The first round of one of the most keenly-anticipated showdowns this season kicks off on Monday when Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) and Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) headline the Itzulia Basque Country.
To say the two have history, albeit of a sporting variety, is no exaggeration. Pogačar’s smash-and-grab job at the 2020 Tour de France, ousting Roglič from the maillot jaune on the last day possible, made for one of the most memorable stage race finales in recent years.
Roglič managed to turn the tables in Liège-Bastogne-Liège a few weeks later, but this is the first time the two will cross swords in a stage race since they rode together onto the Champs Elysées in first and second place in the Tour last autumn.
Adding spice to it all is that both look to be in excellent form, as Pogačar’s back-to-back WorldTour wins in UAE Tour and Tirreno-Adriatico, and Roglič’s near-miss in Paris-Nice would suggest.
But thinking the Slovenian face-off is the only potential sporting revenge match at the 2021 Itzulia Basque Country - formerly known as the Vuelta al País Vasco - would be a major mistake. For one thing, the six-day stage race, cancelled last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, will also see Roglič take on the two riders who stood beside him in the final podium of the 2020 Vuelta a España: Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) and Hugh Carthy (EF Education-Nippo).
Furthermore, Roglič will also face the rider who replaced him at the top of the overall classification of Paris-Nice this March following his multiple crashes on the last day: Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe). Let’s not forget that Schachmann, too, was the winner of three stages in the Itzulia when it was last held in 2019, so he’s not likely to prove an easy rival for Roglič.
Yet more in-form riders include Adam Yates (Ineos Grenadiers), the recent winner of the Volta a Catalunya and who took a spectacular final day’s stage win in La Itzulia in 2019. Home favourite Mikel Landa (Bahrain Victorious) recently secured an encouraging third place overall in Tirreno-Adriatico, while the evergreen, former Itzulia winner Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) may have been a distant fourth in Catalunya behind the winning Ineos Grenadiers winning machine, but he was fourth overall nonetheless. Yet another top competitor could be Wilco Keldermann (Bora-Hansgrohe), who was only one place behind Valverde in the Volta.
There are plenty of other dark horses in the mix, with Tao Geoghegan Hart’s presence for Ineos Grenadiers an incognito in terms of form, but nonetheless ensuring La Itzulia has the honour of being the first race of 2021 where all three Grand Tour winners of 2020 are present in the line-up.
Then there’s Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal), who will surely be as significant an option for stage wins as he was in the recent Volta a Catalunya, and Ion Izagirre (Astana Pro Team), who is the defending Itzulia champion and has been on the GC podium on multiple occasions. Yet another GC option is Michael Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation), who was on fast-rising form in the Volta a Catalunya, too, after bronchitis left him sidelined at Tirreno-Adriatico, and will likely be keen to build on his excellent track record in Vuelta a España stages in the Basque Country.
Others on the comeback trail include Esteban Chaves (Team BikeExchange), winner of the Volta’s toughest mountain stage, while all-rounder Marc Hirschi (UAE Team Emirates) and Gino Mader (Bahrain Victorious) are just two of the new wave of young racers who will be looking to impact at La Itzulia.
Veterans Jakob Fuglsang (Astana Pro Team) and Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), as well as Cofidis’ Guillaume Martin are yet more interesting options both for the GC battle and for stage wins. Euskaltel-Euskadi, racing on home soil in their most important race of the year, will likely be a constant feature of early stage attacks - and perhaps more.
Compared to the Spanish WorldTour race that immediately preceded it, the Volta a Catalunya, what the Itzulia Basque Country lacks in terms of the Volta’s high mountain climbing, it compensates with a non-stop succession of punchy, twisting ascents, and often technical downhills from the summits.
The first test is a short, rather oddly-constructed, urban time trial, starting with a 2.5-kilometre ascent of Santo Domingo and the Artxanda look-out point and followed by a lengthy descent through Bilbao. The TT concludes with a lung-burstingly short, steep, 400 metre ascent through the Etxebarria Park, up to the foot of a massive red-brick iron foundry chimney, conserved as a tourist attraction as a homage to Bilbao’s industrial past.
Although it’s hard to tell, given the odd format, how big the gaps will be, Basque racer Pello Bilbao (Bahrain Victorious), who recently reconned the chrono for local newspaper Deia, believes that, "the biggest differences will come on the first climb to Santo Domingo. It’s five to five and a half minutes of climbing, with an average gradient of seven per cent, which means you’ll have to measure your effort carefully to stay consistent as possible."
Having established an initial hierarchy (for the record, on the opening, similar-length Itzulia TT in 2019, there were gaps of a minute at the top of the stage classification), the rest of the GC race will essentially consist of overall challengers trying to reverse or defend that initial result.
Stages 2, 3 and the exceptionally tough stage 4, with second-category or first-category climbs just a few kilometres from the finishes in Zalla and Hondarrabia, respectively, will offer great launch pads for late attacks. On stage 3, the combination of a category-2 climb, Malkuartu, 19 kilometres from the finish, and the 20 per cent slopes of the short but unbearably-hard first-category Ermualde summit finish climb, should do some real damage.
After the Itzulia Basque Country’s one day for the sprinters, to Ondarroa on stage 5, where fast all-rounders like Magnus Cort Nielsen (EF Education-Nippo), Daryl Impey (Israel Start-Up Nation), Alex Aranburu (Astana-Premier Tech) and Dion Smith (Team BikeExchange) are likely to rule the roost, the Itzulia’s final mountain stage runs, with rather tedious predictability, to Arrate, the Basque Country’s most emblematic climb, the same as it has visited on numerous occasions in the past.
The last stage offers seven classified ascents in just 111 kilometres. Former winners on Arrate in the 2021 peloton range from Alejandro Valverde (both in the Vuelta a España and the Itzulia) to Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) in 2019, and Enric Mas (Movistar) in 2018. Its most recent winner, though, is Roglic, in the opening stage of the Vuelta last October. Given the Slovenian’s propensity of uphill finishes and sprints in small groups, he’s surely the odds-on favourite for the overall again.
Keep an eye out, too, for how the time bonuses of 10, 6 and 4 seconds in the finish, and 3, 2 and 1 seconds in the intermediate sprints, play out. In a race which is often decided by differences of less than a minute, the seconds could be critical.
The biggest incognito right now could be the weather, which can vary in the Basque Country in April from snow and sub-zero temperatures through to warm, near-summer sunshine and back again, all in the space of six days. It would be an unusual Itzulia Basque Country if it did not rain heavily on at least one day, too, rendering crashes more likely on the often treacherous, twisty downhill sections of the course.
But in any case, rather than predicting a winner or forecasting the weather, the mere fact Itzulia Basque Country is actually happening after last year’s cancellation is a much-needed victory in itself. The Basque Country is Spain’s cycling heartland, and like La Volta last week, La Itzulia’s taking place represents a key message of hope for the sport across the country - and beyond.
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