By David Hunter
The peloton rolls into the Basque country for the always exciting Pais Vasco. 6 stages, all including tough climbs, await the riders, plus plenty of the usual Basque weather.
The opening stage is the easiest of the race. That being said, it’s still not that easy. The final climb is 4.3km at 8.6%. This is a feature of the race, very difficult cat 2 climbs. The climb crests just 13.5km from the end of the race, so this is going to be difficult to control.
Stage 2 has a familiar finish, in Vitoria. This is the stage that Orica usual win, but it’s harder than usual with far more climbs. The climbs aren’t very difficult though, except for the cat 1 climb at the start of the stage. We should get a sprint finish.
Stage 3 is a beauty with 8 categorised climbs. The cat 1 climbs, don’t really deserve to be called that, as they are quite easy. The final climb is hard, 2.5km at 9.6%. The final 500m is actually 16%. This crests just 3km from the line, meaning the stage is set for a late break to take the stage.
Stage 4 is the standard stage to Eibar, finishing with the climb of Alto de Usartza. It can be hard to escape the bunch on this climb but it is a demanding ascent, the final 4km is at 10.8%.
Stage 5 has an incredible 9 classified climbs. The end of the stage is very difficult with 3 cat 2 climbs in quick succession: 1.7km at 12.1%, 3.5km at 8.7% and 1.5km at around 15%. It’s going to be a brilliant end to the stage with the final 500m at 17%. Perfect for the Ardennes riders.
Even the final TT has two big climbs in it: 5km at 6.6% and 2.5km at 11.9%. The downhill beginning is perfect for the TT specialists but it looks made for the strongest climber to win the stage and possibly the GC. We could get some big gaps.
The parcours has enticed a large number of top riders to come here. Some are looking to win the GC, some are trying to get ready for the Ardennes. Riders who will be looking to finish high on GC are: Majka, Van Garderen, Dennis, Nieve, Quintana, Dumoulin, Peraud, Betancur, Chaves, A Yates, S Yates, Reichenbach, Landa, LL Sanchez, Wellens, Gallopin, Kwiatkowski, Spilak, Moreno, Rodriguez, Costa, Ulissi, Pinot, Talansky, Slagter, Mollema, Arredondo, Pardilla and Navarro. That’s one hell of a list!
As in previous years, we have no bonus seconds on offer. That ensures we have small gaps and a lot of riders close on GC. Personally I like bonus seconds, but a bit of variety is also good to see.
The final climb on stage 1 is very challenging and we could see some early GC action. Of the 4.3km, the opening kilometre is 10%, the 3rd kilometre is 10% and the final 300m is 10%. Contador took everyone by surprise last year, attacking on stage 1 and I would expect to see the GC favourites attacking. This is a climb where Quintana can put time into his rivals.
Quintana will start the race as the favourite, with Michal Kwiatkowski his main rival. The short, steep finishes are great for the Pole, as is the TT. Quintana will need time, going into the final stage. The opening stage and the Queen stage are the best for Nairo, he can’t afford to wait for the Queen stage. We have seen in previous years, the gaps can be small on that climb. Expect an early Quintana attack! Yes, there is 13.5km from the crest to the finishing line, a finish that suits the TT ability of Kwiatkowski, but if you have a gap at the top, you should hold it on the descent.
Katusha have a brilliant team, with 3 genuine contenders: Rodriguez, Moreno and Spilak. A certain Joaquim Rodriguez needs to start upping his game. He’s disappointed so far this season, after a poor 2014. With the Ardennes just weeks away, he needs to remind everyone of his class. Remember folks, form is temporary, class is permanent! The parcours are great for him, but if he falters, Simon Spilak will be ready to take over. He was 3rd in Paris-Nice and with some rain forecasted for later in the week, Spilak will be a hard man to beat.
Tejay Van Garderen rode into some serious form in Catalunya. He won the Queen stage, where Contador was unable to close him down and looked incredibly strong in the other stages. He was 6th here last year but I’m not sure how he’ll cope with the finishes to stages 3 and 5. He’ll be one of the men to beat in Eibar, so he should be looking towards the podium. Gilbert is here, fine-tuning his form before the Ardennes. Stages 3 and 5 are brilliant for him and he’s already shown some good form in 2015. If he doesn’t win a stage, I’ll be very surprised. Also showing good form, for BMC, is Darwin Atapuma. His 7th in Catalunya is the best I’ve seen from him for a long time. Hopefully he can continue to impress.
