The Basque country doesn't have the high mountains that we associate with the Pyrenees and tends to short and sharp climbs. This is why lots of riders use the race as a build up to the Ardennes classics in just a few weeks. It also opens the race up a bit, for the climbs aren't exclusively for the top climbers, but can also suit the punchy riders.
There is only one summit finish, on stage 5, although the finish of Stage 4 into Arrate is a short descent after a big climb and time gaps are the same at the finish line as they are at the top. The Stage 6 ITT is normally the decisive stage of the race, as gaps are generally very small up until then, as there are no time bonuses for stage wins.
Stage 1 could well be the first chance for a GC showdown, as riders will have to tackle the front of the Alto de Vivero (4 kms, 8.1%) which summits with 48 kms to go, and then they will swing around and go up the steeper back of the mountain (4.3 kms, 8.6%). As there are less than 14 kms to go from the top, most of which are downhill. It is a non-technical descent, so it won't really provide an opportunity for the top bike handlers to attack. Will be too hard for most of the sprinters and there won't be much motivation for the GC riders, as it will be hard to create any meaningful gaps, so it might be a day for the breakaway.
Stage 2 is made for the climby sprinters, after the first day might have been slightly too hard for them. The hard climbing comes early in the day, the category 1 Alto de Orduna (7.3 kms, 8.3%). From there the climbs are fairly easy affairs, tough enough to take their toll on the legs, but nothing difficult enough to shed many riders from the peleton. Notably this stage has been dominated by Orica-Greenedge in recent years, with Michael Matthews winning last year, and Daryl Impey taking the wins in the two years previous. Both will be back again to try and extend the record for the Australian team.
Stage 3 will offer the first real chance for time gaps to be made in the GC as the riders will face a tough day in the saddle in the hilly Basque terrain. The riders are initially assaulted by a category 2 climb and two category 1s, before descending to the hilly outskirts of the finishing town. Here they'll get their first taste of the Alto de la Antigua (2.5 kms, 9.6%), which ramps up to 16% in the final 500m of the climb. The top comes with 31 kms to go, so it will be too early for the favourites to attack, but at the second time of asking there are only 3kms from the summit to the finish, the first 2 of which are a sharp descent where it will be hard to make up time. This will be the first chance for the GC riders to put time into their opposition, and we could see the number of riders who could seriously win the race whittled down significantly here.
Stage 4 is the traditional queen stage up the Alto de Arrate (7.3 kms, 6.7%), and the stage is generally the one where the climbers can make the biggest influence on the GC. This year the stage is easier than previous iterations, with the Alto de Ixua (3.8 kms 10.2%) coming with over 60 kms remaining, and will be unlikely to be used as a springboard for any of the major names to attack. The finish of the stage will be well known to the riders as it has featured for years in Pais Vasco, and was also included in the 2012 Vuelta. The hardest part of the climb comes early, and the gradient gradually becomes shallower near the top, before the final kilometre, where the riders plunge down towards the line, before they turn onto the slightly uphill finish straight with 100m to go. The first through the corner generally wins, except for the time that Rodriguez decided to stop pedalling and Valverde stole the line honours.
Stage 5 should arguably have the title of being the queen stage, as it is the harder stage, and will probably deliver larger time gaps than the previous day's racing. The start of the stage is relatively similar to previous stages, climbs punctuating the flat countryside, but once the peleton hits the half way point, they will either be heading uphill or down until the finish line. The factor that makes this perhaps the most decisive stage of the race however, is the final climb of the Alto de Aia, which the riders will tackle from both sides. The brutally steep wall side (1.7 kms, 12.1%) comes first, summiting with 18 kms remaining, then the riders circle back to the easier side (3.5 kms, 8.7%), and the descent from the top this time leads straight into the brutal wall side, the final 500m of which averages 17%.
