Last week, Chris posed the question "When does the season start?" and named two possible races in answer. I disagree. To my mind, cycling starts in earnest in the Spanish community of Andalucia. The race: The Ruta del Sol. It is where the mountains begin in earnest, and for all fans of stage races, it's not to be missed.
The list of winners is prestigious, including Tour de France points winners Freddy Maertens and Erik Zabel...When it was flat. More recently it has been the almost uncontested domain of Spanish climber Alejandro Valverde, winning by a handful of seconds in 2012 and 2013, but by a margin of half a minute last year, with only short climbs to exert his authority on.
Despite his dominance here, Valverde has moved on to pastures new for the week, and will be riding in Oman. His Movistar team originally meant to send Giro champion Nairo Quintana, but he is still recovering from a crash at the Colombian nationals.
So Who'll Inherit His Title?
The headline of this race is that arguably the two best stage racers in the world, Alberto Contador and Christopher Froome have abandoned their usually preferred races of the Volta ao Algarve and the Tour of Oman, to race here against each other. Froome is also bringing a particularly strong team, with Grand Tour top 5 finisher Nicolas Roche, top climber Mikel Nieve, and British champion Peter Kennaugh. Contador's support is slightly weaker, but he traditionally needs less, bringing the fading, but still there or thereabouts Ivan Basso and Danish champion Michael Valgren Andersen. Also here is a strong Trek Factory Racing outfit, bringing last year's Tour top 10 finishers Bauke Mollema and Haimar Zubeldia, along with Frank Schleck. Also here, Laurens Ten Dam and Wilco Kelderman, from new Yellow Lotto, Jurgen Van den Broeck, from Red Lotto, AG2R's Jean-Christophe Peraud and Romain Bardet and Pierre Rolland.
And the Sprints?
Number of flat sprints in the Ruta del Sol = 0. Stage 1a has a third category climb 10 km from the end, and a rise to the line, stage 2 has a climb 8 km from the finish, and there is a definite rise to the line on stage 5. This is hardly conducive to all the sprinters flocking to Andalucia. MTN have too many sprinters to not send some here, in Ciolek and Farrar, but the guys who should be raising his arms will be Vuelta green jersey John Degenkolb, Juan José Lobato and Moreno Hofland, of LottoNL Jumbo.
So What are The Parcours Like?
There's a reason so many GC riders have flocked here. Unlike Oman, with its annual slog up Jabal al Akhdhar, and Algarve, which always finishes on Alto de Malhao, this race tends to move about, and this is its toughest parcours yet.
Wednesday 18th February: Stage 1A: La Rábida - Hinojos (121 km)
1A? Split stages again? Are we back in 1978? This is short though, but the third category climb with 10 to go looks dangerous for the sprinters. Degenkolb should get over it easily though, frankly, it should help him. Lobato may provide a challenge, but he should do it.
Why you should watch it: You can't, at least not live. There'll probably be a short highlights reel before stage 1a.
Who will win: John Degenkolb
Stage 1B: Coria del Rio (8.2 km ITT)
Short TT similar to that one in the Dauphiné last year. There's a couple of short climbs, rising 30 metres, but mostly flat. Valverde won the TTs for the last two years, before crushing the overall, and 10 to 20 seconds can be lost or gained here. None of the big TT specialists are here, so the stage should go to a GC contender like Froome, or one of the lesser specialists such as Jungels or Chavanel.
Why you should watch it: Prologues are always fun, and a good gauge of form ahead of the big racing.
Who will win: Chris Froome
Thursday 19th February: Stage 2: Utrera - Lucena: (194.7 km)
Another 'flat' stage, with a long climb peaking at 8 km from the finish, which could be an ideal time to test the legs. Degenkolb could hang on, but is it likely? No. A break is unlikely too, the GC riders won't want anyone gaining time on them. Most likely, someone will attack near the top of the climb and hold their advantage, maybe 10 seconds.
Why you should watch it: You can't, Eurosport is showing the Triathlon Challenge Bahrain, with deferred coverage. Anyway, the last half hour should be quite exciting, it would be a good win for an opportunist and there should be plenty of attacks.
Who will win: Simon Geschke? I don't know.
Friday 20th February: Stage 3: Motril - Alto de Hazallanas (159.8 km)
This race usually has a tendency towards short climbs, but not this year, oh no. The profile is misleading, when you see the last climb, think this.
The Alto de Hazallanas is an incredibly tough climb, averaging 7%, but it starts out easily, and there's then a steep descent. The main part of the climb is 6 kilometres averaging closer to twelve. It has been used once in the Vuelta, where Chris Horner totally dominated, winning from Nibali by 48 seconds. It will be a fascinating battleground between the GC riders. Christopher Froome tends to be slightly sharper than Contador at this time of year, so he should just edge it.
Why you should watch it: Erm...take one look at that mountain.
Who will win: Chris Froome
Saturday 21st February: Stage 4: Maracena - Alto de Allanadas (199.8 km)
This stage involves a very steep, previously unused climb, Alto de Allanadas averages 9.6 percent, but is very irregular, with sections at up to 21%. A real slog. The climb reminds me of stage 14 of the Vuelta, when everyone only had enough for one acceleration, and Froome was smart, originally getting dropped, but mororing up to the leaders and gaining time. This could be quite unpredictable. Early attacks in all likelihood won't work.
Why you should watch it: You can't. Nordic Skiing and snooker this time. An hours deferred coverage. It's a steep mountain, guaranteed fireworks.
Who will win: Froome again.
Sunday 22nd February: Stage 5: Montillla - Alhaurin de la Torre (169.8 km)
Another mostly flat stage. However, there's another surprise at the finish, where the road rises 75 metres in 3 kilometres. Degenkolb may win again, he had a similar victory in Dubai.
Why you should watch it: Superbikes and Nordic Skiing take preference. Highlights at 5.45.
Who will win: John Degenkolb.
Froome may dominate this as Valverde did last year, winning the TT and the mountain stages, but it's far from a foregone conclusion. If Alberto Contador is on form, as he was at this time last year, he has the capacity to beat Froome in all three. Froome is the narrow favourite however. The battle for third place is probably headed by Bauke Mollema, who took second in the Vuelta a Murcia on Saturday. However, Wilco Kelderman is more dangerous for the mountain stages, and could attack early. Jean-Christophe Peraud will also be there or thereabouts.
- Christopher Froome
- Alberto Contador
- Bauke Mollema