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Far from the cobblestones of the northern classics, the GC riders and mountain climbers converge in Spain next week for what many consider the most difficult weeklong stage race on the European calendar, the Vuelta a País Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country).
Topping the favorites list is none other than Nairo Quintana (Movistar). Hot off his impressive victory at Tirreno-Adriatico, the defending Giro d’Italia champion will line up for Monday’s start with every intention of winning his second title in three years.
“I have good memories of the Basque Country tour. With the team I have around me, I should have no problem,” Quintana told the Spanish daily MARCA. “I have good condition. There are some challenging rivals, so it will not be easy.”
Quintana, 25, won the Basque Country tour in his breakout 2013 season, but skipped it last year as he turned his focus toward the Giro. With the Tour back on his radar screen for 2015, his approach to France returns to the hilly, challenging parcours in Spain.
Other big names include Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Garmin), Rafa Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo), Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin), Jean-Christophe Péraud (Ag2r-La Mondiale), the Yates brothers and Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge), world champion Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-Quick Step), Rui Costa and Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida), Bauke Mollema (Trek Factory Racing), and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha).
Notable names missing are defending Basque Country champ Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), defending Tour de France champion Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Chris Froome (Sky).
“The Basque Country tour is a goal of a mine, but it’s never easy to win,” Péraud told Dario Vasco. “Not only is the course very complicated, but the level of participation is very high. It will be an intense battle.”
The mountainous parcours is ideal for Quintana and the other climbers. With more than 30 rated climbs, including a return to the Arrate finale in stage 4, the race also includes an 18.3km time trial on its final day. The Antigua climb, just 3km from the finish line in stage 3, the uphill finale at Aia in stage 5, and two passages during the time trial will favor the explosive puncheurs like Kwiatkowski, Rodríguez, or Quintana.
Weather can also be a factor, with rain, cold, and wind typical. But forecasters are calling for warm, spring-like conditions throughout the week.
The winner receives a local Basque beret called the “txapela,” and it looks like Quintana is poised to add another one to his collection.
Up first are a pair of Spanish one-day races, with the GP Indurain on Saturday, and the Vuelta a Rioja on Sunday. Valverde is skipping the Basque Country tour, and passed on a chance to race the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) on Sunday due to a risk of crashing. Valverde and Quintana will both head into the Ardennes later this month.