There’s no rest for the wicked. Just one week after the culmination of the Tour de France, the men’s WorldTour gets back on the road with the next instalment, the Clásica de San Sebastián.
Of all the one-day Classics held outside of the spring, this is one of the most prestigious, and, as the biggest one-day event held in cycling's heartlands of the Basque Country, always attracts large crowds of passionate supporters. As anyone who watched the recent Grand Départ of the Tour de France will already know — this year’s will be an unusual edition in that many of the same roads and climbs featured during the second stage of the Tour, won by Victor Lafay (Cofidis).
Not only that, the moving forward of the World Championships means San Sebastián will also now function as a key preparatory race for the men’s road race, with prospective candidates for the rainbow jersey able to get lots of racing and climbing kilometres in their legs ahead of the following week’s showdown in Glasgow. San Sebastián is always a competitive race, but riders have even more reason to ride it hard this year.
Making full use of the Basque Country’s hilly terrain, Clásica de San Sebastián is one the hardest and most selective one-day Classics of the season. It’s usually either a solo rider or very select group of no more than four or five riders that make it to the finish together at the front of the race, with enough climbing and a taxing length (this year, 230.3km) to ensure the race explodes into pieces on the run-in to the city of San Sebastián.
This year’s edition looks set to be even tougher, with the re-inclusion of the Mendizorrotz climb that had been omitted from the 2021 and 2022 parcours. At 4.1km long and averaging 7.3%, with especially steep stretches in the middle in double digit gradients, it’s one of the toughest of the race, and, as the penultimate climb, will be of great importance.
The race will already have been fully on long before they arrive at that climb, likely starting with the climb most synonymous with the Classic, Alto de Jaizkibel. This was the hill that featured at the end of the Tour de France earlier this month (albeit via a different, slightly less steep approach than the 7.9km route averaging 5.6% that they will go up today), and the crowds that flocked to the roadside that day will give you some idea of what to expect.
Whereas the first three climbs tackled early in the day are taken at a steady pace and feature too early to have an impact, it’s on the Jaizkibel that the pace increases and selections start to be made. After descending to the bottom, the riders will then almost immediately start climbing the Erlaitz, by which point it isn’t too early to start thinking about attacking — after all, it was on the steep 10.6% slopes of this 3.8km climb that Remco Evenepoel made his race-winning move last year.
There are some long valley roads before and after Mendizorrotz, where anyone without the engine to power of Evenepoel over the flat may struggle to hold off a chasing group. The race could therefore still be decided on the final climb of Murgil-Tontorra, of which the average gradient of over 10% will particularly sting after 220km of racing, and only requires eight more kilometres of racing before arriving at the finish.
As winner of two of the last three editions of San Sebastián, it’s hard to look past Remco Evenepoel as the likely victor. The Belgian doesn’t race many Classics, but when he does, he’s difficult to stop: since triumphing at last year’s edition, Evenepoel has won three of the four one-day races he’s competed in — those three races being the World Championships, the Belgian National Championships and Liège–Bastogne–Liège, no less. When he attacks and gets a gap, he’s near-impossible to bring back, and will, form permitting, stand a great chance of adding a third title to become the joint-record holder for most San Sebastián victories.
Simon Yates was on strong form towards the end of the Tour de France
Given that he’s only raced the National Championships since finishing third overall at the Tour de Suisse almost six weeks ago, his form is doubtful, and he’ll be up against several riders carrying strong legs from the Tour de France. Simon Yates (Jayco-Alula) ended the Tour on the up, rising to fourth overall on the penultimate day, and has the claim to fame of being the only man to stay with Evenepoel when he first made his race-winning attack last year. Yates was ultimately dropped too later on, but might stand a better chance this time with the form he’s in.
Other riders from the Tour’s top six, Pello Bilbao (Bahrain-Victorious) and Carlos Rodríguez (Ineos Grenadiers), will ride – the former driven by the extra incentive of competing on home Basque roads, and the latter returning to a race where he finished fifth last year. Victor Lafay (Cofidis) marked himself out as one to watch having won the stage of the Tour de France that was held in San Sebastián, while his Basque teammate and fellow stage-winner Ion Izagirre gives Cofidis plenty of options. Though Matthias Skjelmose (Lidl-Trek) didn’t enjoy quite as strong a Tour as these riders, the hilly terrain of this Classic should suit a rider who made the top 10 in all three of the Ardennes Classics earlier this year. Skjelmose’s Lidl-Trek teammate Bauke Mollema warrants a mention given his record of making the top 10 here in each of his last 10 appearances; Puy de Dôme stage winner Michael Woods (Israel-Premier Tech) should excel in the hilly terrain; and having helped Jonas Vingegaard to yellow jersey glory, Tiesj Benoot will be promoted to Jumbo-Visma leader for a race he finished third at last year.
Tiesj Benoot could improve on a strong third place last year
On the contrary, it may be that riders who didn’t compete at the Tour de France will benefit from being well-rested. Revelation of the spring Ben Healy (EF Education-EasyPost) is one such rider, and recently finished second at the Prueba Villafranca de Ordizia in what was his first Classic since placing fourth at Liège–Bastogne–Liège. Marc Hirschi established himself as a contender for San Sebastián by beating Healy in a two-up sprint to win that Classic, though he may play second fiddle to UAE teammate Juan Ayuso, depending on how well the Spaniard has recovered from the crash sustained at that race. And Michael Matthews (Jayco-Alula) is set to make a rare San Sebastián outing, and will take some dropping.
There really is no looking past Remco Evenepoel when it comes to predicting a probable winner. Everyone knows he’s going to attack (albeit not when — he could feasibly make a move at any point from the Jaizkibel onwards), so he’s going to be a marked man. Yet this is the case in most races he competes in, and he still tends to be powerful enough to ride away from the field regardless.