Tour Down Under 2014
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07-12 April 2014

April is an intense month full of great cycling. In between the two Spring Classics; Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix, we now have Vuelta al Pais Vasco. This is usually one of the toughest one-week stage races on the calendar. This year’s edition is no exception.

The route
As is the custom in this race, the road hardly ever runs flat. The undulating terrain seems perfect for attacks and, without bonus seconds, the riders have to take full advantage of any given opportunity. The hardest stage of the race is most likely the first stage on Monday. Eight categorized climbs await the riders that day. The last climb has its top less than 7 km from the line and its average gradient of 13 % (!) over 2.3 km will make for a big selection already on this first day.

I doubt we will see more than 30-40 riders arriving together in any of the five regular stages. The best chance for a ‘bunch’-spring is on day two. Stage 4 is the classic mountain stage finishing in Eibar (Arrate), but usually we don’t see big time differences here. Without any exceptional individual performances within the first five days, this year’s Vuelta a Pais Vasco will most likely be settled on the final day with a 25.9 km long time trial. There are two climbs on the menu this day, but there aren’t any steep ramps like we’ve seen in the recent time trials in this race. This one is a course for specialists and therefore, the top favorites for the overall win must be riders who are strong against the clock.

The favorites
This year’s field is extremely strong. However, the way I see it, there are especially four riders who stand out. First one is, naturally, Alberto Contador. He seems to have found back to his motivation and love for riding and he’s now back at his former level, attacking every time he sees an opportunity to do so. He missed out narrowly in Volta a Catalunya, finishing just four seconds behind the winner Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez. Contador made a tactical mistake on the big (foggy) mountain stage, which probably cost him the overall win. Now he’s determined not to let that happen again. Right now, Alberto Contador is the best climber in the peloton and he’s starting to perform very well in the time trials again, as well. I think he will be very difficult to beat in this year’s Vuelta al Pais Vasco.

One of Contador’s biggest rivals is Michal Kwiatkowski. The Pole lost Tirreno-Adriatico to the Spaniard last month and must now be eager for revenge. Kwiatkowski is still young and has much to learn. However, together with teammate Tony Martin, he’s probably the best time trialist in the race. The mountain stage on day four, shouldn’t be too hard for Kwiatkowski. Even if he loses some seconds, he’ll be more than capable of taking them back in the final time trial. The biggest test for Michal Kwiatkowski will be on day one. Contador and others will most likely try to attack on the steep climb near the finish and Kwiatkowski has to be ready to respond. If he manages to stick to the favorites that day, his chances of finishing on the podium seem very good.

The next one up amongst the top favorites is Rui Costa. The World Champion is still searching for his first win in the rainbow jersey. So far, he has come in second six times this season. This race suits Rui Costa very well. However, he has a tendency to not start out these one-week races as strongly as he finishes them off. In Paris-Nice he missed out on the overall win because he wasn’t able to close the gaps built within the first stages. The same thing happened in Tour de Suisse last year, which he won on the final day - in an uphill time trial. On paper, this race is perfect for Rui Costa. If the Portuguese is ready from day one, it will be a surprise not to see him on the overall podium on Saturday.

Tejay van Garderen is the last one of my four favorites. He won the big mountain stage in Volta a Catalunya and finished third overall. This season is very important for the young American. He’s set to lead BMC in the Tour de France and he needs to prove he’s up for the task. Van Garderen had to quit Paris-Nice on day one which made his overall podium in Catalunya even more impressive. BMC sends a strong team to support Tejay van Garderen. Former winner Samuel Sanchez is here, together with Cadel Evans and Philippe Gilbert. The short, steep hills don’t favor Van Garderen much, but the final time trial most certainly does. If he manages to stay close to the other favorites in the first five stages, he’ll be able to fight for the overall win in the final time trial.

The outsiders
Due to the lack of bonus seconds and a hard time trial for specialits on the final day, strong riders like Alejandro Valverde, Bauke Mollema, Thibaut Pinot and Tom-Jelte Slagter may not stand many chances for overall success. They all are strong candidates for a stage win but I doubt we will see any of them winning this year's Vuelta al Pais Vasco overall.

One of the riders who might achieve just that is Jean-Christophe Peraud. The Frenchman had a great start to the season, finishing 2nd in Tour Med, 4th in Tirreno-Adriatico and then 1st overall in Criterium International last weekend. As a former mountain biker, this undulating route doesn’t bother Peraud. He may not be the best on the short, very steep climbs, but he should be able to stay close to the favorites. The time trial suits Jean-Christophe Peraud perfectly and, without incidents, I think he will fight for the overall podium on the final day. AG2R also has Carlos Betancur in the race. However, the Colombian is coming back from a knee injury which made him abandon Volta a Catalunya. He says he’s only here to get race rhythm back, in time for the Ardennes Classics, which are his first big goal of the season. I think Peraud’s best help on the climbs will come from Alexis Vuillermoz. He was outstanding in Paris-Nice and Criterium International as he helped Betancur and Peraud to their overall wins. The final time trial will ruin Vuillermoz’ own chances of overall success, but in this shape, he might as well take a stage win!

My personal outsider for a good overall result is Damiano Caruso. He probably won’t win Vuelta al Pais Vasco but I think he will surprise a few. Caruso used to be one of the most promising Italian talents. However, he has never really managed to live up to his huge potential. This year, Caruso has (finally) changed his race program, focusing only on the stage races. He didn’t start out Paris-Nice in a good condition but finished off very strongly with a series of attacks on the climbs. In Coppi e Bartali, he was even better, finishing 5th overall after a strong performance in the final time trial. With bonus seconds, Caruso’s overall chances would have been better as he’s fast on the line in a reduced group. However, even without bonus seconds, I think his aggressive way of riding, could earn him a spot close to the podium.

Also, don’t count out Tony Martin. His season hasn’t been much of a success yet, but it might change here. On a good day, Tony Martin won’t lose much time on stage 4. At least not more than he will be able to take back in the final time trial. However, if Tony Martin is to win Vuelta al Pais Vasco overall this year, he has to finish with the favorites on stage 1 and that might be too difficult for him.

For other strong outsiders look to: Tanel Kangert, Simon Spilak, Roman Kreuziger, Robert Kiserlovski, Beñat Intxausti and Team Sky’s future Grand Tour winner; Peter Kennaugh.

Daily previews
The daily stage previews are back! The preview for the upcoming stage will be online in the evening (CET) before each stage. For live coverage of Vuelta a Pais Vasco 2014, go to steephill.tv.