This time of year may be associated with cobbled classics and races in Belgium, but climbers still have the Tour of the Basque Country (April 4-9) to focus on.
Sandwiched in between the Tour of Flanders (Sunday, April 3) and Paris-Roubaix (Sunday, April 10), the Tour of the Basque Country – known locally as the Vuelta al Pais Vasco – is a six-day stage race renowned for the relentlessly hilly terrain of its Pyrenean setting.
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With every stage providing opportunities to attack it usually makes for a thrilling watch, where GC contenders tend not to simply wait for the queen stage to make a move.
That’s what Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) did in last year’s edition. The Spaniard went out on the attack to win stage three and put himself into second on the overall classification, and eventually leapfrogging Sergio Henao (Sky) in the final time-trial.
Both riders return this year, each with a chance of competing for the top honours gain. Defending champion Rodriguez wears the number one jersey, and will be eager to kickstart a slow start to the season in which he is yet to post a top 10 finish.
Henao might otherwise have expected to ride in support of Sky teammate Mikel Landa – as he did so impressively for Geraint Thomas at Paris-Nice – but the Spaniard’s injury-laden start to the year mean he’s unlikely to have the legs to lead the team, paving the way for Henao to possibly ride for GC.
The favourites for the race, however, will be Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff). The pair locked horns on Spanish roads earlier this month at the Volta a Catalunya, with the Colombian coming out on top with an impressive attack on the race’s queen stage, while Contador finished second overall. Both have enjoyed success here in the past (Quintana winning in 2013 and Contador in 2014, 2009 and 2008), and seem to possess the form to dominate the climbs.
Others to look out for include Dan Martin (Etixx-QuickStep), who was third in Catalunya and is suited to the rolling terrain of the Basque Country; Fabio Aru (Astana), although he still tends to be a little off the pace this early in the season; and, perhaps most intriguingly, Thibaut Pinot (FDJ). Pinot has excelled this year in smaller races like the Volta ao Algarve and Criterium International, but is yet to match up with the peloton’s first-grade names.
Representing Britain will be both the Yates brothers (of which Simon finished fifth overall last year), as well as Steve Cummings, fresh off his stage win at Tirreno-Adriatico.
There’s a distinct lack of sprinters competing, but that’s unsurprising given the nature of the parcours. None of the six stages look likely to come down to a sprint. The opening stage includes a total of eight categorised climbs. Stage two finishes with a steep uphill ascent to the finish, stage three features a trio of hills in the final 35km, and six more categorised climbs await the riders on stage four
These days can neither be considered mountainous rather than hilly nor sprint stages, but instead suit puncheurs like Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) and Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal).
Stage five is, however, a full-on mountain stage, with the peak of the 5.5km-long, 8.5 per cent averaging Uzartza positioned just a couple of kilometres from the finish. This is likely to host a tense battle between the favourites, before the final order of the GC is decided the following day’s final 16.5km hilly individual time-trial.
Watch: Men’s WorldTour contenders for 2016
Tour of the Basque Country 2016: Stages
Stage one, April 4: Etxebarria – Markina-Xemein, 144km
Stage two, April 5: Markina-Xemein – Amurrio, 174.2km
Stage three, April 6: Vitoria-Gasteiz – Lesaka, 193.5km
Stage four, April 7: Lesaka – Orio, 165km
Stage five, April 8: Orio – Arrate, 159km
Stage six, April 9: Eibar – Eibar, 16.5km ITT
Tour of the Basque Country 2016: Teams
Ag2r La Mondiale (France)
Caja Rural-Seguros RGA (Spain)
Dimension Data (RSA)
IAM Cycling (Switzerland)
Sky (Great Britain)
Tour of the Basque Country 2016: TV Coverage
Eurosport will broadcast the race live.
Tour of the Basque Country: Recent winners
2015: Joaquin Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha
2014: Alberto Contador (Spa) Tinkoff-Saxo
2013: Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar
2012: Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi
2011: Andreas Kloden (Ger) RadioShack
2010: Chris Horner (USA) RadioShack
2009: Alberto Contador (Spa) Astana
2008: Alberto Contador (Spa) Astana
2007: Juan Jose Cobo (Spa) Saunier Duval-Prodir
2006: Jose Angel Gomez Marchante (Spa) Saunier Duval-Prodir
Tour of the Basque Country: Last year’s top 10 (2015)
1. Joaquim Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha in 21-49-38
2. Sergio Henao (Col) Team Sky at 13 secs
3. Jon Izagirre (Spa) Movistar at 29 secs
4. Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar at 38 secs
5. Simon Yates (GBr) Orica-GreenEdge at 46 secs
6. Michele Scarponi (Ita) Astana at 1-06
7. Rui Costa (Por) Lampre-Merida at 1-14
8. Michal Kwiatkowski (Pol) Etixx-QuickStep at 1-15
9. Ilnur Zakarin (Rus) Katusha at 1-25
10. Thibaut Pinot (Fra) FDJ.fr at 1-33