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Can Spain make it four in a row?
Alexander Vinokourov (Astana), Luis León Sánchez (Caisse d'Epargne) and Carlos Sastre (Cervelo)
Coming just six days after the end of the Tour de France, the Clasica San Sebastian is an event that is rarely heralded with any great fanfare, yet the combination of a testing course and motivated home riders means that the racing is rarely anything less than whole-hearted.
In years gone by, the race marked the recommencement of hostilities in the now-defunct World Cup. While the tactical manoeuvring of that season-long competition added an additional veneer of intrigue to proceedings, the Clasica San Sebastian still wields a certain fascination in its own right, as it provides a rare common battleground for Classics specialists and Grand Tour riders alike.
Changes to the calendar mean that the this year’s Clasica San Sebastian comes just three weeks before the Vuelta a España gets underway in Benidorm on August 20. A number of Vuelta contenders (including defending champion Vincenzo Nibali) have opted to race the Tour of Poland this weekend, but the Clasica should still give some early indications as to the riders who have emerged from July with their motivation and form intact.
Sanchez back in the mix
Last season, Luis Leon Sanchez came out on top in a three-man sprint ahead of Alexandre Vinokourov and Carlos Sastre, and the Spaniard should be in the mix again after finding his feet at Rabobank in recent weeks. Joining him in a strong squad are 2009 winner Carlos Barredo, Robert Gesink and Oscar Freire, who begins his countdown to the world championships in Copenhagen.
Fränk and Andy Schleck head up a strong Leopard Trek outfit, while Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale), Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) and Samuel Sanchez (Euksaltel-Euskadi) are also among the riders from the Tour’s top ten who are set to line up in San Sebastian. Euskaltel-Euskadi are desperate for a maiden win in the Basque Country’s most prestigious one-day race, and Sanchez has the potential to shine on the testing course.
Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) has enjoyed a sparkling season to date, and if the Belgian is motivated and recovered from his exertions in France, he will have a major say in the outcome here. After his exploit over the Aubisque at the Tour, Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) lines up with a certain degree of confidence, even if the home riders will be keen to distance him on the climbs.
Among them will be Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), who skipped the Tour in order to conserve his energies for the Vuelta a España, and he will be looking to test his legs on the Jaizkibel. Green jersey contender José Joaquin Rojas (Movistar), Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) and Carlos Sastre (Geox-TMC) are thee more Spanish riders who will be looking to show themselves on home roads.
Jaizkibel the key
Soaring temperatures and rugged terrain make Spain’s premier one-day race a suitably tough proposition. The climbing gets underway barely 20km in and the combination of the Orio-Zudugarai and the Alto Garate (29.4km) should see the day’s early break sally clear.
120km of rolling roads follow that opening salvo before the business end of the race, which sees the peloton tackle two laps of a testing finishing circuit centred on the Alto de Jaizkibel and the Alto de Arkale. At 7.8km in length and with an average gradient of 5.84%, the first ascension of the Jaizkibel helps to thin the leading group. When the bunch tackles the climb the second time around, however, it serves as a crucial strategic springboard as there are just 38km left to the finish.
The final climb of the shorter Arkale (2.7km at 6.3%) comes with only 15km to race, and gives punchy riders another opportunity to slip the leash ahead of the quick run-in to San Sebastian. In the streets of the town itself, the sharp kick up the Alto Miracruz offers one last chance to shake up the winning break, before the grandstand finish on San Sebastian’s Boulevard.
A cursory glance at the Clasica San Sebastian’s roll of honour suggests that the race favours a strong climber who knows how to look after himself in a sprint. It’s not by chance, therefore, that the likes of Laurent Jalabert, Paolo Bettini and Alejandro Valverde have all triumphed there in the past decade.