A year after Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) pulled off one of the most dramatic week-long stage racing successes of 2021 by defeating Brandon McNulty and Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) at the Itzulia Basque Country, the defending champion will be hot favourite this year for a third overall victory as well.
Last April, with UAE’s Brandon McNulty looking set to battle for the triumph and Pogačar already a stage winner and acting as the American’s key lieutenant, on the last day on a seemingly inoffensive downhill section, Roglič launched what proved to be a devastatingly effective long distance attack.
Over more than 60 kilometres and all the way to the summit of the finish on the Arrate, Roglic drove the break while Pogačar simultaneously shredded the peloton behind in his effort to try and keep an increasingly uncomfortable McNulty in contention.
After McNulty fell back and following an entertainingly uncertain (for the spectators) and drawn-out duel between the two Slovenian stars, Roglič’s younger rival had to throw in the towel. Meanwhile, with his overall triumph safely in the bag, Roglič waved the only other survivor of the break, a delighted David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) through for the stage win.
In additional subplots, Roglič’s teammate Jonas Vingegaard, set for an even longer spell in the public eye come July, took second overall. Pogačar’s courageous, if unsuccessful, long chase behind was at least rewarded with a third place on the final podium.
So if 2021 proved to be one of the most exciting Itzulias in years, fast forward 12 months and “Primož will be the top favourite.” That is what 2019 Itzulia Basque Country winner and local cycling hero Ion Izagirre (Cofidis) categorically told Cycling News on Thursday.
“Looking at the way he’s raced here before, his two previous wins, his natural talent and above all the confidence and calmness with which he races, he’s going to be the rider to follow.
“I witnessed how he had a bad moment in Paris-Nice on the last day. But even then, he didn’t lose the plot and finally he could win. In any case, he very rarely cracks.
“On top of that, he’s got a very strong support team either to work or to rip the race apart like they did last year.”
Neither Pogačar nor McNulty will be back for a Basque re-match this spring, although Roglič will once again have Vingegaard as a teammate, along with hugely talented mountain racer Sepp Kuss. But if the absence of the double Tour de France winner surely heightens the potential for Roglič to add to his collection of the Basque txapela hats that Itzulia victors always receive, there are plenty of other rivals and contenders this year who could well give the Slovenian a run for his money.
Perhaps the most difficult fly in the ointment for Roglič could be Remco Evenepoel (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl), particularly if reigning World Champion teammate Julian Alaphilippe, as expected, takes part in La Itzulia as well.
“He and [QuickStep-AlphaVinyl teammate] Mauri Vansevenant were training at altitude up on Teide when I was there too,” says Izagirre. “It’s true Remco wasn’t on fire all the way through Tirreno, but I think the hills in Euskadi will likely suit him better than the longer climbs in Italy.”
He adds that one of Evenepoel’s breakthrough wins, in the Donostia Clasica San Sebastian a few years back, was in the Basque Country. Put it all together and “he’s sure to be up there. He’s a real champion.”
Beyond Remco and Alaf’, Adam Yates (Ineos Grenadiers), Pello Bilbao (Bahrain Victorious) and Enric Mas (Movistar) have all thrived in the Basque Country in the past, while Sergio Higuita (Bora-Hansgrohe) has recently shown he is in great condition by winning the Volta a Catalunya. His German teammate Emanuel Buchman is a former Itzulia stage winner and podium finisher, too.
As for teams that could surely take on Jumbo-Visma as a collective force, apart from Adam Yates, Ineos Grenadiers are lining up Dani Martinez, Carlos Rodriguez and last but not least, former Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas, as potential challengers.
As a rider who’s finished on the podium four times and claimed the overall victory three years ago, Izagirre, recently seventh in Paris-Nice, is likely to be a surefire contender as well.
“I’ve not raced much this year, just Paris-Nice and Gran Camino, but I’m in pretty good shape and motivated, my home race is always hugely important for me,” Izagirre says. “I’m coming back from Teide, where I’ve done two weeks training to make sure I’m as ready as I can be.”