Stage 6 is the all-important 18.3 km time-trial, or at least, it is normally all-important, as the lead regularly changes hands on the final day. This edition will see an increased focus on climbing however, so it may not suit the GC contenders who rely on their time-trial as much as in previous years. The first 11 kms are a gradual descent, which will suit the power TT types, but from then on, the road tilts upwards and we will probably see the majority of the riders do a bike swap at this point. Then it is back to the exact same finish to the stage as the riders saw yesterday, tackling the easy side of the Alto de Aia (3.5 kms, 8.7%), and then the descent straight into the brutal wall (1.7%, 12.1%). This should make it a time trial not suited to the specialists, and I would expect to see a GC contender win this one.
The weather should be mild with temperatures in the mid teens and nothing more than moderate winds for the majority of the race. Stage 4 and 5 may be in for some rain and wind, but it's obviously a bit far out to say that with any certainty.
Looking at the course, it isn't one where there will be huge differences made in the mountain stages, and in general the finishes to the stages are short and sharp. The lack of time bonuses means that it won't reward the winners of these stages as much however, and as history shows, the race is almost always up for grabs in the final TT. This TT is more geared towards the climbers than previous editions and even if a specialist like Tom Dumoulin can take 30-40 seconds on the climbers in the initial part of the course, he's going to have a very tough time holding that advantage over the hard climbing to come. I think that the winning candidate will be a top tier climber, ideally someone suited to punchy finishes and steep gradients, with decent TT skills.
The biggest name on the startlist is Nairo Quintana. His last start was an impressive win in Tirreno-Adriatico, and he has quite rightly been installed as the favourite to win this race. He is certainly the strongest in the mountains out of all the riders here, but he might not be the best suited to the terrain. Certainly he thrives on the steep climbs, but he doesn't really have the punchiness of some of the other GC contenders, which you would think he would need, particularly on stages 3 and 5. His time trialling ability isn't really a strength either, but it isn't bad and he normally does really well on the hillier routes, and I wouldn't expect to lose much if any time to the other GC candidates. He does have history in this race, it was his breakthrough win on the World Tour as he surprisingly beat out Richie Porte in the final stage TT in 2013 to take an impressive win.
Joaquim Rodriguez in his pomp would be hands-down favourite for a race like this. Short, steep climbs to finish a race are Purito's bread and butter, but he hasn't been in very good form to date this season. In Dubai and Oman he was invisible and he started the Tirreno-Adriatico very poorly, before placing 3rd on both the mountain stages. Certainly those 3rds were positive signs, and given that he'll be contesting the Ardennes classics, he should be coming into some good form. He did have to pull out of the Vuelta Catalunya with sickness, so who knows what his condition is like, He has been unable to win this race in the past, mostly due to his poor time trialling, but he will have a better chance than normal, with the TT being geared towards the climbers.
Thibaut Pinot is a rider that I wouldn't have mentioned for an early season race like this, as he tended to save his big performances for the Tour de France, and he used to time trial pretty horribly, This season however, he has clearly taken a step up in both those areas, he came 4th in the Criterium International TT and 19th in Tirreno-Adriatico, putting 22 seconds into Quintana as well. He finished 2nd and 4th respectively as well in those races, so he clearly has matured into a rider who can compete earlier in the season as well. This stands him in good stead for the overall standings here, and whilst he doesn't have the reputation for excelling on the steep, short climbs, he won't be far off, and he should do very well in the queen stage.
Michal Kwiatkowski proved last year that he can be effective on this terrain, and indeed, he was on the podium of Fleche Wallone last year, so he is clearly at home on the steep gradients. He is also an excellent time triallist and will be the clear favourite for the final stage. The only real question is whether he can hang on to Quintana in the queen stage. In Paris-Nice, he did manage to limit the damage done by Porte on the queen stage, and also wasn't far off the best in the mountain TT, but the longer climb up to Arrate will be his biggest weakness in this race. If he can limit the damage to 20-30 seconds, he could make up the time elsewhere.
