be a domestique but he will probably have more of a protected role, especially after his great fifth place in Paris-Nice. Izagirre does well on shorter climbs and he is one of the best time triallists in the world on a hilly course. However, the climbs in this year’s race could be a bit too hard for him and we doubt that he will be able to keep up with the best in stage 2. On the other hand, he should gain time on most in the time trial.


Bauke Mollema didn’t have the best start to his Trek career in 2015 but in 2016 he seems to be much stronger. He rode really well in Ruta del Sol and even though we never got the chance to see what he could do on the climbs in Tirreno-Adriatico, his good TT indicates that his form is very good.


Mollema is known as a stage race specialist but he has always done well in hilly one-day races. He is pretty explosive and this means that this is a great race for him. Compared to most of the favourites, he is not a great time triallist but a few years ago he was second in the Basque TT. Apparently, he likes the rolling courses here and he has improved his TT skills a lot since he joined Trek. Mollema should definitely do well in a race that suits him well.


On paper, Fabio Aru should be one of the best riders but the Italian has not had a great start to the season. He was at a solid level in February but rode very poorly in Catalonia. This is a bit of a surprise as he was actually aiming for a good result in the spring. He has never done Pais Vasco before and on paper, the climbs are a bit too explosive for him. Furthermore, the TT is definitely not an advantage for him even though he has improved his skills against the clock massively. On the other hand, he is an excellent mountain time triallist and he should be able to do pretty well on this kind of course. The main question is whether his form is already good enough to be competitive.


Joaquim Rodriguez goes into the race as the defending champion but like Aru he has not shown his best form. He was far off the pace in Catalonia which is a bit of a surprise as he is usually flying in that race. He may still be paying the price for his illness in Algarve. It is hard to imagine that he will already have turned things around for this race. On the other hand, he bounced back from illness to win last year’s race and this is the stage race that suits him the best. He may not be as strong as he once was but he is still one of the very best on steep walls. Last year he proved that he can do a very good time trial on a course with some steep climbing. It all depends on whether he has finally found his best form.


Daniel Martin returns to the race for the first time in several years. It is a bit of a mystery that he has mostly skipped a race that suits him down to the ground. He is one of the very best on short, steep climbs and he has had an amazing start to his Etixx-QuickStep career, winning stages in both Catalonia and Valencia. We have little doubt that Martin will be one of the favourites for the mountain stages and he could easily win a few stages here. However, he is a very poor time triallist and even though this one is special, it will require a massive improvement for him to limit his losses sufficiently to win the race.


Adam Yates will be the second Orica-GreenEDGE card. He has better results than his brother but has not shown the same kind of consistency in the stage races. The team claim that they will support Simon and this is a clear indication that Adam is not in the same condition. Furthermore, he hasn’t done as well as his brother in the time trials and this makes him less suited to this race. On the other hand, the explosive climbing stages suit him down to the ground and as we can expect him to have improved even more since last year, he is a dark horse.


Rui Costa is always at a reasonable level in every one-week stage race. However, this race is probably the spring WorldTour race that suits him the least. He is a relatively big guy and the climbs in Pais Vasco are simply too steep for him. On the other hand, he is a great time triallist on hilly courses and this has always made him competitive here. Unfortunately, the TT course suits him less as it has a very steep climb and the harder course means that it will be hard for him to be in winning contention.


Finally, Robert Gesink deserves a mention. The Dutchman is back on track after a few difficult years and last year he was the best of the rest behind the former grand tour winners at the Tour de France. This year he was much stronger than expected in Algarve where he didn’t have any GC expectations and this made him confident for Catalonia. He was surprisingly poor in that race and was hugely disappointed. He hopes to be better here but the explosive climbs suit him less. On the other hand, he seems to have recovered some of his TT skills in recent years and the hilly TT should be to his liking. His good form from Algarve can’t have disappeared completely and with a solid week of racing in his legs, he should be a lot more competitive here.


***** Alberto Contador

**** Nairo Quintana, Sergio Henao

*** Simon Spilak, Thibaut Pinot, Simon Yates, Ion Izagirre, Bauke Mollema

** Fabio Aru, Joaquim Rodriguez, Daniel Martin, Adam Yates, Rui Costa, Robert Gesink, Miguel Angel Lopez

* Sebastien Reichenbach, Miguel Angel Lopez, Mikel Landa, Daniel Navarro, Roman Kreuziger, Wilco Kelderman Pierre Latour, Jurgen Van den Broeck, Samuel Sanchez, Louis Vervaeke, Arnold Jeannesson



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