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06/04 - Stage 1 - Bilbao - 162.7 km

The route
Once again, the Vuelta al Pais Vasco starts out with a very tough opening stage. The 162.7 km around Bilbao include three categorized climbs and even more uncategorized ones. There won’t be many flat kilometers for the riders today, or in the rest of the race for that matter.

A morning breakaway will be able to create a solid gap on the first part of the stage. After 100 km on the bike, the riders start to take on the categorized climbs. First up is Alto de Morga (2 km / 4.5 % avg.). Soon after, it’s time for Alto de Vivero. The ascent is only 4 km long but with an average gradient of 8 %, it will leave its mark in the legs of the riders. From the top of the climb, there are 45 km to go.

There are two intermediate sprints located in Bilbao with 29 km and 19 km to go. However, without bonus seconds these won’t be of much importance. After the last intermediate sprint, the riders start climbing Alto de Vivero once again. This time from a different side, though. The ascent is a bit longer, 4.3 km, and the average gradient is now 8.6 %. There are multiple parts of double digits gradients and we can expect the GC riders to test each other here. With only 13.5 km to go from the top of Alto de Vivero, it won’t be a surprise if a late breakaway stays away on the fast descent. Only the last 1.5 km are flat. In case this ends in a sprint, it’s very important to be well positioned into the last roundabout with about 600 meters to go. The 500 meters are straight-out towards the finishing line.

The favorites
Due to the lack of bonus seconds, the GC riders have to take advantage of any given opportunity to leave their rivals behind. The final ascent on Alto de Vivero is a perfect place to launch an attack. However, it won’t be easy to solo away.

The most likely scenario is a sprint within a very reduced group of favorites. In that case, Michal Kwiatkowski, seems like the prime pick. He’s very fast on line and very eager to finally take his first win in the rainbow jersey. Even if he’s a few seconds behind on the top, the Pole should be able to regain contact on the descent, where he’s one of the best in the peloton. Kwiatkowski might even try to attack on the downhill part and get an early advantage on his rivals. If he gets just a tiny gap on the descent, I doubt the rest will see him again before the finishing line.

Tony Gallopin is another very strong contender for the win. In Paris-Nice, he proved to be very good on the climbs and on the descents. Furthermore, the young Frenchman is extremely fast on the line. If he can stay in contact with the best climbers on Alto de Vivero, he will be very difficult to beat in a sprint.

Looking at good climbers who pack a strong sprint, Rui Costa, Bauke Mollema, Tom-Jelte Slagter and the Katusha duo of Purito Rodriguez and especially Dani Moreno stand out. This stage suits them very well and they are all eager to take their first win of the season.

The outsiders
The way I see it, the only rider who can beat Kwiatkowski and Gallopin in a sprint on such a tough stage is Michael Matthews. The Australian has improved a lot on the climbs over the last years. Despite what many might think, Matthews is not a sprinter. These kinds of undulating stages are where he excels. A few weeks ago, he finished 3rd in Milano - San Remo, proving he’s in great condition at the moment. If he’s having an equally good day today, he will be a very dangerous outsider for the win in Bilbao. The same goes for Ben Swift who did very well in Coppi e Bartali. He’s very fast on the line and much better on the climbs than many think.

In 2011, the Vuelta a España finished on the same course in Bilbao. Back then, Igor Antón took a beautiful win on home soil for Euskaltel Euskadi. Surely, he would love to repeat that performance today for Movistar. However, another Basque rider on the Spanish team may have a better chance. Beñat Intxausti is in excellent shape right now. Nairo Quintana is the team leader, but Intxausti always aims to perform well in his home region. He won a similar stage in the Giro d’Italia a few years back. Last Saturday, he finished 3rd in GP Miguel Indurain. If the GC riders pay too much attention to Quintana, I wouldn’t be surprised if Intxausti tried to sneak away. It’s a contract year for the Basque rider and I’m sure he’s eager to prove his worth to both Movistar and any other interested teams.

So far this season, we have seen a lot of breakaways making it all the way on the first day of the stage races. In case this tradition continues in Vuelta al Pais Vasco, look to opportunistic riders like Amets Txurruka, Michael Albasini, Rinaldo Nocentini and Tim Wellens. Fabio Felline is another in-shape rider who can do well today. The final climb may be a bit too much for him, but he showed in Criterium International that he’s very strong. Being fast on the line, it would be a mistake to underestimate Felline today. It will also be very interesting to see in what kind of shape Diego Ulissi arrives after his ban. On paper, this stage suits the Italian very well. If he’s already strong enough to follow the best riders uphill, he might return to the peloton with a bang and win this stage as he’s very fast on the line.

For live coverage of the stage, go to steephill.tv