With both the Ruta Del Sol and Volta ao Algarve kicking off tomorrow, it looks as though I’ll fall one short of an Oman/Andalucia/Algarve preview hat-trick. Whilst Ruta Del Sol boasts a week of hard racing in Spain’s most southern region, the Volta ao Algarve will be the more open race.
Both races tackle some steep ramps of southern Europe and are successful at attracting leading riders for a February showdown. The Ruta Del Sol (much like La Fleche) has been suffering from a case of ‘The Valverdes’ over the last five years with El Bala taking four outright victories. The Algarve is kinder on non-climbers and has a roll of honour including Tony Martin and Michal Kwiatkowski. Here are my quick picks for Portugal’s most popular race.
Despite lacking a standout climb the race’s two summit finishes will ask questions of the time trial specialists who start as the bookies favourites. Friday’s 18km ITT has lured a whole host of strongmen to the race and last year’s breakout time triallist Primoz Roglic heads the betting. However, I’ll be hoping for some action on the Alto de Foia and will be opposing the Slovenian.
The Winner – Luis Leon Sanchez 6/1
It’s all too easy to be attracted to the fact he won the Queen Stage last year but I really fancy Luis Leon Sanchez for the win. Since joining Astana, Sanchez has been on a rollercoaster of form. There’s been plenty of good races and flashes of the rider who won four Tour de France stages in five years, but also a fair share of missed chances and a lack of leadership opportunities. However, no matter what, LL Sanchez remains a talented bike rider able to win on hard mountain passes as well as rolling time trials. After crashing out last year I have no doubt he’ll return as a protected rider.
The Contender – Tony Gallopin 14/1
After going with the favourites in Oman, it’s time for some bolder shouts starting with Tony Gallopin. The Frenchman is carrying some form from Etoile de Besseges where he was prominent throughout and won the ITT from a mediocre field. He’ll need something special to repeat that result on the Algarve time trial but I’m expecting him to climb well throughout the week and avoid any serious deficits. He might even have what it takes to grab a stage win and deal some damage of his own. Lotto also bring the multitalented Tiesj Benoot which could interfere with Gallopin’s challenge and put my selection out of contention. Let’s hope not.
The Outsider – Jonathan Castroviejo 10/1
I’m aware my ‘Outsider’ is shorter odds than Gallopin but I wrote this preview before SkyBet put their odds up. What a rider Jonathan Castroviejo has become. Previously the Spaniard was a hardworking time triallist asked to do much of Alejandro Valverde’s bidding on various flat and hilly stages. However, after being in talented company for a number of years the powerful Spaniard has honed his climbing abilities as showcased superbly when acting as a mountain worker at last year’s Vuelta a Espana. He topped of a brilliant year with a podium in the World Championship ITT which puts him in good stead for the Algarve. I can’t see anybody in the Movistar line up more worthy of leadership.
Look Out For – Cavendish, Gaviria and Dan Martin
Beneath a mixed and unpredictable startlist lie a number of familiar sprinters. Mark Cavendish will be looking to get his first win of the season after struggling to find his best legs in a frustrating stint in Dubai. He’ll meet with John Degenkolb and Dylan Groenewegen once again but this time Fernando Gaviria enters the battle for Quick-Step Floors. The Colombian is a phenomenal talent and has already collected two easy victories this season at the Vuelta San Juan.
Dan Martin is arguably the finest climber in the race but is expected to suffer on the 18km time trial. There probably aren’t enough upward roads for the Irishman to seize control of the race but he can go well at this time of year and I expect him to be one of the first attackers on the finale of Stage 2.
Stage Previews in Seven Words
Stage 1: A sprinter will take the leader’s jersey
Stage 2: Tough summit finish should split the contenders
Stage 3: Flat time trial will punish the climbers
Stage 4: Long day to the Portuguese coast. Sprint.
Stage 5: Deceptively tough finale will decide the GC