By Andrew Hood
Spain’s top stars are converging on the posh resort town for Saturday’s big one-day race to kick-start San Sebastián’s summer festival, but it’s no guarantee fans will have the chance to cheer on a hometown winner.
While Spanish riders have won the past two editions, the 225km race around the hills of Spain’s Basque Country has long been dominated by foreign riders.
Take away the 2004-05 wins by Martín Perdiguero and Constantino Zaballa, respectively, and you have to go all the way back to Miguel Indurain’s win in 1990 to find another Spaniard who won this race. One of those foreigners was Lance Armstrong, who won in 1995.
The summer classic always draws a good international field and this year is no different.
The 22-team field will be dominated by big Spanish stars, including the reappearance of ProTour leader Alejandro Valverde in his first race since crashing out of the Tour de France in the third stage with a cracked collarbone.
“I was stopped for five days after the crash and another five days on the rollers at home. Later I started on the road with just a few kilometers, 80, 90, 100, every day adding a few more,” Valverde told the Diario Vasco. “At first, I couldn’t ride out of the saddle. I didn’t have any strength. I had to ride sitting down.”
Valverde will be looking to bolster his ProTour lead, but he’s not sure what to expect in the demanding course which includes five major climbs, among them the towering Category 1 Jaizkibel with about 35km to go.
“The Clásica is very demanding and you have to be very good to place yourself at the front. You have to be strong up the Jaizkibel to withstand the rhythm that’s set by those at the front,” he said. “It’s not a race for a pure sprinter. You have to be able to climb to have options for the victory. Riders like Bettini and Di Luca can be candidates.”
Saunier Duval-Prodir will be keen to keep its two-year win streak alive, but the team admits it will have a tough road to hoe. Its former winners – Perdiguero and Zaballa – are no longer on the team. The Spanish squad will be looking to David Millar, Manuele Mori and Italian prospect Riccardo Ricco to carry the team’s banner.
Euskaltel-Euskadi will be looking to make a strong impact in what is the Basque team’s home race. The orange tide will be on their side as fans are expected to clog the twisting climb up Jaizkibel to cheer on Haimar Zubeldia and Iban Mayo, fresh off his first stage-race victory in two years at the Tour of Burgos.
Indeed, it could be a foreign rider who claims the traditional Basque beret, or txapela, that goes to the victor.
Team CSC will bring Amstel Gold champ and Alpe d’Huez winner Frank Schleck – third overall in the ProTour standings – with options. Team captain Carlos Sastre said he will decide on whether or not he’ll race the Vuelta a España later this month based on how he performs in the hilly race.
Three-time world champion Oscar Freire is a last-minute change, deciding not to race after suffering from mysterious dizzy spells and headaches since the Tour de France. Rabobank will be well represented by Denis Menchov and Michael Boogerd.
The Italians always have a strong presence, with Paolo Bettini (Quick Step), Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas), Damiano Cunego (Lampre) and Mirko Celestini (Milram) all expected to start.
George Hincapie (Discovery Channel) and Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner) are both penciled in to start to represent a strong North American showing. Others expected to race include Aaron Olson (Saunier Duval), PatMcCarty and Ryder Hesjedal (Phonak) and Jason McCartney (Discovery Channel).
The hilly race typically unfolds with a breakaway pulling away early only to be caught on the climb up the Jaizkibel, a dramatic slice of geology towering above the glistening Bay of Biscayne.
There’s usually a split in the peloton and a relatively small group typically comes in to dispute the sprint on San Sebastián’s Boulevard. Then the summer fiestas – called Semana Grande – kick off with nightly fireworks, concerts and a week of partying in the parte vieja.