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Star-studded field gathers for Clasica San Sebastian – Preview

The winner of the 2013 Clasica Ciclista San Sebastian, AG2R La Mondiale's Tony Gallopin, probably sums it up best: "It's a difficult race where the puncheurs can compete with the climbers."

Indeed, we couldn't have put it better ourselves, and this Saturday's Clasica San Sebastian will see what is, for most riders, a first return to racing since the Tour de France finished just under a week ago.

San Sebastian functions as a sort of one-day reunion – a revenge match, even – for those puncheurs and climbers that Gallopin mentions to rekindle the competition that ended after the Tour reached Paris on Sunday.

Having just thrilled Basque crowds with the Tour's stage 20 individual time trial from Saint-Pée-sur-Nivelle to Espelette last Saturday, the world's top riders are back in the Basque Country for Spain's biggest one-day Classic.

This year's race will welcome riders of the calibre of former winner Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), LottoNL-Jumbo's Primoz Roglic, Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), Quick-Step's Julian Alaphilippe and UAE Team Emirates' Dan Martin, as well as 2013 winner Gallopin and his AG2R teammate Pierre Latour, who recently clinched the white best young rider's jersey at the Tour.

"I'm happy to get back to racing at the Clasica San Sebastian – a race that I like, and that has proved successful for me in the past," Gallopin said, with some understatement: after his victory there five years ago, the Frenchman went on to finish fifth in 2014, and has finished second for the past two years.

"Usually, I've been able to come out of the Tour in good shape, which has allowed me to perform well here a week later. Admittedly, I don't know how I'm going to go this time," he said, referring to the fact he had to quit this year's Tour on stage 12 due to fatigue and illness. "But I remain confident and I want to have fun."

That's all very well if your idea of fun is a route that includes two ascents of the famous Jaizkibel and a final climb – the Murgil Tontorra – that includes sections with gradients of well over 20 per cent.

Spain's Marino Lejaretta holds the record for the most wins at San Sebastian with three victories, in 1981, 1982 and 1987.

Lejaretta is long-retired, but two current Spanish pros have two wins at San Sebastian to their names: Movistar's Alejandro Valverde – winner in 2008 and 2014 – and Astana's Luis Leon Sanchez, who won in 2010 and 2012, although neither will be at the start this Saturday to try to equal their countryman's record: Valverde is resting up ahead of the Vuelta a Espana, which starts at the end of this month, while Sanchez is a non-starter for Astana, still recovering from a crash on stage 2 of the Tour, in which he fractured his elbow.

The Kazakh team will instead be led by Miguel Angel Lopez, who finished third overall at this year's Giro, and was the race's best young rider, while Movistar can boast Mikel Landa, who comes to the race fresh off the back of his seventh-place finish at the Tour.

Movistar's Mikel Landa (Getty Images)

Last year, Team Sky's Michal Kwiatkowski beat Gallopin – still then riding for Lotto Soudal – into second place from what was a five-man sprint, with Trek-Segafredo's Bauke Mollema in third, Sunweb's Tom Dumoulin fourth, and Landa finishing fifth.

But with Kwiatkowski choosing not to defend his title, and to instead lead Sky at the Tour of Poland, which also starts this weekend, 21-year-old Colombian climber Egan Bernal will be given the opportunity to lead the team at this year's San Sebastian.

The race reunites Bernal with up-and-coming British climber Tao Geoghegan Hart, who helped the Colombian win the Tour of California in May, and after having ridden strongly in the service of Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome at the Tour de France, Bernal has to be considered one of the favourites on Saturday.

Team Sky's Tao Geoghegan Hart (Courtesy of Polartec-Kometa)

Julian Alaphilippe, Primoz Roglic, Adam Yates, Greg Van Avermaet and Dan Martin may have something to say about that, all having ridden strongly on the climbs at this year's Tour, with Roglic having finished fourth overall and Martin eighth.

Martin's best result at San Sebastian is seventh, achieved in 2015, while Van Avermaet came close to taking victory in the same year after attacking on the final climb. But the unfortunate Belgian was knocked off his bike by an overenthusiastic TV motorcycle, which ended his chances, and instead Yates powered to a solo victory, but didn't realise that he'd won until after crossing the finish line, thinking Van Avermaet was still up the road.

The riders face a very similar route to last year when Kwiatkowski won, racing across 228.7 kilometres. Two category 3 climbs and one second-category climb – the Alto de Iturburu – soften the legs up nicely early on before the feed-zone, but then comes the first climb of the category 1 Jaizkibel, followed soon afterwards by the category 2 Arkale before both climbs are repeated on a second circuit.

A final loop takes what's left of the field over the short, but very sharp, Murgil Tontorra, which includes a short section at 22 per cent, and from the top it's all downhill to the finish, just under eight kilometres away, giving any chasing group the opportunity to get back on terms with anyone who may have made their escape on the previous climbs.

The race organisers, Euskadi-OCETA, also recently announced their plans for a Clasica San Sebastian Femenina in 2019. The women's race is set to take place on the same day as the men's race next year, and although it wouldn't initially be part of the UCI Women's WorldTour, that is very much the long-term goal for the event, with the objective, according to the organisers, to "encourage and promote women's cycling at a high level and promote equality and equity in sports".

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