Tinkoff-Saxo have tried to take the pressure off their stars. They said that Kiserlovski would be team leader but he’s getting over an illness and Majka is trying to find his form. It didn’t sound promising, although, teams can often talk down chances, to alleviate pressure.
Mikel Nieve gets a rare chance to lead Team Sky. A local to the area, he should know these climbs, something that is very important. He’ll get solid protection from Kiryienka and Henao. I’m a big fan of Nieve and hope he goes well.
As I’ve already mentioned, Quintana is the favourite. The word from my sources is that he’s been riding all the stages, in the last two weeks. Nairo is serious about winning this, adding it to his recently won Tirreno crown. His team is very strong, probably the strongest here. He has Visconti, Anton, Castroviejo, Jose Herrada, Intxausti and both the Izagirre brothers. This is a great squad and they will be expected to take control of the peloton on stage 1.
This course shouldn’t scare Tom Dumoulin. Illness robbed him of challenging in Paris-Nice, he’ll be looking to make up for that here. He climbs very well, especially the short, steep stuff. Despite being a big star, many fans under-estimate his ability as a GC rider. 4th in TDU, Dumoulin will be looking for a big result here. If he can limit his losses in Eibar, he has a great chance of finishing in the top 5.
AG2R have Peraud and Betancur. Peraud surprised many with a big win in the Criterium International. After a slow start to 2015, this was a great sign of form. This is a race Betancur should really do well in. The same questions about fitness are there but he has been in Europe for a while now and the stage finishes are great for him. Please can we get a fit and motivated Betty!
Orica have a wealth of talent with them. They have Gerrans, Matthews and Impey for the “sprint” stages and Weening, Chaves, A Yates and S Yates for the GC. They must a clear hierarchy within the team, but they aren’t telling anyone! All of these riders could do well here.
Lotto have Gallopin and Wellens. Both are returning from altitude and that can go well but it can also go badly! We won’t know their form until the racing starts. If they hit the ground running both are in with a good shout of a stage win and a top 10 finish.
Etixx have the World Champion, Michal Kwiatkowski. He was 2nd here in 2014 and returns with a great chance of winning. He’ll have to be very attentive during the first stage, as Quintana will attack. I can’t wait to see him on stages 3 and 5, it will show how ready he is for Amstel and Flèche. He was close last year and I expect to see some progression.
Lampre arrive with Rui Costa as team leader. He was 4th in Paris-Nice and form seems to be building nicely. The parcours are certainly in his favour and he should perform well. He might not be in the limelight as Diego Ulissi is returning from suspension. He’ll be motivated and fresh. I still believe that Ulissi will win an Ardennes race, in the future. I wonder what his form will be like. It is possible to win on return.
Thibaut Pinot will still be suffering from throwing away the Criterium International. He really did blow it but he’ll learn from his tactical mistake, on the final stage. I’ve been very impressed with his improvement in his TT ability this year. This was his biggest weakness, but no more. Pinot will expect a top 5 finish this week, maybe even top 3.
Cannondale-Garmin have Talansky, Slagter and Formolo. Any one of these riders could be team leader but I would like Tom Slagter to get the nod. In 2014, he was 5th in Flèche and 6th in LBL. Slagter should be about to peak and if he can survive the early stages, he has a good chance of success. Despite that, Talansky will probably lead. He’s their main GC rider and it would be a surprise if he didn’t get a chance here, especially as he worked for Dan Martin in Catalunya.
Trek Factory Racing have Mollema and Arredondo. Mollema took an excellent 2nd place in Tirreno and he’ll look to repeat that performance here. He’s another that will cope well with the “Mur” finishes. In 2014, he was 7th in Amstel and 4th in Flèche. The Queen stage should be fine for him too and his TT ability is improving all the time, riding with Trek certainly helps that. Arredondo will have some freedom, to try and get a stage win but he won’t focus on GC.
Daniel Navarro has had a horrible start to 2015. Crashes and illness have seem him withdraw from Andalucia and Catalunya. Finishing the race will be start for him!
Caja Rural will animate the race. They have Pardilla and Arroyo for the GC, but a top 10 finish would be all they could expect. Txurruka and Bilbao will be their men for the breaks as they try to win the KOM jersey and get some recognition for their team.
The favourites are Quintana, Kwiatkowski, Mollema, Rodriguez, Van Garderen, Pinot and Peraud. My sources never let me down, so the fact that Quintana has been riding all the stages for a couple of weeks means that he is very motivated. Despite the TT ability of the Pole, I think Quintana will take the win. It should be a battle royale for the podium and I think Mollema should make it on. I’ve been impressed with how he’s settled into his new team.
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