Although the Classics stars will look to recover their strength in the six days that separate the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, WorldTour racing will be in full-swing a few hundred miles to the south-west in the Basque Country. Always a popular target for Grand Tour stars and Ardennes specialists alike, the six-day Vuelta Ciclista al País Vasco is set to feature as strong a start list as ever.
Defending champion Alberto Contador and a host of other big names will square off on the region's famously undulating terrain. The scene of Nairo Quintana first WorldTour GC victory and Joaquím Rodríguez's last, País Vasco is a coveted spring prize that favours well-rounded talents.
The non-stop up-and-down makes the Basque Country a climber's paradise, but this is not a race of long Alpine slogs. País Vasco is all about short, punchy ascents—and given the rainy climate, descending skills for the often-slick downhills that follow the climbs come in handy as well.
The race kicks off with a stage likely to suit the fast finishers, with a profile that is surprisingly tame in the final 50 kilometres. Things get punchier from there on out. The finales of stages 2, 3 and 4 all follow a similar playbook: a late climb followed by a fast descent to the line.
Stage 5 is set to be the queen stage of the race. Over the short distance of 139.8km, the peloton will take on six categorised climbs, with the first-category Usartzako ascent closing out the action. Expect a fast, brutal day of racing. There won't be any rest for the GC contenders after stage 5, however, as the sixth and final stage will be a decisive individual time trial. 27.7km in and around Eibar, the TT kicks off with a climb and a technical downhill before a flat second half. A closing TT has played a critical role in the overall GC battle for several editions in a row, and all signs point to the 2017 race playing out the same way.
Defending champion Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) has come within inches of taking GC victories on three separate occasions so far this year only to come up short. He was strong throughout this race last year, however, eking out the overall victory thanks to a brilliant TT performance, and his chrono abilities should serve him well again this year.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) has proven a formidable opponent, however, denying Contador's GC aspirations at both the Ruta del Sol and the Volta a Catalunya, and he'll find himself on favoured terrain this week. No one rides punchy climbs like Valverde, who also packs a respectable TT—and leads a team that tends to perform on Spanish soil.
Sergio Henao has been a constant contender in this race and will undoubtedly be motivated to finally turn consistent podium results into a victory. He's punchier than many realise and can deliver a decent TT to boot, making him a threat. Sky teammate Michal Kwiatkowski may be in the mix as well.
Bahrain-Merida's Ion Izagirre was third in 2015 and, riding in his native Basque Country, is sure to be a contender for Bahrain-Merida. AG2R brings Romain Bardet, always a danger when climbs are involved. Cannondale-Drapac's dynamic duo of Rigoberto Urán and Andrew Talansky, Quick-Step's Julian Alaphilippe, Orica-Scott's Adam Yates, UAE Team Emirates' Diego Ulissi, Katusha-Alpecin's Simon Spilak and Sunweb's Warren Barguil are others to watch in the overall battle.
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