Itzulia Basque Country 2023 favourites - who can take on Jonas Vingegaard?
Fog, mist, low cloud and sudden rain showers are usually part and parcel of every Basque Country spring - but as the riders of Itzulia Basque Country know only too well, hail, snow and even sudden spells of summer-like heat can also feature.
If the famously haphazard weather of April in Euskadi and an exceptionally top quality field in this year’s race already make it a very hard one to predict, the lack of several traditional standout features in the route adds another dense layer of Basque fog-like uncertainty to it.
Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) is the obvious standout favourite to win the same event where he took a breakthrough second place overall in 2021 behind teammate Primoz Roglic and ahead - for the first time in his career - of Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates). In the absence of the two Slovenians in the Itzulia this year, Vingegaard will be the key pre-race reference point.
The 2023 Itzulia route is anything but a familiar one: there are no summit finishes barring one short, explosive hilltop finale on stage 3, and the usual short individual time trial is also absent. Above all, the race is missing of the Basque Country's most emblematic and decisive climbs, the Arrate, for the first time since 2008. All considered, the 2023 race a very hard one to predict indeed. Time bonuses will likely prove critical once more in a race where just 16 seconds separated the top three overall and 32 the top six last year.
Ahead of one of the leading WorldTour week-long stage races - and one of the toughest, Arrate or no Arrate - Cyclingnews takes a look at the top favourites for a Basque txapela winner's beret come next Friday's finish in Eibar.
Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma)
You could make a strong argument for claiming few races have been as pivotal for a Tour de France winner as the Itzulia Basque Country proved to be for Jonas Vingegaard two years ago. The Dane had previously shown flashes of WorldTour-level brilliance, winning a tough stage of the 2019 Tour de Pologne and beating Tadej Pogačar in a stage of the UAE Tour at Jebel Jais in 2021. But the Itzulia was where Vingegaard secured his first WorldTour stage race final podium alongside teammate Primoz Roglic. Later that year, he took another, even greater breakthrough with second place overall in the 2021 Tour de France.
Vingegaard arguably has a point to prove again, given he was recently subject to a stinging defeat at Paris-Nice by Pogačar. Just as it did in 2021, a good result in Itzulia would show in no uncertain terms he remains on track for the summer and the Tour de France.
Furthermore, Itzulia is currently the only stage race on Vingegaard's program before the Criterium du Dauphiné, his final build-up for his Tour de France defence, making a strong performance this April even more important. Jumbo-Visma bring a solid line-up to the Itzulia Basque Country, with Rohan Dennis, Steven Kruijswijk and the promising young British climber Thomas Gloag, suggesting he can count on strong support.
Dani Martínez (Ineos Grenadiers)
Dani Martínez's overall win in last year's La Itzulia was one of the Colombian's season highlights. The victory preceded two strong top-five places in the Belgian Ardennes Classics, but illness all but poleaxed his debut as a Tour de France leader. He had a similarly uneven finale to the season, with a victory in the Coppa Sabatini but little else of note post-July .
The 2023 season is proving equally unsteady for Martínez. He was surprised by his triumph in the Volta ao Algarve in February by a narrow margin over teammate Filippo Ganna. But then in Paris-Nice, on a seemingly more favourable route, he was unexpectedly out of sorts and nowhere near the other top contenders like Pogačar and Vingegaard.
Mixed messages like these extremes make it even more urgent for Martínez to show his strength in Itzulia, particularly as two of his strongest teammates on paper, Carlos Rodriguez and Egan Bernal, are both on the recovery path from injuries and may not be able to step up as leader if the defending champion is not in top form.
Enric Mas (Movistar)
The cycling season is anything but short, and with his two big goals of the season, the Tour and the Vuelta, still some distance off, it might make sense if Enric Mas failed to impact overly in this year’s Itzulia Basque Country.
However, this is a rider whose first big stage win came on Arrate in the Itzulia Basque Country back in 2018, and whose talent for climbing and for fighting it out on rugged technical terrain make the man from Mallorca and the Itzulia seem like an obvious match.
Not only that, the Movistar Team have their home base in neighbouring Navarre, a region with massive historical, cultural and sporting connections to the Basque Country, and stage 2 from Viana to Leitza will be run in its entirety in that region. Barring the Vuelta a España and the Tour de France, Itzulia is likely the stage race that matters the most to the team.
Given Mas’ only WorldTour stage race overall win came in the now-defunct Gree-Tour of Guangxi in 2019, Itzulia would be the ideal place to take a first with his current squad. With no time trial - not one of his strongest points - as a potential hindrance, this year’s Itzulia route has added appeal for the Spaniard.
