High-level climbers gearing up in Basque Country

As the peak of Spring Classics racing is being attained in the Northern European countries, Spain is holding its first major stage race in the Basque Country, lining up an impressive field of climbers and GC specialists. Whether they are fine-tuning their form to be at the top of their game for the Giro d'Italia, or having the Vuelta a Pais Vasco as an objective in its own right, riders will be fighting hard in the six-stage event.

With two Cat. 1 summit finishes on the menu (Santuario de Arrate on stage three and Alto de Ibardin on stage four), there will be no respite at this Vuelta a Pais Vasco, starting on Monday with stage one already featuring seven climbs, one Cat. 2 and one Cat. 1. The final individual time trial of 18.9 kilometres on Saturday in Oñati will settle the overall winner.

Saved from cancellation in the very last minute by bank sponsor Sabadell-Guipuzcoano, the 52nd edition of the event will once again see American team RadioShack-Nissan with the two main favourites: Chris Horner and Andreas Klöden. Horner, who won the race two years ago, showed his great form this spring by finishing second in Tirreno-Adriatico recently. Defending champion Klöden, who finished seventh against the clock on the Col d'Eze in Paris-Nice, is also on the rise.

The American squad also including Fränk Schleck and Jens Voigt will however encounter potent rivals, even if Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) will not be at the start due to injury. Generally, the Spaniards are of course highly motivated to take back the title, and even more so Basque rider Samuel Sanchez. Euskaltel, on home ground, will do everyhting to reclaim the crown, also lining up Igor Anton and Mikel Astarloza, back from a doping-related suspension.

Joaquim Rodriguez of Katusha will be using the event to test himself in view of the Ardennes Classics and the Giro d'Italia, and have strong support with Dani Moreno at his side. Rodriguez recently won the first stage of Tirreno-Adriatico so is also coming up strongly.

More possible contenders come from Belgium and the Netherlands, with strong climbers Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol) still in search for their first 2012 testing grounds.

Italy also sends some competition with Lampre's Damiano Cunego and Michele Scarponi. The 2011 Giro d'Italia winner may not have the form of last year yet, but together with Cunego, who has his eyes on the Ardennes Classics, they could make it hard for the favourites. The same goes for John Gadret, Jean-Christophe Péraud and Rinaldo Nocentini of AG2R La Mondiale, desperate to score a first 2012 victory for their team.

Omega Pharma-QuickStep's time trail ace Tony Martin should make an impact again at the final time trial, which he won last year. Also looking strong are the Garmin-Barracuda and GreenEdge teams, with Australian Simon Gerrans already confident from his Tour Down Under and Milan-Sanremo victories.

It will thus be all but a piece of cake for the defending champion's RadioShack-Nissan squad to retain the Basque title.

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