Spanish classic the scene for an immense battle in 2009
Defending champion Alejandro Valverde goes into this year's Clásica San Sebastián the favourite to join the likes of Francesco Casagrande and Laurent Jalabert as duel winners of this Basque Country favourite. A tough event that kicks life back into the racing calendar following the Tour de France, this 237km classic in the north of Spain is an event cherished by the locals and sought after by the outsiders.
While most of his contemporaries were riding the Tour de France, Valverde was forced to steer clear of France this July due to the sanction imposed on him by the Italian Olympic Committee. As the race spent part of a stage in Italy it meant Caisse d'Epargne had to leave him off its Tour roster and focus his efforts on the second half of 2009.
The simple equation: A motivated Valverde out to prove a point and take win number two in San Sebastián. It won't be that simple however, with the likes of Cadel Evans, Damiano Cunego, Filippo Pozzato and Oscar Freire coming out of July empty-handed and seeking some momentum to carry into the latter stages of this season.
Evans is a great hilly one-day racer, who has ridden well in the Ardennes over the past four seasons and in the Giro di Lombardia, which is effectively in his backyard. He may be targeting this race to help forget what was a generally forgettable Tour campaign.
Cunego is of the same ilk as Evans in this type of race; the two battling it out in Lombardia last year. No Tour for him, which means fresh legs and a clear head to ride well in northern Spain. Pozzato and Freire were eclipsed by the performances of Mark Cavendish and the breakaway renegades in France, their thunder when they expected more. They should be there in the finish given that they can get over the 'speed hump' about 40km from the finish - the Jaizkibel.
The Jaizkibel - a true test of form
Those riders who enjoyed a strong Tour de France may go into the event as favourites but the Alto De Jaizkibel soon sorts out those who burnt their matches in France and those with some reserves to get over the climb in prime position.
The first-category ascent becomes a decisive factor just 38.5km from the finish, which means that the Ardennes Classics specialists are always in with a chance in what is essentially the Spanish version of those time-honoured Belgian beauties.
There's also a tricky category three bump plus four category four climbs to negotiate throughout the parcours, so the fact that the toughest ascent is the penultimate obstacle of the day makes it that little bit tougher on the legs.
Sprinters such as Freire and Caisse d'Epargne's Joaquin Rodriguez should be able to get over the renowned climb in this race well, although maybe not with the leaders, which means a muy rapido descent ahead of the finish, which should prove to be a group affair.
Other names to look out for
Alexandr Kolobnev (Saxo Bank): Has proven himself over tough terrain in one-day races before. Second in last year's edition of Clásica San Sebastián, plus victory in l'Eroica and third in the Beijing Olympics road race makes him a likely candidate to go one better against Valverde in 2009.
Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi): Fast, strong and the reigning Olympic road race champion, Sanchez has had quiet 2009, building for a big finish to the year that includes a good performance in San Sebastián. An 'adopted' Basque, there will be a multitude of locals supporting him on their turf.
Fabian Wegmann (Team Milram): The punchy German is due a big win after remaining fairly anonymous for most of this season. His Tour campaign was nothing spectacular - like the rest of the Milram team - so he'll be motivated for the 237km journey in the Basque country.
Kim Kirchen (Columbia-HTC): Luxembourg's other big name didn't feature as often as his countrymen in the Tour de France, something that may suit him coming into this race. His Spring Classics campaign was derailed due to a crash in the Tour of California so he's another rider out to make amends, starting with the August 1 event.
Tour form doesn't mean San Sebastián success
Andy and Fränk Schleck, Alberto Contador and Sergei Ivanov are also due to start the Clásica, although all performed well in the Tour and hence may be coming off a few celebrations and some quality rest time. They'll definitely have the form to be amongst the action, although fatigue may become a factor given the efforts needed to win stages of the Tour and in the case of Contador, the race overall.
As such they may be useful allies for teammate - Contador for Janez Brajkovic, Ivanov for Pozzato and the Schelck brothers for Kolobnev - which will be a pleasant change given the pressure that was on them during July. Their presence should make for an interesting race.
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