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Will Alberto Contador take a third overall victory in the Volta ao Algarve?

Photo: Tinkoff-Saxo / BettiniPhoto

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VOLTA AO ALGARVE

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NEWS
16.02.2016 @ 18:00 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

It's time for one of the most important build-up weeks of the cycling season, with the next few days offering no less than four stage races that will form a key part of the preparation that shall see classics and stage race riders hit peak condition for the months of March and April. One of the options for the world's best cyclists is to head to Portugal for the Volta ao Algarve which offers five days of high-quality racing under usually sunny conditions. The race has traditionally been dominated by time triallists but a harder course than ever before has now tipped the balance towards the climbs.

 

The month of February may not offer the most prestigious bike races on the calendar but the final winter month plays a crucial role for every ambitious cyclist. With the first big races coming up in March and the cycling season having really ramped up in the last few weeks, it is now time to get in the racing miles that will allow the riders to hit their best form for the races that really matter.

 

Hence, it is no wonder that the month of February is littered with stage races in Southern Europe and the Middle East and they offer the riders the chance to test their legs and get in quality racing under reasonable weather conditions. Next week plays a special role as it offers the final chance for the riders to do some racing ahead of the Belgian opening weekend.

 

In the past, all riders headed to Southern Europe for those important early-season kilometres. With races like Etoile de Besseges, Tour Mediateraneen, and the Tour du Haut-Var, France had a lot to offer, Portugal had the Volta a Algarve, and Spain and Italy both had a nice series of short stage races that worked as solid preparation.

 

In recent years, the economic crisis has had its clear effect on the racing scene. While the wealthy Middle East now offers a very well-organized and attractive block of racing with the Dubai Tour, the Tour of Qatar and the Tour of Oman, several European races have disappeared. Italy no longer plays host to a stage race before Tirreno-Adriatico and last year the Tour Mediteraneen disappeared too. The Spanish scene has been hit hard by the difficult times as the Vuelta a la Comunitat Valenciana disappeared and the Vuelta a Murcia is now just a one-day race.

 

Just across the border, the Volta ao Algarve is another opportunity for riders looking for nice weather and hilly terrain to prepare for the biggest races on the calendar. Like Spain, Portugal has been hit hard by the economic crisis and in 2013 the Algarve race was in a battle for survival. Luckily, the organizers managed to save the great event, albeit in a shortened 4-day version, but in 2014 it was back in its full 5-day format.

 

Portugal is not one of cycling's powerhouses and only rarely has the chance to showcase the cycling elite. Their national tour, the Volta ao Portugal, is a big national event with plenty of live TV coverage but remains mostly a national affair that has been unable to attract a single WorldTour team in recent years.

 

This has turned the Volta ao Algarve into the marquee event on the Portuguese calendar, with the race being the only one to offer WorldTour level racing. Despite the tough economic times, the race remains a popular choice as there is a reasonable chance for good weather and the race offers a nice mix of terrain that suits most different rider types.

 

A few years ago, Algarve seemed to be the place to be in February and the race attracted some fantastic line-ups, with the race even being shown live on Eurosport. With the rise of the Tour of Oman, the race has lost a bit of prestige and the uncertainty over the 2014 edition prompted several riders to avoid taking the risk of adding the event to their calendar.

 

The race now again seems to thrive and this year it seems to have almost regained its status as the preferred preparation event for stage racers. With the return of the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana and the emergence of La Méditerranéenne and Tour Provence, more WorldTour teams have decided to skip their annual trip the Middle East. This has clearly boosted the Volta ao Algarve as more teams prefer to stay on the Iberian Peninsula where many have their training camps.

 

Last year they lost the battle to the Vuelta a Andalucia which managed to attract Chris Froome and Alberto Contador and the race failed to attract the same kind of start-studded line-up. However, they year the organizers have turned things around and they seem to have beaten both the Omani and Andalusian races in the battle for the stars. Two of the reigning grand tour champions, Alberto Contador and Fabio Aru, spearhead a formidable line-up that also includes former world champions Michal Kwiatkowski, Tony Martin, Fabian Cancellara, defending champion Geraint Thomas and former top 10 finishes at grand tours like Thibaut Pinot, Luis Leon Sanchez, Andrew Talansky, Rigoberto Uran, Andrey Amador, Joaquim Rodriguez, Robert Gesink, Robert Kiserlovski and Frank Schleck, emerging talents Ilnur Zakarin and Miguel Angel Lopez, classic stars like Tom Boonen, Sep Vanmarcke and Zdenek Stybar and a formidable line-up of sprinters that is led by André Greipel and Marcel Kittel.

