Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Tour de Romandie

Due to technical problems, there won't be any stage previews for Tour de Romandie this year. I will however be posting a few thoughts about the stages on Twitter during the week.

Search for hashtag #tdrpreview to see favorites, jokers and stage details.

Stay tuned for the big Giro d'Italia Previews coming soon!

Friday, April 19, 2013

Liège-Bastogne-Liège: Preview & Favorites

The first two Ardennes Classics produced a surprising winner and with the new change of course in the final of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, we might as well see another outsider winning this Sunday.

Still, I think one of the favorites will win this race and to me the biggest favorite is Alejandro Valverde. He did fine in Flèche Wallonne on a finish that doesn’t suit him and he showed in Amstel Gold Race that he is in great shape right now. Liège-Bastogne-Liège is Valverde’s biggest goal this spring and with his fast finish, he will be very difficult to beat. Furthermore, Movistar have a great line up to support Valverde. Rui Costa, Quintana and Visconti all have the strength to end on the podium in this race, but this Sunday they are all riding in support of Valverde.

One of the reasons why I see Alejandro Valverde as biggest favorite is the lack of Roche-aux-Faucons. The little steep climb is closed due to roadwork, and therefore the organizers have replaced it with Côte de Colonster. Colonster is longer than Roche-aux-Faucons but it’s not nearly as steep. The 2,4 km have an average gradient of 6% and on open roads it is now a lot easier for a big group to keep the race together. The biggest threat of Côte de Colonster is probably the fight for positions on the way to the climb. Right before it starts, the peloton crossed a narrow bridge and after that a railroad crossing. If it rains, this will be very dangerous with everybody wanting to be in front when starting the climb.

As always Saint-Nicolas will be a key point in the race with its top just 5,5 km from the line. The chances of the big group starting this climb together are very high, the way I see it, and it won’t be easy for climbers like Sergio Henao to get away. I think Movistar and Katusha will have enough manpower to keep it together if needed and then set up Valverde and Moreno/Purito for a final sprint.

Purito didn’t have the legs to make a difference in Flèche Wallonne, but there is no doubt about his shape right now. He came to Amstel Gold Race in “better condition than last year” (according to himself) and Liège-Bastogne-Liège has been his big target ever since last year. He even decided to skip Vuelta Pais Vasco - a stage race tailor-made for him - in order to prepare for the Ardennes and arrive more fresh than last year. The morale is great after his teammate and loyal helper Dani Moreno won Flèche Wallonne, and even though it won’t be easy for Purito to win, I think he’ll have a great chance of making podium.

The bridge & railroad crossing just before starting
on Côte de Colonster - Click for larger view!
As always, I have a few jokers too. The first one is Bauke Mollema, the bookmakers don’t seem to count on him, but I’ve seen Mollema getting better and the better the last week. He finished 10th in Amstel Gold Race and managed to end 9th in Flèche Wallonne despite being boxed in on Mur de Huy. I’m sure we haven’t seen the best of Mollema in the Ardennes yet and he’s a good candidate for breakaway attempt in the final. Don’t forget Mollema is also fast on the line, should it come to a sprint. Last Wednesday, my joker Dan Martin was only centimeters away from taking the podium in Flèche Wallonne - maybe Mollema will have more luck this Sunday?

My second joker is Björn Leukemans. His spring season has been solid without being great. Must riders would probably be pleased with making Top20 in Dwaars Door Vlaanderen, Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix, but I doubt Leukemans is very happy. The cobblestone races didn’t really go as planned, but luckily for Leuki, he has another chance in the Ardennes. He showed great shape when he took 3rd place in Brabantse Pijl behing Peter Sagan and Phillipe Gilbert, and last Sunday he sprinted to 7th place in Amstel Gold Race. Björn Leukeman decided to skip Flèche Wallonne in order to relax and prepare for Liège-Bastogne-Liège and I wouldn’t be surprised if he improves his 9th place from 2011 this Sunday.

Winner pick: Alejandro Valverde
Podium pick: Purito Rodriguez
Jokers: Bauke Mollema & Björn Leukemans

For live race coverage go to steephill.tv

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Flèche Wallonne: Preview & Favorites

This mini-classic is the most explosive one of the three Ardennes races this week. The steep Mur de Huy always makes for an exciting finish and like the last nine years, I’m sure it will all come down to the final 1300 meters this time.

