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Will Alejandro Valverde open his 2016 account in his home race?

Photo: Movistar Team




13.02.2016 @ 11:27 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

After the Challenge Mallorca and Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, the great early-season calendar in Spain continues with a busy week that includes two one-day races and a stage race. Before we get to the stage racing in Andalucia, some of the riders will test themselves in a pair of one-day races over the weekend and first it will be the climbers who get the chance to shine when they tackle the mountainous terrain of the Vuelta a Murcia on Saturday.


The Vuelta a Murcia was once one of the many five-day stage races that were spread out across the cycling calendar and made the Spanish cycling scene one of the richest. In recent years, however, the poor economy in one of cycling’s traditional key countries has seen several races disappear and nowadays even WorldTour races likes the Volta a Catalunya and the Vuelta al Pais Vasco are fighting hard just to survive.


The Vuelta a Murcia is one of the select few that have not disappeared from the calendar but it is no longer the race it once was. First it was scaled down to a three-stage race but two years ago the organizers had to abandon the stage race concept as their financial situation only allowed one day of racing. Keeping with the mountainous tradition of the Spanish race, they designed a hilly course for the race and in the first three years as a Spanish classic, it has been won by climbers Daniel Navarro, Alejandro Valverde and Rein Taaramae who have excelled in the tough uphill finish.


While it was still a stage race, it was held in early March where it offered an alternative to Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico. After having been reduced to a one-day race, it has teamed up with the Clasica de Almeria to form a solid weekend of racing in Spain. Until last year, they were held after the Vuelta a Andalucia – the only survivor among the early-season Spanish stage races – but now the two events have been moved to the weekend prior to the Andalusian race, thus making it a perfect warm-up for the main event of the early Spanish calendar.


Last year Rein Taaramae delivered a fantastic ride to escape on the penultimate climb and hold off the peloton. Bauke Mollema beat Zdenek Stybar in the uphill sprint for second.


The course

After two years with an almost identical course that included a tough uphill finish on Alto Fortalezo del Sol, the organizers have decided to change the route completely and it will be a different race in 2016. This year there will be no summit finish and even though it still includes the region’s landmark climb of Alto del Collado Bermejo, the race will be less selective and speed will be more important than it has been in the past.


The main change is that the finish has been moved to the main city of Murcia and the course will now bring the riders over 199.3km from the start in San Javier on the coast to the largest city in the area. After tackling a small loop, the riders will head inland right from the start as they travel along flat roads until they get to the hillier part of the area around the midpoint of the race.


The climbing starts just after the feed zone at the 99.5km mark when they tackle the category 3 Alto de Aledo (7.6km, 4.1%). Just 4.7km after the top, a slightly ascending section has led them to the bottom of the famous category 1 climb Alto Collado Bermejo (7.5km, 5.3%) which is the hardest challenge of the race.


The summit is located 80km from the finish and is followed by 20km of descending and then roads that are slightly downhill until just 20km remain


Instead of heading straight to the finish in Murcia, the riders will do tackle the well-known circuit that has been used in several recent editions of Vuelta a Espana stages. It sees them go up the category 3 Alto Cresta del Gallo (4.4km, 7.2%) whose summit is located just 13.1km from the finish. It is followed by a technical descent and then a long, straight road that leads to the center of Murcia. Inside the final 2km, there are just two turns and the finishing straight is 1km long and completely flat.


The finale with the Alto del la Cresta del Gallo was used in both the 2010 and 2009 editions of the Vuelta but back then they only did the climb once. In 2010, it came down to a reduced bunch sprint where Thor Hushovd beat Daniele Bennati and Grega Bole while a breakaway decided the stage in 2009. Simon Gerrans, Ryder Hesjedal, Jakob Fuglsang and Alexandre Vinokourov dropped their companions on the climb and it was the Australian who took his only Vuelta stage victory in the four-rider sprint. It was back on the course last year when Jasper Stuyven won a reduced bunch sprint after Peter Sagan had famously been run down by a motorcycle.




The weather

The great conditions that have marked most of the first part of the year, will continue on Saturday as the riders can expect a mostly sunny sky and a maximum temperature of 23 degrees. It will be relatively windy, with a moderate wind blowing from a westerly direction. This means that the riders will have a headwind in the first part of the race and then a tailwind. In the finale, there will be a cross-headwind on the climb and the descent and a crosswind in the flat section that leads to the finish. After a short headwind section, there will be a crosswind on the finishing straight.


The favourites

After three years with the same finish, the riders had got a taste of the uphill finale and knew which kind of riders excelled in the Vuelta a Murcia. It was a race for puncheurs who thrived on the gentle slopes of the finishing straight but it also allowed riders to take solo wins on two of the three occasions.


This year the finale is a new one but it is not an unknown. It has been used thrice in the Vuelta a Espana, most recently last year. Those stages give an indication of what to expect. Apart from a breakaway win, they have been decided in reduced bunch sprints and it has been possible for the strongest sprinters to survive the Cresta del Gallo.


However, this one-day race is still a different kettle of fish. First of all the riders will face the Collado Bermejo earlier in the race and this will make it a lot harder. Furthermore, the best climbers are now going for the win which was not the case in the Vuelta where they just wanted to stay safe. This means that they will ride a lot more aggressively on the climbs and try to make the race as tough as possible. This will make it much harder for the sprinters to survive and you need to be a very good climber to be in contention for the victory.


