Ion Izagirre: Doing so well on GC is new territory for me

Although he has been a pro for nine years, for Ion Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida), the Vuelta a España has always been unknown territory.

Unknown, that is, until August 25 in Malaga this summer, when the 29-year-old Basque has finally made his debut in the Spanish Grand Tour and is lying fifth overall at 17 seconds after two tough days in the mountains and 10 days of intense racing.

For Izagirre, doing so well on GC is, he tells Cyclingnews, “a real surprise.” His best place in a Grand Tour to date was 22nd in the Tour de France this year, when he was racing in support of Vincenzo Nibali.

“Before coming here, I would have signed on the dotted line to be here in fifth place overall, and with such small differences between the main favourites," he said.

“It’s been a good start to the Vuelta, but I’ve got to keep my feet on the ground, and the toughest stages are yet to come. A lot can still happen.”

Izagirre already has stage wins in the Giro d’Italia, back in 2012 on a third-week transition stage and in 2016 in the Tour de France, where he triumphed on a rainy day in the Alps at Morzine. But the Vuelta, for one reason and another, has never formed part of his professional career.

“I’ve had some good second parts of the season in other years,” Izagirre points out - he has won the Tour de Pologne once and twice finished second there, as well as twice finishing in the top 10 in Montreal. But this summer after doing the Tour de France and then finishing seventh in the Clásica San Sebastian, he has ended up at the Vuelta.

“I’ve always been pretty consistent throughout a season, but coming here was as much a question of getting used to the idea as anything else,” he tells Cyclingnews. “I told myself, ‘Why don’t you try it?’

“It’s the first time I’ve ever done two Grand Tours in one season, but in any case, there’s not been a special build-up for the Vuelta because I’ve not done it before. But what is clear is that at the moment I’m in good shape.”

He is, he says, on a voyage in the dark in many ways: He has never been up any of the three climbs this weekend, the Camperona, Praeres and Covadonga, although he does know the Basque ascent, the Monte Oiz/Balcon de Bizkaia, on stage 17. “And I know the climbs in Andorra well, which can be an advantage.”

What could give him an even greater advantage, of course, could be the 32 kilometre time trial on stage 16.

“It could be very decisive and on paper, of all the GC contenders, it suits me and [Wilco] Kelderman (Team Sunweb) the best. What you can’t predict, of course, is how you’ll feel by that point in the race. But it could well produce bigger gaps than in the mountains.

“Meantime, I’m just going to keep going as long as I can. Because I don’t know how long I can stay up there with the favourites, so I just have to do that.”

Izagirre has signed with Astana for 2019, together with his brother Gorka, but he insists that he feels fully supported by the Bahrain-Merida team in the brothers' last Grand Tour with the squad.

Before 2019 and after the Vuelta, in any case, is the World Championships, but he is not yet certain if he will go.

“I would love to do it, but you’ll have to ask the Spanish National trainer [Javier Minguez] if I’m going,” he said. “But Valverde could win it. He’s capable of anything. He’s an amazing racer.”

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Alasdair Fotheringham

Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The IndependentThe GuardianProCycling, The Express and Reuters.