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This turns around the table and makes Porte the favourite to take his first big stage race win of the season. The Australian is an excellent time trialist and even though he is not perfectly suited  to the short, technical course, he w...

Photo: Sirotti


18.02.2014 @ 12:09 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 Andalusia for the Ruta del Sol which offers five days of mountainous racing under usually sunny conditions and has attracted a star-studded line-up for its 60th edition.


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 that 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 while the French races have all been saved, the Spanish scene has been hit hard by the difficult times. The Vuelta a la Comunitat Valenciana no longer exists and the Vuelta a Murcia is now just a one-day race.


This leaves only one Spanish stage race in the early part of the season and it is one of only very few Spanish races that seems to thrive. While the race in Murcia and Vuelta a la Comunidad de Madrid are now one-dar races, several classic races like Settimana Catalana and Euskal Bizikleta have disappeared, the Vuelta a Asturias has been shortened, and the WorldTour Volta a Catalunya and Vuelta al Pais Vasco are all in a constant battle for survival but the Vuelta a Andalusia Ruta Ciclista del Sol remains as a perfect option for some early-season racing.


In fact, it is an impressive performance for the organizers to have kept the race afloat. Scheduled for the third week of February, it finds itself in fierce competition with the Tour of Oman, the Volta ao Algarve and the Tour du Haut-Var that all battle for the participation from the world's best riders. Nonetheless, the Andalusian race managed to go back to a 5-day format after having been briefly shortened to four days and even though the Omani race seems to have attracted most of the stars, the Spanish organizers have nothing to be ashamed of.


Spearheaded by double champion Alejandro Valverde and 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins, the start list includes names like Richie Porte, Michele Scarponi, Jakob Fuglsang, Maxime Monfort, Jelle Vanendert, Marcel Kittel, Haimar Zubeldia, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Bauke Mollema, Laurens Ten Dam, Daniel Navarro, Luis Leon Sanchez, Davide Rebellin, and Gerald Ciolek that are all ready to tackle the 5 days of racing under the sun in Southern Spain. The courses have been rather varying for the race, with some easier editions even having been won by sprinters, but in recent years it has been a rather mountainous affair and it is no wonder to see several strong stage race riders prefer the Spanish event.


Last year Alejandro Valverde continued a very strong start to the season when he won the opening prologue and the final stage to defend the title he had taken one year earlier. In a close battle with a host of the best grand tour riders in the world, he used a strong team that included Nairo Quintana to keep the race under control before benefiting from his strong sprint at the race finishes. He held off some of the best stage racers in the world, with Jurgen Van Den Broeck and Bauke Mollema taking the minor steps on the podium. While Van Den Broeck has preferred the Tour of Oman in 2014, Valverde and Mollema will both be back, with Valverde being very eager make it three in a row in one of the few surviving Spanish stage races.


The course

As said, the course for the Vuelta a Andalucia has had a rather varying nature. The Andalusian region has plenty of hilly terrain but at this time of the year, it is important not to make the races too long and too hard. Past editions have been rather easy, with riders like Oscar Freire, Pablo Lastras, Joost Posthuma and Markel Irizar having won editions without uphill finishes.


After Irizar's 2011 win, the organizers have made things a bit tougher by including a number of uphill finishes and while they are not overly hard, they have made the race more selective and reduced the importance of the opening prologue that traditionally kick starts the event. This trend will continue in 2014 when the riders will be challenged by two summit finishes in the early part of the race after having contested the traditional flat prologue. This makes it a race for the true stage racers who can both time trial and climb with the best riders in the world.



This year, the opening prologue will take place in Almerica and at 7.3km, it is a rather long one that could open some significant time gaps. It is a very technical affair that will offer limited opportunities for the specialists to get their big gears going and there will plenty of corners that require repeated accelerations.


From the start, the riders head along a straight road until they reach the technical section. The riders will make two turns in roundabouts before heading down to another roundabout where they will do a U-turn. Then it is time for two sharp corners and another U-turn that lead to a section that contains no less than 7 turns in just 1.1km. The final 2.2km are easier, with just a right-hand turn leading to the final three sharp corners just before the finish.


While the route is a technical affair, there is no reason to fear the level of climbing. From the start, the road ascends a bit while the second part is slightly downhill but the roads are generally flat. As said, the prologue is a rather common element in the race, with Alejandro Valverde, Patrick Gretsch, and Jimmy Engoulvent being the most recent winners. However, the course used for this year's edition is the longest in recent years and uses a course that has not been tested in previous editions of the race.