It’s 10 years ago Igor Astarloa won Flèche Wallone after a big morning break managed to keep the peloton at bay, and even though Roman Kreuziger’s win in Amstel Gold Race could be an indicator of another break making it, I highly doubt it. Phillipe Gilbert is eager to get his first win in the rainbow jersey and together with the Colombia duo Sergio Henao & Nairo Quintana he is the man to beat on Wednesday.

BMC have been very strong lately and Phillipe Gilbert seems to back at his best. He will probably never going to be as strong as in 2011 but without Purito Rodriguez [at this moment Purito isn’t sure he’s able to ride after his crash in Amstel Gold Race], it difficult to pick another winner. No one was able to follow Gilbert on Cauberg last Sunday and even though Mur de Huy is a lot steeper, it still showed the strength of Gilbert right now.

In 2010 Igor Antón and Alberto Contador attacked early on Mur de Huy and got a nice little gap before Cadel Evans and Purito caught them near the top. Evans won the race back then and I think this year’s edition will have some of the same scenario. Sergio Henao and Nairo Quintana don’t stand a chance against Gilbert in ‘sprint’ on the final meters and they both know they need to get away on the steep part in order to win. Both were outstanding in Vuelta Pais Vasco earlier this month, especially on the steep gradients, and I would be surprised if none of the two tries to get away on the parts of 17%. Phillipe Gilbert knows he probably won’t be able to follow the Colombians on these gradients but if he can minimize the gap before the final ‘flat’ (5%) part, I still think he can come back and win the race.

Another strong contender is Alejandro Valverde. Just like at the World Champions last year, he wasn’t very well positioned when Gilbert attacked last Sunday, but this time he managed to close the gap quickly and win the sprint for 2nd place. I think Liege-Bastogne-Liege is more suited for Valverde and it would make sense for him to pay back Quintana a little for all the hard work the Colombian has done for Valverde the last year. Still, don’t be surprised if Valverde manages to hang onto Gilbert and sprint for the win.

My two personal jokers for Flèche Wallone this year are Igor Antón and Daniel Martin. As mentioned earlier, Igor Antón put in a strong attack in 2010 (ended 4th) and this year he’s aiming to do the same. His condition has increased significantly the last month or so and with the recent success for Euskaltel, he should be proper motivated to do well. Antón has big ambitions for the last two Ardennes races and if he enters Mur de Huy in a good position, he could very well end up fighting for the win again.

Mur de Huy. 1,3 km / 9,3% avg.
Photo from: climbbybike.com
This is also an important week for Daniel Martin. He was keen on showing his good shape in Amstel Gold Race, but crashed before the final. The Irish climber normally feeds on success and with his impressive overall win in Volta Catalunya, his confident should still be great heading into the last two Ardennes. races Martin reports he’s fine despite his crash last Sunday and I think he will end up doing something great in Flèche Wallone. 

Garmin have Ryder Hesjedal in the race too, but if Daniel Martin is still in front when reaching Mur de Huy, he should be the card to play. Not only does he climb very well he is also very fast on the line. He managed to keep Purito and Quintana behind after a long breakaway when he won the mountain stage in Catalunya and shows he’s not playing around. If an outsider ends up winning Flèche Wallone, like Roman Kreuziger won Amstel Gold Race, I think that outsider will be Daniel Martin.

Peter Sagan deserves to be mention as well, but I doubt he can follow the best on the steep parts. He suffered from cramps in the final of Amstel Gold Race and having never done Mur de Huy before, I don’t think he can win Flèche Wallone. The great shape Sagan showed in Brabantse Pijl can’t just disappear, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he either attacks from afar or ends up helping his teammates Damiano Caruso and Moreno Moser.

Winner pick: Phillipe Gilbert
Podium pick: Sergio Henao
Jokers: Igor Antón & Daniel Martin

For live race coverage go to steephill.tv

Friday, April 12, 2013

Amstel Gold Race: Preview & Favorites

The cobblestone Classics are now history and it’s time to focus on the Ardennes. I have named Peter Sagan as my favorite for both Milano - San Remo and Ronde van Vlaanderen and both times he has ended in second place. Still, it’s very difficult not pick Peter Sagan as the big favorite for Amstel Gold Race.

