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Valverde sets eyes on Basque Country title

For as prolific as Alejandro Valverde has been during his career, he’s never won what’s considered the hardest week-long stage race on the international calendar. The Vuelta al País Vasco, which starts Monday, has remained elusive.

The Movistar captain, hot off a win at the Volta a Catalunya, hopes to check the six-day Basque Country tour off his career to-do list.

“I love the race, and it means a lot to me, but I’ve been close to winning — second, third, stage wins — but the overall escaped me so far,” Valverde said. “This year I come to the race motivated, excited, and with great form.”

While much of the cycling world is focused on the Flanders week, with the Ronde van Vlaanderen this weekend and Paris-Roubaix next week, the Tour of the Basque Country gives the all-rounders a serious test in the rugged hill country of northern Spain.

With its unique mix of steep terrain, endless climbs, narrow roads, and sometimes terrible weather, many consider the Basque Country tour to be the hardest stage race beyond the grand tours. And the presence of the rowdy, passionate Basque fans makes the race one of the highlights of the season.

Valverde will be the hot favorite, but he will see tough competition from defending champion Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), Sergio Henao and Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky), Ion Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida), Simon Yates (Orica-Scott), Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step), Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale), and Samuel Sánchez (BMC Racing).

“It will be hard to win because there are a lot of good riders, especially Contador, who’s won many times,” Valverde said. “The idea is to go to the race with the idea of winning, and the road will quickly put everyone in their place.”

The route changes a bit this season, starting in Pamplona and taking in larger cities such as Bilbao and San Sebastian, but the GC is usually defined in the summit finale at Eibar and the closing-day time trial.

57th Vuelta al País Vasco

Stage 1, April 3: Pamplona to Valle de Egües, 153km
Stage 2, April 4: Pamplona to Elciego, 173.4km
Stage 3, April 5: Vitoria to San Sebastian, 160.5km
Stage 4, April 6: San Sebastian to Bilbao, 174.1km
Stage 5, April 7: Bilbao to Eibar, 139.8km
Stage 6, April 8: Eibar-Eibar, ITT, 27.7km