Stage 1:

The riders need to get their climbing legs up to speed right from the beginning as the first stage sends the riders from the coast in Velez Malaga over 186.8km into the hilly hinterland and a finish in Jaen. Right from the beginning, the riders head up the category 1 Puerto de Zaffaraya (11.1km, 5.7%) and from there, it is almost up and down all day, with very few flat metres along the way.


Two smaller category 3 climbs follow the opening ascent but the real finale kicks off with 50.1km to go when the riders hit the bottom of the category 2 Puerto de Locubin (8.6km, 4.8%). The 8.6km climb is followed by a short descent and the category 2 Puerto de Valdepeñas that is 3.5km long and has an average gradient of 7.6%. Then it is time for fast descent and a small uncategorized hill before the exciting finale.


The final 2.4km are all uphill with an average gradient of 6.7% but even though it is uphill all the way to the line, the KOM points will be awarded 300m from the finish. The climb is steepest at the bottom and has a flatter section at the midpoint before again ramping up with 600m to go. The final 1.1km are completely straight after the riders have negotiated a few turns inside between the 3 and 2km to go marks. The final climb is not overly difficult and will probably not open any time gaps between the key protagonists but will be the perfect opportunity for the powerful puncheurs to take an early stage win.




Stage 2:

The second day is the day of the queen stage that brings the riders over a 197.1km course from La Guardia de Jaen to the Sant. de la Sierra de Cabra. From the start the riders head in a southwestern direction in rolling terrain that contains no categorized climbs for the first 90km. The peloton now gets very close to the final climb as they reach the first two rather easy category 3 climbs of the day but instead of turning right onto the ascent, they make a loop on a flat circuit in the area west of the climb.


Having turned around and returned to the bottom of the final ascent, there is no longer no way to avoid the hostilities. The race ends with the 11.5km category 1 climb to the finish, 1190m above sea level. With an average gradient of 6.0%, it is not the hardest mountain in Spain but at this early time of the season, a climb of this length can do some serious damage. The final kilometre includes several turns, with the final hairpin bend coming just 100m from the line from where the road kicks up with 10% to the finish. This is the day for the climbers to take back the time they may have lost in the time trial and should be the scene for a very exciting battle.



Stage 3:

The sprinters have bided their time until now and they will get the reward for their suffering on the penultimate day. The 183.8km third stage brings the riders from Sanlucar la Mayor to Sevilla and consists of a big loop around one of the major cities in the region. The starting city is located just a few kilometres west from Sevilla and from there the riders do a big loop in the region northwest of the city.


The roads are almost entirely flat, with just two small category 3 climbs at the midpoint disrupting the monotonous terrain and there is no chance that the sprinters will miss this opportunity. The final is rather straightforward, with the final 3km only containing some sweeping turns and a roundabout 800m from the finish. The road is completely flat, setting the scene for a high-speed sprint in Sevilla.




Stage 4:

The sprinters could potentially get another opportunityon the final day but to get the chance to unleash their impressive burst of speed they will need to overcome some serious climbing during the 159.8km stage from Unrique to Fuengirola. Right from the start, the riders head up the 10.6km category 1 climb (6.3% average gradient) that will make for a very tough start to the stage.


Having crested the summit, the riders will tackle a long descent that is followed by some rolling terrain that contains both a category 3 (3.4km, 4.6%) and a category 2 climb (6.8km, 3.8%). From the top of the latter, 57.6km remain and the riders now start a long downhill run to the coast and the finish in Fuengirola. 28km from the finish, a small uncategorized climb (2.8km, 5.3%) provides one final challenge for the sprinters before the final downhill run to the line. The finale is not overly technical but there are several roundabouts inside the final 3km.The final one comes 1.2km from the finish and leads to the final 90-degree left-hand turn 700m from the line. From there, it is completely straight and flat all the way to the finish. It is hard to imagine that the stage will not be decided in some kind of sprint but there is certainly no guarantee that all the sprinters will have survived until this point.



The favourites

With two final stages set to be decided in a sprint and first stage unlikely to open any time gaps between the best riders, it will all come down to the opening prologue and the queen stage, with the time trialists trying to defend their advantage on the final climb of stage 2. As it traditional in Spanish stage races, there are no time bonuses on offer, meaning that a fast finisher like Alejandro Valverde cannot benefit from his fast finish to score a few extra seconds in the uphill sprint on stage one.


There may be a strong line-up in the race with several good stage race riders but the race really boils down to a battle between just three riders. Defending champion Alejandro Valverde is up against an impressive Sky team with several strong climbers and he will have to hold off the Sky duo of Richie Porte and Bradley Wiggins. Those three riders all have the capabilities to win the race and we will get a serious indication already on the opening day.