The race organizers have changed the course for this year’s edition, so instead of finishing on the top of Cauberg, the finish line is now more or less the same as for the World Champions last year. That means we now have a 1,7 km flat part after Cauberg and that really is in Peter Sagan’s favor. Explosive riders like Phillipe Gilbert and Purito Rodriguez might have been able to drop Sagan on Cauberg on a good day, but with nearly two kilometers flat before the line, Sagan has a good chance to come back and win in a sprint. That being said, don’t be surprised if Sagan attacks on Cauberg and soloes away for the win.

Another important route chance this year is the extra lap after the third time over Cauberg with 20 km to go. This opens up the race for attacks before the final and even though I doubt a break will make, the chances are now better than before. The extra lap also makes the race a lot harder, which means we should see a smaller group than usually reaching Cauberg for the last time.

The way I see it, there are two main contenders to Peter Sagan this Sunday. Phillipe Gilbert and Simon Gerrans. Gilbert has been getting better and better all year and he showed in Brabantse Pijl that he is ready for the Ardennes Classics. He won the World Champions on this course last year and a podium without Gilbert will be a surprise, the way I see it. Simon Gerrans has been targeting this week all season. He raced in Catalunya and Pais Vasco in order to fine-tune his shape for the Ardennes, and he won a stage in both races. Gerrans is not only strong on the hills, he is also very fast on the line, probably faster than he has ever been. He has a super strong team to support him and Gerrans is my personal favorite to win Amstel Gold Race, should Sagan miss out.

Other strong candidates for a podium spot are Alejandro Valverde and Damiano Cunego. Valverde had to skip Amorebieta last Saturday because of a cold, but he is still confident about his chances this Sunday. I picked Valverde to win the Rainbow jersey last year on this course and even though he only took 3rd place, he did show that he is capable of doing great on this finish. Valverde has been very strong this year and if he is ready again after his cold, he should be among the riders fighting for the win. The same goes for Damiano Cunego. He was in a perfect position last year, but crashed in the final on Cauberg just as he was launching his attack. Cunego is now eager to get revenge and even though he wasn’t great in Pais Vasco, only a puncture on the final time trial kept him out of Top10 overal. The Ardennes Classics are a big goal for Cunego this year and I think he will be up there in the final.

Last year’s winner, Enrico Gasparotto, is naturally keen on repeating his win but unfortunately, he crashed into a truck while training on Thursday. Also, the new finish isn’t great for Gasparotto, so I highly doubt that he will be able to win again this year.

Team Blanco have two very good cards to play in Bauke Mollema and Tom-Jelte Slagter, but they haven’t had the best lead-up either. Mollema had to skip Pais Vasco and stay in bed sick and even though he is better now, I still think he will be targeting Liege-Bastogne-Liege instead of Amstel. That would mean Tom-Jelte Slagter now has a chance of showing his great potential, in a race that is almost tailor-made for him, but like Gasparotto, Slagter too crashed while training. Hopefully, Slagter will be ready to fight Sunday, but if he’s not 100%, it won’t be easy to compete against Sagan, Gilbert, Gerrans etc.

Like always, I have a joker too; Angel Vicioso. Katusha have an extremely strong team for the Ardennes Classics with Purito, Dani Moreno, Kolobnev, Spilak & Caruso, but I have a feeling Vicioso will end up being the best-placed rider for the Russian team. Despite the controversy from Operación Puerto, Vicioso now says he is back at his old level and I know he has big plans for the Ardennes. He took 3rd place of the first two stages in Pais Vasco and worked hard for Spilak and Caruso in the rest of the race before abandoning in order to get ready for this week. Vicioso probably doesn’t have the kick to stay with the best up Cauberg, but if it comes back together on the last two kilometers, he is fast enough to take a podium spot on a good day.

Other interesting names are Marco Marcato and Gianni Meersman. Marcato was out for almost a month because of a knee injury, but he has shown good signs the latest races. In Brabantse Pijl he put in some strong attacks on the hills and with his fast finish, he’s one to keep an eye on for a breakaway in the final. Meersman was great in Catalunya with two stage wins but he had to skip Pais Vasco due to stomach problems. Now he’s feeling better though and after training in the sun in Calpe for the last weeks, Meersman is now ready for Sunday.

