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Algarve, Ruta del Sol provide early season tests

Two overlapping stage races in Spain and Portugal this week provide the season’s first glimpse, on European roads, of how the top hitters are stacking up coming into the 2016 season.

The Volta ao Algarve in Portugal and the Ruta del Sol in Spain (both February 17-21) are attracting quality fields, with sprinters, time trialists, and GC specialists across both events primed to race for results and measure up against rivals they will face in the coming months.

Algarve is the season debut for Alberto Contador (Tinkoff), Fabio Aru (Astana), and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), while Ruta del Sol is drawing Volta a Valenciana winner Wout Poels (Sky), Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).

The racing is on, and teams and riders are taking the early season races very seriously.

“It’s always good for the confidence to get some strong results early in the season,” said Giant-Alpecin’s Simon Geschke, who raced at the Santos Tour Down Under, and lines up at Ruta del Sol. “My first major goals are the Ardennes, but it’s important to try to win every chance you get.”

The WorldTour kicked off in Australia with the Santos Tour Down Under. But this week confirms that the European racing calendar is kicking fully into gear as the peloton’s Middle Eastern swing winds down with Tour of Oman. The French and Italian calendars have already opened, and the Belgian season begins at the end of the month with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.

Many begin this week with an eye on those two Belgian semi-classics — and they will be racing hard. Lotto – Soudal, Etixx – Quick–Step, and LottoNL – Jumbo are among several teams bringing their classics heavy hitters to the undulating Algarve race.

“This race is a preparation on the spring classics, but we won’t ride in the back of the peloton,” said Lotto DS Herman Frison in a team release. “We see two sprint possibilities, and we’ll go for the victory with André Greipel or with Jens Debusschere in those stages.”

Long gone are the days when riders and teams used races simply as preparation. The stakes are too high, and the level too intense, to simply pedal easy in the bunch. A few of the top favorites might be a touch off their best form, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be racing to win.

A glance at the early results in Europe confirms the stars are coming out swinging in 2016. Pinot already has a pair of podiums after racing in France while Trek-Segafredo’s Fabian Cancellara won a day at the Mallorca Challenge. Contador won the Algarve before, and last year went mano-a-mano against Sky’s Chris Froome at Ruta del Sol, so expect the “Pistolero” to be racing to win in Algarve. Froome, who won his season debut at the Herald Sun Tour earlier this month in Australia, won’t be back in the saddle until Volta a Catalunya, but Sky is hoping to continue its hot start to 2016 at the five-stage Ruta. In addition to Froome’s win, Poels won two stages and the overall at the Volta a Valenciana, and Sergio Henao, racing at Algarve this week, was third overall at the Tour Down Under.

“Froomey won this race last year, so there are big shoes for me to fill,” Poels told TeamSky.com. “But I am pleased with my own form, the team is full of confidence, and we will be doing everything we can to keep our momentum going.”

Algarve and Ruta del Sol have established themselves nicely on the early season calendar. Both races typically are blessed with mild weather and offer a good mix of terrain to keep things interesting. And more so this year, some teams bypassed the Middle East tour entirely, staying planted in Spain for early season training camps mixed with select races.

It’s a shame, at least for fans, that both events are held at the same time, but neither wants to move from their spot on the calendar. Ruta del Sol slots in nicely behind a revived Spanish calendar in February, which now runs every weekend across the entire month. Algarve could move a week later, giving teams a solid string of five weeks of consecutive racing on the Iberian peninsula, but that would knock them up against the Belgian one-days, so organizers say they’re happy where they are.

There’s certainly plenty to keep teams and riders busy in both races.

Volta ao Algarve

Marcel Kittel (Etixx — Quick–Step) will be hoping to pick up his winning start from the Dubai Tour, where he won two convincing sprints as well as the overall. Looking trimmer than ever, Kittel will lock horns with compatriot Greipel in the mass sprints. Wouter Wippert (Cannondale), Edward Theuns (Trek — Segafredo), Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL — Jumbo), JJ Rojas (Movistar), and Heinrich Haussler (IAM) will be trying to elbow in for a win in stages 1 and 4. Stage 3 is one of the season’s first chances for riders to test their improvements against the clock in an 18km ITT. Stage 2 is a hilly stage with an uphill sprint that could cause splits in the GC, while the final day’s summit finish at Malhao will settle the overall.

The presence of Contador, Aru, Tony Martin (Etixx — Quick–Step), Rigoberto Urán (Cannondale), Pinot, Robert Gesink (LottoNL—Jumbo), Ion Izagirre (Movistar), and Julian Arredondo (Trek — Segafredo) will make for a close GC battle.

Ruta del Sol

Even without Froome or Contador, the Ruta del Sol boasts a solid field. Giro-bound Valverde, a winner three years in a row from 2012-14, will be the top favorite. Nipping at his heels will be Rafal Majka and Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff), Bauke Mollema (Trek — Segafredo), Geschke, Jerome Coppel (IAM), Wilco Kelderman (LottoNL — Jumbo), van Garderen, and Dani Navarro (Cofidis).

There are plenty of fast men to challenge for the sprints, including Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), still winless this season, Ben Swift (Sky), Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing), a winner Saturday at Murcia, Filippo Pozzato (Southeast), Juan José Lobato (Movistar), a winner of a stage at Dubai, Kristian Sbaragli (Dimension Data), and Carlos Barbero (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA). Bryan Coquard (Direct Energy) crashed in training Tuesday, breaking his scapula, and will not start. Sprinters should have their chances in stages 1 and 3, while stage 2 is a hilly, challenging stage that favors climbers with a fast kick.

The GC will be wrapped up in the closing two stages. Like Algarve, the Ruta features a time trial to blow out the cobwebs. Saturday’s TT is 21km long, but sees a brutally steep climb at Camino de Comendador with ramps at 15 percent. Sunday’s finale is a climber’s delight, with one category 3 and two category 2 climbs before the final climb to Peñas Blancas, some 16km with an average grade of six percent. That’s not Alpe d’Huez steep, but it might feel that way in mid-February.

Some teams are doubling up, racing both events, such as Team Sky.

“We have had a great start to the season and that has spread confidence throughout the group,” said Sky sport director Gabriel Rasch. “We have selected strong teams for both races but we are taking nothing for granted. These are both tough races with tough competition. They will help give us another indication of where we are at as we approach the classics.”