By David Hunter
Back to the Basque Country, a place I love. This is a race that never disappoints.
We begin with a 12.1km ITT, but this is no ordinary race against the clock, we’re in the Basque Country! This time trial has a climb of 2.5km at 9.1%, making it one for the climbers, not the heavy testers.
A rare stage for the sprinters, but it does include a little bit of gravel road, which will make the peloton a little nervous. The finish isn’t flat either, we’re talking 660m at 6.7%.
Another relatively easy day, with an uphill kick to the line. This time it’s 2km at 3.8%, making it tough for the sprinters and good for the puncheurs.
The cat 1 climb is really tough, 4.7km at 8.5%, but crests with 38km remaining. As we approach the finish, we have two little bumps: 1.1km at 7.2% and 1km at 7.3%. The final climb crests with just 3.6km remaining, making it perfect for a late attack. The GC riders will have to be very watchful.
The GC action can begin. After patiently waiting the whole week, the big guns will be itching to fire. This stage has 3700m of climbing, the most in the week, which will make it tough on all the riders. The hardest part of the final climb is 3.5km at 9.7%, with a downhill run to the line. The final climb is the classic side of the mountain, the brutally steep side, is climbed earlier in the stage. History tells us that a small group usually approach the line together.
A fair bit of climbing, the organisers will hope the short distance will encourage attacking riding. The cat 1 climbs will certainly see some big attacks, but the race could well be decided on the uncategorised bump, 620m at 9.8%, which crests with 3km remaining. This is a demanding final stage, where many things can still happen.
Astana – they arrive with their A-team, one that will strike fear into the hearts of everyone at this race. In their squad is the winner of Andalucía, Valenciana, Oman and Murcia. The TT will decide the team leadership, but I would expect a number of their riders to be in contention after the opening day. Both Izagirre brothers and Pello Bilbao are Basque, this race means an awful lot to them, which is why the team have sent such a strong unit to the race. They start as the overwhelming favourites, with the TT deciding who’ll be team leader. Given recent form, it will probably be Fuglsang and Ion Izagirre.
Mikel Landa – the TT makes it hard for him to win. If he can limit his losses, he’ll hope to do something in the GC stages. He’s fresh from a win in Coppi e Bartali, which was great to see after an injury hit start to 2019. Riding on home roads, he’ll be keen on winning a stage and getting as high as he can on GC.
Michal Kwiatkowski – it’s unsure who’ll lead Sky, but the former world champion looks the best option. The TT will be to his liking, as will the lack of big mountains. After missing out in Paris-Nice, it would be good to see him going full gas for this win, and not holding anything back for the Ardennes.
Adam Yates – so close to winning Tirreno and Catalunya, he’s enjoying a fine run of form. The opening TT is about as good a TT can actually get for him, he should be able to put time into most during the climb, making up for losses in the flat section. After such a strong performance in recent races, I do wonder when fatigue will kick in.
Dan Martin – he’s had a decent start to the season, but is without a win. He was looking set to claim 5th place in Catalunya, but crashed in the final stage. His GC bid will depend on his performance in the TT, but the same can be said for everyone. Quite a few of these stages suit him well, he should be challenging for the podium.
Enric Mas – ended Catalunya better than he started it, which is a good sign for this race. The Spaniard was one of the revelations of 2018 and he’ll be hoping for more of the same in 2019. This is a race that suits him well and I think he’ll be challenging for the podium. He’ll have Alaphilippe to help him and I do expect Mas to be QuickStep’s GC rider, with the Frenchman on helping duties in the big stages.
Emanuel Buchmann – the German doesn’t win often, but he’s rarely out of the top 10. He’s one of those steady riders, who often goes unnoticed. After finishing 4th in the UAE Tour, he’ll be hoping for something similar in the Basque Country, he was 4th here in 2018. Bora should be one of the strongest teams in the race, as they arrive with Buchmann, Konrad and Schachmann.
Dani Martinez – after taking his first world tour win in Paris-Nice, you can bet his confidence is up. He is the type of rider who’ll enjoy this route, and given his form, he should be challenging for the top 10.
Can Astana boss the race? They managed to do so in Valenciana and Andalucía, but it won’t be easy to do so in the Basque Country. Most teams arrive with strong squads, dropping all the domestiques will be very difficult. They do have a number of options for the GC, but the level of climbers here is very high.
Whatever happens before the final stages, Astana will be the team looking to control the last two days. They have the firepower to make life difficult for the other teams, forcing them into chasing, similar to what happened in Tirreno. Given the TT and the nature of the climbs, I’ll go with Ion Izagirre, a win that will be very popular with the locals.
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