 

The race has had a lot of different formats. In the past, it has been a rather flat affair that has even been won overall by Alessandro Petacchi and Stijn Devolder took the win in an edition that was almost decided entirely by the time trial. However, the race has mostly included its marquee stage to the top of the short, steep Alto do Malhao and a rather long time trial, making it one for the true stage race specialists. The length of the time trial has often tipped the balance in favour of the time trialists and it is no wonder that Tony Martin has finished in the top 2 three years in a row.

 

In 2014, however, the organizers tipped the balance significantly as they shortened the time trial and included an extra hilly stage, setting the scene for an exciting battle between the climbers and the time triallists. Last year the organizers used the same well-balanced format but this year they have made the course tougher than ever. The moderately hilly stage has been replaced by a summit finish on the Alto de Foia, the region’s highest mountain, and with two uphill finishes, the climbers have a much better chance to come out on top in the 2016 edition of the race.

 

Last year Team Sky went into the race with an in-form Richie Porte as the big favourite but it was Geraint Thomas who used the focus on the Australian to take a solo win in the first hilly stage. After defending his position in the time trial, Thomas became the Sky leader and Porte rode in support of his teammate in the queen stage. The strong Australian still managed to win the stage but it was Thomas who took the biggest stage race victory of his career, beating Michal Kwiatkowski by 27 seconds and local hero Tiago Machado by 1.11. This year Thomas and Kwiatkowski will both be back but now they will be teammates as they spearhead a strong Sky team with multiple options. Machado will also return to the race and will be the hope of the local fans.

 

The course

As said, the Volta ao Algarve has tried a few different formats but has mostly stuck to a well-known, tested formula that has always been a guarantee for success. A couple of sprint stages - often with some rather lumpy finishes - kick off the spectacle while the GC is decided by the mountaintop finish on the Alto do Malhao and a time trial that has often taken place on the final day. As Malhao is a rather short, explosive affair and the TTs have often been rather long, the race has favoured the time triallists but the 2014 modifications tipped the balance.

 

In 2013, 2012 and 2011, the time trial had been 17km, 25km and 34km respectively but in 2014 the specialists had less time than usual to gain seconds over the climbers. The race against the clock was shortened to just 13.6km. Furthermore, the TT was now held before the Malhao stage, meaning that the climbers knew how much time they needed to gain on the final climb. With the addition of the hilly stage 2, it required a lot more versatile skills to win the 2014 edition. Last year that format was repeated and in fact the course was almost a copy of the one that was used 12 months earlier. The main difference was that the time trial had again be extended to a distance of 19km.

 

This year the organizers have decided to favour the climbers by including an uphill finish on stage 2 instead of the moderately hilly stage that has featured in the last two editions. The Foia climb is not very hard but it is a much longer ascent than those traditionally used in Algarve. While the time triallists have often been able to limit their losses on the traditional uphill finish on the Alto do Malhao which is a very steep climb suited to explosive riders, the potential losses on stage 2 can be a lot bigger. Furthermore, the time trial has been shortened from 19km to 18km, giving the time triallists less opportunities to gain time. This should tip the balance more towards the climbers but in general it requires very versatile skills to win the race. As it also includes the usual two sprint stages, the race is like a mini grand tour that will test all skills of a bike rider and we can expect the grand tour riders to come to the fore. As the Malhao stay has been moved to the final day, the excitement will even be kept alive until the very end and we can expect a huge battle for overall victory right until the final day.

 

Stage 1:

The Volta ao Algarve has usually kicked off with a stage for the sprinters and it will be no different in 2016. The opening stage is a bit of an Algarve classic as it will finish in Albueira for the seventh year in a row. The first part of the course usually varies from year to year but the tricky finale is the same that has been used for several year. It is a difficult affair that can suit a mix of sprinters and classics specialists who have sometimes managed to deny the fast riders.

