LEON, Spain (VN) — Beginning Monday, Spain’s hilly Basque Country will be the setting for what should be a shootout between Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) and Richie Porte (Team Sky).
Porte is riding the form of his career, with victory at Paris-Nice and second at Critérium International, while Contador returns to the Vuelta al País Vasco looking for his first GC win of the season.
After missing Critérium International with the flu, officials close to Contador confirmed he’s been training without problems and enters Monday’s start intent on making a run for the winner’s txapela.
“It’s obvious it would have been better had I raced Critérium, but I hope to arrive in good shape,” Contador told Radio Vasco this week.
“I’m a rider who likes to get in the thick of the battle and there are times when I am riding for the win when I am not in top shape. I come to the race motivated with a strong team.”
Despite missing Critérium, Contador has had a fast start to the 2013 season. He won a stage and finished fourth overall at his season debut at the Tour de San Luís in January and fought to second behind Chris Froome (Sky) at the Tour of Oman in February.
Earlier this month, Contador finished third overall at a hard-fought Tirreno-Adriatico, where Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) defended his 2012 crown.
The narrow roads and steep hills —more than 30 rated climbs — are ideal for Contador, a two-time winner at the Basque tour, in 2008 and 2009.
The penultimate stage features no fewer than 10 rated climbs in an intense 166km course, while the closing-day 24km time trial typically settles the final order of the podium spots.
The other top favorite will be Porte, who has upped his game this season when given the chance to ride as a leader for Team Sky.
Providing Porte with strong support will be Sergio Henao, Vasil Kiryienka, Jonathan Tiernan-Locke, Joe Dombrowski and Ian Boswell.
The 28-year-old Tasmanian has proven to be a tough nut to crack so far this season. He’s improved in both time trialing and climbing, giving him the tools he will need to take on Contador and the Spanish climbers on their home turf.
Haimar Zubeldia, who will join a strong RadioShack-Leopard, said he sees Porte as the man to beat.
“I would put Richie Porte as the favorite to win,” Zubeldia told the Dario Vasco. “I saw him very strong at Paris-Nice and then he was second at Critérium because he had to work for Froome.”
Zubeldia and his Shack teammates will be looking to play spoiler. A winner in 2010, Chris Horner is still recovering from knee pain that forced him out of the Volta a Catalunya two weeks ago and will recover at his home in Bend, Oregon.
In his absence, two-time winner Andreas Kloden will be joined by Andy Schleck, who will be hard-pressed to survive the brutal race conditions found at the Basque tour.
Rain and cool temperatures are expected throughout the week, meaning that the challenging race will be even more demanding.
Locals will be hoping to see Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) defend his title, but the 2008 Olympic champion admitted Friday he is not yet in top form to give his team its first win of the season.
“I always give 100 percent in my home race, but this year I will not have the same fitness,” Sánchez said in an interview with Vavel.
“Last year, the target was to win at home. This year, my preparation is completely different. There are riders who are coming here with more kick to their legs than me. I would only be lying to myself if I said otherwise.”
Others to watch will include Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), joined by world champion Philippe Gilbert, who opted out of Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen with hopes of gaining more fitness ahead of the Ardennes classics.
Van Garderen, hot off third at Critérium and fourth at Paris-Nice, admitted the short, punchy climbs are not his ideal.
“I can’t say this race has been a big target of mine going into the season, but it would be good to test myself a little bit,” van Garderen said on BMC’s web site.
“Looking at the stage profiles, they all look pretty hard. And obviously the time trial on the last day is something I will go for.”
Garmin-Sharp brings a deep squad, led by Paris-Nice runner-up Andrew Talansky and Ryder Hesjedal, racing for the second time after helping teammate Daniel Martin win the Volta a Catalunya.
Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DMC), Bauke Mollema (Blanco), Jurgen van den Broucke (Lotto-Belisol), Jean Christophe Peraud (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Jakob Fulgsang (Astana), Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Damiano Cunego and Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida) and Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) are other big names lining up Monday.
56th Vuelta al País Vasco
Stage 1, April 1: Elgoibar-Elgoibar, 156.5km
Stage 2, April 2: Elgoibar to Vitoria, 170.2km
Stage 3, April 3: Vitoria to Trapagaran, 164.7km
Stage 4, April 4: Trapagara to Eibar, 151.6km
Stage 5, April 5: Eibar to Beasain, 166.1km
Stage 6, April 6: Beasain-Beaisin, 24km (ITT)