Quickstep haven’t been lucky in the Classics so far, but maybe their luck will chance this Sunday on the course they won the World Champion Team Time Trial. If not Meersman, they also have a strong outsider in Peter Velits, who too is very fast on the line and good on the hills. Velits took third place on a Tour de France stage with a similar finish last year and he showed to be in good shape in Pais Vasco. Look out for him!

Winner pick: Peter Sagan
Podium picks: Phillipe Gilbert & Simon Gerrans
Jokers: Angel Vicioso, Gianni Meersman & Peter Velits

For live race coverage check out steephill.tv

Friday, April 5, 2013

Paris-Roubaix: Preview and Favorites

Last year, Fabian Cancellara crashed out of Ronde van Vlaanderen and saw Tom Boonen winning both RvV and Paris-Roubaix. This year, Boonen crashed out of RvV while Fabian Cancellara won the race. Cancellara has been outstanding the last couple of weeks and there is really only one favorite for Paris-Roubaix this year.

Unfortunately, Fabian Cancellara saw the need to spin the legs in Scheldeprijs on Wednesday. He crashed in the race and so did he again the next day, while checking out the cobblesstone sections for Sunday. Two crashes in two days and suddenly Cancellara is not the massive favorite he was as after winning Ronde van Vlaanderen. He is still the favorite, but strong riders like Thor Hushovd, Taylor Phinney, Juan-Antonio Flecha, Ian Stannard, Edvald Boasson Hagen etc. are now more likely to win than they were just a few days ago.

I would imagine Radioshack to take control like they did last Sunday but they have to be careful. BMC and Team Sky have two very strong teams with multiple winner candidates and Radioshack can’t close all gaps by themselves. In the end it will be up to Fabian Cancellara himself to take action and if he still feels the recent crashes, he won’t be as unbeatable has he looked in Ronde van Vlaanderen. I still think Cancellara will win Paris-Roubaix, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a BMC or Team Sky rider crosses the line first on the velodrome.

I have a feeling Taylor Phinney will end on the podium. Last year, all he was thinking about was the Giro d’Italia prologue and he absolutely killed it. This winter has been all about peaking in Paris-Roubaix for Taylor Phinney and even though it won’t be as “easy” as winning the Giro prologue, the young American knows how to perform under his own pressure. Phinney has been naming Thor Hushovd as BMC’s designated team leader numerous times the last couple of weeks, but I personally think, Phinney will end as best BMC rider on Sunday. He’s incredibly strong on the cobblestones and very fast on the line. If Taylor Phinney arrives to the velodrome in the first group, I think he will win this race.

Paris-Roubaix is also the last chance for Team Sky to prove their untraditional Classics training was a good idea. It’s easy to criticize them, but we must remember that Geraint Thomas crashes in both Milano-San Remo and Ronde van Vlaanderen. In Milano-San Remo, Ian Stannard took over and did a great race and last Sunday, Edvald Boasson Hagen almost got on Sagan’s wheel when he and Cancellara went away in the final. EBH couldn’t stay with the strong duo on Kwaremont, but I think he will be better on the cobblestones. Like Phinney, Boasson Hagen is very fast on the line and I expect him to be among the best riders on Sunday.

Like always, I’ll like to point out a joker. This time it’s Matthieu Ladagnous. The big Frenchman has been very strong so far this season and the last couple of week he’s been near the front at all time. He was in the winning break with Sagan in Gent-Wevelgem (ended 6th) and he took 2nd place in the sprint behind the podium in Ronde van Vlaanderen last Sunday. Ladagnous finished 12th in Paris-Roubaix last year and he is very eager to do even better this year. He probably won’t win this race, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s among the riders fighting for a spot on the podium.

For other strong riders with a fast finish, look to Lars BoomSébastien Turgot, John Degenkolb, Alexander Kristoff and Jurgen Roelandts.

Winner pick: Fabian Cancellara
Podium picks: Taylor Phinney / Edvald Boasson Hagen
Joker: Matthieu Ladagnous

For live coverage of this year's Paris-Roubaix go to steephill.tv

Vuelta Pais Vasco - Stage 6 Preview

Stage 5 started out just like expected, many attacks and three Movistar riders in front. Team Sky were down to only Vasil Kiryienka in support of Richie Porte and Sergio Henao but apparently, that didn’t mean much. The strong Belarusian lead the peloton alone for 50 km and in the end Porte won in front of my pre-picked favorite Samuel Sanchez and Team Sky team mate Henao. On a stage where everybody needed to distance Richie Porte, the Tasmanian ended up distancing everybody else.