 

Like last year the stage will start in Lagos on the Algarve coast and will bring the riders over 163.6km to Albufeira a bit further down the coast. The stage has a similar format to last year’s stage but it will follow a slightly different route between the two cities. The riders will first tackle a flat coastal section before they head inlands to get into some hillier terrain. Here they will face the only categorized climb, the category 4 Derrocada (3km, 1.8%) which summits after 34.6km of racing. Then it’s back into flat terrain which ends at the first intermediate sprint at the 81.7km mark. A long, gradual climb now signals the start of a lumpy section which includes the second intermediate sprint after 112.5km of racing.

 

The riders will now head back towards the coast as they make a small loop to approach the finishing city from along a mostly flat coastal road. Here they will contest the final intermediate sprint before they start one lap of an 18.6km finishing circuit on the eastern outskirts of the city. It is mainly flat but it includes the well-known tricky finale. There's a short descent inside the final 5km that leads to the bottom of a small hill close to the finish. The 500m ascent has an average gradient of 6% and summits just 600m from the line and then it descends to the finish. Furthermore, the finale is loaded with roundabouts, with 6 of those obstacles inside the final 6km. The final one comes just 1000m from the line.

 

With André Greipel and Marcel Kittel both in attendance, Lotto Soudal and Etixx-QuickStep will control the stage firmly and make sure that it comes down to a sprint finish. They have to be wary of attacks on the final climb which have sometimes been enough to deny the sprinters but with two very strong trains, it is unlikely to happen in 2016. The GC riders have to be on their toes as there are usually splits in the finale and you often see the main contenders finish close to the front in this stage.

 

Last year the tricky nature of the finale was evident from the results as André Greipel failed to take the win and instead the top 3 spots were occupied by versatile sprinters Gianni Meersman, Ben Swift and Paul Martens. In 2014 Lampre-Merida and Omega Pharma-Quick Step managed to set up a bunch sprint that was won by Sacha Modolo but in 2013 Paul Martens, Thomas Sprengers and Tiago Machado slipped away in the finale, with the latter two narrowly holding on to 1st and 2nd on the stage. In 2012, Gianni Meersman beat Greg Van Avermaet and Matti Breschel in the sprint while Greipel was the winner in 2011. In 2010, a late break again succeeded when Benoit Vaugrenard held off the sprinters in the difficult finale.

 

 

 

 

Stage 2:

For the last two years, the second stage has signaled the start of the GC battle as the riders have tackled a hilly course to the city of Monchique and the stage has managed to create time gaps that have been important for the battle for overall victory. This year the fight for the win will also commence on the second day but instead of having a stage suited to punchy classics riders, the organizers have designed a new mountaintop finish on the Alto da Foia on the outskirts of Monchique, the highest mountain in Algarve.

 

The stage is not only difficult, it is also very long as it brings the riders over 198.6km from Lagoa to the top of Alto da Foia. It is almost identical to last year’s stage but the main change is that the riders will go up the final climb at the end of the hilly circuit that has been used in past editions. All the climbing comes in the second part which will only make things tougher.

 

After the start, the riders will first do a flat circuit of around 20km on the eastern outskirts the starting city. From there they will follow the coast before they briefly head inland to contest the first intermediate sprint at the Algarve motorsport circuit after 59.6km of racing. The terrain is still mostly flat and then it’s back to the coast where the peloton will follow the flat coastal road all the way to the city of Aljezur, contesting the final two intermediate sprints at the 99.3km and 133.9km mark respectively.

 

The final sprint marks the start of the climbing hostilities as the riders will now turn inland, climbing a 4.1km category 3 climb with an average gradient of 6.9%. From there they head over rolling terrain with an uncategorized climb leading to the city of Monchique that they reach after 164.7km of racing.

 

Here they will tackle a tough circuit that includes two climbs. First it is the category 3 Alto do Picota (5.1km, 2.7% which summits with 28.6km to go. Next up is the category 2 Alto da Pomba (3.5km, 8.2%) before the riders follow slightly descending roads back to Monchique. Having passed through the city, they hit the bottom of the final category 1 climb which averages 6.6% over 7.4km. It’s hardest at the bottom and then has a relatively constant gradient of 6-7% for most of the time. The climb follows a winding road without any hairpin bends and the roads bends gradually to the right in the finale, leading to a very short finishing straight of less than 100m.

 

The final climb is not overly difficult and doesn’t include the very steep sections where a big difference can be made. However, the final circuit is difficult and especially the penultimate climb is a steep one. There is little doubt that Tinkoff will control this stage firmly to set Alberto Contador up for the win and they will try to make the race as hard as possible. In the end it will come down to a final battle between the best climbers on the final ascent but the time gaps are unlikely to be very big on this kind of climb.

