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Egan Bernal, Annemiek van Vleuten, Julian Alaphilippe, blast back to action at Clásica San Sebastián

Hotly-tipped Spanish prodigy Juan Ayuso to make WorldTour debut for UAE Emirates at hilly Basque race.

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Star names and steep hills will take center stage in the Spanish Basque Country this weekend.

Julian Alaphilippe, Egan Bernal, and Annemiek van Vleuten headline Saturday’s Clásica San Sebastián, where a host of top riders are set to duke it out for the race’s iconic “txapela” trophy.

The Basque race, also known as Donostiako Klasikoa, returns after a pause in 2020 due to the pandemic. Although 2019 men’s champion Remco Evenepoel won’t be there, Lucy Kennedy returns to racing for the first time since crashing out of Liège-Bastogne-Liège to defend her San Sebastián title.

Other top names slated for Saturday’s hilly classic include Bauke Mollema, Simon and Adam Yates, the returning Mikel Landa, and the hotly-tipped 18-year-old Juan Ayuso, who will make his WorldTour debut for UAE-Team Emirates. Audrey Cordon-Ragot, Évita Muzic and 2019 runner-up Janneke Ensing will also be in action in the women’s race.

Tough course and unknown form makes for an open race

223km and lots of hills are on tap for San Sebastian men’s race.

Saturday’s WorldTour race plays out in the notoriously nasty climbs of the Basque Country before a flat-out finish into the center of the historic city.

Although Evenepoel scored his breakout 2019 victory with a late solo to the line, San Sebastian is regularly won from a small bunch sprint. It’s the final climb of the Murgil with its 2km of 10 percent gradients that typically makes the difference and forces the final selection.

“You’ve got a lot of climbing and an extremely tough ascent (the Murgil) inside the last 10 kilometers, which since it has been added to the course, it’s been decisive almost every single time,” previewed Deceuninck-Quick-Step sports director Wilfried Peeters.

The women’s race will feature all the iconic final climbs of the men’s into a 140km race.

With many riders not long returning from the Olympic Games, racers are forecasting an even wilder, more unpredictable ride than normal.

“I’m not sure what I can expect this year. It could be a more open and unpredictable race than in other years, where those who came out of the Tour were the top contenders,” Mollema said.

“The Olympic road race is a new element in the race’s approach. Like me, there will be riders who are coming from Japan; others will take advantage of the momentum of the Tour de France, such as Alaphilippe or Miguel Ángel López, and others again from a rest period, such as Landa or Luis León Sánchez.”

All eyes on Ayuso and van Vleuten

Annemiek van Vleuten took gold in the time trial in Tokyo
From Tokyo to the Basque country – can van Vleuten keep the momentum Saturday? Photo: Tim de Waele / Getty Images

The return of Bernal and Landa after their wildly opposing Giro d’Italia campaigns will be a central story Saturday. However, it’s the Spanish prodigy Ayuso that will be the main rider to watch in the men’s race.

Also read: Juan Ayuso set to spark Spanish hopes

At just 18 years of age, Ayuso is widely tipped to be the next Gen-Z superstar set to light up the top of pro racing.

The Spaniard dominated the “Baby Giro” this summer and placed second in his first race with UAE-Team Emirates just six weeks later, where he was bettered only by veteran countryman Sánchez in last weekend’s Prueba Villafranca-Ordiziako Klasika.

Ayuso has a deal through 2025 in his pocket and will make his WorldTour debut alongside heavy-hitting teammates Diego Ulissi, David de la Cruz, and Matteo Trentin. His team is hoping for big things.

“Experienced campaigners like Ulissi, De La Cruz, and Trentin are very familiar with this race and know how to perform well there,” said team manager Joxean Matxin Fernandez.

“We also have a very exciting young prospect in Juan Ayuso who will be making his World Tour debut and has already shown glimpses of what he can do in the professional ranks. I think we have many cards to play for Saturday.”

What to expect in the women’s race?

Double Olympic medalist van Vleuten is likely to light up the race on behalf of her Spanish team should she have shaken off her Tokyo jet lag.

It could be down to a deep BikeExchange line-up led by Kennedy and Ensing to stop her.

“I’m feeling really strong on the bike again. The extent of my injuries meant six weeks off the road, but I was able to do plenty of work on the trainer and then a really solid seven weeks back on the road since,” Kennedy said on her recovery from fractures to her hand, collarbone and eye socket.

“It took some time to feel the desire to race again, but I am definitely there now and can’t wait to finally pin on a number again. We can definitely go into the race with confidence, having first and second places from 2019 with Janneke, and a well-rounded team lining up. I’m excited to see what we can do together.”

Big names, nasty hills, and a cool Basque hat – what’s not to be stoked for?