Friday’s Team Sky show leaves us with Richie Porte as the massive favorite for both the stage win and the overall victory. Porte has been outstanding against the clock this season and on a demanding course for the GC riders, I can’t really see anybody threatening him if he’s 100%.

A lot of riders dropped out of the race on stage 5, including strong time trialists like Tejay van Garderen, Rein Taaramae, Michael Rogers and Andreas Klöden. Only the toughest riders remain and even these will feel Friday’s stage in their legs, especially with another day of heavy rain.

The course is very hard with steep climbs and tricky descents. One wrong turn or one slippery piece of road is all it takes to ruin your GC dreams on this stage, but with the first five riders within 10 seconds, nobody can take it easy. It’s full gas from the start and whomever dares to take the most chances will end up winning Vuelta Pais Vasco overall. I don't think this course is good for Tony Martin and having already crashed once in this race, I think he will be a little bit more careful in the rain.

Samuel Sanchez showed to be back in the game on stage 5 and I’m sure he will give everything he has, and take all the chances he needs, in order to give Euskaltel their first win of the season. Sanchez hasn’t won anything since he won the final time trial of last year’s Vuelta Pais Vasco and he will be eager to show he’s back.

Simon Spilak is normally very strong the rain and he also tried to get away, catching Richie Porte, on the final km on stage 5. Friday was Katusha owner Igor Makarov’s birthday and even though it didn’t end up with another win (Purito won on his birthday last year), I’m sure Makarov will settled for a spot on the final podium. Spilak should be able to take 10 seconds on both Henao and Quintana on this stage and if so, it’s up Richie Porte and Alberto Contador not let him take the overall win too.

I’ve been naming Beñat Intxausti a couple of times as my joker in this race, but his crash on stage 1 seems to have kept him from performing as expected. Still, I see him stronger and stronger every day and this time trial really suits him well. He has to dig deep in order to provide Nairo Quintana with valuable time splits and I honestly think Intxausti has a chance of winning this stage if Porte doesn’t destroy them all again.

Favorites: Richie Porte & Samuel Sanchez
Joker: Beñat Intxausti 

For live coverage of the stage go to steephill.tv

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Vuelta Pais Vasco - Stage 5 Preview

Remember the epic stage in Tirreno-Adriatico won by Peter Sagan a month ago? Good, now it’s time for part two. This stage is very similar to the one in Tirreno, there aren’t any parts of 30%, but we get close to 20%. The 166,1 km include no less than 10 categorized climbs and the last one has its top just 5,8 km from the line. I’m talking about Alto de Olaberria - a climb the riders will get to enjoy three times - and even though it’s only 1,4 km, it will provide a selection with its average gradient of 12%.

There will be about 3300 meters of climbing for the riders and once again, the weather forecast shows rain all day long. Team Sky have only six riders in the race and it will be impossible for them to control it. I’m sure Movistar, Saxo-Tinkoff, Ag2r, Katusha and Euskaltel will do everything they can to isolate Richie Porte and Sergio Henao as quickly as possible and we should be in for a great show.

The beginning of the stage invites for a break to be established, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the stage evolves like the one in Tirreno. All the GC riders want to be up front to avoid crashes on the wet descents and that will make for a furious pace. If a break should have any chance of making it, it needs to be very strong riders working together. Pre-favorites who are now out of the GC like Jakob Fuglsang, Igor Antón, Thibaut Pinot and those kind of guys. Igor Antón did something similar in the Vuelta two years ago, but I honestly doubt an early break will make it.

I think Movistar, having the strongest team in the race, will launch one attack after the other. Quintana, Intxausti, Herrada and Rui Costa are all within 1:46 min of Sergio Henao and especially Herrada and Quintana have been very strong lately. Beñat Intxausti came to the race hoping for podium spot and if he still wants to achieve this, he has to attack. Intxausti did very well on the similar stage in Tirreno-Adriatico and with everybody looking at Quintana; Intxausti may be able to sneak away. Movistar went to recon these stages last week, giving Quintana the knowledge to attack into the final corner on Arrate to win stage 4, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they take another stage win in Beasain.

