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07/04 - Stage 2 - Bilbao to Vitoria-Gasteiz - 175.4 km

The route
This is the GreenEdge stage. The Australian team has won in Vitoria-Gasteiz the last three years in a row. Once again, they have the number one favorite for the win. More on that later.

Compared to last year’s stage, this one is much hillier. The riders have four categorized climbs to overcome within the last 60 km of the stage. However, none of the climbs is very difficult. The percentages stay around 4 %, meaning it will be very difficult to distance a determined peloton. The first one of the last two climbs, Alto de Vitoria, starts with 35 km to go. The 4.8 km towards the top have an average gradient of 3.8 %. The peloton will be able to keep a high pace on this climb. After the descent, it takes about 10 km before the riders start on the final struggle of the day.

It will be the second time today, the peloton takes on Alto de Zaldiaran. The ascent is 5.2 km long but the gradients are very gentle. The hardest part - of just 4.5 % - comes on the last kilometer before the top. We might see a few riders trying to get away but it will be extremely difficult. The descent is fast and only the last kilometer is flat. You have to pay close attention here. Passing under la flamme rouge, two roundabouts await the riders. It’s very important to be well-positioned when coming into these, especially for the last one. From here on, there are just 500 meters to go.

The favorites
As mentioned, once again, GreenEdge has the top favorite for this stage. Michael Matthews is in excellent shape right now. He had no problems winning stage 1 and today he can rely on a very strong team to support him. Last year, Simon Gerrans performed a brilliant leadout when Matthews won this stage. Together with Michael Albasini and Daryl Impey, a former double winner in Vitoria-Gasteiz, the Australian team definitely has the best leadout team in the race for this stage. When GreenEdge fully commit to helping Michael Matthews to win, Bling almost always delivers. I expect him to do it again today.

In a sprint, the biggest threat to Michael Matthews is Ben Swift. The Brit is very fast on the line and he has improved a lot on the climbs. He showed this in Coppi e Bartali by finishing 2nd overall after winning a stage and taking 4th place on the Queen Stage of the race. Last year, Swift had a very good Vuelta al Pais Vasco. He won a tough mountain stage and finished 4th in Vitoria-Gasteiz the day Matthews won. I’m sure Swifty is eager to take revenge and give Matthews a real fight for the line.

The outsiders
Riders like Gianni Meersman and Fabio Felline should be able to fight for the win in a sprint within a reduced peloton as well. Meersman won Handzame Classic but didn’t seem too superior despite the lack of strong sprinters in the field. This stage suits him but he really needs to step up his game if he wants to beat the likes of Matthews and Swift. Etixx may also decide to let Michal Kwiatkowski go for the sprint as they did on stage 1. Without bonus seconds, Kwiatkowski could take over the leader’s jersey with a good performance, should something happen to Matthews. In Criterium International, Fabio Felline proved to be in great shape. He’s climbing better than ever and will have no problems on the hills today. It’s been a while since the Italian has won a sprint but he’s always there at the finish. If the top favorites miss out, don’t be surprised if Felline takes the stage. For other sprinters, look to Julien Simon, Tosh Van der Sande and Kévin Réza.

In the unlikely case that a late breakaway keeps the peloton a bay, pay attention to riders who are good on the descents like Luis León Sanchez, Tony Martin and Samuel Sanchez. Puncheurs as Philippe Gilbert, Tony Gallopin and Dani Moreno are all fast on the line should a small group arrive together. For riders likely to make it into the morning breakaway, in-shape Amets Txurruka and Tom Danielson seem like some of the best picks. Both have been riding very aggressively lately.

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