One of the most important races for Naturgas Energía, and for the rest of the Basque amateur field for that matter, is starting tomorrow: the Vuelta al Bidasoa.
The sub-23 four-day stage-race, which gets its name from the eponymous river running on the borderline between France and Spain, annually forms the crux of the red team's season, and this year is no different. According to team head Iñigo Urretxua, last weekend's race in Berriatua was merely a warm-up for Bidasoa, and as such it's no surprise to see him name seven of his strongest riders for the race. According to BiciCiclismo, this is the likely line-up:
31 - Mikel Iturria
32 - Jon Larrinaga
33 - Imanol Estévez
34 - Karl Baudron
35 - Damien Garcia
36 - Alain González
37 - Victor Etxeberria
The race starts out tomorrow, Wednesday 9th, with a an uncomplicated 122,9km ride from Irún to Hendaia, France. The stage contains only two categorized climbs, the cat.3 Gurutze and Meagas, and should, on paper anyway, not pose too many difficulties for the 133 riders.
Day two takes in the iconic Alto de Jaizkíbel, a regular feature in the Clásica San Sebastián, only ten kilometres from the line in the nearby finishing-town of Hondarribia, Patxi Vila's place of birth. Stage two also takes in the Alto de Ziga (cat.3) after some 50 kilometres of racing, and is likely to be a day for the GC favourites to prove their worth.
Stage three takes the riders on a 91,5km loop from and to Orio. The spectacular climb of Aia, whose viciously steep ramps memorably forced quite a few riders to dismount and walk up the climb in the 2010 edition of the Vuelta al País Vasco, will be tackled approximately 13 clicks from the line in Orio, but it's the final day that's likely to be the most decisive.
The fourth and concluding stage is true to tradition: short on distance, only 78,4 kilometres, but rich on climbs. Three category one climbs will be tackled (Aritxulegi, Egiña and Erlaitz) along with one cat.3 early on, before the race crosses the line in Juanma Garate's (and former Athletic Club and Deportivo La Coruña manager Javier Irureta's as well) birth town of Irún.
All the top sub23 teams will be present, meaning there will be a wealth of top prospects on show. On-fire Russian Alexey Rybalkin from Lokosphinx will be one to watch, Caja Rural's Fernando Grijalba and Ibai Salas will pose a threat, while Debabarrena's Aitor González, Naturgas's own Larrinaga and Chetout, Lizarte's Márquez and Ramírez, Azysa's Ariel Sivori and Koplad's Iñigo Ojeda are just a few of a number of riders likely to make an impact. Top French outfit Entente Sud Gascogne will bring quite a few candidates, but will not be able to bring one of their top riders, Spaniard Ion Pardo (formerly of Seguros Bilba), as he's above the age limit.
The Russians of Lokomotiv completely dominated last year's event, taking the top three steps on the podium courtesy of Shalunov, Belykh and Sveshnikov, and has won the race for the last three years. Andrey Amador, the prodigious Costa Rican of Movistar, is the last non-Russian victor, taking out the race back in 2008 ahead of Italian Mancuso and the not so unfamiliar Ángel Madrazo. Alas, the Russians will once again line up as red-hot favourites.
Former Euskaltel trio Antton Luengo (2003), David Herrero (2001) and Gorka Arrizabalaga (1999) have also tasted victory at the event, while former Orbea rider Eladio Sánchez emerged victorious in 2005. Illustrious names like Koldo Gil, Unai Osa, Carlos Sastre, José Luis Rubiera, Abraham Olano, Scott Sunderland, Frédéric Guesdon, Peio Ruíz Cabestany, Luis Ocaña and Txomin Perurena all feature on the race's roll of honour. No wonder it's an important race.
For full provisional start list, click here.
For stage profiles, click here.