Alto de Olaberria - 12% avg. 5,8 km to go from the top.
Euskaltel have, naturally, also been out doing some recon of these stages last week, and I’m sure Samuel Sanchez will be eager to take the first personal win in over a year and Euskaltel’s first win of the season. Sanchez too was very good on the similar stage in Tirreno-Adriatico and the short hills and tricky descents are perfect for him - especially in the rain, where other riders have problems.

Team Sky lost Tirreno-Adriatico overall on the similar stage and with only six riders in the race and every team against them, it could very well happen again. I would expect the peloton to be blown into pieces and naturally, Porte and Henao can’t respond to every attack. Nobody wants to get away with Richie Porte, knowing his time trial skills, and that could mean Henao ends up in a small front group with Porte left behind.
Damiano Cunego has been getting better and better day by day in Vuelta Pais Vasco and he seems ready for the Ardennes Classics soon. On paper, this is a stage that suits him perfectly with short steep hills and tricky descents. Like Samuel Sanchez, Cunego too is great on the downhill sections and if he stays up front, I’m sure he will try something in the final.

In Tirreno-Adritico, Sagan, Nibali and Purito were the three big favorites for the stage and they ended 1st, 2nd and 3rd. On this stage, there aren’t any big favorites but indeed a lot of solid candidates. It’s close to impossible to pick only one, so I’ll leave you with my list of candidates instead.

Favorites: Quintana, Sanchez.
Solid outsiders: Intxausti, Cunego, Betancur, Antón
Jokers: Fuglsang, Gilbert, Vicioso

For live coverage of the stage go to steephill.tv

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Vuelta Pais Vasco - Stage 4 Preview

This is the typical finish on Arrate. It’s a classic in the recent year’s Vuelta Pais Vasco and it was also used in the Vuelta España last year. Normally the rule is; “First rider in the last corner takes the stage”, but last year in the Vuelta, Purito started to celebrate a millisecond too early and by that gave the stage to Valverde.

Samuel Sanchez has won this stage the last three years in a row and naturally, he is among the favorites again this year. Still, it’s important to remember that Sanchez is not here in tip-top condition like the last years. This time he’s 100% focused on peaking in the Giro d’Italia and with strong climbers in the race like Contador, Henao, Porte, Betancur, Quintana, etc it won’t be easy to make it four in a row.

In my eyes, Alberto Contador is still the big GC favorite after stage 3. Contador won on Arrate back in 2009 after he soloed away from the other favorites and I wouldn’t be surprised if he does it again this year. The first 6 km of the final climb have a steady gradient of 7,5% before the final “flat” (3%) 1,3 km. As mentioned in the previous previews, there aren’t any bonus seconds in the race, so if you want an advantage before the time trial, you need to attack when possible. 

I think Team Sky will try to control the race on final climb, like they have been doing all year long, and try to set Sergio Henao up for another lethal attack. Henao needs time before the time trial and right now he seems to be one of the strongest climbers in the race. Movistar have strong riders like Rui Costa, Beñat Inxtausti and Nairo Quintana for this stage and I’m sure they will try something too. This climbs suits Quintana a lot more than the one on stage 3 and if he can cope with the expect rain, he will be very dangerous.

Andy Schleck normally test his legs on this climb and he’s been very focused - near the front of the peloton - so far this race. He attacked on the mountain stage in Criterium International last month and I have a feeling he will show himself on Arrate. Unfortunately the weather forecast shows we're in for a rainy stage and that could kill the hopes of seeing Schleck attacking. The descent before the final climb will become very tricky on wet roads and I doubt Andy Schleck will take any chances at this point of the season.

My personal joker for the stage is Pieter Weening. The morale on GreenEdge is sky high after two stage wins already and Weening did very well on La Lejana despite the steep gradients not being in his favor. Weening is fast on the line and if the we see a little group sprinting for the win again this year, I expcet Weening to be up there. The same goes for Diego Ulissi. The young Italian has been showing great shape lately and is always good in the rain. He has team mate Damiano Cunego to help him in the final and if Ulissi still up there in the final, he'll most likely win the stage.

Once again, it's difficult to pick only one rider as my favorite. Contador, Henao and Sanchez all seem like solid candidates, but I'll give Contador another shot to prove he's ready to win Vuelta Pais Vasco overall.

Favorite: Alberto Contador
Jokers: Pieter Weening / Diego Ulissi

For live coverage of the stage go to steephill.tv

Vuelta Pais Vasco - Stage 3 Preview

After two "semi-flat" stages it's now time for the GC riders to show their ambitions. The last 40 km of the stage includes three categorized climbs and the finish on Alto de la Lejana kicks up with 21% the last 400 meters.

