By Martin Hardie
The Vuelta a Pais Vasco was first run 71 years ago and in that time, with interruptions because of war and dictatorship, this year will see only its 45th edition. The race, which has been in recent years a 'Haute Categorie' tour has come along way since Ernest Hemingway ate and drank with the peloton one night in San Sebastian 70 years ago.
This year, as the race takes on the status of the first UCI Pro Tour event south of the Pyrenees, we can expect things to be a little different to the one he observed where the "bicycle-riders drank much wine, and were burned and browned by the sun. They did not take the race seriously except among themselves. They had raced among themselves so often that it did not make much difference who won".
The Itzulia, as the Vuelta is known in the Basque language, is a five-day event that rolls up and down the country's steep green hills. After four days of continual leg sapping climbing, the last day is traditionally split between a shorter but crucial road stage and a short but usually decisive time trial. Although the ProTour sought at one point to have the race lengthened to six days, this year sees no change to the traditional format which passes through all of the Basque provinces - Giupuzkoa, Bizkaia, Araba and Navarra - that fall within the territory of Spain.
The race, of course, is a source of local pride with Basque riders, always out to prove themselves on their home turf. But it is also a keenly-sought crown in the jewels of any riders palmares, an important step in the preparation of many for the Ardennes Classics and the Giro d'Italia. Over what are effectively six stages, the peloton will face 20 categorised climbs and little respite. Day one kicks of in the seaside party and surfing town of Zarautz with a circuit that winds along the picturesque coastal road before cutting in land and crossing the Cat. 3 Meagas. The route laps this circuit three times before a final nasty ascent of the Cat. 2 Garate, which, although only 2kms in length, kicks in at 16% and summits 7kms before the plunge back to the beach.
Stage 2 heads out of Giupuzkoa and into Bizkaia. It commences with a couple of Cat. 3s, the Itziar and the Arieto, which rises out of Ermua and drops into the valley which the riders will follow down past Durango to Bilbao. After a sprint outside the Athletic Bilbao soccer ground, the race enters the Las Encartaciones region with its continual run of sharp pitches. This is a great day for an escape to make some time early, but they will have to fight to hold their lead over the Cat. 2, Arborleda, the nasty Cat. 3 Cobaron Cat. 3 and the 8.5km ascent to the finish on the Cat. 2, La Lejana.
Stage 3 takes the race out of Bizkaia through the territory of the GP Llodio, and into the plateau country of Araba. The climb up to the plateau is via the Cat. 2 La Barrerilla, which will be familiar to Ciclismo Euskadi camp-goers, as the winding climb up the rock face from Orduña back home to their base in Murgia. After that and before finishing in the Basque Government's capital in Vitoria-Gasteiz, the stage goes up two sides of the Cat. 2 Zaldiaran to the south in the Sierra, which forms the land border between the Basque Country and the wine producing area of la Rioja.
From Gasteiz, Stage 4 heads east towards Navarra and has a heap of difficult encounters along the entire route. The Cat. 1 Opakua falls early on and could be another launching pad for a break that will then have the Cat. 2 Urbasa, the Cat. 3 Altamira and two ascents including the final mountain top finish of La Cadena (Cat. 3). If that's not enough, the race's 'queen stage' will be fought over a mere 93 kms and will finish atop the beastly Cat. 2 Arantzazu, which, over its 8kms, kicks in at 10 percent plus before steadying out for a 6km grind of around 6%. This will be the last chance for the climbers to position themselves before the afternoons 9.3 km closing time trial in the ancient university city of Oñati. The race against the clock will be flat by Basque standards, but even then will have an altitude gain of 150 metres or so up and over the Alto de Olalde, before dropping back into town.
T-Mobile have already expressed their desire to do well in the Itzulia with their mixed bag of Germans, Kazakhs and Spanish. Dennis Menchov will front his new squad, Rabobank, for the event but has admitted that he isn't at the peak of form he was last year when he took the event from Iban Mayo and David Etxebarria. Etxebarria will line up alongside Roberto Heras and mark this attempt to take out the race by returning to the folds of Manolo Saiz at Liberty Seguros after being one of the stalwarts of Euskaltel-Euskadi in recent years.
For their part, the Orange Armada have been pretty quiet so far this year. It was in April and the Itzulia last year that Iban Mayo started his period of being on fire, coming second here and following it up with impressive victories in Asturias, Alcondendas and the Dauphiné Libéré. But Mayo has been quiet and taking it easy to date, and the Orange guy that seems to be on song or coming close with every ride is Mayo's teammate Haimar Zubeldia. Looking forward to the Giro and with over 10,000 kms of training in his legs already this season, Zubeldia told Cyclingnews that because of the change in his calendar, "I am coming to this race with a lot more form" than last year.
Zubeldia continued that we can expect "the maximum" from Euskaltel "because we are riding at home... and that the team knows that we have to win this race." With Mayo, Samuel Sanchez back after injury, Iker Camano and Egoi Martinez as his key henchmen, Zubeldia is feeling good. He believes that the race will be decided on the Friday morning as the race climbs Arantzazu.
"The time trial is like last year, but the climb in it is much harder. I think it will make some difference," said Zubeldia. "But you have to take into account that the morning has a mountain-top finish, and so before the time trial, the race might be pretty well decided."
Although competition could come from a number of quarters, Heras, the T-Mobile squad, Cadel Evans and Cunego are the likely candidates. Zubeldia also has an eye on CSC: "CSC are very strong, especially Julich, Voigt and Basso. Contador looks good in Liberty and I thought Menchov and his team looked good in the Criterium International. Of course, I am not going to forget Valverde!" he concluded.
With around 15 riders who could be in the shout for victory at the end, one thing is for certain, as always in the Basque Country: that is along with the incessant climbing, the weather can be a decisive factor at this time of year.
Stage 1 - April 4: Zarautz - Zarautz, 133 km
Stage 2 - April 5: Zarautz - La Lejana-Trapagaran, 166 km
Stage 3 - April 6: Ortuella - Gasteiz, 176 km
Stage 4 - April 7: Gasteizy - Altsasu, 167 km
Stage 5a - April 8: Altsasu - Oñati, 93 km
Stage 5b - April 8: Oñati Individual Time Trial, 9,3 km
Davitamon - Lotto (Bel), Quick.Step (Bel), Team CSC (Den), Bouygues Telecom (Fra), Credit Agricole (Fra), Cofidis (Fra), Francaise Des Jeux (Fra), Gerolsteiner (Ger), T-Mobile Team (Ger), Rabobank (Ned), Fassa Bortolo (Ita), Domina Vacanze (Ita), Lampre - Caffita (Ita), Liquigas - Bianchi (Ita), Euskaltel - Euskadi (Spa), Illes Balears (Spa), Liberty Seguros (Spa), Saunier Duval - Prodir (Spa), Phonak Hearing Systems (Swi), Discovery Channel (USA), Relax-Fuenlabrada (Spa), Comunidad Valenciana (Spa), Kaiku (Spa)