Ion Izagirre (Cofidis)
Ion Izagirre is a rider who other contenders can ill afford to overlook in the Itzulia. Of all the 2023 favourites, his previous performances there are the most impressive. There was an overall win in 2019, of course, but also second place overall and a stage win on the most prestigious finish of Arrate in 2022. The list goes on, with three third places overall in 2015, 2017 and 2018 and another stage win, narrowly outsprinting Pello Bilbao (Bahrain Victorious) in the streets of Hondarrabi in 2021.
Izagirre also benefits from colossal local knowledge. Basque born and bred and taking part in La Itzulia for a tenth time, he’s covered most of the labyrinthine series of climbs used in the race multiple times in training and racing.
In an event where knowing the narrow, winding back roads that feature so often in Itzulia is both crucial and challenging, that’s a major advantage. Last but not least, being Basque and racing on home soil makes fighting for the win even more motivating.
Richard Carapaz (EF Education-EasyPost)
There’s a strong case for arguing that the Itzulia Basque Country uniquely suits Richard Carapaz, although has yet to show it. The roads of Euskadi demand an exceptional ability to stay calm in fast-changing weather conditions and equally variable race circumstances, and the event is often decided by small margins. Carapaz is a virtuoso when it comes to ambushes, long-distance breakaways and tenacious moves on rugged terrain and poor weather, making him a natural favourite.
It is difficult to comprehend why Carapaz has not raced Itzulia more than once - in 2021 - and his lack of top results then. He finished 19th overall and, barring one early, futile, breakaway that year on the final stage, he barely figured in the running.
Could 2023 be the chance for Carapaz to set his personal Itzulia record straight? The absence of a time trial and the nervous, explosive finales spread across the route would suggest he’s got a great opportunity to do so. His rising, if uneven, form in the Volta a Catalunya, with an impressive attack en route to La Molina on stage 3, point to his potential to make an impact two weeks later on the other side of the Iberian peninsula. One thing is certain knowing Carapaz' track record: he’ll grab any opportunity that comes his way to shine.
David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ)
Amidst the current criticism of the wisdom of gifting major bike races that there has been recently, it's timely to remember the events in Itzulia two years ago. Just as Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) was cementing the final slab of his second overall victory into place at the Arrate summit finish, he simultaneously rewarded fellow breakaway David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) the stage win.
Stage victories are not the same as Classics, of course, even if they're in races as big as La Itzulia. But remember, Gaudu managing to be up there on a day when Pogačar and Roglic launched multiple attacks and shattered the race into a zillion pieces. That is no mean achievement. Even if La Itzulia has some of the trickiest hilly terrain that stage racing can throw at the peloton, Gaudu was more than up to the challenge.
Which brings us to 2023: Gaudu’s recent rise in the peloton's stage racing hierarchy courtesy of his second place at Paris-Nice behind Pogačar and ahead of Vingegaard. Following his first WorldTour podium finish, expectations in France about his potential for week-long stage races have risen sharply. If Gaudu continues down the same path in the Basque Country, he’ll have confirmed those hopes in the quickest way possible. Across the border in France, they're certainly hoping that will happen.
Pello Bilbao (Bahrain Victorious)
The previous results of Pello Bilbao in La Itzulia since 2017 show a steady upwards curve of the kind that would delight any cycling statistician: 10th, 56th, 53rd, 17th, eighth, sixth with a stage win in 2021, culminating in fifth overall last year. Is the Basque ready to go even higher in 2023?
After a strong early season including a stage win in the Tour Down Under, barely missing the UAE Tour podium by a second to Adam Yates (UAE Team Emirates), and a top-10 finish in Strade Bianche, Bilbao looks to be in his usual highly consistent shape.
Sharing the GC leadership responsibilities with Mikel Landa has proven to be an effective combination in the past and in La Itzulia this year the two will be able to put that to good effect again.
Simon Yates, Rui Costa, Esteban Chaves, Mikel Landa...
The 2021 Itzulia wasn’t just a breakthrough race for Jonas Vingegaard. Brandon McNulty took a big step forward in his incipient career when he claimed the race lead for two days before losing out in the final chaotic stage. La Itzulia was clearly established as a race which suited him in his first full WorldTour season ahead of his Tour de France debut.
Other riders with clear potential to impact on the race include Simon Yates (Jayco-AIUIa), Rui Costa (Intermarché-Circus-Wanty) and Esteban Chaves (EF Education-EasyPost). Yates’ predilection for punchy, hilly events has been well-established but he is, for various reasons, yet to leave his mark on Itzulia in five previous participations. The same goes for Rui Costa, seemingly back on his ‘A’ game after moving onto the Belgian squad over the winter. Esteban Chaves has also had a near-miss with a gutsy summit finish attack in the Volta a Catalunya and may play a dangerous two-hander with fellow South American Carapaz.
Last but not least is home favourite Mikel Landa. As sometimes erratic and often unlucky as Landa may be, the Bahrain Victorious racer is never willing to leave a race without having a go, and at his seventh place at Tirreno-Adriatico and fifth in the Volta a Catalunya strongly suggest he’s on a roll.