By Martin Hardie
Stage 1 of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco kicks off at 2:00pm European time on Monday afternoon and the line up and competition is already looking fierce. Ivan Basso (CSC) said in Zarautz this morning that although Jens Voigt is as strong as ever, Bobby Julich is the man to watch in the CSC line up this week. For his part, Dennis Menchov has said that his new team Rabobank have his plans set firmly on the Tour in July, but that any victory in the Vasco is unforgettable as the level of competition is always very high.
Other than Julich one name on the lips of many directors today has been that of Alejandro Valverde. Phonak's director Juan Fernandez said that Valverde "has a riding style that is tremendously aggressive and his competitiveness allows him the chance of always picking up a few seconds and these overall could give him the lead."
Liberty's Alberto Contador is also being looked at as a real contender by some. Their assistant director, the legendary Basque rider Marino Lejarreta, said, "We have come with a potent squad, with many options to take out the general classification. Our objective is to win." But if he has to pick someone out side of the Liberty squad, which has along with Contador, David Etxebarria and Roberto Heras as options, he nominated Bobby Julich as a clear favourite.
Zarautz resident and Euskaltel rider Gorka Gonzalez spoke of today's final climb. "Garate is hard, but short. It only has a little more than two kilometres of climbing in it. But for sure it's going to be a fast stage, but even so I am not sure that it will break up the peloton excessively. If the climb of Garate is very fast from the bottom (where it is at its steepest), it could split into a group of 25 or 30 riders. It's possible with the descent for such a group to stay away until the finish. But maybe it could be a group of 50 arriving for a bunch sprint."
Gonzalez commented that even given the 16% ramps of the Garate "some climb it in the big ring. Others go at it in the little ring with a 15 or 17 at the back. It is a short climb, for strong riders, not for pure climbers. In a stage where there are other tough climbs before hand Garate wouldn't make that much difference but today that is not the case."
The finishing straight today is 300 metres long and will give us the first leader of this year's ProTour Vuelta al Pais Vasco, and the third rider to win here in Zarautz after Sean Kelly in 1984 and Manuel Jorge Domínguez in 1987.