Lotto Soudal's Tim Wellens returns to the Ruta del Sol on Wednesday as the defending champion, but having only recently recovered from illness, the Belgian has humbly said that taking the overall title is "less of a goal", and that the Spanish stage race will allow him to get back into a racing rhythm ahead of the spring Classics.
Wellens has already tasted victory this season, at the Trofeo Serra de Tramuntana – part of the Challenge Mallorca series – in early February, but was hit soon afterwards with a viral infection, which has kept him out of competition since.
"I'm fully recovered, but the illness has taken a bit longer than expected, and I could only resume training after a week of complete rest," Wellens said on the Lotto Soudal website.
"I'll start the Ruta del Sol in good shape, but I'll certainly feel that week without training," he said. "As I couldn't follow my planned training scheme, the Ruta del Sol is – in contrast to last year – less of a goal in itself. Of course, I'll go for the best possible result, but the kilometres in competition towards the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad are also a nice bonus."
He could tag on a little extra training to make up for what he's missed, too.
"If the stage schedule allows it, I'll do some post-race kilometres," Wellens said. "I'll target a nice place on the GC, but that goes hand in hand with good stage results."
The five-day race is tougher than ever in 2019, and may well suit the pure climbers such as Mitchelton-Scott's Adam Yates and recent overall winner of the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, Ion Izagirre (Astana), more than Wellens.
Stage 4, from Armilla to Granada in the Sierra Nevada mountains, could well decide the race, but even on that stage, Wellens is looking for possibilities.
"The first stage will immediately be important for the general classification. It finishes in Alcalá de los Gazules, where I won last year, so that will certainly bring up some nice memories," he said.
"The individual time trial will be crucial as well. I'm looking forward to my first race against the clock as I have been working on my time trial skills, and I hope those efforts will pay off.
"The penultimate stage includes a considerably long climb but – contrary to the pure climbers – the finish after a long descent suits me," Wellens said, almost dismissing the climbing to instead concentrate on the aspects of stage 4 that he can control.
"Most of the stages suit Tim," added Lotto Soudal sports director Bart Leysen. "The first stage finishes where he won last year, so he knows that specific finish really well. It's an adapted version, though, because the course in advance is totally different. Still, everything will become clear in those decisive two or three kilometres.
"The chances of a new overall win are real, but the situation now is totally different. Last year, Tim won the fourth stage and had to defend his leader's jersey against the clock on the closing day. This year, that time trial is not at the end but already on the third day, followed by the hardest stage. If Tim wins again in Alcalá de los Gazules [stage 1], we'll need to control the race over the next couple of days and try to maintain our lead until after day four.
"The Ruta del Sol is an excellent race to prepare for the spring Classics," confirmed Leysen. "Both the Flemish opening weekend and Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico are goals for us. But that doesn't mean that we're only going to Andalusia to prepare. Tim has taken stage victories here, as well as the general classification. Therefore, we're travelling to Spain with certain ambitions.
"With Tim as leader, the task division is quite easy. Two weeks ago, he still had a viral infection which caused him to miss the Etoile de Bessèges, but I expect that this won't be an issue anymore. The rest of the team supports him, although there will be days to show something themselves."