If you’re thinking of a gamble on this summer’s Tour de France, you can get your early form guide at the Itzulia Basque Country starting Monday.
With Ineos Grenadiers sending Tao Geoghegan Hart and on-form Adam Yates to back up Carapaz, and Pogačar benefiting from rising American talent Brandon McNulty and UAE-Emirates new-boy Marc Hirschi as wingmen, Itzulia makes for a clash of grand tour proportions.
Jumbo-Visma isn’t quite sending its A-Team to the race formerly known as Vuelta al Pais Vasco this week. The Dutch outfit, however, packs more than enough artillery in its young roster to support Roglič in his GC bid. Perhaps more tellingly for Jumbo-Visma, the tour will also mark the first stage race that Roglič has had to face off against his young compatriot since that yellow jersey overturn and his return to competition after losing out at the last at Paris-Nice last month.
With UAE Emirates, Jumbo-Visma, and Ineos Grenadiers sending its top dogs to Spain this week, here’s what we can learn ahead of the 2021 Tour de France:
The road to the Tour de France begins in the Basque hills
Winter altitude camps and early season stage races are done. With less than three months to the Tour de France, serious preparation for the Grand Départ begins in the Basque Country.
Pogačar started his season red-hot with wins at the UAE Tour and Tirreno-Adriatico, and the 22-year-old isn’t planning to take his foot off the accelerator in what will be his final stage race before making an assault on the Ardennes. When Pogačar competes, he goes to win, and he’s stated he’ll be doing the same again this week.
The Slovenian won the Emirati and Italian races from a field of top GC riders, but the heft on display at the Itzulia Basque Country is something altogether different. Will Pogačar make it three stage-race wins in a row?
The race could mark a significant milestone for Pogačar in his build toward the yellow jersey. With the rest of his schedule for April filled with one-day races, the Itzulia could be his last stage race ahead of the final tune-up race of the Critérium du Dauphiné in June, and so he’ll be wanting to iron out any kinks in his climber-stacked squad and bank a haul of more race kilometers.
Ineos Grenadiers is sending a similarly heavyweight team to the Itzulia, with Geraint Thomas and Richie Porte the only omissions from what could make for its favored Tour lineup.
Thomas is likely to play the lead role at the Tour this summer, but Carapaz and Geoghegan Hart will act as more-than-capable foils if the team opts to continue with its offense-packed new look. After taking a sweep of the podium at Volta a Catalunya through its old-school bulldozer tactic, will Ineos Grenadiers again revert to type in a bid to send Carapaz or Yates to the podium in Arrate next weekend? Or will Dave Brailsford want to start dialing in his experimental new approach?
This week in Spain could provide a telling preview of how Brailsford’s crew plans to race against the explosive might of Roglic and Pogačar for the rest of the season.
Of the three likely players for this summer’s Tour de France, Jumbo-Visma goes to the Itzulia with the “weakest” team, leaving Sepp Kuss, George Bennett, and Steven Kruijswijk on the bench.
Roglič will instead be relying on new recruit Sam Oomen and breakout talents Chris Harper and Jonas Vingegaard as he looks to turn a corner after his recent tumble from Paris-Nice contention. With question marks over the return of Tom Dumoulin from his career break, Vingegaard and Oomen are top contenders for a slot at the Tour. The tough terrain of northern Spain will make for a stern test of their Tour de France pedigree and show whether Jumbo-Visma has depth on its bench to match the deep reserves of Ineos.
Itzulia will also make for a test of Roglič’s nerve after his latest stage race disappointment – will the Slovenian show the steel that saw him so rapidly return last summer after his Tour de France turnaround?
Also watch: Final Ardennes tune-up
The Tour de France may be less than three months away, but the Ardennes classics are just 13 days over the horizon.
With Amstel Gold opening up the hilly classics on April 18, the likes of Hirschi, Jakob Fuglsang, Michael Woods, and Alejandro Valverde will be making the most of the relentlessly hilly terrain to top up the tanks ahead of their assault on the classics.
The most interesting rider to watch could be Hirschi, the star of last summer’s hilly races.
After capping a stellar season with victory at Flèche Wallonne last year, the young Swiss has been quiet since. After his high-profile move to UAE-Team Emirates over the winter, the 22-year-old had a late start to the season and a quiet opening race at Catalunya. The short steep hills of the Basque country this week should show whether Hirschi will again light up the Ardennes with his powerful new team.
No easy days
There’s a reason why pros say Itzulia Basque Country is one of the hardest races of the year.
The six stages are relentlessly lumpy, with even the opening stage time trial Monday finishing atop a sharp final ramp, and only stage 5 is likely to finish in a sprint. Two stages finish at or close to the bottom of a significant climb, stage 3 closes on the 11 percent Ermualde summit, and the sixth stage makes for a multi-climb maelstrom by packing seven categorized ascents into 111km.
If riders are looking to brush off the cobwebs on the road to the Tour de France or Ardennes classics, Itzulia will give them all they need, and some.