Itzulia Basque Country 2022 route
On closer observation, it’s clear the 2022 882-kilometre route of La Itzulia does not lack any of the traditional features. For one thing, it opens up with a short, punchy time trial, just like last year’s first stage in Bilbao. That’s followed by four wildly undulating stages, peppered with no less than 17 classified climbs. Then as ever the final summit finish at the Arrate sanctuary (after a mere six previous classified climbs in 135 kilometres) will bring the curtain down on the race.
Perhaps the key difference with last year’s route is that there is no mid-race summit finish to provide a taster for Arrate and a first major sort out of the GC contenders. On the other hand, one of La Itzulia’s most attractive usual features, a plethora of sinuous, narrow roads with a steady steam punchy ascents and technical downhills to stretch the peloton and any team seeking to control the race to its limits, remains very much on the menu.
“It’s a very idiosyncratic race,” Izagirre says, “because even if the climbs aren’t that long, they are always tricky. When you least expect it you suddenly find yourself on a tough little rise or winding drop down. Positioning is critical, all the time, and knowing what you’ve got coming up on the race route is always a huge plus as well.”
Even on the first day, albeit just 7.5 kilometres against the clock around the beautiful coastal town of Hondarribia, the time trial has two short but punchy little climbs. And Izagirre warns, “There’s a chunk of cobbles towards the end through the city centre, too. All round, it’ll be fun to watch.”
Then of the four stages sandwiched by the opening time trial and the Arrate stage, when it comes to potential ’ambush’ days, Izagirre agrees the ascents of Opellara and Ozeka on stage 3 are in a class of their own. That’s partly because the Opellora climb has an average gradient of 13 percent in just 1.1 kilometres and its road surfaces are, to say the least, variable, Then a few treacherously uneven kilometres further on, there is a second-category ascent, Ozeka, lasting nearly four kilometres and running at around 7.4 percent. Just to make it even more interesting, the Itzulia organisers have decided the peloton will go over both climbs twice.
“I haven’t been there because I’ve been at Paris-Nice, it’s a way from my usual training roads, but my brother [Gorka Izagirre – Movistar] has been over to see them and he says they’re really tough,” Izagirre says.
“It’s true that almost all the stages are pretty short this year, but almost all of them have more than 3,500 vertical metres of climbing, too. So all-round that’s going to make it very hard.”
Stages 4 and 5 also have their interest points, with short but tough first or second category climbs in the closing 20 kilometres in each. Watching what can happen on such ascents is most easily illustrated by a quick look back at stage 4 of last year’s Itzulia, where McNulty sheered away from the leading group on a late, seemingly straightforward climb near Hondarribia, and a few kilometres later had suddenly moved in the top spot overall. (Izagirre got the stage win by a whisker, that day, ahead of his compatriot Bilbao.)
But in the overall battle, the real showdown will come on the final stage to the Sanctuary of Arrate. Although not excessively difficult, apart from its steeper lower slopes (and the steepness depends heavily on which of the three main approach roads is finally selected by the organisers), Arrate’s eight kilometres are not always as decisive as predicted.
Yet for all that, like La Redoute in Liège-Bastogne-Liège or Jaizkibel in Donostia San Sebastian Klasikoa, it’s impossible to imagine La Itzulia without Arrate. It remains the Basque Country’s most venerated ascent and as such, the one almost irreplaceable ingredient that makes up La Itzulia year after year. And its wood-enshrouded slopes, graffiti-smothered road surfaces and the double lines of yelling, wildly enthusiastic Basque tifosi that lead all the way to the tiny church just after its summit represent a psychological and physical barrier that any rider wanted to triumph one of the toughest WorldTour stage race on the calendar invariably needs to overcome.
“Until you get to the top of the Arrate, you can never say for sure you’re going to win,” says Izagirre. “As we saw last year, it doesn’t matter which climb you’re on, anything can happen, the race can blow apart. So right up until the last moment on Arrate, we won’t know.”
But if Roglič is very much the man to watch this year, just as he was last, there is one big change. Whereas last year it was mostly warm all week and the usual Basque rain considerately held off until an hour after the last stage, this time viciously cold and wet weather currently battering all of Spain is due to persist deep into next week.
“It’s already demanding enough, but given there are a lot of technical sections and places for ‘ambushes’, imagine what weather like that can do,” says Izagirre. “It’ll make an already hard race a whole lot harder.”