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OUDENARDE, Belgium (VN) — Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) will square off this week in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country) in what’s one of the most challenging stage races of the year.
Both are on top form, with Contador winning Tirreno-Adriatico and riding to second at the Volta a Catalunya, while Valverde won the GP Miguel Indurain on Saturday.
Both, however, have played down their chances in the mountainous race, with Valverde insisting his eyes on are on the Ardennes classics.
“I still feel good, and I have this spark, but these six days of racing will give me the finishing touch to be ready for the races as long and demanding as the classics,” Valverde said. “Let’s see if I am lucky, because [the Ardennes] are my big objectives.”
Contador is also on a good run, but will pull the plug after the Basque tour and will not race any of the upcoming Ardennes classics.
“I want to do a good race. I know there are a lot of top rivals. I am feeling good, motivated, and want to do well in the race that always brings good memories,” Contador told El Correo newspaper. “The final time trial will be decisive, and favor riders like [Tony] Martin, [Tejay] van Garderen, and [Michal] Kwiatkowski, so I will have to take time on the climbs if I hope to have a chance.”
The Basque tour will be more than just a showdown between Spain’s top grand tour favorites.
BMC Racing brings a loaded team, with former winner Samuel Sánchez, Cadel Evans, and van Garderen, hot off winning a stage and placing third at Catalunya.
“After his performance at Catalunya, Tejay will be our leader,” said BMC sport director Valerio Piva. “Sánchez was good at Catalunya, and he knows the race well, so he will also be a protected rider.”
Also starting is champion Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida), looking for his first win in the rainbow jersey with six second-places this season. Carlos Betancur (Ag2r La Mondiale), back after an illness, is hunting form ahead of the classics.
Kwiatkowski and Martin lead an always-strong Omega Pharma-Quick Step, with Garmin-Sharp bringing Tom Jelte Slagter and Ryder Hesjedal. Belkin lines up with Bauke Mollema and Robert Gesink.
Andy and Frank Schleck start for Trek Factory Racing with Peter Kennaugh, hot off winning Coppi e Bartoli, and Jurgen Vanden Brouck (Lotto-Belisol).
Two important names are missing. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), who beat Contador at Catalunya, is skipping the demands of the race to prepare quietly for the upcoming classics. Defending champ Nairo Quintana (Movistar) returned to Colombia to prepare at altitude. Both are targeting the Giro d’Italia.
The 54th edition of the Basque tour opened Monday with a hilly stage that features two second-category climbs in the closing 30 kilometers. Stages 2 and 3 are ideal for the sprinters. Stage 4 tackles the traditional climbing finale at Eibar, which thins the GC battle to less than a half dozen.
Stage 5 will be one to control ahead of the decisive, final-day time trial. The 25.9km, two-climb course favors world champion Martin, but strong time trialists, such as van Garderen and Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff-Saxo), will be poised to snag the leader’s jersey on the final day if they’re within striking distance.