 

Alto da Foia last hosted a stage finish in 2002 when Alex Zülle rode to a solo win. Jose Azevedo won in both 2001 and 2000 while Andreas Klöden was the fastest on the climb in 1999.

 

 

 

 

Stage 3:

For the third year in a row, the time trial will take place earlier than usual as the riders will already make use of their TT bikes on the third day. It takes place in the same area as it has done for the last two years but the course has been changed. The distance has been reduced from 19km to 18km but the route is flatter than it was last year. Furthermore, it still includes several technical challenges.Like last year the stage goes from Vila do Bispo to Sagres but this year the riders will continue along the coast for a few more kilometres to finish the stage at the southwestern tip of the Iberian peninsula, meaning that the distance has been increased from 13.6km to 19km.

 

Unlike last year’s stage, the 18km course both starts and finishes in Sagres. The roads are mainly flat as the riders will stay between 25m and 67m above sea level. However, it can still be split into two different parts. The first half is very technical and includes numerous turns as the riders tackle a difficult circuit in the eastern part of the city.

 

Having almost returned to the starting ramp, the riders will face a completely different course for the final 12.5km. They consist of a long straight run along a flat road to the westernmost point of the coast. Here they will turn around before heading back to Sagres. Then they will turn right in a roundabout before heading 600m to the finish on the southernmost point of the city.

 

The stage has been changed compared to the two latest editions but the nature is not much different. The first part suits explosive and technically strong riders that can accelerate out of the corners but the final 12km are all about power. Furthermore, the wind can play a big role on these exposed coastal roads. Even though there are two uphill finishes, the stage can create some significant time gaps that will play a crucial role in determining the overall winner of the race but the stage is likely to be won by one of the big specialists.

 

That was the case in 2015 when Tony Martin beat Adriano Malori by less than a second while Geraint Thomas was 3 seconds behind in third. The German was beaten in 2014 as Michal Kwiatkowski surprised himself by beating Adriano Malori by 11 seconds and his German teammate by 13 seconds. Martin won the TT in 2013 and 2011 while Bradley Wiggins was faster in 2012. Luis Leon Sanchez won the 2010 TT while Alberto Contador took the win in 2009 and Stijn Devolder in 2008.

 

 

 

 

Stage 4:

In the last few years, the riders have tackled the traditional queen stage to Alto do Malhao on the penultimate day while the sprinters have battled it out on the final day. This year those two stages have been switched and so the sprinters will have their final say in stage 4 before the climbers will decide the race on the final day of the race.

 

This year the second sprint stage will finish in the city of Tavira for the first time since 2012 after the city hosted a time trial in 2013 and has not had a finish since. At 194km, it’s another long stage that starts in S. Bras de Alportel very close to the finishing city. The course is made up of a big, relatively hilly circuit in the interior of the country before the riders return to the coast for a flat run along the seafront to the finishing city.

 

From the start, the riders will head along lumpy roads in a westerly direction and then head noth to tackle a third category 3 climb. They will continue until they get to the first intermediate sprint at the 49.8km mark from where they turn to the east to tackle the long category 3 climb of Barranco do Velho (6.6km, 4.4%). Another lumpy section leads to a long gradual descent that leads to a much flatter part of the country. With 58.5km to go, they are almost back at sea level and here they will contest the second intermediate sprint before following a flat road along the river back to the coast. The final intermediate sprint comes with 22.6km to go and then it’s a flat coastal road to the finish in Tavira. The final part of the stage is uncomplicated as the riders will follow a relatively straight road until they turn left just before the flamme rouge. Having passed through a roundabout with 600m to go, there’s a sharp right-hand turn 400m from the line. The road is descending from 1300m until 600m remain and then the final 400m are uphill at an average gradient of 4.5%.

 

This is the final chance for the sprinters so there is little doubt that Lotto Soudal and Etixx-QuickStep will make sure that it comes down to a bunch sprint. However, the GC riders have to be attentive in the second part where the wind can come into play on the coastal road. The finishing straight is uphill and it may be too much for the pure sprinters though, opening the doors for the classics riders and puncheurs to maybe play their cards.

