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Basque hills and French cobblestones dominate what’s an action-packed week of racing in Europe.
Two of Europe’s racing heartlands are featured in a busy second week of April that also includes the Circuit de la Sarthe in France and the mid-week “sprinters” semi-classic at Scheldeprijs and the third round of the women’s World Cup.
In the offing this week are two of Europe’s most unique trophies. Winners at the Tour of the Basque Country receive the typical txapela, an over-sized Basque beret, while at Paris-Roubaix, victors collect a mounted gravel cobblestone.
50th Vuelta al País Vasco (PT)
April 5-10, Spain
The Vuelta al País Vasco (The Tour of the Basque Country in English) is arguably the hardest stage race in Europe behind the grand tours.
A demanding parcours over an endless string of steep climbs, narrow roads and notoriously unpredictable spring weather in northern Spain serve up a compelling backdrop for one of the most hard-fought races of the year.
Add a top-flight field of in-form racers, many of whom are heading straight into the Ardennes classics, and the Basque Country tour is one of the most prestigious wins any pro can have on his palmares.
Held in Spain’s unique Basque Country, which boasts its own language, heritage and distinct culture that has fended off invaders since the Romans, the week-long race is certainly one of the season’s most unique.
Called Euskal Herriko txirrindulari itzulia in Basque, the race was first held in 1924 and even earned a mention in Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.” No event was held during the strong-arm Franco regime from 1935 to 1968, and Jacques Anquetil won the comeback edition in 1969.
Since then, the race has slowly grown in stature and was expanded to six days last year to add further heft to the race’s prestige.
José Antonio González holds the record with four wins during the 1970s. Since the 1990s, the race has become a favorite among the best of the peloton, with such riders as Alex Zülle, Laurent Jalabert, Sean Kelly, Tony Rominger and Andreas Klöden.
Two-time defending champion Alberto Contador (Astana) won’t be back to try for a hat-trick. After coming in hot into the 2010 season, with back-to-back victories at Algarve and Paris-Nice, Contador has eased off the accelerator and juggled his schedule so he won’t go too deep too early in the season.
In his absence, there’s no shortage of contenders waiting to step into the void.
Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) will be the center of local fans’ interest, with hometown team Euskaltel-Euskadi looking to shine on home roads.
More Spanish favorites include Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne), Joaquin Rodríguez (Katusha) and Ezequiel Mosquera (Galicia-Xacobeo).
Others to watch include Robert Gesink (Rabobank), Damiano Cunego (Lampre), Michael Rogers (HTC-Columbia), Bradley Wiggins and Simon Gerrans (Sky), Linus Gerdemann (Milram), the Schleck brothers and Jens Voigt (Saxo Bank), Klöden and Haimar Zubeldia (RadioShack) and Sandy Casar (FDJeux).
There will be a strong North American contingent on hand, with David Zabriskie leading Garmin-Transitions to put in a hard effort ahead of the Amgen Tour of California next month.
Joining Zabriskie will be Ryder Hesjedal, Christian Meier, Peter Stetina and Thomas Peterson. Chris Horner, always reliable at the Basque tour, will be joined by Matthew Busche at RadioShack.
This year’s course serves up a stiff challenge, with no fewer than 28 rated climbs spread over six stages, though there’s barely a flat stretch of road anywhere in the Basque Country.
The key stages will be the summit finish at Arrate in stage four and the final-day, 22km individual time trial at Oria.
Riders should see fairly decent weather. Just days after a major storm blew off the north Atlantic, forecasters are calling for mostly sunny skies and moderate temperatures in the 60s throughout the week.
58th Circuit de la Sarthe (2.1)
April 6-9 — France
The four-day, five-stage race along the Loire Valley of central France has become a race favorite for riders looking to hone form ahead of mid-season goals, such as the Giro d’Italia and now the Tour of California.
Not nearly as demanding as the Basque Country tour, the race is held over good roads and typically boasts milder weather than in northern Spain. Greg LeMond won the race back in 1980; more recent winners include David Millar (2001), Thomas Lovkvist (2004) and Thomas Voeckler (2008).
Lance Armstrong (RadioShack) added the race to his schedule and will travel from Belgium, where he raced Sunday at the Tour of Flanders. Joining Armstrong will be Bjorn Seelander and Tiago Marchado.
Luís León Sánchez (Caisse d’Epargne) will be a favorite for overall victory, along with Voeckler and recently crowned Critérium International winner Pierrick Fédrigo (Bbox Bouygues). Ted King will line up with Cervélo TestTeam.
The 6.8km individual time trial in Wednesday’s split stage should prove decisive in crowning the overall winner.
