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Quintana and Contador will battle it out on one of the brutal walls that characterize the Basque Country

Photo: A.S.O.




04.04.2016 @ 19:50 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The GC favourites all survived what was an easier opening stage than expected and so they are all ready for the first big battle in the race. Stage 2 offers a new summit finish on one of the brutally steep walls that have made the Basque Country famous and as it is the biggest chance for the climbers to make a difference, it will go a long way in determining the overall winner of the race.


The course

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 and 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 will they return to Amurrio for the second intermediate sprint after 141km of racing. Then they will take on another circuit that has no climbs and only includes the final intermediate sprint in Baranbio with 20.7km 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 climb has never hosted a finish before.



The weather

Rain had been forecasted for the opener but the riders had luck to spend most of the stage in dry conditions. Rain may be on the menu for Tuesday’s second stage but the weather forecast looks better than it did for the opening stage. There is a 75% chance of rain the beginning but towards the end it will have dropped to just 25% and the sun may even come out. The maximum temperature will be just 11 degrees.


It will be a windy day as there will be a relatively strong wind from a northerly direction. This means that it will mainly be a tailwind in the first part and then a crosswind as the peloton approached the finishing city. On the final circuits, it will be a mix of wind directions but it will mainly be a crosswind. On the final climb, it will be a crosswind.


The favourites

The circuit around Markina Xemein proved to be less selective than it was in 2014. The fact that the stage came on the opening day meant that the tactics were different and the GC riders were all content with a relatively easy day. Orica-GreenEDGE decided to make a bit of a gamble, hoping that Gerrans would survive the climbs. The Australian proved that he is ready for the Ardennes and he never seemed to be in difficulty but he was still left frustrated as his comfortable sprint win was only good enough to take third. The team decided not to use Simon Yates in the chase, using only Adam on the final climb, and they never really hit the front in the flat final part of the stage, preferring to keep their leaders fresh for the first big GC battle.


Alberto Contador tested his legs on the final two climbs but never had any real hope of making a difference. It’s not unusual for Contador to make the moves whenever there is just the slightest opportunity but today it was probably more to find out how he was feeling after one week of recovery from Catalonia. Quintana was glued to his wheel when he attacked on the Ixua and when he went on the San Miguel climb in the finale, around 10 riders were able to follow as the gradient was pretty easy.


While the GC riders were content with the situation, Luis Leon Sanchez made the move that we had already predicted in yesterday’s preview. Daniel Navarro was a surprise ally on a stage that didn’t really suit him but the Cofidis rider has really turned himself into a constant attacker in recent years. At the same time, Sanchez is again the winner that he was a few years ago and he has had a remarkable turnaround in 2016 after a few disappointing seasons since he left Belkin.


However, Sanchez will disappear into anonymity tomorrow. He may be a solid climber and he actually defended himself pretty well on the steep Xorret del Cati climb at the Volta Valenciana earlier this year but he will have no chance on tomorrow’s brutal ascent. The gradients are so tough that only the lightest and most explosive guys will have a chance and even though he will probably do his best to limit the damage to maybe stay in contention before the time trial, Sanchez will have to hand the Astana baton to Fabio Aru and Miguel Angel Lopez.


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 even if it’s a relatively short climb. It is perfectly suited to the puncheurs who 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 either and the real climbers will have a much better chance here than they have on the Mur de Huy at Fleche Wallonne.


Movistar got the race off to a disastrous start as they lost the Izagirre brothers before the race had even begun and especially the loss of co-captain Ion will be felt. Hence, they are already down to six riders and so they preferred to take a bit of a back seat in today’s stage. This forced Tinkoff to do the majority of the work until Orica-GreenEDGE took over in the finale.


Tomorrow Astana will be an ally as they will honour their leader’s jersey by riding on the front but Tinkoff will still be active. They know that the stage needs to be as hard as possible to make the final climb less explosive so they will probably set a fast pace all day. Movistar have similar interests but they will have to gauge their efforts carefully due to their reduced manpower. Hence, they may again take a back seat, especially as there aren’t many climbs where things can be made tough.


It will be a pretty nervous stage as it will be very windy. The peloton has rarely split in the Basque Country but it has happened in the past. Especially, the crosswinds section on the plateau will make things difficult but as it comes pretty far from the finish, we doubt that the wind will play a role.


The early break will have little chance. This is the best chance for both Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana to win a stage and even though there are no bonus seconds, they have to go for it. As the stage is not too difficult, it won’t be too hard to control so it should come down to a battle between the best climbers on the final wall.


In Catalonia, Nairo Quintana had the upper hand and this naturally makes him the man to beat on the climbs in the Basque Country too. However, the much steeper and shorter climbs suit him a lot less and he has never been a dominant figure in this region. In fact, he was in a very similar situation in 2015 when he also arrived at Pais Vasco on the back of a dominant performance in another WorldTour race but he was unable to match the more explosive guys in last year’s edition of the race.


