By Andrew Hood
They won’t be facing off against each other in the Tour de France this summer, so this week’s Tour of the Basque Country in Spain will provide a glimpse of what should have been the season’s biggest showdown.
Alberto Contador (Astana) rolls into Monday’s start of the six-day Basque Country tour, another race where his Astana team hopes to show its stuff, despite being overlooked for July’s Tour. Meanwhile, Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto), last year’s Tour runner-up, is riding through his strongest spring ever with four wins already in the bag, including the overall at Coppi e Bartoli and a stage atop Mont Ventoux.
Following his dominate victory in the Vuelta a Castilla y León two weeks ago against last year’s best climber Mauricio Soler (Barloworld), Contador will be champing at the bit to try to do the same number against Evans.
Evans likely won’t be firing at all cylinders, however, because he’s looking to peak in July for a run at becoming the first Australian to win the Tour.
For Contador, still reeling from the Tour’s decision to ban his Astana team, the 835km Basque Country tour becomes another opportunity to prove his point that he’s the strongest rider in the peloton right now.
The 48th edition of the Basque Country will give the pair plenty of room to square off.
This year’s race follows a familiar pattern: lots of short, but steep climbs (25 rated in all, but no summit finishes), a short but decisive time trial on the final day and all-but-certain nasty weather.
Rain, cold and wind is in the forecast for the spring stage race that’s always exciting, unpredictable and never decided until the final rider crosses the line in the culminating time trial.
Monday’s start in Legazpi sees all 18 ProTour teams along with sole invite Karpin-Galicia for the six-day race across Spain’s lush Basque region.
Evans and Contador headline a top field that includes riders honing their form ahead of the Ardennes classics later this month as well as to duke it out for the prestigious crown.
Among the other top names include Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner), Damiano Cunego (Lampre), the Schleck brothers (CSC), Paolo Bettini (Quick Step), José Angel Gómez Marchante (Saunier Duval), Mikel Astarloza (Euskatel-Euskadi) and Andreas Kloden (Astana).
Among the North Americans are Chris Horner (Astana), Michael Barry and John Devine (High Road) and Bobby Julich (CSC), who won a stage in the 2004 edition to herald his comeback after a several-year slump.
Last year’s winner Juan Cobo (Saunier Duval) won’t be back to defend his title due to illness, so the race should be wide-open just as it always is.
Monday’s 137km opening in a loop starting and finishing in Legazpi is typical of the week. Seven rated climbs, including the final climb 6km from the finish, before a searing descent to the finish line.
Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s stages push the route high onto the mountains around Vitoria and could be hampered by snowfall predicted for peaks higher than 1,000 meters. Thursday gives the sprinters chance while Friday’s rollercoaster stage into Orio is the tour’s hardest while Saturday’s 20km time trial should decide the winner.
Whether Contador and Evans truly go head-to-head in a fight for the GC this week remains to be seen, but it’s one of the few times this year the pair will square off. The pair likely won’t meet again until June’s Dauphiné Libéré.
48th Vuelta al País Vasco
April 7-13, Spain
Stage 1, April 7 – Legazpi-Legazpi, 137km
Stage 2, April 8 – Legazpi to Erandio, 153km
Stage 3, April 9 – Erandio to Viana, 195km
Stage 4, April 10 – Viana to Vitoria, 171km
Stage 5, April 11 – Vitoria to Orio, 162km
Stage 6, April 12 – Orio-Orio, 20km ITT
Française des Jeux