Rigoberto Uran will lead EF Education First-Drapac's ambition for overall Vuelta al Pais Vasco victory next week. The Colombian will be supported by a strong group of climbers across the six stages in the Basque Country from 2-7 April.
With former professional and Basque local Juan Manuel Garate in the car, the team is hoping home ground advantage can assist in its aims for overall victory.
"The first stage passes in front of my house," said Garate. "If my family is at home watching the race, I can see them. You can imagine how special this is for me. I know 90 percent of the roads blind."
Joining Uran in his third stage race of the year after winning a stage and placing third at the Colombia Oro y Paz before tenth at Tirreno–Adriatico are Mike Woods, Hugh Carthy, Nate Brown, Brendan Canty, Lawson Craddock and Alex Howes.
"With this group, we are going to the race to try to win the general classification," said Garate. "For sure other teams have the same goal, so it will not be easy. We need to pay attention to every single meter."
Across the hilly parcours and narrow twisty roads, Garate added full concentration is required at all times from his riders in the bid for overall victory.
"This year's Pais Vasco is like old times from three, four years ago – not like the last two years. It has super narrow, twisty and steep final climbs, especially on the first, second and last stages. The flat time trial on stage four is something new," he said of the 19.4 kilometre test against the clock.
"There's one stage that they say is for the sprinters, but with really narrow and open roads in the last kilometer, there can be high tension in the bunch, so maybe the bunch is broken at the end. There's not one single day that is easy, It's going to be a high-intensity race mentally and physically.
Adding to the complexity of the race and predicting the outcomes of the stages are the multiple objectives of teams and riders. The race is traditionally a warm-up event for the Ardennes classics and as a result, Garate is expecting a peloton of inform and motivated riders.
"The guys that are racing the Ardennes, sometimes they use Pais Vasco to prepare themselves," said Garate. "The guys that are finishing the first part of their season, they come to Pais Vasco to race. And the guys that are growing towards the Giro, they come here, too. This means the race has a really high level with 80-90 percent of the bunch in really good condition. You have that and then you have the roads – not a single meter of flat here in Pais Vasco. That's why this week is so hard.
Briton Hugh Carthy will be a key rider for Uran in the hilly finales and fresh from his best WorldTour stage race to date, 13th at Volta a Catalunya, is aiming for another high-class performance.
"I'm feeling good again going into Pais Vasco. I took some good rest this week to recover from a hard week in Catalunya," said Carthy. "Pais Vasco is a beautiful race for strong, gutsy riders. The fans in Northern Spain adore the race and the smaller roads, steep climbs and bad weather always provide a spectacle.
"The last stage to Arrate has become iconic over the years. The final stage is always exciting at the end of a tough week, so to climb over such hard terrain on the final day will really showcase a true winner."
The first stage of the 2018 Vuelta al Pais Vasco is a 162.1km day in the saddle from to Zarautz to Zarautz. The race concludes with the 122.2km Eibar to Arrate stage 6.
EF Education First-Drapac for Vuelta al Pais Vasco: Nate Brown, Brendan Canty, Hugh Carthy, Lawson Craddock, Alex Howes, Rigoberto Uran and Mike Woods.