Vuelta al País Vasco is sacred to cycling fans in Spain’s Basque Country

The tortuously steep roads of the Basque Country have a special allure

To Euskaltel-Euskadi, racing the Vuelta al País Vasco each spring is akin to the French racing the Tour de France. For American Chris Horner, The Basque Country tour marks a return to his biggest European success.

Just as the Tour of Flanders is sacred to the Flemish, the Euskal Herriko Itzulia — as the race is called in Basque — is something their own for the vasco fans.

Held over the tortuously steep roads in the green hills of Spain’s Basque Country, sandwiched between the Pyrénées and the Atlantic coast, the six-day Basque tour is one of cycling’s hardest and most challenging races.

When Chris Horner won two years ago, he summed up the race perfectly: “The Basque Country tour is one of the most prestigious races in Europe. Behind the grand tours, it’s probably the hardest race on the calendar.”

The 41-year-old Horner and defending champion teammate Andreas Klöden will be hell-bent on trying to make it a treble when the 52nd edition clicks into gear Monday.

Standing in their way will be one of the most competitive fields of the year, with one man looking particularly keen on winning the race. Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) is hot off winning a stage and finishing second at the Volta a Catalunya and has never won the Basque tour despite reaching the podium with third three times during his career.

A winner of five career stages, Sánchez will be looking to end RadioShack’s two-year dominance at what the Euskaltel considers its” race.

This year’s course is ideally suited for Sánchez, with mountain stages in the third and fourth stages as well as a final-day time trial that’s tailor-made for his racing style, with a hard climb, narrow roads and a plunging descent all packed into the 19km race against the clock.

“It’s a time trial with an explosive climb, a dangerous descent and some flats. I like it,” Sánchez told El Diario Vasco. “And if it’s raining, we’ll be talking about something else altogether. You can hit the deck very easily.”

Those green hills of Basque Country don’t come without a price. Rain and turbulent spring weather are usually part and parcel of one of the season’s most engaging stage races.

After summer-like temperatures all this week along Spain’s northern coast, forecasters are calling for heavy showers starting next Wednesday, just in time to make things miserable for the most decisive stages of the race.

Big names lining up
The race certainly garners a peloton worthy of its status as one of the most demanding and most respected races on the calendar.

Both Euskaltel and RadioShack are bringing their top riders to the Basque Country.

For the Basque-based Euskaltel-Euskadi team, Sánchez leads a crack squad that also includes Igor Antón, Mikel Astarloza, Egoi Martinez, Gorka Verdugo and Romain Sicard.

RadioShack is equally loaded. Along with Horner and Kloden, Fränk Schleck, Jens Voigt and Maxime Monfort bring added depth behind the two road captains.

Horner returned to competition in dramatic fashion earlier this month at Tirreno-Adriatico, where he finished second in his first race since crashing out of the 2011 Tour de France.

“Tirreno confirmed that I am on the right track for my important races of the year, which are the Basque tour and California,” Horner said. “I would love to win the Basque Country tour again. That was my most important victory in Europe of my career.”

In addition to the Euskaltel and RadioShack juggernauts, other big names will take the start.

Among them are Paris-Nice winner Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome (Sky), Juanjo Cobo (Movistar), Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha), Tirreno-Adriatico champion Vincenzo Nibali and Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale), Milan-San Remo champion Simon Gerrans (GreenEdge), Janez Brajkovic (Astana) as well as Damiano Cunego and Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD).

Levi Leipheimer and Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) will be in the hunt, along with Jurgen Van den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol), Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and Ryder Hesjedal and Tom Danielson (Garmin-Barracuda).

Movistar is leaving Alejandro Valverde, who is saving his legs for the Ardennes classics, and Benat Intxausti, third in 2010 and fourth in 2011, out with the flu.

Many of the riders will ride straight into the Ardennes, with the race bridging between the northern classics to the hillier courses at Flèche and Liège.

Some narcissists, among them Carlos Barredo (Rabobank), have been known to race the Tour of Flanders on Sunday, catch a late flight to Bilbao, and line up Monday morning for the start of stage 1. Barredo is out this year, however, with a knee injury.

Over the hills
Despite the hilly parcours and endless string of climbs — no less than 30 rated climbs on tap for 2012 — the race is typically tightly controlled, with the favorite’s teams making sure that no single dangerous rider sneaks away with too much time.

There’s no guarantee, however, and breakaways can open important gaps. The opening stage in a circuit course around Gueñes, considered a sprinter’s stage, features seven rated climbs, including a first-category midway through the 153km course.

Tuesday’s second stage to Vitoria features six third-category climbs, but once again will likely end in a reduced bunch sprint, with the GC favorites trailing in behind a handful of hardy sprinters.

Stages 3 and 4 end with first-category summits and will see the first major differences on the GC battle.

The seven-climb third stage ends atop the Cat. 1 Eibar climb, won two years in a row by Sánchez while the five-climb fourth stage ends up the Cat. 1 Inbardin summit. Riders typically come across the line in dribs and drabs, with just a few seconds dividing the top faves.

Five more climbs are in store for the bumpy road to Oñati in stage 5, but it’s another day for the sprinters or a breakaway of non-threatening riders.

The past several editions have been decided by the final-day time trial, with another likely scenario unfolding again this year.

Sánchez will love the Oñati course, which opens with two short, punchy climbs in the opening 4km, followed by about 10km of flats before a very steep climb with 2km to go. From the summit, it’s straight down a technical descent tumbling toward the finish line.

This year’s race almost didn’t happen. A budget shortfall of $300,000 pushed organizers to the brink for both the Basque Country tour and the Clásica San Sebatián, held in August, but linked to the same TV deal.

Final-hour backing from a Spanish bank helped saved the day, assuring that the colorful race will be on the schedule for at least two more years.

That assures that Spain’s most important stage race, behind the Vuelta a España, will continue the tradition dating back to 1935. Though disrupted during the Franco era (and worthy of a mention by Hemingway in “The Sun Also Rises”), the modern edition of the race clicked into gear in 1969.

The winner earns the trademark Basque beret called a txapia. Before winning in 2010, an optimistic Horner said, “I want one of those funny hats!” He got it and finished second last year. Horner will be trying to get another one, but Sánchez and a few others might have something to say about that.

 52nd Vuelta al País Vasco
Stage 1 (Monday, April 2): Gueñes-Gueñes, 153km
Stage 2 (Tuesday, April 3): Gueñes to Vitoria, 166km
Stage 3 (Wednesday, April 4): Vitoria to Eibar, 164km
Stage 4 (Thursday, April 5): Eibar to Bera, 151km
Stage 5 (Friday, April 6): Bera to Oñati, 183km
Stage 6 (Saturday, April 7): Oñati- Oñati, 18.9km (ITT)