• Rúben Silva

Itzulia Basque Country Preview

After the GP Miguel Indurain in the weekend the racing in Spain's most iconic cycling region will resume, and the amazing Basque scenery and fans will be on display in the biggest showcase of the region of the year.

Last year Primoz Roglic broke a streak of 4 consecutive Spanish wins, he won't be back to defend their title, and with Nairo Quintana the only previous winner of the race, there will be a whole lot of riders hungry for their first win the Itzulia overall, let's take a look at what to expect this week.

The Route

@La Flamme Rouge

There's been a change in the classical stage orders, it seems that every year the organizers bring the time-trial stage back another day and this year it's come to the opening stage. It will be a time-trial only 11.3Km long but with a brutal ascent in it, the Alto de la Antigua. The sole last 900 meters of the climb have a 15% gradient and pitch up to 20%, it was last used in the opening stage of the 2011 edition and is a classic Spanish murito, the first of the week. This will be a fight for the overall, there are top time-trialists but the climb is going to be the decisive factor of the day.

@La Flamme Rouge

Stage 2 will be somewhat of a novelty for the race. The profile isn't really hard but there will be 6 gravel sectors in the stage. There's no real climb in the stage and the final sector antecipates a long flat section to the line, but the final kilometer will have a 4.4% gradient so it should make for a long and slow sprint, that can favour those less explosive.

@La Flamme Rouge

Stage 3 seems perfectly suited for a breakaway, the winding roads of the Basque Country always provide for a good opportunity, but the roller-coaster nature of the stage will be the most important factor. It isn't overly hard, with no pure sprinters on the startlist there's no-one who will be damaged by these climbs, and the finish is very similar to the previous day with a 1.7Km climb at 4% where the stage winner will be crowned.

@La Flamme Rouge

Stage 4 provides another unexpected race-situation prediction. The stage favours the sprinters but there's a nasty climb with it's summit just 3 kilometers away from the finish. The average gradient means very little as it has a descent in the middle, but the ramps are hard in it and with the descent to the line it's good for a late attack, or of course to decide who can take it out from the breakaway. Of course, there's a 4.9Km climb at 8.5% with 37Km to go to mix thing up even more.

@La Flamme Rouge

Stage 5 is going to climb one of the most iconic climbs. Being used often in the last few years, the climb to the Alto de Arrate via Usartza has been a living hell for all riders riding up it. With 6 categorized climbs before the final one, including the brutal Izua climb at 10% for 4 kilometers. As for the final ascent, it summits with around 1.5Km to go and is 3.7Km at 11.4%, mostly on concrete roads and several areas where the gradients get even steeper.

Last year the stage was very attacked by Movistar, who in urgency managed to distance Roglic, but Landa was unable to take back the gap that the Slovenian had put earlier in the race. It's a very hard stage and it's where we should see the main gaps.

@La Flamme Rouge

But the final stage is where it can be decided. After a week of hard racing the final day will only have 118 kilometers on the menu, but it will be a brutal roller-coaster day in the mountains. 6 is the number of categorized climbs, even more the ones on the road with no points to be awarded.

With 55Km ridden the riders will have already had 4 climbs in the legs, including the Azurki climb that was repeated last year in the very similar stage. Last year there were important long-distance attacks so there's no reason for it not to happen this year again, specially taking into consideration the fact that it is the final stage and the final opportunity to win overall, gain places, win a stage, etc. You name it. it will surely be a massive day out.

The Weather

It's obvious what to take from this. Rain, rain and more rain. Although a long-distance forecast the weather is gonna be very wet all week in the Basque Country. With so much rain it's gonna make for harder stages to control, more crashes and risks being taken, and some riders who can heavily benefit/loose out from the weather conditions, cause it won't just be a day in atrocious weather conditions. Luckily the wind won't be very present, but on such winding roads it'd be hard to see it make big differences. The maximum precipitation day also seems to be friday followed by Saturday, the days that match exactly the harder stages in the route.

