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Racing this week - Of txapelas and pavé

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In the spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of ... mud?
In the spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of ... mud?

Editor's Note: Be sure to check out the VeloNews.com Cobbles Week home page, which will be updated with previews, interviews and race coverage as this week continues. The page includes Mapmyride maps of the three cobbled classics, a special retrospective gallery of spring classics covers from VeloNews, going back to 1987, and Graham Watson galleries.

Basque hills and French cobblestones dominate racing this week in Europe.

Two of Europe’s racing heartlands are featured in a busy second week of April that also includes the Circuit de la Sarthe in France and the mid-week “sprinters” semi-classic at Ghent-Wevelgem.

In the offing this week are two of Europe’s most unique trophies. Winners at the Tour of the Basque Country receive the typical txapela, an over-sized Basque beret, while at Paris-Roubaix, victors collect a mounted gravel cobblestone.

Monday to Saturday, April 6-11

49th Vuelta al País Vasco (Spa, PT)
With its endless string of climbs, dips, curves and narrow roads, the weeklong Basque tour (called Euskal Herriko Itzulia in the local language) is one of the season’s most unpredictable and explosive races of the year.

A favorite with riders honing their form ahead of the Ardennes classics, the Basque tour is central to “Basque week” that also includes the GP Miguel Indurain (won by David de la Fuente on April 4) and the Klasika Primavera on April 12.

Foul weather is common, with rain, cold and even snow making the week even tougher on the peloton.

Stage winners and leaders at the Tour of the Basque Country receive a traditional <i>txapela.</I>
Stage winners and leaders at the Tour of the Basque Country receive a traditional txapela.
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Held in Spain’s Basque Country – a small enclave hugging the Pyrénées along the Bay of Biscayne – the race is Spain’s most important stage race behind the Vuelta a España.

With no less than 33 rated climbs, this year’s course should live up to the pedigree.

The recently expanded format from five to six days provides plenty of chances for opportunists to have a major impact on the race.

Rollercoaster stages in day one and two, with some 14 rated climbs in two days, could produce surprises, but the first-category summit finish in stage three should prove decisive.

Stages four and five are transition stages well-suited for breaks (or sprinters, but there aren’t many here) while any uncertainty in the GC will be sorted out in a technically challenging, 24km individual time trial on the final day.

There is no shortage of favorites for victory.

Alberto Contador will see strong support from Astana, but it will be curious to see how the defending champion races.

Last year, he was the wire-to-wire leader, but that was when he knew he wasn’t going to the Tour de France (or the Giro d’Italia, at that point), so the Basque tour became a season highlight. This year, everything is about getting ready for the Tour de France.

Contador hasn’t finished worse than fourth in the three stage races he’s started in 2009, so expect him to be in the mix.

Both Garmin-Slipstream and Columbia-Highroad bring firepower capable of winning stages and making a run at the overall.

The Schleck brothers will lead the always-consistent Saxo Bank team while Luís León Sánchez, the man who beat Contador at Paris-Nice, leads Caisse d’Epargne.

Damiano Cunego (Lampre), a winner last month in Italy at Coppi & Bartali, is on strong form and the endless series of short, steep climbs is ideal for “Italy’s little prince.”

Others to watch include Robert Gesink (Rabobank), Toni Colom (Katusha), Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez (riding for locally backed Euskaltel-Euskadi), Vicenzo Nibali (Liquigas), Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) and Vladimir Efimkin (Ag2r).

49th Vuelta al País Vasco

Stage 1, April 6: Ataun-Ataun, 142km

Stage 2, April 7:: Ataun to Villatuerta, 169km

Stage 3, April 8: Villatuerta to Eibar, 163km

Stage 4, April 9: Eibar to Gueñes, 152km

Stage 5, April 10: Gueñes to Zalla, 162km

Stage 6, April 11: Zalla-Zalla, 24km (ITT)

WEB: vueltapaisvasco.diariovasco.com/

Tuesday to Friday, April 7-11

57th Circuit de la Sarthe (Fra, 2.1)

This stage-race across western France starts off with a bang Tuesday with a first-stage crossing of the Passage du Gois. A split-stage Wednesday includes a short, but intense 6.1km individual time trial in the afternoon. The 180km fourth stage features an uphill finish, with 2km at 8 percent, steep enough to open up the peloton. The hilly finale to Le Mans should keep the suspense to the finish.

Defending champ Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom), victim of a broken clavicle at Paris-Nice, is still recovering and won’t be starting.

Expect an on-form Davide Rebellin and recently crowned Tirreno-Adriatico winner Michele Scarponi to try something from the scrappy Diquigiovanni team. Both are preparing for the Ardennes and will want to make a test.

Andreas Kloden, a winner in 2007, is always a consistent performer in April while Kim Kirchen is penciled in for Columbia-Highroad in his comeback race from breaking his collarbone in California, with teammate Tony Martin also a strong candidate for victory.

Sprinters will get a chance to stretch their legs, with the likes of Sébastien Chavanel (FDJeux), Greg Henderson (Columbia), Samuel Dumoulin (Cofidis) and Jimmy Casper (Besson Chaussure) expected to hook elbows.

