Valverde in pole position to repeat at Clasica San Sebastian

Fresh off his third-place finish in France, Alejandro Valverde returns to Saturday's Clasica San Sebastian as one of the favorites.

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There’s no rest for the weary, at least not in cycling. Less than a week after the barriers were taken down on the Champs-Élysées, the cycling world reconvenes in arguably what is Europe’s most beautiful seaside town for one of the calendar’s most demanding one-day races.

The Clásica San Sebastián, now its in 35th edition, offers up a thrilling battle over the steep mountains of Spain’s Basque Country. Also known as Donostia-Donostia Klasikoa in Basque, the race draws a highly explosive mix of riders coming off the Tour, and others building into form for late-season goals, such as the Vuelta a España and the UCI Road World Championships.

The race typically follows a familiar pattern, with an early breakaway holding court in the first half of the race. A chase begins in earnest heading into the second of two passages over the Cat. 1 Alto de Jaizkibel, where the race-breaking attacks quickly trim the field. A new climb in the closing 10 kilometers introduced last year changed the dynamics of the race, setting the stage for a nail-biter all the way down to the finishing straight on San Sebastián aptly named Boulevard. Last year, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) took an emotional victory to quiet critics after missing the 2014 Tour podium.

The course: Repeat of last year’s finale

This year’s 219km course is similar to what the peloton raced last year. Following a few years of tweaking the course, organizers seem satisfied with the race the course delivered last year after looping the course over a short, but steep second-category climb inside 10km to go.

“The changes to the course last year were spectacular,” said race organizer José Luis Arrieta. “The riders and the fans were happy with the changes, and we’ve decided to stay with them this year.”

Since its first edition in 1981, the race has always started and finished in downtown San Sebastían. The route loops around the steep hills and mountains of Spain’s Basque Country, presenting a climb-heavy course, with some flats to chase down breakaways to set up what’s typically a small bunch sprint.

The key feature of the race traditionally has been the Cat. 1 Jaizkibel climb that towers over the Bay of Biscayne. The top of the climb, however, is more than 50km from the finish line, so it was rare that the major attacks over the top stuck all the way to the line. Following the 2000 edition, when 53 riders survived over the Jaizkibel, organizers started to spice up the finale to try to break open the race. It added some shorter climbs closer to the finish line, but even that wasn’t enough, because 51 riders arrived to the line in 2006. An even steeper, second-category climb was added in the closing 15km, and last year, the race was routed over the Igeldo climb at the Cat. 2 Alto de Borda with just 7km to go before looping back to the start-finish area.

The favorites: Look to Tour for winner

There won’t be a shortage of big names gathering on San Sebastián’s Boulevard start area Saturday morning. Less than a week after the Tour, many riders race the Clásica to get one final spurt out of their Tour form before tapering off.

Fatigue is often the deciding factor, especially when it comes to the final, explosive climbs, and saving something for a reduced-bunch sprint.

Defending champion Valverde returns hot off his career-first Tour de France podium (third). It remains to be seen just how fresh Valverde will be after the hard effort to reach the Tour’s podium. It was difficult to read just how deep he went during July, but as one of the most prolific one-day racers, this course is ideal for his characteristics.

Joaquim Rodríguez and Dani Moreno give Katusha a one-two punch, while Nicolas Roche will lead Sky. Roman Kreuziger replaced an ill Alberto Contador at Tinkoff-Saxo, while Rigoberto Urán and Tour stage-winner Zdenek Stybar lead Etixx-Quick-Step. All those riders, except Moreno, raced the Tour, so they will have the legs, but maybe not the final burst, to win.

Two-time winner Luis León Sánchez leads Astana, which sees Mikel Landa return to competition following a break after his breakout Giro d’Italia podium ride.

“I’m in good shape, but the favorites are those that are coming from the Tour,” Landa told El Diario Vasco. “I like the new changes to the course, because it favors my style of racing.”

Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing), a winner in 2011, looks to be in strong form, as does Daniel Martin (Cannondale-Garmin), twice second at the Tour. None of those riders, except Martin, raced the Tour, so they will be fresh, but they might lack the depth to go the distance.

This type of course is ideal for the Yates brothers, but they could be cooked following their Tour debut with Orica-GreenEdge. Bauke Mollema (Trek Factory Racing), second last year, will be back to try move up one spot on the podium.

The history: Few Basque winners

The race was born out of local organizers’ desire to have a world-class race set in Spain’s Basque Country, one of Europe’s cycling hotbeds. It was part of the now-defunct World Cup series, and is now included in the UCI WorldTour calendar.

Since its inception, the race has always started and finished in San Sebastián, a thriving city packed with bars, restaurants, and cafés. Held the week after the Tour, the race typically draws a solid field of racers coming out of France, and others rebuilding for the upcoming Vuelta a España.

Although the race is held on the Basque hills, only two Basque riders have won. Marino Lejarreta won the inaugural edition in 1981, and two more times, for a record three wins, while Iñaki Gastón won in 1986.

Spain, naturally, does well on home roads, with Spanish riders winning eight out of the past 11 editions.

There is one American on the list of winners, none other than Lance Armstrong, whose 1995 victory is one of the few wins of his career that were not erased as part of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s sentence in 2012.

The weather: Ideal conditions

The peloton should enjoy ideal racing conditions, with cool temperatures in the morning and an afternoon high in the upper 70s. There’s a slight chance of afternoon showers under partly cloudy skies. A breeze of 10-15 kph will be blowing off the Bay of Biscayne, meaning the bunch will have crosswinds in the final run into the final sprint.

VeloNews’ picks

The winner is someone who has the legs to follow the explosive moves in the final hour of racing, and then has something left in the tank to win a small bunch sprint. The way Valverde’s been racing this season, it’s hard not to tip him to win his third career title.

Gilbert looks to be on sharp form, and the new finishing climb suits his explosive style. Rodríguez, hot off winning two stages at the Tour, is also in top form, but would need to drop everyone to have any chance of winning, while our wildcard pick is Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx), though the 2015 sensation might be short of form as he’s racing for the first time since the French national championships.