Clasica San Sebastian preview

The 32nd Clasica San Sebastian (Basque: Donostia-Donostia klasikoa) has been pushed back by this year’s Olympic Games to Tuesday 14th August. It is more usually held the Saturday after the Tour de France has finished. It’s a UCI WorldTour race but isn’t yet regarded as one of the Monuments – far too young.

What kind of race is it?

It’s traditionally seen as a climbers’ race, with several famous stars  – Miguel Indurain, Lance Armstrong, Laurent Jalabert – claiming victory over its short history. Only one man has won it three times, the Basque rider Marino Lejarreta in 1981, 1982 and 1987.

The race is renowned for its spectacular views of the Basque coastline, magnificent verdant countryside and winding, undulating terrain which strongly favours aggressive riding. The current race route is 234km in length and includes the tough first climb of the Alto de Jaizkibel at just under the 150km mark. Its second ascent is often a decisive point in the race, where the winning break gets away.

The race winner is honoured with his own txapela, a traditional black Basque beret that, unless you speak Euskara, is as close as any outsider is going to get to being a local.

The most recent winners of the event have been:

2007: Leonardo Bertagnolli (Liquigas)

2008: Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne)

2009: Carlos Barredo (Quick Step)

2010: Luis Leon Sanchez (Caisse d’Epargne)

2011: Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto)

What happened last year?

The King of Belgium Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto)  won the race with the relative ease with which he won so many races last season.

2011 Clasica San Sebastian podium l to r Carlos Barredo, Philippe Gilbert and Greg Van Avermaet (image courtesy of RDW)

2011 Clasica San Sebastian podium (l to r) Carlos Barredo, Philippe Gilbert and Greg Van Avermaet (image courtesy of RDW)

The orange of Euskaltel-Euskadi, leading the peloton, allowed an early break of six riders  – Irish national champion, Matt Brammeier (HTC-HighRoad), Karsten Kroon (BMC), Klaas Lodewyck (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Brazilian national champion Murilo Fischer (Garmin-Cervelo), Eloy Ruiz (Andalucia-Caja Granada) and Julian Sanchez (Caja Rural) – to build an early lead of over 11 minutes.

By the first climb of the Arkale, however, only three remained: Kroon, Fischer and Lodewyck. As the leaders hit the Jaizkibel for the second time, Lodewyck was distanced while Kroon and Fischer pressed on. Nico Roche (AG2R La Mondiale) launched an unsuccessful attack, followed by Tour de France King of the Mountains and local hero Samu Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), who was quickly followed by Carlos Barredo (Rabobank).

Sanchez caught Kroon and Fischer just before the summit but the gap back to the peloton was now only 14 seconds as Gilbert made a move, taking Frank Schleck (Leopard-Trek) and others with him. Sanchez initiated another attack, but the larger group again reformed and on the run in to the second ascent of the Arkale the leaders numbered around 30.

Vacansoleil rider Stijn Devolder then built a 30-second lead. Riders tried to bridge across but Gilbert was policing the front of the chasers. With only 20km left, Devolder was still ahead but fast losing ground to the select chasing pack.

On the final climb of the Arkale, Dries Devenyns (Quick Step) and Haimar Zubeldia (RadioShack) overhauled Devolder. With 10km left, they were caught, leaving a select group of nine favourites. Barredo attacked but was quickly caught by Gilbert. Sanchez gave chase and was joined firstly by Zubeldia and then the others. But the horse had bolted, the stable door was locked and Gilbert was just a black, yellow and red blur in the distance.

Gilbert soloed across the finish line to the mighty roar of the huge crowds lining the wide boulevard in the late afternoon sunshine before Barredo took second, followed by Greg Van Avermaet (BMC). The others were left wondering what they needed to do to beat this man on a course with a climb near the conclusion!

Rabobank took the team prize, Julian Sanchez (Caja Rural) was top dog in the mountains, Matt Brammeier (HTC-HighRoad) bagged the points jersey and Haimar Zubeldia was best placed Basque. There was the usual slew of ‘other’ prizes much to the bemusement of the winner who was also adjudged most elegant rider and sporter of best hairstyle. [You made up that last bit about the hairstyle, didn’t you? – Ed]

1. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 5:48:52

2. Carlos Barredo (Rabobank) +0:12

3. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) +0:14

4. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) same time

5. Dries Devenyns (Quick Step) s/t

6. Frank Schleck (Leopard-Trek) s/t

7. Haimar Zubeldia (RadioShack) s/t

8. Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) s/t

9. Rigoberto Uran (Sky) s/t

10. Jelle Vanendert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +0:50

This year’s race

Route of Clasica San Sebastian 2012

Route of Clasica San Sebastian 2012

The peloton faces 234km of hard roads with six categorised climbs; the last 80 km is a killer with the Jaizkibel and Arkale twice, the latter for the last time just 15km from the finish.

Having left the leafy broad boulevard of San Sebastian just after 11 o’clock, the parcours heads quickly out of town and follows an anti-clockwise route through the beautiful Basque countryside. The entire route is generally thick with enthusiastic and knowledgable Basque cycling fans, many of whom follow the race on their bikes. The two circuits of the Jazkibel (7.8km, average 5.8%, maximum 8%) and Arkale (2.7km, average 6.3%, max 7.1%), are often decisive in determining the race winner, and are popular with Basque families enjoying a picnic in the warm sunshine while watching the action.

Thereafter there’s a slight rise on the run in through the town where a strong rider might try to escape from the leading group. This is where Gilbert attacked and won last year and where Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) tried to shake off the eventual winner in 2010, Luis Leon Sanchez (Rabobank). Thereafter, the road is wide and flat, via the scenic beachside road, to the finish on the boulevard.

Clasica San Sebastian parcours 2012

Clasica San Sebastian parcours 2012

20 teams are taking part: all 18 WorldTour teams and two Professional Continental squads: Caja Rural and Andalucia.

Who to watch

Could this finally be Samu's year? (image courtesy of RDW)

Could this finally be Samu’s year? (image courtesy of RDW)

The home crowd would obviously like a local winner and I know Vuelta al Pais Vasco winner Samu Sanchez would dearly love to win this race but, as he only recently returned to the road after exiting the Tour de France injured, he might be missing form ahead of those who completed the Tour and have since been racing in the Olympic Games and/or on the post-Tour criterium circuit and Vuelta a Burgos.

In honour of his recently acquired Olympic gold medal, and in the absence of the defending champion, Vinokourov has been given dossard number 1, and he’ll be doing his best to win the race along with other well-known puncheurs such as former winner Luis Leon Sanchez.

Ahead of the Vuelta, this might be the ideal opportunity for a race leader to lay down a marker or, more probably, allow a faithful wingman an opportunity to have his day in the sun and collect valuable UCI points. So keep a look out for Olympic silver medallist Rigoberto Uran (Sky), Lotto Belisol’s Jelle Vanendert, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), young gun Moreno Moser (Liquigas-Cannondale), local boy Haimar Zubeldia (RadioShack-Nissan) or maybe Milan-San Remo winner Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEDGE).

To be honest, there’s a mouth-watering array of talent on display but on behalf of VeloVoices I’ll be enjoying the race from a cafe on San Sebastian’s boulevard, watching the action unfold on the big screen and listening, while not totally comprehending, the mellifluous tones of Iñigo Asensio and cheering on Samu.

The Clasica San Sebastian takes place on Tuesday 14th August. For live coverage check

Link: Official website

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