 

Tavira hosted the time trial won by Tony Martin in 2013. Gerald Ciolek and André Greipel took sprint wins in 2012 and 2011 respectively and Sebastien Rosseler took a breakaway win in 2010. Alberto Contador and Stijn Devolder claimed TT victories in 2009 and 2008 respectively and Marco Zanotti claimed consecutive sprint wins in 2007 and 2006. Bernhard Eisel was the fastest in 2005 and Lance Armstrong won the TT in 2004 but the race also hosted stage finishes every year in the years prior to Armstrong’s victory.

 

 

 

 

Stage 5:

The Alto do Malhao is the marquee climb of the Volta ao Algarve and it is not a true edition of the Portuguese race if the riders haven't climbed then 2.6km ascent with its average gradient of 9.6%. This year it is of course back in the race and as always the riders have to go up the ascent twice in the finale. The stage may be shorter than usual but by moving the stage to the final day, it will be the scene of a very spectacular end to the five-day race where things can change right until the end.

 

The 169km stage starts in Almodovar just north of the finish and the first part of the route is made up a lumpy section as the riders zigzag their way to the final circuit. There aren’t many metres of flat roads in the first part but there are no categorized climbs and the highlight will be the first intermediate sprint ater 48.9km of racing.

 

The riders will get a chance to warm up their climbing legs when they go up a category 3 climb (2.3km, 5.4%) which summits at the 83.7km mark. Then a long descent leads to a short flat section that includes the second intermediate sprint with 54.1km to go.

 

Just moments later, the riders hit the bottom of the Alto do Malhao for the first time and they will now go up its 2.6km at an average of 9.6% before they cross the finish line for the first time. From there they start one lap of a hilly 42.8km finishing circuit that is flat in the first part and then includes a long descent. Then the road are mainly flat until the riders hit a category 3 climb (3km, 6.2km) whose summit is located just 22km from the finish. From there is it mainly descending or flat until the riders again hit the Malhao to tackle the final very steep 2.6km. There is a hairpin bend just after the flamme rouge but the road on the climb is mainly winding,

 

This stage has always been decided by the race favourites and as the race is usually about seconds, the bonifications are very important. This means that a breakaway will have virtually no chance and we should see the GC riders battle it out for the stage win. There aren’t many flat roads in this area but there are no long climbs either. Depending on the situation in the GC, Tinkoff will probably try to make the race hard as Contador would love to win in what is probably his final chance to do the climb in a race. However, the time gaps on this short climb are usually pretty small but we can still expect a hugely exciting final battle in the 2016 Volta ao Algarve.

 

Last year Richie Porte beat Michal Kwiatkowski by 3 seconds despite having worked for Geraint Thomas who was nine second behind in fourth. In 2014 Alberto Contador took the first win of his season when he beat Rui Costa by 3 seconds and Michal Kwiatkowski by 10 seconds. In 2013 Sergio Henao took a resounding win ahead of local hero Costa while Bradley Wiggins set Richie Porte up for a beautiful solo win one year earlier. The climb has been dominated by Sky in recent years as Stephen Cummings won the stage while riding for the team in 2011 while Alberto Contador conquered the ascent in 2010 after having been beaten by Antonio Colom one year earlier.

 

 

 

 

The favourites

When the race still featured a time trial of more than 30km, it often turned out to be a pretty predictable affair. A strong climber like Tony Martin was able to limit his losses on the short Alto do Malhao and it was easy for him to take it back in the race against the clock. Hence, it is no surprise that the German has won this race twice and finished second once.

 

However, the course changes of 2014 made it a much more diverse affair and gave the climbers a much better chance to shine. In the last two years, they have had two chances to make a difference and this has made it impossible for Martin to limit his losses sufficiently to go for the overall win. This year it will be even harder for a rider like Martin as the inclusion of a longer summit finish will probably make it too tough for the big German. The Alto da Foia is not a very difficult climb and the time gaps between the best climbers will probably be small but it provides the stage race specialists with a big chance to distance heavier guys like Martin and maybe also Michal Kwiatkowski.

