All eyes may be on northern Europe ahead of the two biggest cobbled Classics of the year, but packed in between is the Tour of the Basque Country, also known as the Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco, is also set to roll out next week.

Starting on Monday (April 7), several teams are sending strong line-ups to Ordizia for the 54th edition of the Itzulia, as the race for WorldTour points continues. The rouleurs may be busy in the one-day races of Belgium and northern France, but the men likely to contest the Grand Tours will be occupied in the Basque Country.

The pistol salute is likely to get a lot of airtime if Contador's start to the season is anything to go by (pic: Sirotti)

2014, Tirreno - Adriatico, tappa 04 Indicatore - Selvarotonda, Tinkoff - Saxo 2014, Contador Alberto, Selvarotonda

In-form Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) currently leads the way in the individual rankings and he will be looking to score some more early-season triumphs over his biggest rivals ahead of the Tour de France.

Defending champion Nairo Quintana (Movistar) will not return, but the Spanish team will instead boast the firepower of Alejandro Valverde for the six-stage race.

Conveniently slotted between the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, the race is far more than just a means for fans to whittle down the hours between the two Monuments however.

Quintana’s victory last year set up a season which culminated in second place – and the white and polka-dot jerseys – at the Tour de France. Previous winners include Grand Tour champions Contador, Denis Menchov, Danilo Di Luca, Juan Jose Cobo, and Chris Horner.

This year's line-up is similarly strong, with an elite list of riders looking to follow in Quintana's footsteps in 2014.

Read on for our in-depth preview of the route and riders, and share your own tips on who will be crowned champion this year in the RCUK Forum.

[part title="The route"]

Starting with a circuit of Ordizia, the Vuelta starts with an undulating opening stage, including two ascents of the category-two Alto de Gaintza – the last of which peaks within seven kilometres of the finishing line.

The Alto de Abaltzisketa must also be crested twice, with a total of eight ascents in all – the latter in particular an area where some riders may look to snatch some early seconds on their rivals.

Nairo Quintana, pictured at the Tour de France, won last year's Vuelta Ciclista a Pais Vasco (pic: Sirotti)

Nairo Quintana, Movistar, Tour de France 2013, stage eight

Stage two features less climbing, but includes two significant ascents in quick succession: the category two Gorosmendi and the Usatgieta. The category-one ascent of the Alto de Lizaieta could also cause some splits but if the race stays together over the top it is well set-up for a bunch finish.

The same rings true of the 194.5km third stage, which climbs almost immediately to the summit of the Alto de Otsondo before the long ascent of the Belate. However, once those are completed, the stage features only minor ramps before two category three climbs just short of the finish.

Though they offer the chance for a late attack, if the sprinters' teams can control the bunch it will be one of the quick men who wins in Vitoria-Gasteiz.

GC contenders will face their biggest battles on stage four, which finishes with a six-kilometre slog up the category one climb of the Alto de Usartza.

With an average gradient of 6.7 per cent and ramps reaching 11 per cent in parts, the climb features for the sixth consecutive year, with the stage finishing with a slight downhill over the top.

Quintana won the stage last year, finishing just two seconds clear of a chasing group including the likes of Alberto Contador, Carlos Betancur and Richie Porte.

The Alto de Aiastia, at less than nine kilometres from the finish of the penultimate stage, could also pave the way for splits to be formed before the race concludes with a punchy 25.9km time trial – featuring two climbs en route.

[part title="The contenders – Pete Kennaugh (Team Sky)"]

Winner at the Coppi e Bartali, Pete Kennaugh has earned his shot at leading Team Sky in a WorldTour race, with he and Spanish team-mate Mikel Nieve both harbouring GC ambitions. Kennaugh has proved himself more than capable as a climber since switching from track to tarmac thanks to stunning efforts in support of Chris Froome at the Tour de France. His win in Italy proved he can do it for himself too, with his attack on the rolling stage two paving the way for a dominant victory.

...and celebrates a job well done post-stage (pic: Sirotti)

Nieve on the other hand knows the Basque Country terrain having been on Euskaltel-Euskadi’s books and will be of huge value on the rolling courses. Vasil Kiryienka is another key climbing domestique as Sky – even without their bigger name riders – boast a strong unit for the race. With Tour de France places up for grabs – and Team Sky’s squad selection near-impossible to predict – both Kennaugh and Nieve could lay down some big markers next week.

[part title="The contenders – Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)"]

Movistar enjoyed great success in this race last season thanks to Nairo Quintana and now it will be the turn of Alejandro Valverde to lead the world number one-ranked team. He has enjoyed a hugely successful start to the season, winning the Ruta del Sol thanks to three straight stage wins and following it with one-day success at the Vuelta Ciclista a Murcia and Roma Maxima. More than capable on the rolling terrain, the undulating nature of the route makes it ideal preparation for the Ardennes Classics for the 33-year-old.

