- Peter Hymas
Tour champion Contador, defending champion Valverde ready for home country's premier one-day event
Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne) is back to defend his 2008 Clásica San Sebastián title.
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Just six short days after the Tour de France, the cream of Europe's professional peloton will line up to contest Spain's most prestigious one-day race, the 29th edition of the Clásica San Sebastián on Saturday, August 1. Many of the Tour's stars will put their Grand Tour form to work again over the challenging 237-kilometre parcours, while others either denied Tour glory or returning to competition after a July hiatus will attempt to make their mark in Spain's Basque region.
Most prominent of the Tour veterans is Spain's Alberto Contador (Astana), who arrived in Paris last Sunday resplendent in yellow for the second time in his career. Contador has competed in the Clásica San Sebastián only once previously, finishing a modest 26th place in 2008, 1:46 in arrears of race winner Alejandro Valverde, but the 26-year-old Tour champion surely possesses the ability to whittle the field down considerably on the race's six categorised climbs. And while two other Tour champions have won in San Sebastian, Lance Armstrong in 1995 and Spain's winningest Tour champion Miguel Indurain in 1990, neither attained victory while they were reigning Tour winners, a feat the home nation of Spain would surely like Contador to achieve.
The demanding Clásica San Sebastián route certainly requires its winners to have the ability to climb, but frequently the event concludes with a modest-sized group finishing together further asking its winner to possess a lightning-quick finishing kick. Perhaps no other rider in the peloton exemplifies those qualities better than defending champion Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne), who outsprinted 11 other riders to earn top honours in 2008. Left off of Caisse d'Epargne's Tour team due to his ban in Italy by CONI and with only three days of racing under his belt during July at the Vuelta Ciclista Internacional a la Comunidad de Madrid, Valverde returns to racing on Saturday backed by a strong contingent of Spanish teammates.
Sixteen of last year's top 20 finishers of San Sebastián return in 2009, among them Italy's Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas), fifth in 2008, who recently won the Tour's polka dot jersey and figured in several key breakaways during the French Grand Tour. Pellizotti is definitely on form, knows how to read a race and will also have powerful teammates in Vincenzo Nibali and Roman Kreuziger, who finished seventh and ninth overall at the Tour de France.
Team Saxo Bank brings five of its Tour team members to San Sebastián, led by brothers Andy and Fränk Schleck, Tour runner-up and Tour stage winner respectively. Andy missed the winning move at San Sebastián in 2008, finishing in 18th, but has since proven himself as a formidable one-day rider after claiming one of the sport's Monuments, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, in dramatic solo fashion in April of this year. Undeniably fit after his Tour de France podium performance, and backed by his brother and a deep Saxo Bank squad, Andy Schleck should find himself a contender for victory on the finishing Donostia Boulevard this Saturday.
Euskaltel-Euskadi, the Basque region's own ProTour team, has never claimed victory at its home race but fields a team with high morale following Mikel Astarloza's Tour victory in Bourg-Saint-Maurice on July 21. In addition to Astarloza, 2008 Olympic road champion Samuel Sánchez returns to competition after a break during the Tour de France. Sánchez, seventh in the 2008 Clásica San Sebastián, is a rider possessing the tactical acumen plus the climbing and sprinting ability to challenge Spanish rival Valverde for victory.
Rabobank's Denis Menchov finished in the same time as Valverde last year, crossing the line in sixth place, but suffered a lackluster Tour de France after winning the Giro d'Italia in May. However, Rabobank does brings two Spaniards to the start line each with the potential to figure prominently on Saturday: Oscar Freire and Juan Manuel Garate. Freire is the one sprinter who could challenge Valverde is a dash to the line and throughout his career the three-time world champion has proven adept at surviving difficult climbs to contest for victories. Freire's best Clásica San Sebastián finish was fifth in 2000 while finishing 11th on two other occasion.
Freire's compatriot on Rabobank, Juan Manuel Garate, saved the Tour for the Dutch team with a win on Mont Ventoux. Garate nearly won the Clásica San Sebastián in 2007, losing a two-man sprint to Italy's Leonardo Bertagnolli, and comes into this year's event with the form to finish one step higher on the podium.
Other rides who have the potential to effect Saturday's outcome include 2009 Tour de France yellow jersey holder Rinaldo Nocentini (AG2R La Mondiale), Bbox Bouygues Telecom's Tour stage winners Thomas Voeckler and Pierrick Fedrigo, Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step), Katusha's Tour stage and Amstel Gold winner Serguei Ivanov, Damiano Cunego (Lampre-NGC), Kim Kirchen (Columbia-HTC) and Germany's Fabian Wegmann (Team Milram).
As is the case each year, the Clásica San Sebastián will feature a tough, selective course and its 2009 route is similar to the previous year's parcours. After an 11:10 a.m. start in San Sebastián the peloton faces the category three Alto de Orio at kilometre 18. Eleven kilometres later the riders cross the second category Alto de Garate followed by another second category climb, the Alto de Azkarate, at kilometre 61.
The high point of the Clásica San Sebastián, at 574 metres, comes at the top of the second category Alto de Udana reached after 104 kilometres of racing. With only 38.5 kilometres left, the peloton must tackle the first category Alto de Jaizkibel, an ascent which typically separates the pretenders from the contenders each year. The second category Alto de Arkale, new in 2008 and making a return appearance this year, is the final challenge, with only 15 kilometres of racing from its summit to the finish line. Valverde remarked in 2008 that the Alto de Arkale creates a tougher finale and indeed the winning break went clear on its slopes last year.