It's a stage for the explosive riders and without any bonus seconds on the line, the pure climbers without a strong time trial - like Igor Antón and Sergio Henao - need to distance their rivals. Euskaltel were out training on the climb a couple of days ago and Igor Antón has already stated he wants to do something great in this race. The finish on Arrate (Stage 4) doesn't really suit him, so if he wants a stage win, this is the stage to win.

Naturally it won't be easy with Alberto Contador and Team Sky in the race. Contador is looking very strong right now and I'm sure he will be eager to take another win in the Basque race. Team Sky have been outstanding so far this year and even though everybody is talking about Richie Porte, I think Sergio Henao will be the man for this stage. The steep gradients suit Henao a lot better than Porte and don't forget Henao took 3rd place on the steep finish in last year's race.

Movistar's Nairo Quintana has been superb uphill the last month, but I don't think this short finish is good for him. Quintana likes it steep, yes, but not very short like this one. Also, Nairo Quintana wasn't planned to do the race as he were in France doing Tour de France recon with Alejandro Valverde just a few days before he was called up. I think Beñat Intxausti, despite his crash and time loss on stage 1, will be the team leader for Movistar.

For outsiders look to Wout Poels and Tom-Jelte Slagter. Both are very explosive and good on the steep gradients. Poels were great in Tirreno-Adriatico, considering his crash in Tour de France last year, and Slagter showed in Tour Down Under that he has what it takes to beat the elite on a short uphill finish.

It's difficult to pick a winner and I woud like to say both Antón, Henao and Contador, but if I have to pick one I'll have to say Contador. Still, don't be surprised if Euskaltel get their first win of the season on La Lejana.

Winner picks: Alberto Contador
Jokers: Wout Poels / Tom-Jelte Slagter

For live coverage of the stage go to steephill.tv

Monday, April 1, 2013

Vuelta Pais Vasco - Stage 2 Preview

As predicted, stage 1 ended in a sprint in a reduced group and I think the same will happen on stage 2 - hopefully without the crashes. The final climb before the finishing line isn’t as steep as the one on stage 1 and without any accidents, we should see a bigger group fight for the stage win this time.

Simon Gerrans is in great shape right now and he won’t be easy to beat. GreenEdge will have to take responsibility defending the jersey early on but Gerrans still has a strong team to lead him out in the final. The last climb, Alto de Zaldiaran, is only 2,9 km with 4% average and have its top 9,2 km from the line. Phillipe Gilbert got hold up by the crash on stage 1 and couldn’t get back in the mix for the win. I think he will be eager to take revenge in Vitoria. Like Gerrans, Gilbert is looking to fine tune his shape for the Ardennes Classics and I think this is a good chance for the World Champion to get a win.

Astana were very strong on stage 1 and had three riders in first group of 17. They messed up a bit in the final sprint, but if they can get it right this time, I think Francesco Gavazzi has a solid chance of winning. The fast Italian is normally very good this time of year and if he can position himself well on the wheel of Gerrans or Gilbert, he has a good enough kick to win the stage.

We have seen how the descents have been used to split the peloton a couple of times this season already and I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens again on stage 2. Without any bonus seconds in the race, every gained second is a success and some of the riders caught behind the crash on stage 1 naturally want to take back the lost time.

Euskaltel didn’t manage to put a single rider in the front group as Samuel Sanchez, Gorka and Ion Izagirre and Igor Antón all got caught behind the crash, and I expect them to be riding very aggressively on this stage. Samuel Sanchez is one of the best riders on the descents and the Izagirre brothers aren’t bad either. Without a single win this season, Euskaltel are forced to attack - especially on home soil - and I’m sure they will do whatever they can to join the winning club of 2013. Therefore, I’ll give Gorka Izagirre another chance to prove why he should be a joker for the stage win.

Another good joker is Lampre’s Daniele Pietropolli. Like team leader Damiano Cunego, Pietropolli got caught behind the crash on stage 1 and if he manages to stay out of trouble, I think he could end up surprising a few with his fast finish.

Favorites: Phillippe Gilbert / Simon Gerrans
Jokers: Gorka Izagirre / Daniele Pietropolli

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