Valverde has won this race twice in a row and he would love to make the triple. Last year he laid the foundations for his overall win by taking the victory in the opening prologue before defending his lead in the mountain stages. This year his challenge is of a completely different nature as he is up against two of the best time trialists in the world.


This turns around the table and makes Porte the favourite to take his first big stage race win of the season. The Australian is an excellent time trialist and even though he is not perfectly suited  to the short, technical course, he will not be far away from the win.  He may mostly have excelled in longer time trials but last year's 4th in the Tour de Romandie prologue and win the Criterium International time trial are just the most recent examples of his abilities to handle shorter time trials as well.


Porte is likely to open up an advantage over Valverde on the opening day and from there it is a question of defending it all the way to the finish. The Australian showed that he is already in great condition at the Tour Down Under where he won the queen stage and even though he hasn't raced since, there is no doubt that he is riding well. He has done nothing to hide that he will do his best to defend his Paris-Nice title and with the French stage racing kicking off in early March, he cannot be too far away from his best form. Last year he proved that he is one of the best climbers in the world and this will make it very hard for anyone to drop him on Friday. Those versatile abilities may be enough for Porte to get his 2014 season off to the best possible start.


It will, however, be unwise to rule out a triple for Valverde. The Spaniard is one of the most consistent riders in the peloton and is always highly competitive. In 2014 it seems to be no different. The Dubai Tour had little climbing on offer but when the opportunity presented itself, Valverde launched a stinging solo attack, emerging as the strongest climber in the race. He may have been caught during the fast run-in to the line but it again underlined the fact that Valverde is always one of the strongest riders in the early part of the season.


If it had been a long time trial or a less technical one, Valverde would have had no chance against Porte. On this course, however, there is a great chance that Valverde will actually be able to beat his Australian rival. The Spaniard has always been an excellent prologue rider and he mainly excels on technical courses where he can uses his explosiveness and acceleration to get back up to speed quickly. It is no coincidence that he won last year's prologue and even though his prologue results have not been completely up to his pre-suspension level, he will not be far off the mark on the opening day. As his current condition will also allow to emerge as one of the strongest climbers in the race - he appears almost unbeatable in the uphill sprint on stage 1- he could again benefit from a good prologue and some splendid climbing to take a win in Andalusia.


Wiggins is the great question mark in this race. The Brit has claimed that he has had a perfect winter and that he wants to come out with all guns blazing like he did in 2012. We didn't get the chance to see his real level in his season debut in Mallorca where he played the role of loyal domestique, spending hours on the front of the peloton in support of Sergio Henao and Ben Swift.


The Vuelta a Andalusia offers him his first chance to shine and even though the opening prologue is too technical to suit him perfectly, he will be the man to beat on the opening day. Wiggins could very well find himself in the leader's jersey at the end of the prologue and then it will be a question of defending it in the mountains.


Wiggins' climbing level is very uncertain at the moment. After all, he hasn't been climbing with the best since last year's Giro and he even put on weight in his quest to become world time trial champion. With Paris-Roubaix being his first major target, he is probably a bit heavier than he was in his Tour de France heydays and even though he plans to return to stage racing in California and the Tour de France later in the year, he is unlikely to have been too focused on his climbing. We would be surprised if he is at the level of Porte and Valverde in the queen stage but don't rule out a Wiggins win. The final climb is not overly steep and suits him well and even if he loses a few seconds in the finale, his advantage from the time trial could be enough to win.


It is hard to imagine that the winner will not be one of the three major favourites but if anyone is in with a chance to make the surprise, it is Bauke Mollema. The Dutchman stepped up massively in 2013 when his performances in the Tour de Suisse and the Tour de France proved that he has developed into a truly versatile stage racer. Not only did he suddenly climb with the best on a regular basis, he also confirmed the upwards trajectory in the time trials.


This week's race is the first of the season for Mollema and so his condition is a bit uncertain. However, the Dutchman has always started his seasons at a high level and it is no coincidence that he finished on the podium in last year's race. The short, technical prologue should suit him well - last year he was 10th in the opening time trial and in 2012 he was 7th in the Romandie prologue - but he is likely to lose some time to the three big favourites. He needs to take that back in the mountains and it will be a difficult task. We doubt that he will win the race but his versatility could easily give him a spot on the final podium.


Astana lines up a strong roster that is led by Michele Scarponi and the Italian would love to start his career at his new team with a good result. Like Mollema and Valverde, Scarponi is usually riding well at this time of the year and there is no reason to believe that it should be any different this time around. The Italian had an unspectacular race season debut in the Tour de San Luis but that race is already a month away and his condition will only have improved.


