Pogačar and Roglič meet again
The 60th edition of Itzulia Basque Country will host the rematch the whole cycling world has been waiting for: Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) v Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates).
The two Slovenians haven’t raced against each other in a stage race since that fateful final weekend of the Tour de France last year, when Pogačar so dramatically and unexpectedly took the yellow jersey off Roglic’s shoulders after the time trial at Planche des Belles Filles.
Both have started the 2021 season in untouchable form, with Pogačar claiming back-to-back overall victories in his first two stages races of the season, UAE Tour and Tirreno-Adriatico, and Roglič winning three stages in just four days at Paris-Nice, with only a dislocated shoulder suffered from a crash preventing him from coasting to overall victory. So far their paths have not crossed this season — until now.
While both have looked unbeatable in 2021 so far, something will have to give this week. Right now there appears to be little to choose between the two, so we could be in for one of the closest and most exciting showdowns of the season.
Yates leads Ineos Grenadiers, but will they change strategy?
Adam Yates was the only rider to get anywhere near Pogacar at the UAE Tour, and, in current form, looks like one of the only riders capable of defeating him and his Slovenian compatriot this week.
The Brit has looked better than ever so far this season, following up second overall behind Pogačar in that race with overall victory at Volta a Catalunya.
As at Catalunya, where the team achieved the unprecedented feat of occupying all three spots on the podium, he’ll be part of another fearsome Ineos Grenadiers line-up, this time featuring Richard Carapaz and Tao Geoghegan Hart. Although they are both Grand Tour winners, it’s likely to be Yates again who takes the reigns as leader for the GC, given the hot streak of form he’s currently on.
Then again, Ineos Grenadiers may opt for a multiple-leader strategy. The presence of Roglič and Pogačar means it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to ride the same way as in Catalunya, where they gained the overall lead after stage three and were able to ride a defensive race from then on.
Instead, to defeat two such strong riders (both of whom are superior time trialists, and therefore likely to put time into all of Ineos’ leaders on stage one), the team’s best hope of claiming overall victory may lie in using all three riders to attack in the hope of working both Roglič and Pogačar over, rather than attempting to go toe-to-toe against them on the uphill finishes of stages three and six.
It will be the first real test of whether they can make such a collective strategy work against the Slovenian superstars, and therefore could have significant implications ahead of July’s Tour de France.
Ardennes Classics preparation
The many hills that populate the Basque Country make this race ideal preparation for the upcoming Ardennes Classics later this month, and the start-list is full of specialist puncheurs with those races in mind.
Chief amongst them is Marc Hirschi. He was the breakthrough rider of last year’s Ardennes Classics, winning Fleche-Wallonne and finishing second at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, but has been slow to get going this season following his sudden transfer from DSM to UAE Team Emirates. If he’s to repeat his success in the Ardennes last year, he’ll have to find some form this week.
There will be some overlap between GC contenders and those preparing for the Ardennes. A resurgent Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), for instance, was fourth overall at Volta a Catalunya, and another good display here would suggest he’s primed for another good showing in the Classics he spent the best part of the last decade dominating. Jakob Fuglsang (Astana-Premier Tech) has arguably been his successor as the world’s best hilly classics rider, but will need to ride into some form this week if he’s to get into shape for them in time this year following a slow start to the season.
It will be interesting to see if Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) can challenge for the GC having claimed overall victory at Paris-Nice against weaker opposition. Either way, the German (who made the top five in all three of the Ardennes Classics two years ago) is likely to be a contender for individual stage wins; as will fellow puncheurs Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), Michael Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation) and Benoît Cosnefroy (Ag2r Citroen), even if a high GC placing eludes them.
A quality supporting cast
Up against Roglič, Pogačar and the juggernaut of Ineos Grenadiers, the other GC contenders may feel they’re in a separate race to be crowned Best of the Rest rather than in contention for overall victory. But it’s possible someone could cause an upset — at Paris-Nice, after all, a late crash from Roglič paved the way for Max Schachmann to take overall honours.
Schachmann will be present at Itzulia Basque Country too, and is one of four Bora-Hansgrohe riders along with Emanuel Buchmann, Wilco Kelderman and Patrick Konrad who could ride a good GC. EF Education-Nippo have a similar number of options to choose from in Hugh Carthy, Sergio Higuita and Rigoberto Uran, and such strength in numbers could prove very useful, particularly on the short final mountain stage finishing atop Altio Arrate that is likely to be very chaotic.
Given how the Volta a Catalunya went, Enric Mas may play second fiddle to Valverde for Movistar, but may be given some freedom as the team chases its first win of the season. By contrast, Esteban Chaves will be the clear outright leader of BikeExchange following his stage win and sixth place overall at Volta a Catalunya.
And the French trio of David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ), Guillaume Martin (Cofidis) and Pierre Latour (Total Direct Energie) are also all worth keeping an eye on.
The welcome return of Euskaltel-Euskadi
This year’s race sees the welcome return of Euskaltel-Euskadi.
The Basque team was one of the mainstays of the peloton throughout the 2010s, and significantly overachieved considering their policy of only selecting Basque riders. They disappeared from cycling’s elite level following the withdrawal of their sponsors in 2013, but now telecommunications company Euskaltel are back on board, and they’re working their way back up the pyramid.
Instantly recognisable in their orange jerseys (a signifier of their Basque identity), look out for the likes of former Vuelta stage winner Mikel Iturria, and Mikel Bizkarra, who impressed at Volta a Catalunya, to try their luck with attacks.
No-one from their roster is likely to be in overall contention, but the local Basque fans could have a favourite to cheer on for the GC race in Mikel Landa (Bahrain-Victorious), who’s going well having made the podium at Tirreno-Adriatico, and Ion Izagirre, who was overall victor last time they race was held in 2019, and has been named in Astana-Premier Tech’s line-up.
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