07/04 - Stage 1 - Ordizia to Ordizia - 153.4 km
Forget all about starting out with an easy sprint stage. Stage 1 of this year’s Vuelta al Pais Vasco is most likely the hardest one of the race. There are no less than eight categorized climbs on the menu today. The last one has its top just 6.7 km from the finishing line.
The Basque country is known - and feared - for its many short and steep climbs. Today the riders have to overcome six different hills. Most of these are no longer than a couple of kilometers but have an average gradient of over 8 %. The only ‘long’ climb (Alto de Orendain) is 5.3 km long and has an average gradient of 5 %. You can see a detailed profile of the two last climbs when holding your mouse over them on the stage profile at the top.
There are no bonus seconds in this year’s race and therefore, the GC riders will have to take advantage of every opportunity they get to attack. The many steep climbs on the stage mean the race will be hard to control and I’m sure we will see attacks on the final climb of the day. The 2.3 km towards the top of Alto de Gaintza have an average gradient of 13 % and parts of 16 % in the middle. Punchy riders will be able to break free on the steep gradients, and, with only 6.7 km to go from the top of the climb, even a small gap can turn out to be enough. The final 300 meters of the stage are uphill with an average gradient of 8 %.
There is a lot of strong riders in the race able to win a stage like this one. The top favorite must be Alejandro Valverde. He’s in great shape right now and arrives to the race with seven win this season, so far. Most recently he won GP Miguel Indurain last Saturday. Valverde is strong enough to stay with the very best on the steep gradients on Alto de Gaintza. Furthermore, he is one of the fastest riders on a short, uphill finish like this one.
Valverde’s biggest rival for the stage win is probably Tom-Jelte Slagter. The Dutchman has a very strong kick on the steep gradients and is extremely fast on the line. In Paris-Nice he missed out on the overall win due to a mechanical problem. With a final time trial, Slagter won’t have many chances of overall success in Vuelta al Pais Vasco and therefore his main target has to be on winning stages.
On paper, this stage is also very good for Carlos Betancur. However, this is his first race since he pulled out of Volta Catalunya due to a knee injury. I’m not quite sure Betancur is ready to fight for the win already. However, you can’t count him out just yet.
Alberto Contador will be eager to get an early advantage on his rivals. However, I can’t see him outsprint Valverde and Slagter, despite the uphill finish. If Contador wants to win this stage, he has to solo away on the steep climb. Not impossible, but it won’t be easy either.
My personal outsider for this stage is Michael Matthews. In Paris-Nice he was amongst the strongest riders on the steep gradients. Sunday Matthews won La Rioja. Obviously, he’s still in great shape and I think he will be extremely hard to drop on the climbs today. The GreenEdge riders have been training on the route and they know how to tackle the climbs. The uphill finish suits Matthews perfectly and if he manages to stick to the front on the last climb, I think he will win this stage. In case something happens to Bling, GreenEdge also has Simon Gerrans, Michael Albasini and the young Yates brothers suitable for a finish like this one. Especially Gerrans seems to be back in good shape.
Another fast rider who may have a chance is Ben Swift. He did a great Milano - San Remo, finishing 3rd after an impressive performance in the final. Swift then took his great shape to Coppi e Bartali where he won the opening sprint stage and the points classification. The final climb may be a little too steep for Swifty, but I wouldn’t put it beyond his ability - in this shape - to make another big result today if it comes back to a sprint. It's a tall order - I know - but that's why he's in the outsider category.
For other outsiders look to strong climbers with a fast finish like; Rui Costa, Bauke Mollema and Michal Kwiatkowski. Don't forget Philippe Gilbert is here too, fine-tuning his shape ahead of the Ardennes Classics. If Gilbert is ready, he could be up there as well, fighting for the win.
For live coverage of the stage, go to steephill.tv