At his best, Scarponi is an excellent climber and even though he has been unable to find back his 2011 level in the past two seasons, he rode at a consistently high level in 2013, with bad luck taking away several top 10 finishes in WorldTour stage races. There is no doubt that he will lose time in the prologue but in 2013 he actually improved massively in the race against the clock. He confirmed that progression with an exceptional showing in the San Luis time trial and even though it doesn't mean that he will suddenly win on the opening day, he should limit his losses more than he would have done in the past. It is probably not enough to win the race but he may end on the podium by virtue of his good climbing legs.


Scarponi's teammate Jakob Fuglsang will get few personal opportunities this year as he has been singled out as an important Tour de France domestique for Vincenzo Nibali. He has stated his intentions to go for stage wins in select races in the spring but the Andalusian race could give him the chance to return to the GC groove.


Fuglsang is a consistent rider who usually has a solid level right from the beginning. He showed indications of solid, yet unspectacular, form in Mallorca but he is one of the few riders that has the versatility to shine in this race. His TT skills have deteriorated massively in recent years as his climbing skills have progressed but the short, technical prologue should suit him. He will lose time to the best but if he can limit his losses, his form may be good enough to defend himself on the not overly difficult climb on the queen stage.


Veteran Haimar Zubeldia does not have a long list of good results from early-season races but this year he has got his season off to an unusually good start. He was climbing really well in the Tour de San Luis and did so again in the Dubai Tour where he had few chances to show his abilities.


When he broke through on the big scene, he did some very good prologues but in recent years his TTs have been far from his former level. He is likely to lose some time on Wednesday and this effectively rules out an overall win. However, his climbing skills will bring him far and he could very well end up high in the overall standings.


If we had written this preview a week ago, we would never have mentioned Thomas Degand as a potential podium candidate. The Wanty rider showed solid climbing skills some years ago but he had a terrible 2013 season where he failed to produce any kind of results. Nonetheless, he was one of the Accent riders who continued on the new Wanty team and the management has no reason to regret that decision.


In last week's Tour Mediteraneen, Degand was on fire. He finished 10th in the time trial despite not having shown any TT skills in the past and on the final stage to Mont Faron he found back the climbing legs he had some year ago. A 7th place finish was enough for him to end 6th on the GC, a result that is on par with his best stage race results from his glorious 2011 season. Degand will be eager to capitalize on his rich vein of form and is a very good top 5 candidate in this race. Compared to the Tour Med TT, the prologue is much less hilly and he will probably lose a good chunk of time. At his current level, however, his climbing legs should allow him to erase a lot of it on the queen stage.


Daniel Navarro will be making his racing debut in Andalusia and so his form is a bit uncertain. However, the Spaniard has made Paris-Nice his first big objective and this means that his level most be at a rather advanced state. That was the case 12 months ago when he finished 10th in Andalusia and went on to win the Vuelta a Murcia one-day race. Navarro is certainly no prologue specialist and he will lose a fair bit of time on the opening day. However, he is one of the best climbers in this race and if he can find his racing legs early this year, he could be a dangerous top 5 candidate.


Finally, we will mention Luis Leon Sanchez. The Spaniard had limited racing in 2013 due to his controversies with Belkin and had difficulty finding a new team. In the end, he signed with Caja Rural and started his season with a bang with a stage win and 2nd overall in the Tropicale Amissa Bongo. He showed good condition when he did his first European races in Mallorca and we had high expectations for him in the Tour Mediteraneen.


That race showed that he still has some work to do to get back to his former level. He could only manage 14th in the time trial and had a disastrous ride on the Mont Faron where he ended 50th. This suggests that his Andalusia race could easily end as another disappointment but it would be unwise to rule out Sanchez. His strong showing in Mallorca suggests that his form is not too far away and he is one of the select few who has the versatility to shine on this course. He is a very good time trialist and should perform well on the opening day. If his climbing legs have improved in time for the queen stage, don't be surprised to see Sanchez mix it up with the best on GC.


UPDATE: The reason for Sanchez' poor showing in France has been identified. The Spaniard was suffering from a stomach virus but will be at the start line in Andalusia. "[I arrive] with great enthusiasm, but since last Saturday I have suffered from a stomach virus and I don't really know how I will perform. I hope that I will improve.. We will see how it goes and how the body responds," Sanchez said.


***** Richie Porte

**** Alejandro Valverde, Bradley Wiggins

*** Julian Arredondo, Bauke Mollema , Michele Scarponi, Jakob Fuglsang

** Haimar Zubeldia, Thomas Degand, Daniel Navarro, Luis Leon Sanchez

* Davide Rebellin, Maxime Monfort, Tanel Kangert, Vasil Kiryienka, Geraint Thomas



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