BMC gets a start as part of its expanding European racing schedule ahead of Sunday’s big dance at Roubaix.

WEB: circuitcycliste.sarthe.com

Wednesday, April 8

71st Ghent-Wevelgem (Bel, PT)

This mid-week semi-classic is often dubbed the “sprinter’s classic,” but a big group almost never arrives to the line. In fact, Oscar Freire’s victory last year out of a group of 74 riders was the biggest pack in recent years.

With the presence of the fearsome Kemmelberg in the final hour of racing typically breaks up the bunch. In 2007, it broke a few bones, too, as dozens of riders hit the deck hard in a gruesome downhill crash.

The 203km circuit presents few other challenges as it sweeps west out of Deinze (about 10km southwest of its namesake Ghent) toward the windy De Panne coast before steering eastward toward a loop with two passes each over the Monteberg and Kemmelberg climbs.

Four riders ─ Eddy Merckx, Mario Cipollini, Rik Van Looy and Robert Van Eenaeme – won the race three times each.

Freire won Ghent in 2008
Freire won Ghent in 2008

Defending champion Freire is still recovery from a fall at the Tour of California and is not racing.

George Hincapie (Columbia-Highroad) is the lone American winner in the race’s history (Fred Rodriguez was second in 2002).

Many of the top riders from Sunday’s Tour of Flanders are expected to skip the race to save their legs for Paris-Roubaix.

Milan-San Remo winner Mark Cavendish (Columbia-Highroad) has singled out the race as one of this top goals for the spring classics. Cavendish skipped the more demanding Flanders to be in top shape for a run at Wevelgem, where he was 17th in his debut last year.

WEB: www.gent-wevelgem.be

Sunday, April 12

107th Paris-Roubaix (Fra, HC)

Call it what you want – the Hell of the North, Queen of the Classics or a Sunday in Hell – what’s sure is that Paris-Roubaix is one heck of a race.

Even in good weather, the Arenberg can be dicey.
Even in good weather, the Arenberg can be dicey.

Roubaix, of course, is famous because of its rough cobblestones, or pavé in French. In the early days of the race, Roubaix was just like any other bike race, simply because most roads built 100 years ago were constructed of cobblestones.

That slowly changed over the decades as road conditions improved until, in the 1960s, race organizers became alarmed that there weren’t enough cobblestone sections to live up to the race’s legacy.

The major difference between Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders, another race known for its pavé, is the quality of the cobblestones.

Most of the cobblestoned climbs used in Flanders are busy, regularly used streets that are well maintained and relatively smooth. At Roubaix, many of the cobblestone sections are over ancient farm roads and the pavé is much rougher and punishing.

One of the oldest races in cycling, Paris-Roubaix started in 1896 and has been held every year, except during the two world wars. It earned one of its nicknames, the “Hell of the North,” not because it’s so punishing, but because it passed through many of the terrific battlefields of World War I.

The race no longer starts in Paris. In 1966, organizers moved the start from Paris to Chantilly, about 50km north. In 1977, the start was transferred to Compiègne, where it starts Sunday.

The route ends in large, outdoor velodrome in Roubaix. The route varies from year to year as race organizers ASO search out new sections of cobbles or detour around other sectors under repair.

This year, there are 27 sectors of cobblestones, totally 52.9km out of the 259km course. The first sector, number 27, is at Troisvilles at 98km. Sector 17 – the famous Trouée d’Arenberg – comes at 164km and proves to be one of the decisive moments of the race each year.

Stijn Devolder will be trying to become the 10th rider in history to win Flanders and Roubaix in the same year. Tom Boonen was the last to do it in 2005.

Only one man - Roger de Vlaeminck – has won four editions of Roubaix. Six others – Octave Lapize, Gaston Rebry, Rick Van Looy, Eddy Merckx, Francesco Moser and Johan Museeuw – have won three each. Another 12 have won two, with Boonen as the only active rider among that group.

Belgium holds the record with 52 winners, followed by 30 from France and 11 from Italy. No American has ever won Roubaix.

Winners since 1977 have a received a mounted cobblestone as the race trophy, easily the most prized piece of rock in cycling.

WEB: www.letour.fr

55th Klasika Primavera (Spa, 1.1)

Spanish riders typically dominate this hilly one-day race in Amorebieta, but last year, Damiano Cunego (Lampre) shot to victory to upset the local favorites. Most of the riders finishing off the Basque Country tour stick around to race before heading north to the Ardennes.

Three passages over a final circuit that includes the second-category Muniketagane and third-category Autzagane climbs provide for a thrilling, attack-riddled battle to the line.

WEB: www.scamorebieta.com

Sunday to Sunday, April 12-19

45th International Presidency Turkey Tour (Tur, 2.1)

A handful of ProTour and top European teams trek to Turkey for a weeklong tour of the emerging nation. The eight-stage race opens with a circuit race in Istanbul and rolls south along the Mediterranean Coast to conclude in Alanya. Stages include plenty of hills, but there’s not one major climb that should blow apart the race, giving attackers and sprinters center-stage.

WEB: www.tourofturkey.org

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