The 53rd edition of the Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco, a six-day WorldTour race, offers cobble-shy stage racers a safe haven, although not necessarily better weather as it often rains at this time of year in the Basque country. The event features on the palmares of riders such as Gino Bartali, Jacques Anquetil, Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and Laurent Jalabert. The all-time record holder is Jose Antonio Gonzalez, who won it four times in 1972, 1975, 1977, and 1978. The race is also famously featured in Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises.
What kind of race is it?
The event is considered to be one of the more challenging stage races as there are no flat stages: plenty of mountains and a lumpy time trial. Overall winners tend to be riders who can both climb and time trial. While climbs in the Basque country are not long, like those in the Alps or Pyrenees, they are short, sharp and steep. The most recent winners of the race are:
2008: Alberto Contador (Astana)
2009: Alberto Contador (Astana)
2010: Chris Horner (RadioShack)
2011: Andreas Kloden (RadioShack)
2012: Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi)
What happened last year?
Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) won the queen stage and the final individual hilly time trial to take the overall win (and the points jersey), cementing his place in the hearts of the Basques and becoming only the second Euskaltel winner of the stage race after Iban Mayo in 2003. Sanchez had a royal battle with Joaquim Rodriguez, also a double stage-winner, who rode the time trial of his life to finish second overall and win the prize for ‘most elegant rider’. His Katusha team won the team prize. Equally, best young rider Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) rode a ballsy time trial in the pouring rain to move up on GC and round out the podium. Marco Pinotti (BMC) won the sprints jersey, while Saxo Bank’s Mads Christensen was top dog in the mountains and adjudged most aggressive rider. David Lopez (Movistar) was the best placed Basque rider.
1. Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) 20:58:15
2. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) +0:12
3. Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) +0:42
4. Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) +0:47
5. Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) +0:54
6. Lars Petter Nordhaug (Sky) +1:03
7. Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r La Mondiale) +1:07
8. Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) +1:19
9. Chris Horner (RadioShack-Nissan) +1:27
10. Simon Spilak (Katusha) +1:29
Here’s a link to the review of last year’s race.
This year’s race
This year’s event takes place in the countryside between Bilbao and San Sebastian, in and around the regional capital in Vitoria-Gasteiz. Typically stages loop in and around the finish town, with a number of different circuits, affording the fervent Basque fans plenty of viewing opportunities. It’s quite a small geographic area so that the riders and teams can spend almost the entire race based in the same hotel. It will however once again live up to its reputation as a tough race with a demanding route that includes two summit finishes, on stages three and four, and a closing-day individual time trial in Beasain. The parcours has plenty of trademark steep climbs on narrow roads, ten of which are concentrated in Friday’s queen stage, to ensure both exciting racing and plenty of tension until the race’s conclusion. Indeed, the stages get progressively more difficult as the week goes on and are capped by a 24km individual time trial which is both technical and demanding. There’s nothing here for the faint-hearted and little for the pure sprinter.
The first two stages both feature six and five climbs respectively and could reasonably be called lumpy. Stages three and four also have five climbs apiece and summit finishes – excellent preparation for Friday’s queen stage with a selection of ten ascents.
If all goes according to plan, like last year, the winner will only be decided on the last stage, the tricky 24km individual time trial.
Who to watch
The 21 teams – the 19 WorldTour squads plus Caja Rural and Cofidis – are loaded with climbing talent, some of whom can time trial and others who can sprint on an uphill finish. Defending champion Samuel Sanchez is back but the Euskaltel team are trying to manage [Basque] expectations by saying he’s not yet at 100% – he’s saving that for the Giro d’Italia. Despite the absence of last year’s runner-up Joaquim Rodriguez, he’ll not lack for protagonists with Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff), a previous two-time winner and Paris-Nice winner and Criterium International runner-up Richie Porte. BMC are bringing their in-form young gun Tejay van Garderen.
In total there are four recent winners taking part as RadioShack have both Andreas Kloden and Chris Horner with a strong supporting cast, including Andy Schleck, Jens Voigt and Maxime Monfort. Movistar are handing leadership duties to local boy Benat Intxausti who has Rui Costa for support, while Orica-GreenEDGE have former Volta a Catalunya winner Michael Albasini. Astana have Jakob Fuglsnag leading their charge. Last year’s third-placed Bauke Mollema returns with a strong supporting Blanco cast who’ll be looking to add to their already impressive palmares this season. The French teams too are mounting a challenge with Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r) and Jerome Coppel (Cofidis).
However, it’s hard to look beyond the headline acts for the overall but whatever happens I think we’re assured another absorbing, enthralling, nail-biting race and I’ll be there to see it. Can’t wait!
April 1st: Stage 1 – Elgoibar to Elgoibar, 156.5km
April 2nd: Stage 2 – Elgoibar to Vitoria-Gasteiz, 170.2km
April 3rd: Stage 3 – Vitoria-Gasteiz to Trapagaran-La Lejana, 167.7km
April 4th: Stage 4 – Traparagan to Eibar-Arrate, 151.6km
April 5th: Stage 5 – Eibar-Arrate to Beasain, 166.1km
April 6th: Stage 6 – Beasain, 24km individual time trial
The Vuelta al Pais Vasco starts on Monday 1st April and concludes on Saturday 6th. Live action will be shown daily on Eurosport. For other options check cyclingfans.com.
Link: Official race website