Alejandro Valverde continued his fine form with victory at La Fleche Wallonne (pic: Sirotti)

Alejandro Valverde, Movistar, 2014, Roma Maxima, pic: Sirotti

Last year Valverde was unable to follow his Ruta del Sol victory with any major real major success – an ill-timed puncture effectively ended his Tour de France hopes while his third place at the Vuelta a Espana was overshadowed massively by Chris Horner and Vincenzo Nibali’s battle for supremacy. He is well-suited to the parcours awaiting in the Basque Country however and will enjoy the backing of a phenomenally strong team, including Benat Intxausti, Jose Joaquin Rojas and the Izagirre brothers, Gorka and Jon.

[part title="The contenders – Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo)"]

El Pistolero’s scintillating form on the WorldTour so far this season means he is flying high at the top of the UCI world rankings and is more than capable of continuing such form in the Basque Country. First at Tirreno-Adriatico and second in Catalonia, Contador has shown signs of returning to his very best form and will be keen to add to his two Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco titles.

Alberto Contador, pictured at Tirreno-Adriatico, continued his sublime start to 2014 (pic: Sirotti)

Expect fireworks from him on each of the late climbs, as he displayed so well at the Volta a Catalunya. With Roman Kreuziger by his side, Tinkoff-Saxo have already proved how they can use their two top climbers to great effect – Kreuziger instigating attacks and Contador counter-punching when necessary. Kreuziger is also more-than capable of challenging overall. The only slight cause for concern for Contador will be the time trial. His time in this race last year cost him a podium spot, while at Tirreno-Adriatico he failed to make a major impact – though, in fairness, he had already tied up the blue jersey.

[part title="The contenders – Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida)"]

World champion Rui Costa is yet to break his duck in the rainbow jersey – finishing second on five stages already this season. But his form has nevertheless impressive – third overall at the Volta ao Algarve, Costa then finished second at Paris-Nice and enters the Itzulia after three weeks off to recuperate. The undulating nature of the stages suit Costa’s attacking instinct, even if the rainbow stripes on his back make him a marked man.

Rui Costa shows off his rainbow stripes in Dubai - but he is yet to win in the jersey (pic: Ansa)

Capable of sticking with the leading riders on any difficult climbs, Costa has already been perennially at the sharp end of races this season. And it can only be a matter of time, you would think, before he does seal a stage victory. His two time trial efforts this season – in the jersey of Portuguese national champion – have been solid but unspectacular. But it is enough to know if he is still in contention come the final stage, he will be a rider to look out for against the clock.

[part title="The contenders – Robert Kiserlovski (Trek Factory Racing)"]

On the race’s provisional startlist, Andy Schleck is listed as Trek Factory Racing’s leader. But the former Tour de France winner has been well below-par this season and will need to display some major improvements if he is to prove his form and keep the team leadership for the Tour. Contrast that with Robert Kiserlovski, the 27-year-old Croatian who has enjoyed a steady, consistent start to his 2014 season with top-ten finishes at both Tirreno-Adriatico and the Volta a Catalunya.

Robert Kiserlovski has made a steady start to his 2014 campaign (pic: Sirotti)

Robert Kiserlovski, Trek Factory Racing, Tirreno-Adriatico, pic: Sirotti

Though yet to make a serious GC challenge, his consistency in his only two WorldTour races of the season so far does bode well. Frank Schleck has also enjoyed an encouraging start to the season, while Bob Jungels showed what he is capable of with second on a stage at Paris-Nice. Trek have several options for the race should Andy Schleck’s hopes fall by the wayside again. Their primary goal this week, of course, is Fabian Cancellara at the Classics but a strong showing in the Basque Country could make it a perfect week for the team.

[part title="Significant others"]

Picking just five contenders is extremely hard, with the race’s provisional start list containing a phenomenal depth of talent. Carlos Betancur (Ag2r-La Mondiale), for one, was on top form en route to overall victory at Paris-Nice and performed well in the Basque Country last year, as did team-mate Jean-Christophe Peraud. Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) is another rider in superb form as overall victory at the Volta ao Algarve will attest, and one who will have no problems in the final time trial having already beaten world champion team-mate Tony Martin once this year.

Cadel Evans enjoyed a successful start to the season down under and has built on his second place since (pic: Sirotti)

Cadel Evans, Australia, Tour Down Under, solo victory, BMC Racing (Pic: Sirotti)

Also enjoying a good year is Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) but with Cadel Evans, Samuel Sanchez and Philippe Gilbert also on the provisional start list for BMC Racing his personal ambition may have to take second place. Still, with such a potentially strong line-up on show, a BMC Racing victory could well be on the cards. Bauke Mollema (Belkin) and Simon Geschke (Giant-Shimano) are just two more of the riders who could be hoping to put paid to that however.

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