The typically lush verdant countryside of the Basque country of north-eastern Spain, with its narrow twisting undulating terrain and roads lined with fervent cycling fans – whatever the weather – provides the backdrop for a week’s exciting stage racing in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco.
- The six-day, 884km stage race starts on Monday in Bilbao at the Guggenheim Museum and finishes on Saturday with an 18.3km individual time trial around Aia. The mountain-goat friendly parcours features no fewer than 33 ascents, many of which are short but eye-wateringly steep in places.
- Stages one and two provide the only real opportunities for the sprinters and even then there are obstacles to surmount. On day one there are two ascents of the cat 2 El Vivero climb. The following day there are no fewer than six climbs to conquer.
- The fireworks really start on day three which has a relentless route over eight climbs, including twice up the Antigua (pictured below), the last 3km from the line. It’s only 800m in length with an average gradient of 16%, but has ramps in excess of 20%!
- Thursday’s traditional queen stage is the snaggle-toothed route to Eibar which crests seven climbs and finishes atop Arrate. This is often the race’s decisive stage but it may not be this year …
- In the last 20km of Friday’s stage, the riders crest the wall of Aia three times. The climb is a kilometre long and has an average incline of 14.4% with 25% ramps. Riders will be grateful that Saturday’s final time trial around Aia does not include ‘the Wall’.
- Unusually, but very welcome, the weather forecast for the entire race is warm and sunny!
Three to watch
This year’s race includes two former winners in Nairo Quintana (2013) and Samuel Sanchez (2012) but is shorn of the defending champion Alberto Contador, who is training at altitude for the Giro d’Italia. This race typically attracts those with ambitions in the Ardennes classics and the Tour de France.
Nairo Quintana (Movistar): Unstoppable in the recent Tirreno-Adriatico, neither the weather nor the terrain holds any fears for the 25-year-old Colombian, who will look as if he’s on a Sunday club ride as he conquers those climbs. Colombian competition may come from the erratic Carlos Betancur, though he’ll more probably be riding in support of last year’s third-placed Jean-Christophe Peraud. Quintana will have plenty of local support and knowledge in the form of Jon and Gorka Izagirre.
Mikel Nieve (Sky): The British team are enjoying a return to their pre-2014 form, so you wouldn’t bet against them lifting the trophy (and txapela) with local boy Nieve, who has further Basque support in the form of Xabier Zandio and David Lopez. Nothing would please the fans more than one of their own taking the beret. If not Nieve, Mikel Landa, Haimar Zubeldia and adopted Basque Sanchez – probably riding for Tejay van Garderen – will be flying the Basque flag. I hope at least one of them takes a stage win.
Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEDGE): Orica always picks up a victory or two at this race thanks to local knowledge – DS Neil Stevens lives in the Basque country. Understandably, only a few sprinters are participating in the race, so you have to fancy that in-form ‘Bling’ Matthews could well repeat his 2014 victory on stage two into the Basque capital, Vitoria-Gasteiz.
Whatever the outcome, it’s sure to be an absorbing contest!
Link: Official race website
Header image: Vuelta al Pais Vasco 2014 podium, courtesy of Richard Whatley