For veteran Haimar Zubeldia (Trek-Segafredo) -riding his twelfth Vuelta a Espana- stages 12 and 13 through the Basque County represent a kind of homecoming. On Friday the race route passes less than a kilometre away from his front door.
As one of the most experienced Vuelta riders this year - his first was in 2000, when he finished tenth- the 39-year-old Trek-Segafredo tells Cyclingnews: "This year is not one of the hardest I've done, but the hardest sections have come very early this year. That's meant we're already at the half way point and we've had a big sort out of the general classification."
"There are maybe 20 people interested in GC now at most, and the rest of us are all hunting for stage wins. That's making the breakaways much harder to get into, and why so many are managed to stay away."
Zubeldia is amongst those chasing one day of glory.
"I'm feeling fine, waiting for the day that I really feel on form," Zubeldia points out. He will be particularly keen tomorrow [stage 13] from Bilbao to Urdax, "because the stage goes so close to my home, less than a kilometre from my front door and along the road that I drive or ride down every day. It'll be very special, seeing the family.
"Then on Sunday's stage" - from Sabiñanigo to the first category finish of Aramon, 116 kilometres - "it's an area I know very well, because that's where I go training every summer in the Pyrenees."
Of the two Basque Country stages, Zubeldia says that Thursday's twelfth stage, with the double ascent of the Alto del Vivero, "is the most likely to end in the break. I think Friday," - from Bilbao to Urdax, 213 kilometres, and with the same finish where Tony Martin won a stage of the Vuelta al País Vasco back in 2014 - "which is the longest of the entire race, the favourites will start to test each other a bit, with a view to what they could do on the Aubisque," [on Saturday] "but there might be somebody who gets away."
"The Aubisque is the hardest climb of the entire Vuelta and will be a GC day for sure, then when we move on to Formigal, it's so short, I think a break will almost certainly go."
A battle between Froome and Quintana, without ruling out Contador
Regarding the overall, Zubeldia warns about a possible fight back from Alberto Contador
"With that long time trial, it's down to Nairo Quintana and Chris Froome but we can't rule out Alberto Contador, either. Knowing him, one day he'll really try something for sure," he said.
Retired Basque rider Roberto Laiseka, who won stages in the Tour and Vuelta for the much-missed Euskaltel-Euskadi squad before going on to work for the Vuelta organisation, shares Zubeldia's excitement for the stages in the Basque Country.
"We'll see huge crowds on the Vivero, it's really something special. It's really a special day for the Basque fans and for Bilbao, just like it was back in 2011," he predicted.
"Urdax is very long, but I don't think much will happen. The really key stage is the Aubisque, together with the time trial, it's the most important stage of the entire Vuelta."
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