The Riders

Well in this case, the team really. Astana's dominance this season has had no modesty in it, racking already 21 wins so far (in the same period of time 2 years ago, the team was yet to win). And if they've had strong lineups this season then to the Basque Country they bring their absolute finest seen. Two riders are set to be the leaders, Jakob Fuglsang and Ion Izagirre, only because they are the strongest climbers and stage-racers overall, having won together the Vuelta a Andalucia and Vuelta a Valencia. Next up is the Tour of Oman winner Alexey Lutsenko, he is a very agressive rider that suits the squad perfectly, he can also be a favourite for the win, his competition might really be his teammates. Next in line is Pello Bilbao, one of the few who hasn't won a stage-race this season but has worked a lot and has won in Murcia. The Vuelta a Murcia winner of course is also here, Luis Leon Sanchez may be a bit of a domestique in here with such a team, but he is never to be discounted in any stage, his versatility is going to be a key weapon in the team's arsenal. Tour de la Provence winner Gorka Izagirre and Omar Fraile may be the two riders who will be the least sparred, but with their quality it's sure that the team will set up several attacking-fit stages, and will look to make the most of their strenght in numbers.

Movistar failed to win in Catalunya so they will be trying to make a mens in here. They bring a very strong squad once again, headlined by last year's attacking duo. Mikel Landa had came close to beating Roglic last year, he had been injured this year but came back and added a win to his name in Coppa e Bartalli. He will be leading alongside Nairo Quintana who has this season gone for a different calendar. He is in good form, recently 4th in Catalunya, the shorter climbs he'll face this week aren't so fitting to him but as a lightweight rider he should be fond of the steep gradients. The third wheel is Marc Soler, Movistar will likely try to balance out things with Astana and Soler can be a proper weapon against them, a good time-trialist, he also prefers the longer climbs but has no issue in those he'll ride ths week.

There are two other climbers who are set to disturb these two team's rivalry. First is Adam Yates, a rider who these climbs fit like a glove. The time-trial shouldn't cause him an issue, and the ultra-steep gradients and explosive racing are exactly what he fancies, he has with him home rider Mikel Nieve who is in great form, but even alone he's someone who knows how to race and isn't scared of making bold moves. The other is Daniel Martin, the Irish has been a more contained rider in the last few years when it comes to attacking, but the climbs are short and steep enough to favour him over most other contenders. The time-trial and the gravel may present a big challenge for him, he's known for not being a positioning expert, but if he can make it to the final two stages intact he's in for the fight for the win, as he has good support in Pogacar, Sergio Henao and Diego Ulissi.

Julian Alaphillipe. There are those who will say there's no competition to challenge him for the win, and those who say he has no chance. What we know about him is this, he's a super explosive rider who thrives in the type of stage that start off the Tour. He's won the two opening stages last year, but then cracked under pressure in the final two stages. Because although he can get time on the time-trial and in bonifications in the first stages, the final two stages will be his challenge. Like last year, he'll have to do these climbs, the constant efforts and multiple repetition of constant efforts, and that takes away hs ability to attack, he was clearly blown off tracks last year because of that and this year the same race situation is set to occur. He is nonetheless a good overall contender, and if he can win enough time on the opening days he may threaten the pure climbers for the win., having Enric Mas in the team is a big help when it comes to that, he can be the biggest of supports or he himself can battle with the other overall contenders, Deceuninck isn't a one-card team either.

Team Sky come with an interesting squad. Geraint Thomas is here but surely still far from hitting form. There's two riders likely set to lead the team with very different qualities. Kwiatkowski is a rider who can net time on the time-trial and in the sprints, and he can handle himself very well in the climbs, specially these short ones (although he isn't a fan of the steepness). He is on the same caliber as Alaphillipe, but perhaps more suited for the final stages, specially with the season he's been having so far. The other is David de la Cruz, perhaps not one's first option for GC, but he's riding at home and he is a specialist in Basque roads if there is one (he's won stages in it in the Itzulia and Vuelta), plus his form has been improving lately so he's one to consider.

Out of that list there aren't many riders who can challenge the podium spots. One team who can may be Bora, with Emanuel Buchmann in the lead, he hasn't ridden in March but his performances this season have been nothing but excellent. Michael Schachmann is an outsider, his climbing skills in the mountains aren't so strong, but he's a very explosive rider and at the same time has a very big engine, plus the time-trial should be his specialty. Pattrick Konrad is also present, although he hasn't been showing the best of form he's one suited perfectly for this type of stages.