98th Scheldeprijs Vlaanderen (1.HC)
April 7 – Belgium
This long-running race has been slotted in between Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, taking the spot formerly held by Ghent-Wevelgem. Starting in Antwerp and ending in Schoten, the 205.4km course features its fair share of cobblestones, but a sprint finish is usually in the books.
Johan Museeuw used the race as his final goodbye in 2004 and Mark Cavendish won in 2007 (and again in 2008) to announce his arrival on the elite circuit.
Last year’s winner Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) will square off against such riders as Tom Boonen (Quick Step), André Greipel (HTC-Columbia), recently crowned Tour of Flanders champ Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank), Robbie McEwen (Katusha), Theo Bos (Cervélo), Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) and Juan Antonio Flecha (Team Sky).
Its new slot ahead of Paris-Roubaix should make for a more hotly contested race.
GP Pino Cerami (1.1)
April 8 – Belgium
This one-day race held around Hainaut draws a mix of ProTour and regional teams, with Omega Pharma, Cervélo, Vancansoleil and Euskatel-Euskadi among the top squads. A good race for up-and-coming pros to notch a win, Kirk O’Bee won in 2002 and Kai Reus in 2005. Watch for Cervélo’s classics prospect Davide Apollonio to make a strong showing.
Drentse 8 van Dwingeloo (women’s 1.1)
April 8 – Holland
Women’s racing continues in the popular cycling country in Drenthe in northern Holland, which played host to last year’s opener of the Vuelta a España. Several top teams, including Cervélo, Tibco and HTC-Columbia, with two-time defending champion Ina-Yoko Teutenberg, will be stretching their legs in this World Cup preview event.
Ronde van Drenthe (women’s World Cup)
April 10 – Holland
The third leg of the 10-round World Cup series, this has quickly grown into one of the more popular stops on the circuit in just four years.
The 134.9km course covers the narrow roads and crosswinds of the Drenthe region of northern Holland. Defending champ Emma Johansson will be fending off an elite field that includes heavyweights from HTC-Columbia, Cervélo and Marianne Vos at Nederland Bloeit. Vos will be looking to defend her lead in the World Cup standings.
56th Klasika Primavera (1.1)
April 10, Spain
This 176km, one-day race closes out “Basque week” with a challenging profile in Spain’s Basque Country. The course loops around Amorebieta and includes three passages over the Cat. 2 Munikenagane and the Cat. 3 Auzagane climbs. Following the third and final passage over the two climbs, it’s a very fast 4.6km downhill run to the finish line.
Former winners include Carlos Sastre, Joaquin Rodríguez and Damiano Cunego, with many of the top stars from the Vuelta al País Vasco hanging around for one more day of racing before heading to the Ardennes.
April 11, France
Call it what you want – the Hell of the North, Queen of the Classics or a Sunday in Hell – what’s sure is that Paris-Roubaix is the one-day race that even non-cycling fans will know about.
Roubaix, of course, is famous because of its rough cobblestones, or pavé in French. In the early days of the race, Roubaix was just like any other bike race, simply because most roads built 100 years ago were constructed of cobblestones.
That slowly changed over the decades as road conditions improved until, in the 1960s, race organizers became alarmed that there weren’t enough cobblestone sections to live up to the race’s legacy.
The major difference between Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders, another race known for its pavé, is the quality of the cobblestones.
Most of the cobblestoned climbs used in Flanders are busy, regularly used streets that are well maintained and relatively smooth. At Roubaix, many of the cobblestone sections are over ancient farm roads and the pavé is much rougher and punishing.
One of the oldest races in cycling, Paris-Roubaix started in 1896 and has been held every year, except during the two world wars. It earned one of its nicknames, the “Hell of the North,” not because it’s so punishing, but because it passed through many of the terrific battlefields of World War I.
The race no longer starts in Paris. In 1966, organizers moved the start from Paris to Chantilly, about 50km north. In 1977, the start was transferred to Compiègne, where it starts Sunday.
The route ends in the large, outdoor velodrome in Roubaix. The route varies from year to year as race organizers ASO search out new sections of cobbles or detour around other sectors under repair.
Fabian Cancellara will be trying to become the 10th rider in history to win Flanders and Roubaix in the same year. Tom Boonen was the last to do it in 2005.
Only one man – Roger de Vlaeminck – has won four editions of Roubaix. Six others – Octave Lapize, Gaston Rebry, Rick Van Looy, Eddy Merckx, Francesco Moser and Johan Museeuw – have won three each. Another 12 have won two, with Boonen as the only active rider among that group.
Belgium holds the record with 52 winners, followed by 30 from France and 11 from Italy. No American has ever won Roubaix.
Winners since 1977 have a received a mounted cobblestone as the race trophy, easily the most prized piece of rock in cycling.
Check back to VeloNews.com all this week for more previews, news and tech stories and of course check in Sunday for a live report (which you can always find at velonews.com/live.)