Pais Vasco mid-race review: Howes in polka dots and Uran in fine form

    The boys in Basque Country are knocking. We’re three stages down, three stages still to race at Vuelta Pais Vasco. During the opening three stages, an in-form Rigoberto Uran has mixed it up with the sprinters and attacked the climbers. Alex Howes put in the hard yards to get into a breakaway and come away with the polka dot jersey. Mike Woods stuck his nose in the wind to protect Uran’s overall ambitions – with much success. Uran jumped up 14 spots overall on Wednesday and heads into the second half of the week in 14th place at three seconds.

    “We’re riding really well together here,” said Mike Woods. “Everyone is really strong, and we’ve all brought a high level of fitness and motivation. To have a guy like Rigo who can knock a big result out of the park makes you go that much deeper.”

    Before we move forward, a look back.

    STAGE ONE

    The opening stage of Vuelta al Pais Vasco looked like an easy day on paper, but tensions ran high in the finale due to a narrow passage at the 5.8 kilometer mark. Sport director Juanma Garate tasked the team with keeping Uran safe all day but particularly at this point.

    “If a crash happened in that corner, we could lose all our options in the race,” Garate explained. “We really fought hard for our position before the road narrowed. The team did a great job. Simon Clarke especially was excellent. He was doing a lead-out for Rigo to this spot.”

    The 153-kilometer day ended in a scrappy sprint. Uran contested the finale.

    “He wanted to confirm how good his condition is at the moment,” said Garate. “In the middle of all the strongest sprinters in the race, he was seventh. We know his form is good.”

    STAGE TWO

    For television viewers, the second stage of Pais Vasco was a bit uneventful. For the riders, it was far from relaxed.

    “Although it was clear that it would be a bunch sprint, there was a lot of stress today with all the teams chasing and trying to be in good position in critical points where the routes changed direction,” Garate explained. “The changes in the wind direction could have meant splits, and this meant it was a hard day for riders even if on television it looked boring or like they’re riding easy.”

    Cannondale-Drapac handled the stress well. The entire team was attentive to Uran’s positioning throughout the 173-kilometer day.

    “They brought Rigo into the right position until the last 20km, and then in the last 10km, even less, maybe 6km, it was super fast downhill,” said Garate. “I asked Rigo and our guys to be on the side of the bunch to stay out of trouble, especially until they pass the three-kilometer mark. We don’t have a clear sprinter, so our goal was to survive, pass the day, not lose time and arrive safely at the finish line.”

    STAGE THREE

    Things got a bit more interesting on the third stage of Vuelta al Pais Vasco. The profile included six categorized climbs and a technical run-in to the finish. Early attempts to get into the escape proved difficult. It took nearly 40 kilometers from the breakaway to slip up the road.

    “Alex had to bridge across to get into the break,” said Mike Woods. “It was a really hard effort for him. Having him in the breakaway built momentum for us. We were able to sit comfortably throughout the day knowing that he was up the road.”

    Howes scooped up mountain points in the breakaway and earned himself the polka dot jersey.

    As the kilometers ticked down, the pace ticked up. The breakaway began to fracture, and the peloton lost riders from the back.

    “It was a day where it just got progressively harder,” said Woods. “It was a race of attrition with Sky and Movistar riding very hard. Guys did the slow fade off the back. Throughout the race, everyone on the team kept Rigo and me in really good position.”

    Uran was feeling feisty on the final climb and set off, solo, after David de la Cruz (Quick-Step) who had jumped moments earlier.

    “He decided to test the legs out and see how it felt,” Woods explained. “Unfortunately a rider like Rigo is going to inspire panic in the peloton with a move like that. A reduced bunch chased him down, and once they caught him, it was really negative racing. No one would commit to chase de la Cruz.”

    Woods took charge as the finish line approached.

    “I tried to follow moves and make sure we could tie it up,” said Woods. “We weren’t able to catch him on the descent, and I didn’t want the gap to get any larger. Rigo had good legs for the stage, but the big goal here is to do well on the general classification, so we had to keep the gap close.”