Rui Costa is another who will be able to use his classics skills on the short climbs here, and he is also an accomplished stage racer. Though for some reason, in the past he has only really excelled in the Tour de Suisse, where he has three GC victories. Last year he seemed to throw off that one race tag, he was competitive in the Volta Algarve, Paris-Nice, Tour de Romandie and Tour of Beijing, finishing 3rd, 2nd, 3rd and 4th respectively. His Vuelta Pais Vasco performance was a very poor 51st, and indeed his best ever was only 13th, which isn't what I'd expect from a rider of his quality. It seems from those results that he uses Pais Vasco for classics training, and isn't focused on achieving a top result here.
Bauke Mollema is coming off some good form with a 2nd at Tirreno-Adriatico, and he could be inline for a good result here. He has got some classics form over the shorter climbs, and whilst not at the level of Kwiatkowski, Costa or Rodriguez, he probably won't lose much time. Where he might lose time is in the time trial, as that has been a pretty big weakness for Mollema in the last year or so. He is climbing well at the moment however, as his 2nd up the Terminillo proved, so he might be able to limit his losses. The problem for him is where to make that time up, and I think he'll have to be aggressive, and catch the other contenders off guard.
Simon Spilak might have to start out as the second protected rider on the team, but his recent form suggests that he could take the mantle of leader if Rodriguez is still suffering from ill health. His recent third in Paris-Nice showed that he is in good form, and he generally does well in this race, finishing 4th in the last two editions. There's not much that Spilak doesn't do well, he's a very solid climber, can time trial well and knows which moves to follow, but he rarely animates the race, and his good but not great results probably reflect that. He, Dani Moreno and Rodriguez might be able to go on the attack with the multiple options available to them, so that could open a path to victory.
Tejay Van Garderen has been a disappointment after promising so much, both with his mouth and his performance in the Tour of Oman. In Paris-Nice, he did well on the queen stage, whilst also being behind the best, but then faded dramatically the next day when he didn't cope with the cold at all. Then in Volta Catalunya, he had a bad day and lost over 15 minutes in an early stage, before bouncing back to take the win on the queen stage when he was allowed a bit more space due to being way down on GC. Nonetheless it was an impressive effort to hold off a charging Richie Porte in the final metres. So he will need to correct that inconsistency to be competitive for the GC, but I don't think the course suits him really in any case, he prefers the less steep, longer climbs, and will be behind quite a few riders here on the sharper tests.
Jean Christophe Peraud is another who I doubt will find the racing style to his liking, but he is clearly climbing well at the moment, as his victory in the Criterium International showed, and he has a good time trial. I don't believe he'll be right up there with the best on GC, but he should be in the Top 10.
Adam Yates is a young rider who I would expect to shine during some of the stages, he has the punchy style which will stand him in good stead on the shorter climbs and he also proved during Tirreno-Adriatico that he can hang in there on the longer challenges finishing 7th on the Terminillo and 9th overall. The bigger problem for Yates will be his lack of time-trialling skills, he will lose a lot of time to the top guys here, so that probably restricts his GC ambitions to a top 10 result.
Esteban Chaves is another Orica-Greenedge youngster who will be hoping for a big result in the race and will be hoping for better than his 15th in Paris-Nice. It is hard to say at this stage of his career, but he looks to prefer the steeper gradients and he does have some classics pedigree, so he might be well suited to this race, and could form a formidable one-two punch with Yates.
Jarlinson Pantano has been one of the climbing revelations of the season to date, finishing 9th in Down Under and then 11th in Catalunya. This is despite him not showing much prior to this season, and it could be the breakout season for the 26 year old Colombian.
Diego Ulissi is making his return to cycling in this race, and with no form on the board it is hard to know how he will fare, but on paper the course should suit him pretty well, and he also has the ability to do a very good time trial on a hilly course as he showed in last year's Giro D'Italia.
I find it very hard to tip against Michal Kwiatkowski in this one, he'll be suited perfectly by most of the parcours of this race, and even the queen stage shouldn't be disastrous for the World Champion, he only finished 10 seconds off the stage winner last year, and he looks stronger and a better climber this season.