 

There is no doubt that this is the best chance for the climbers ever in Algarve but the race still suits versatile riders. An 18km flat time trial can create significant time gaps and the tiny climbers will suffer on the long, straight, windy roads along the coast. The TT will probably still be the most decisive stage of the race as it will take lots of riders out of winning contention and as Malhao is short and Foia not very steep, the gaps in the summit finishes won’t be overly big. Stages 1 and 4 are likely to be decided by the sprinters but they both have tricky finales with small climb, roundabouts and turns so it will be important to be attentive and avoid any splits. Then it will be decided in stages 2, 3 and 5 where the true stage race specialists will come to the fore. There will be time bonuses of 10, 6 and 4 seconds at the finishes and 3, 2 and 1 seconds in the intermediate sprints and they may also come into play in a race that is usually decided by small margins.

 

Alberto Contador is a former winner of this race but he came up short when he last did the race in 2014. Despite being in excellent condition that spring, he was not able to take back his losses to Michal Kwiatkowski in the time trial on the Alto do Malhao and he had to settle for second. However, the Portuguese race has been a happy hunting ground for the Spaniard as he has won on the Malhao twice and taken overall victory twice too.

 

It is no surprise that Contador has decided to start what could be his final season in the race that has started his most successful seasons and he will be eager to hit the ground running as he has always done. Contador is always at a competitive level and he has never finished this race outside the top 2. This year he can again be expected to be in great condition and maybe even stronger than he has been in the past. He has done nothing to hide that he is more motivated than ever before as he goes into what is likely to be his final season at the highest level. Everybody knows how meticulously the Spaniard can prepare himself and there is little doubt that he has been living like a monk this winter.

 

When the time trial played the biggest role, it was hard for Contador to win this race. It was not a major problem before his suspension as he was able to beat the best even in flat time trials. However, his time trialling has not been at the same level since he returned to competition and this was what cost him the victory in 2014.

 

However, Contador has again improved his time trialling massively and the TT he did at last year’s Giro was simply outstanding. With two important TTs in this year’s Tour, there is no doubt that he will have done a lot of training on his TT bike and the TT in this race will be an important test. Unfortunately, the course will be too flat for him though and we expect him to lose time to the likes of Geraint Thomas and Kwiatkowski.

 

However, Contador now has an extra chance to gain time in the mountains and even though Alto da Foia is not very difficult, he should be able to distance the time triallists there. Furthermore, he is the big favourite to win on the Alto do Malhao. The time gains may not be very big but by winning both stages he will also pick up 20 important bonus seconds. We expect Contador to be the best climber in this race and the harder course gives him his best ever chance to win the race. It all comes down to whether he can limit his losses in stage 3 but we think he will do well enough to take overall victory.

 

Geraint Thomas is back to defend his title and this year his focus is completely different. Last year he was mainly building condition for the classics but 2016 is all about stage racing. The Tour de France is the big goal but the week-long stages in the spring are very important tests for him. Algarve is his first small goal and he will do his utmost to defend his title.

 

Thomas was not at a high level at the Tour Down Under but he was still much better than he was 12 months earlier. Back then, he came up swinging in Algarve and we expect him to be even better his year. The time trial suits him really well and he should be able to beat Contador in that kind of flat test. He has improved his climbing massively too and he proved in the Tour de France and Paris-Nice that he can be up there with the best. Alto da Foia suits him well but Alto do Malhao is probably a bit too steep and explosive for him. He is likely to lose a bit of time to Contador in those two stages but he won’t be far off the mark. If he can do one of his best TTs, he will be hard to beat in this race.

 

Thomas will share leadership with Michal Kwiatkowski who won this race in his magical 2014 season. Last year he came up short but he was still second overall. In general, 2015 was a bad season and he failed to find his 2014 level. However, his performance at the Challenge Mallorca where he was second in the two hardest races indicates that he has returned to his best level after having joined Sky.

 

At his best, Kwiatkowski is a great time triallist, especially on such a short distance, and the technical first part suits him down to the ground. He has beaten Contador here in the past. Furthermore, the Alto do Malhao is a short, explosive climb that is suited to his skills as a classics rider and he won’t lose much time there. The big challenge will be the longer climb of Foia as he has suffered on the long ascents in the past. However, last year’s Paris-Nice proved that he is now able to defend himself on a climb like this one which is not too steep. If Sky have even managed to improve his level, we could see an even stronger Kwiatkowski than we did in 2014 and then he could very well win this race again.

 

Ion Izagirre is targeting week-long stage races this year and he will get several chances to lead Movistar. One of them comes in Algarve after he rode to an excellent fourth place in Valencia where he would definitely have been second if he hadn’t crashed in the time trial. He may even have won that TT which proves that his form is excellent.

