By Monika Prell
While the strong men of Flanders battle each other across the cobbles, a series of races in the Basque country offer a challenge to the less weighty riders who prefer to wage war on gravity in the mountains.
The week of racing begins Saturday, April 4 with the GP Miguel Indurain in Estella (Navarra). It is followed by the ProTour event, the Vuelta al País Vasco from April 6 to 11. The week's dramatic conclusion will come Easter Sunday with the Klasika Primavera in Amorebieta (Vizcaya), the only race which has not undergone major changes this year.
The GP Miguel Indurain gets a boost to its degree of difficulty with a course change. Previously ascending the Alto de Ibarra once, the new course takes in this deceptively steep, short hill four times in between seven other mountains including the uphill finish at El Puy. At 191 kilometres, the race is not for the weak of heart.
Last year's winner Fabian Wegmann (Milram) will try to defend his title, but will face a challenge from Alejandro Valverde and Joaquím Rodríguez (Caisse d'Epargne) as well as Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel - Euskadi), the Schleck brothers Andy and Frank (Saxo Bank) and Tour champion Carlos Sastre (Cervélo TestTeam).
After a day of respite, the most important race of the Basque country will start in the little village of Ataun (Guipúzcoa). The Basque Tour absorbed the Euskal Bizikleta, which fell victim to the economic downturn, and incorporates that race's queen stage into the event. The finish at the Sanctuary of Arrate on stage three will be decisive, as will the final time trial of 24km on the final day.
On the start line will be a host of Tour contenders including Alberto Contador (Astana), the brothers Schleck, Italian Damiano Cunego (Lampre) and Australian Cadel Evans (Silence Lotto).
The Klasika Primavera remains unchanged, and as every year it will close the week of racing on April 12. This race is the last chance for all the riders who were disappointed with their performance in the Vuelta al País Vasco to grab a victory. The race is 171.6 kilometres with six classified climbs, and should wring out the last of the energies of the peloton.