Vuelta a España - Vuelta returns to Basque roots
The Vuelta a Espana returns to the Basque Country after a 33-year absence and "will have no more far-reaching connotations than any other sporting event" according to race director Javier Guillen.
When the race last visited the region, considered Spain's cycling heartland, in 1978, it descended into chaos. The final stage was cancelled when separatists blocked the route with barricades and strewed nails, stones and planks on the road.
"At the end of the day this is cycling, nothing more than sport," Guillen said before the race starts in Benidorm with a team time-trial.
"I completely respect everybody's point of view, but I would ask that the Basque government and the Vuelta's decision (to return to the Basque Country) be respected too. That way the return can be what it should be - a big celebration of cycling."
The 2011 route will feature two hilly treks through the Basque Country, with a stage finish in the final week looping through Bilbao and another ending in its capital, Vitoria.
"The Basque fan base is one of the best in the world, one of the largest and best informed," Guillen said. "Our TV audience shares show that one of the biggest followings the race gets is from the Basque Country. It's important for us to get there.
"The return is also a very important moment from the point of view of the Vuelta's history. For a long time, the race was organised by a Basque newspaper; so in many ways it's a return to our roots."
Guillen says Basque climber Igor Anton, who lives in Bilbao and races for Basque squad Euskaltel-Euskadi, will be among the local favourites alongside veteran Carlos Sastre, winner of the Tour de France in 2008, and all-rounder Joaquim Rodriguez.
"Then, of course, there are some big foreign names, starting off with last year's winner (Italian Vincenzo Nibali). It'll be a very open race."
Guillen said he expected next Tuesday's stage four summit finish, after a 20-km ascent to Sierra Nevada, to begin weeding out the favourites.
Although the race avoids the Pyrenees and the renowned Covadonga Lakes climb in the Picos de Europa, home to some of the last wolves in Europe, the assault on the Angliru climb on stage 15 will be another key moment.
"The Angliru is a colossus of cycling, one of the most spectacular stages of the entire season. We've deliberately made it a short stage so that it will carry a lot of punch, but that it won't be completely decisive.
"In fact, if the race ends up being decided in those two stages in the Basque Country, then so much the better."
The Tour of Spain finishes on September 11 in Madrid.