 

The course in Algarve doesn’t suit him as well though. The climbs are good for him as he can both do well on short, explosive ones and the longer, more gradual Foia ascent but the time trial doesn’t suit him as well as the one in Valencia. While he can often go for victory in the hilly TTs, he has a much harder time on the flat course and he is probably not strong enough to match the likes of Thomas and Kwiatkowski in stage 3. However, he may be climbing better than both of them so he has a realistic shot at victory.

 

Rigoberto Uran is making his Cannondale debut in this race and so no one knows how well he is going. However, he has usually been very strong at the start of the year and this is a race that suits him really well. In 2014 he was time trialling at an excellent level, even on flat courses, but he was not at the same level in 2015. It remains to be seen whether he can find his best legs back but if so he should be able to gain time on most in the TTs. He is one of the best climbers in this race and has the speed to do well on a punchy climb and on a relatively gentle climb where sprinting skills can come into play. This makes him a dangerous contender.

 

Astana go into this race with a formidable team led by Fabio Aru but it will be hard for the Italian to win on a course that includes a very important flat time trial. Instead, the team will probably have a better chance with Luis Leon Sanchez who is riding better than he has done for several years. He was second in Valencia where he was second in the time trial and defied expectations by limiting his losses on the very steep Xorret de Cati climb. The climbs in Algarve are less steep and suit him a lot better and he should be among the best in the time trial. If he can be close to the win on stage 3, he may limit his losses sufficiently on the climbs.

 

Ilnur Zakarin was flying in the spring of 2015 but he failed to be at the same level in the second half of the year. Hence, there has been some uncertainly about his ability to reach the same lofty heights in 2016 but based on his performance at the Vuelta a Murcia he is on track. He was with the best on the final climb and after attacking in the finale, he still had the legs to sprint to third. He is a both a very good time triallist and a strong climber so this race suits him. Unfortunately, the time trial is too flat for him though so an overall win is unlikely but the podium is within his reach.

 

Tanel Kangert also showed very good form in Murcia and this puts him in a position to do well here. A few years ago he did some very good time trials but he has not been at the same level since then. However, he remains one of the best time triallists in this race and even though he would have preferred a longer, hillier course he should be able to do well in stage 3. Then it will all be about limiting his losses on the climbs.

 

Thibaut Pinot has improved his time trialling massively and he has been flying right from the start of the season. He was second in the Etoile de Besseges TT and second in Marseille so there is no doubt that his form is excellent. He will be one of the big favourites for the two climbing stages but it will be difficult for him to win overall. He may have improved his time trialling a lot but this course is too flat for him.

 

Fabio Aru is in a very similar position. He surprised himself by being much stronger than expect in Valencia and this means that he will be one of the big favourites for the two hilly stages. However, he did a relatively poor time trial in the Spanish race and this course suits him a lot less. The climbs are not hard enough for him to gain back enough time to win overall.

 

Katusha have Joaquim Rodriguez in this race but he is far from his best condition and has no chance on this course. Instead, the team will turn its attention to Rein Taaramae. The Estonian was flying in the autumn of 2015 when he finally proved that his excellent performances in the early part of his career were no fluke. Unfortunately, he was not at the same level in Australia and doesn’t seem to be at his best level yet. He is likely to have improved though and he should be much better here. He is a decent time triallist but not enough of a specialist to win overall. However, if he climbs like he did in Burgos last year, the podium will be within reach.

 

Finally, Tony Gallopin deserves a mention. The Frenchman is not fully focused on GC in this race but won’t lose time deliberately. A short climb like Malhao suits him really well and in last year’s Tour he proved that he can be up there on the longer climbs too. His form is very good as he proved with his second place in Besseges and he can defend himself well in a time trial. He won’t win the race overall but he could be a contender for the top places.

 

UPDATE: Michal Kwiatkowski won't take the start

 

***** Alberto Contador

**** Geraint Thomas, Michal Kwiatkowski

*** Ion Izagirre, Rigoberto Uran, Luis Leon Sanchez

** Ilnur Zakarin, Tanel Kangert,  Thibaut Pinot, Fabio Aru, Rein Taaramae, Tony Gallopin

* Tony Martin, Robert Gesink, Tiago Machado, Dario Cataldo, Diego Rosa, Steve Morabito, Nelson Oliveira

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