JUMBO-VISMA SUPERDUO ROGLIČ AND VINGEGAARD REUINTED
At last year’s Itzulia Basque Country, Primož Roglič and Jonas Vingegaard worked together to claim a mightily impressive 1-2 for Jumbo-Visma, inflicting upon Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) what remains his only defeat at a stage race since August 2020.
Roglič’s victory was hardly a surprise (whose previous overall win here in 2018 was the first of what is to date nine WorldTour stage race titles), but Vingegaard’s second-place finish was a revelation. The young Dane had shown glimpses of what he was capable of earlier in the season, winning stages at the UAE Tour and Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali and finishing second overall in the latter, but this was the first time he’d competed for top honours against top opposition at WorldTour level.
Together they were able to work over Pogačar and distance him, resulting in a rare and confidence-boosting victory over him that remains proof that the two-time Tour de France winner can be beaten.
Next week’s Itzulia Basque Country will be only the second time the pair have reunited at a stage race since then. The first time was at the Tour de France last year, and their partnership was broken when Roglič crashed out, although Vingegaard reached new heights when he managed to finish second overall at what was just this second-ever Grand Tour.
It has therefore been a long wait to see what they can do together, and form what looks like cycling’s most formidable climbing duo.
In the absence of Pogačar, they are hot favourites to claim overall victory. A domineering performance here would be a major statement ahead of the Tour de France, where the luxury of having two such quality stage racers could be what it takes for the team to at last win the yellow jersey.
ALAPHILIPPE AND EVENEPOEL TEAM UP FOR QUICK-STEP ALPHA VINYL
Roglič and Vingegaard aren’t the only duo of mouth-watering quality riding together at the Tour of the Basque Country, as Julian Alaphilippe and Remco Evenepoel are set to ride side-by-side for Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl.
Despite each rider’s star quality, they didn’t enjoy much success the last time they rode together at Tirreno-Adriatico, where Alaphilippe limited himself to a domestique role, and Evenepoel fell out of GC contention.
But there are no climbs in this year’s route as difficult as Monte Carpegna, where Evenepoel was dropped in Italy last month, while Alaphilippe is likely to have built better form with his first main targets of the season, the Ardennes Classics, on the horizon.
It’s unclear which rider will lead the team this week, or whether they will line-up as joint-leaders. Evenepoel was the leader at Tirreno-Adriatico, and is generally more of a GC rider than Alaphilippe. But the punchy terrain of the Basque Country certainly suits the Frenchman, and it’s only really the final summit finish to Arrate that doesn’t play to his strengths.
Either way, the parcours presents plenty of opportunities for Alaphilippe to add to his career total of three stage wins here, while Evenepoel has a chance to get himself the leader’s jersey on a hilly, 7.5km opening stage time trial.
WHO WILL COME TO THE FORE FOR INEOS GRENADIERS?
Since Egan Bernal’s devastating crash in January, every major stage race this season has felt like a significant moment in determining how Ineos Grenadiers will approach the Grand Tours.
The debate is likely to continue at Itzulia Basque Country, where Adam Yates, Dani Martínez and Geraint Thomas are all set to line-up.
The team are still without a WorldTour stage race title this year, but Richard Carapaz came closer than anyone to delivering them one at the Volta a Catalunya, where he trailed Sergio Higuita (Bora-Hansgrohe) by only 16 second to finish second overall.
That performance arguably reinforced the idea that the Ecuadorian could change plans to ride the Tour rather than the Giro d’Italia, but the three GC leaders who are riding in Catalunya in Carapaz’s absence have a chance to lay their claim to being the team’s best candidate for Tour de France leadership
Yates, Martínez, and Thomas are all in Ineos Grenadiers’ provisional line-up for the Tour de France, but none yet look like potential winners. Yates made a good start to the season with second overall behind Pogačar at the UAE Tour, but didn’t look as strong at Paris-Nice, where he finished fourth overall.
Instead, it was the Colombian Martinez who impressed the most there, transcending his usual domestique status to put eventual winner Primož Roglič under serious pressure before finishing third overall. The main doubt around him is that he’s never led a team at Grand Tour level, but winning the overall title at Catalunya would make a strong case that he deserves to be given a go.
Doubts surrounding Geraint Thomas are of the opposite kind, in that he’s a proven Grand Tour winner, but has shown no form at all yet this season. The team will be hoping their veteran can rediscover himself this week.
BORA-HANSGROHE TRIO AMONG OTHER GC CONTENDERS
One team capable of mixing it up with the powerhouses of Jumbo-Visma, Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl and Ineos Grenadiers are Bora-Hansgrohe. The team’s transfer business prior to this season indicated that they were aspiring to become one of the top stage racing team’s in the peloton, and Sergio Higuita delivered them their first overall WorldTour victory of the season at the Volta a Catalunya.
He’ll line-up alongside another of the team’s major 2022 signings, Aleksandr Vlasov, and Emanuel Buchmann, who has a great record in this race having previously finished third and fourth overall.
The other top stage racing team, UAE Team Emirates, will be without their main stars in the Basque Country, but Rafał Majka, Marc Soler and George Bennett could flourish, liberated from their usual domestique duties, and push for a high place on GC.
Neither Enric Mas (Movistar) nor David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) have as strong a team around them, but have the individual quality to push for podium finishes on GC if they bring their best form.
Home roads and an exceptional past record here that has seen him win once in 2019 and finish on the podium on three other occasions means Ion Izagirre (Cofidis) is, as ever, a favourite, though he’d have preferred a longer time trial than the 7.5km stage on offer.
Pierre Latour (TotalEnergies) and Lucas Hamilton (BikeExchange-Jayco) are worth keeping an eye on, as is the Bahrain-Victorious duo of Pello Bilbao and Gino Mader, while EF Education-EasyPost will be hoping that Ukrainian Mark Padun can his form from last year’s Critérium du Dauphiné.
STAGES UP FOR GRABS AMID ABSENCE OF TOP PUNCHEURS AND SPRINTERS
It’s difficult to call which riders will be in the mix for stage wins in this year’s Itzulia Basque Country.
As is usually the case at this race, there are few if any chances for the pure sprinters to compete for a stage in the hilly terrain of the Basque Country, with only stage two looking like it could end in a large bunch finish. Consequently, sprinters are conspicuous by their absence on the start list.
But this year’s race also differs from previous editions in how it lacks as many star puncheurs, who usually use this race to prepare for the Ardennes Classics. With Amstel Gold being brought forward a week to just one day after the end of Itzulia Basque Country, past stage winners like Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe), Michael Matthews (BikeExchange) and Alex Aranburu (Movistar) all miss out as they prioritise the Dutch race instead.
All these absences mean that Alaphilippe will start as the hot favourite for many of the stages, especially the punchy uphill finish on stage five. He’ll face competition from UAE Team Emirates, who have Italian puncheurs Diego Ulissi and Alessandro Covi to choose from, while Michael Woods (Israel-Premier Tech) bucks the trend of Ardennes specialists by riding here.
With few of the top specialists here, however, we are likely to see plenty of opportunist attacks from unlikely names and more unfamiliar faces, sensing a chance to win stages from breakaways. The parcours is conducive to this kind of racing, too, especially the constantly undulating terrain of stages three and four, where a lack of an uphill finish and no obvious point to attack should make for open, unpredictable racing.
It’s anyone’s guess as to who might succeed in these stages, but the likes of Bruno Armirail (Groupama-FDJ), Aurelian Paret-Paintre and Clement Champoussin (both Ag2r Citroën) are the kind of riders who might excel in such circumstances.
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