However, Quintana seems to be in a much better place than he was in 2015 as it was evident right from the start that he was not at his best in this race. Today he looked very strong when he responded to Contador’s attacks and he is brimming with confidence. Furthermore, tomorrow’s final climb is a bit longer than the walls on which he struggled 12 months ago and this should suit him well. In general, he is very strong when the road gets really steep and it probably suits him a bit better than it does for Contador who has often struggled a bit more when the gradients are brutal. Quintana still has a formidable team of climbers to make it hard right from the bottom and especially Daniel Moreno will be crucial on a climb like this. Based on his performance in Catalonia, Quintana is our favourite to win the stage.


Of course his big rival will be Alberto Contador. Those two riders were the best in Catalonia and there is little doubt that they are the best climbers in this race. However, Contador showed some signs of weakness in the previous race and he was unable to match Quintana. On the other hand, he didn’t race very wisely as he spent a lot of energy covering attacks which was costly on a climb that was not very steep. Hopefully, he has learned the lesson and in any case it will be more about the legs on such a steep climb than it will be about tactics.


On paper, Contador is a bit more explosive than Quintana but on the other hand, he has often struggled a bit on the very steep climbs, even in his heydays. None of the two favourites are perfectly suited to this climb and it’s a hard one to gauge. Contador claims to have the same feelings as he had in 2014 and so there is a big chance that he will get an important revenge here.


While the terrain doesn’t suit Quintana and Contador perfectly, it is tailor-made for Sergio Henao who has always done well in this race. Last year it was just his second race after he had broken his kneecap but he still finished second overall and was the strongest on the climbs, just as he was it in 2013 when he finished third overall. This year he has even been better than ever as he and Contador were the best climbers in Paris-Nice. This race is much better for him and he has the kick to beat everyone on the steepest gradients like these.


Daniel Martin is another specialist in sprints on steep walls and it is definitely no coincidence that he has been on the podium in Fleche Wallonne. This finish suits him really well but the climb may be a bit too long to be a perfect match. If the pace is fast right from the beginning, he may lose his trademark kick but if he is still fresh inside the final kilometre, only the biggest specialists can match him in a finish like this. He has been flying all year and proved his great form in Catalonia where he used his trademark kick to win a stage and he could make it three wins from three Spanish stage races by winning tomorrow.


A few years ago, Joaquim Rodriguez was virtually unbeatable in a finish like this but he is no longer the riders he once was. Nonetheless, he won this race in 2015 which is no big surprise as he is tailor-made for these short walls. Unfortunately, his form has not been great in the first part of the year and he was disappointed after his poor showing in Catalonia. He was set back by illness in Algarve and this has slowed him down but he claims to be much better now. Last year he returned from illness to do great here and as he looked pretty strong in today’s attacks, he will be a contender in a stage that suits him really well.


Simon Yates has been overshadowed by Adam but people seem to forget that he was actually fifth overall in both Pais Vasco and the Dauphiné last year. There is no reason to suggest that he has not taken another step this year. He is currently stronger than his brother and is the leader for this race which suits his explosive climbing skills. He was in the top 10 on the Mur de Huy at last year’s Tour so he knows how to handle a climb like this. He was right on Contador’s wheel on the final climb in today’s stage and he should be very strong in tomorrow’s stage.


Thibaut Pinot has been in great form all year and most recently rode to a dominant victory in both the TT and the mountain stage at the Criterium International. He has never had the same kind of success in this race as it is a bit too explosive for him. However, he is clearly one of the best climbers here and as this climb is not too short, he should be among the best.


One of the big question marks is Fabio Aru. On paper, he should be up there with Contador and Quintana but his form was not great in Catalonia. Today he sent some mixed signals as he was there when Contador made his first attack but he failed to make it into the small group at the top of the final climb. We doubt that he has the form to win but he should be better than he was in Catalonia.


Bauke Mollema has been really strong this year and this finish actually suits him well. He is much more explosive than most climbers and has been in the top 10 at Fleche Wallonne a few times. He seems to have stepped up his level in 2016 and tomorrow is another chance for him to prove so.


Daniel Moreno is excellently suited to a finish like this. He has won this kind of stages in the Vuelta in the past and he is a former Fleche Wallonne winner. However, he has rarely been very good in this race and his main goal is to work for Quintana. On the other hand, he looked stronger than usual in today’s stage and you never really know what you get from the inconsistent Moreno.


Finally, we will point to two of the young guns. Miguel Angel Lopez and Pierre Latour are two of the most talented climbers in the world. Until now, Lopez has been the strongest of the pair but his form wasn’t great in Catalonia. However, things can quickly change for such a huge talent and he is strong on a climb like this. Latour was really impressive in Criterium International and he was up there on the final climb in today’s stage. This is a big chance for him to ride for himself in a WorldTour race and if he has the legs e had one week ago, he will be able to challenge the best here.



CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Nairo Quintana

Other winner candidates: Alberto Contador, Sergio Henao

Outsiders: Daniel Martin, Joaquim Rodriguez, Simon Yates, Thibaut Pinot

Jokers: Fabio Aru, Bauke Mollema, Simon Spilak, Pierre Latour, Miguel Angel Lopez, Daniel Moreno



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