Bahrain-Merida are headlined by two riders who we aren't sure how they'll do. Rohan Dennis, the time-trial world champion is the first, his time-trialing hasn't been hitting the goals this season, and with the tough climb in it he doesn't start out as an overhwelming favourite, he should be more of a stage hunter here in the likely scenario. The same can be said for Dylan Teuns, both can be stage hunters but both can be in the GC fight, he likes these type of climbs aswell, and should be in the fight if his form is on spot.

Sam Oomen leads a strong Sunweb team, with Chris Hamilton, Nicolas Roche and Marc Hirschi as main support and stage hunters. Jumbo-Visma have George Bennet and Sep Kuss, FDJ have Rudy Molard, David Gaudu and Valentin Madouas.

Other outsiders can be Bauke Mollema, a rider who could in normal conditions be a favourite for the podium, Daniel Martinez/Hugh Carthy/Simon Clarke for EF who should be motivated after a big win in Flandres, and finally Jesus Herrada can also be an outsider overall for Cofidis.

The Sprinters. Wait, Sprinters?

The truth is not a single stage here is suited for a pure sprinter, and even those precited to finish in a sprint have traps. There are 3 of those stages, the 3 opening road stages, and we have Michal Kwiatkowski and Julian Alaphillipe as contenders for them aswell as GC contenders, but we have to go deeper than that.

Pattrick Bevin may surge as the first name on the list. He is a specialist in the uphill-drag kind of sprints and there will be two of those, he's shown good form in Catalunya and his team should have the freedom to look for a stage win from him.

The competition is the same kind of sprinter, Grega Bole deserves a big mention as a strong performer in Catalunya, Jay McCarthy is another one, a fast finisher in the uphills with a fast team behind him. Then we have Enrico Battaglin, Anthony Roux and Tosh van der Sande as other possibilities. Michael Albasini seems past his peak, but he'll have a mention in case he finds good legs for the week, one to look out for.

In the more climber side riders like Diego Ulissi, Max Schachmann and Luis Leon Sanchez are worth a good mention. In the home PCT teams there is also an interesting name in Jon Aberasturi, definetely an outsider name, but with such lack of sprinter depth in here he could bundle in the finishes.

The Teams

Astana - With such a squad it's hard to look beyond them for the overall podium, several rider who can contest for the win and the strenght in depth and naturally agressive racing style of them should explode the race in several stages.

Movistar - They bring the main opposers with a very strong team aswell, Quintana/Landa/Soler will be enough surely to battle Astana if the race is made on the climbs.

UAE/Mitchelton - These two teams bring real overall contenders who should like the bigger climbs in the end of the race, and should race defensively until then.

Sky/Deceuninck/Bahrain - These all have overall contenders but will likely rely mostly on the punchy conteders they have, Kwiatkowski/Alaphillipe/Theuns can very well be in the fight for the win aswell.

Bora/EF/Sunweb/Jumbo-Visma/Trek - Some secondary teams for the overall, that will rely mostly on their climbers, but will have a hard time battling with the other teams.

CCC/Caja Rural - These two should focus more on the sprints, controlling those stages and trying to set up their riders.

Lotto Soudal/AG2R/Katusha/Dimension Data/Cofidis - These should be stage hunters, very agressive teams will good riders to win from a breakaway. Also late attack scenarios are possible with many riders from them being explosive.

Burgos/Euskadi/Manzana Postobon - These 3 should also focus more on the breakaways. Special mention to home team Euskadi, may habe a good motivation right there.

Prediction Time

Fuglsang, I.Izagirre, Landa, A.Yates

Quintana, D.Martin, Alaphillipe, Lutsenko, Kwiatkowski

Mollema, Buchmann, Schachmann, De la Cruz, Thomas, Theuns, Mas, Oomen

Ion Izaguirre isn't the rider that look to have the killer instinct of some of his teammates. But this season alone he's won Valencia overall, was 2nd in Andalucia and won a stage in Paris-Nice, and Astana have been on a roll. He's racing home and has 3 teammates who are also Basque, he's been on the final podium 3 times already so this may be his shot for the final win he's been looking for for years, and is one of the few who should love the rain the riders will face all week long.

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