Three teams go into the race with formidable line-ups. Astana, Movistar and BMC almost field rosters that are purely made up of potential winners of the race. They have the teams to dictate proceedings and that’s probably what they will do.


Movistar have Alejandro Valverde at the start and he is riding on home soil. As they are the big home teams, they will probably have to control the early break after what is likely to have been a very aggressive start. BMC clearly also want to win the race so they are likely to join forces with the Spanish team.


The first key point is the Collado Bermejo. Movistar and Astana want the race to be as hard as possible and they will probably set a fast tempo. Furthermore, we are likely to see attacks. As said, the three big teams have multiple potential winners and if the right group of strong climbers get clear, they have a decent chance of staying away to the finish.


However, Movistar will probably go all in for Valverde so they are likely to chase. That means that it will come down to a battle on the Alto del Cresta del Gallo where the best climbers will make their moves. It’s not a very difficult climb so a small group of favourites is likely to emerge. The descent can be used to make attacks but as Movistar and BMC are likely to have strength in numbers and have fast finishers, we expect it to come down to a sprint from a small group.


It’s February 13 and Alejandro Valverde has still not won a race. That’s very unusual and he will love to open his account in his home region. He wasn’t at his usual level in Mallorca which is no big surprise as he is aiming for the Giro and the Olympics and deliberately has a slower start.


However, Valverde is a very classy bike rider and he simply can’t hold the condition back. We expect him to be at a better level for this race and no one is going to drop him on the climbs. He is supported by a formidable team and he can rely on strong climbers Jesus Herrada, Ion Izagirre, Ruben Fernandez and Jose Joaquin Rojas to control the race. The latter is likely to be on hand to make the lead-out and Valverde has proved that he is very fast in a small group sprint. It is time for Valverde to open his account and he is our favourite to win the race.


However, it is not a given thing that Movistar will be riding for Valverde. It is also the home race for Jose Joaquin Rojas and it could be a chance for Valverde to pay back his teammate. Rojas is constantly getting better on the climbs and he showed that at the Tour Down Under. There is a solid chance that he will survive the climb and then Valverde may do the lead-out for his teammate who has the chance to get a rare victory.


BMC have a strong team and have good climbers to mark the attacks but they will probably mainly be riding for Philippe Gilbert. The Belgian was not impressive in Dubai but the climbing here is not overly hard. He is likely to make it to the top of the Cresta del Gallo with the best and he is fast in a sprint from a small group. Valverde has often proved that he is faster than Gilbert but the difference is minimal and it definitely won’t be impossible for the Belgian to come out on top.


Sylvain Chavanel claims that it takes time for his diesel engine to get going but that was not evident in the Etoile de Besseges where he rode strongly throughout the entire race. He crowned his performance with a stage win in the hardest stage where he won a sprint against very fast riders like Tony Gallopin and Arthur Vichot. The climbing in Murcia is harder and it could be a bit too much for him at this time of the year. However, if he is there in the finale, he has the speed to win.


Astana will probably try to avoid a sprint against Valverde and Gilbert but if it comes down to a final dash to the line, they will be riding for home rider Luis Leon Sanchez. The big Astana rider was impressive in Valencia where he did really well on the Xorret del Cati climb which is too steep for him. This proves that his form is good. He is not as fast as Valverde and Gilbert but he has a decent turn of speed and may also try to surprise the favourite by launching an attack in the finale.


CCC go into the race with Maciej Paterski who is aiming for classics success this year. He was sixth last year and the new course should suit him well. The climbing could be too hard for him as he didn’t show very good condition in Murcia but if he can survive, he will be a contender in the sprint.


Carlos Barbero also deserves a mention. The Caja Rural rider is one of the fastest in the race and he showed good form in Marseille. Unfortunately, he crashed out in Besseges and it remains to be seen whether he has recovered. Furthermore, the climbing will probably be too hard for him so we don’t expect him to be there but if he is, he has a short.


As said, a breakaway has a chance if it includes riders from Astana, BMC and Movistar. In that case, look out for riders like Jesus Herrada, Paolo Tiralongo, Alexey Lutsenko, Dario Cataldo, Damiano Caruso, Ben Hermans and Samuel Sanchez who are all good climbers and can finish it off in a sprint


Ilnur Zakarin will be making his debut and will be Katusha’s best card. He will probably try to attack and he is both strong on the flats and the climbs and has a reasonably fast sprint. Alexei Tsatevich will also try to hang on. He showed good form in Cadel Evans’ race but the climbing here is probably too much.


For other riders that can mix it up in the breakaway, keep an eye on Paul Voss, Silvio Herklotz, Egor Silin, Nicolas Edet, and Luis Angel Mate. Michel Kreder and Romain Hardy can play a role in a sprint finish.


***** Alejandro Valverde

**** Jose Joaquin Rojas, Philippe Gilbert

*** Sylvain Chavanel, Luis Leon Sanchez, Maciej Paterski

** Jesus Herrada, Paolo Tiralongo, Damiano Caruso, Ben Hermans, Carlos Barbero, Ilnur Zakarin

* Dario Cataldo, Alexey Lutsenko, Alexei Tsatevich, Paul Voss, Michel Kreder, Nicolas Edet



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