The fourth edition of the Three Days of Álava, organized in part by the Fundación Euskadi, will kick off this coming Friday. The big names of the amateur ranks will be out in force in search of a triumph in what's becoming an increasingly prestigious race on the calendar. The Fundación's own sub-23 team, Naturgas Energía, is based in the region and has the race marked in big red letters on its calendar eash season. Here's the run-down of the stages, the participating teams, Naturgas Energía's prospects and the main contenders for the overall prize.
Stage one takes the riders 96 kilometres from Amurrio to Llodio. It's the shortest stage of the three, but contains the most categorized climbs; three cat.2s are on the menu for the 130-man strong peloton. The opener is likely to see the contenders for overall glory emerge over the hilly parcours. The last climb tops out some 10 clicks from the line.
Stage two is a 110km hike from and to the capital of the region, and the Basque Country as a whole for that matter, that is Vitoria-Gasteiz. It's not the most demanding stage, only one categorized climb is included, but the wind that traditionally is prominent in this part of the Basque Country may be a deciding factor. A sprint is on the cards if the team of the overnight leader manage to keep it together.
The last stage from Elciego to Lapuebla de Labarca is neither particularly hilly nor particularly flat. The one categorized climb in the middle of the 108km course is not likely to separate the guys still in the running for the overall, and a sprint from a medium-sized group is a probable outcome.
16 teams will line up for the start in Amurrio. Those are: Naturgas Energía, Seguros Bilbao, Gomur-Cantabria Deporte, Kanpanzar Harrobia, Azysa-Telco'm Conor WRC, Caja Rural, Ikolan Lanaldi-Gopar, Hostal Latorre, Andalucía, Cafés Baqué, Ibagaine Opel, Reyno de Navarra-Conor, Debabarrena, Lizarte, Bidelan-Kirolgi, Koplad Uni2.
Naturgas Energía team:
The team is yet to be picked, but the four locals, Jon Larrinaga, Alain González, Imanol Estévez and Francisco Javier Martín, will be keen to make the team. Larrinaga has been the team's standout performer this year, while Alain González has also chipped in with his fair share of top 10s, not least with third place last week in Durana. Estévez and Martín have both adapted well to the team in their debut season with the 'red brigade', while Loic Chetout, Victor Etxebarria and Karl Baudron are also sure to make their mark if selected.
Last year's edition was quite successful what with Fernando Grijalba's impressive win on day two. Things haven't been going quite as well this year though, with the team still winless so far in 2012. If the team's top players line up, i.e. Larrinaga, Chetout, González et al., there is every chance that maiden win might arrive though, and Larrinaga in particular looks like a potential GC podium finisher.
The riders to watch:
Extramadura-Spiuk's Chilean hotshot Edison Bravo took the spoils in 2011 with a commanding display throughout. He won't be back this year, thus opening the door to a bunch of riders.
The aforementioned Larrinaga will be one to watch if he takes the start, while Debabarrena's Aitor González, who leads the Basque Federation's Torneo Lehendakari-series overall with a single point over Larrinaga, has stated his intent to make his mark on the summer stage-races. The Vuelta al Bidasoa in May will be his main goal, but he'll also be one to keep an eye on this weekend.
Caja Rural will as always field a cobble of strong riders. Ibai Salas and Nick Van Geffen will be a fearsome duo if they make the squad, whilst Carlos Antonio Jiménez (winner in Laukiz in March) and Johann Van Zyl (winner in Lizarta in March) shouldn't be discounted either.
Bidelan have left out Euskaldun-leader Julén Mitxelena and the strong Imanol Iza, who's third overall in that particular series, but will as always be competitive. Jon Ander Insausti, Urtzi Murgia and, winner in Pitillas earlier this month, Ibai Daboz might all leave their mark.
Former Naturgas prodigy and able cyclo-cross rider David Hidalgo hails from the region and has enjoyed a consistent season so far. The Cafés Baqué man will be backed up by a strong team, perhaps including another former Naturgas rider, Alex Bilbao.
Krzysztof Tracz of Hostal Latorre (second last weekend in Durana), Santiago Ramirez of Lizarte (winner in Bergara in March) and Azysa's Ariel Sivori might also be found close to the top of the standings.
Quite a few former legends will also be present at the race - if not in a racing capacity. David Etxebarría, who needs no further introduction, will lead Koplad-Uni2, while Joseba Beloki's little brother and former pro, Gorka, will call the shots in the Lizarte team-car. Former Euskaltel rider and DS Rubén Gorospe will lead Cafés Baqué, erstwhile CSC climber Manuel Calvente will direct Andalucía, whilst former Euskaltel DS Jon Odriozola will as usual take his seat in the Bidelan car.
Naturgas Energía photo courtesy of www.fundacioneuskadi.com