Despite running parallel to the Vuelta a Andalucia and the Tour of Oman, Portugal's Volta ao Algarve continues to draw impressive line-ups for five days of intense racing which this year feature two summit finishes and a flat, fast time trial.
Traditionally favoured by the sprinters, the modern Volta ao Algarve favours riders with fast uphill finishers like last year's winner Geraint Thomas and his new Team Sky teammate Michal Kwiatkowski. Grand Tour racers like Alberto Contador have regularly shone in the five-day stage race and it is no surprise the Spaniard begins what is almost certain to be his last season in the peloton on familiar roads.
Founded in 1960 but only raced continuously since 1977, Portuguese riders have dominated the bulk of the history of the event, with 26 local winners in its 42 editions. However, as the Volta ao Algarve has become increasingly international, the local stars have not shone so brightly and the last Portuguese winner was João Cabrera, exactly a decade ago in 2006.
For the Portuguese fans the Volta ao Algarve is one of the country's most emblematic and popular races but memories of the death of the country's greatest ever rider -Joaquim Agostinho, in the final stage of the 1984 race still linger. He was leading the race and in the finishing straight when a dog ran out into the road and caused the double Tour de France podium finisher and Alpe d'Huez winner to fall badly. He was seriously injured and died two days later, aged 41.
The big difference between this year's Volta ao Algarve and previous recent editions is the return of the Alto da Foia, the highest point in the region at 900 metres above sea level and last used in 2002, when the stage was won by Alex Zülle, by then in the twilight of his career.
Tackled on stage two, the Alto da Foia comes at the end of a 198 kilometre loop inland which following a flattish first section, tackles three third category climbs prior to the 7.5 kilometre final ascent. Rated second category and averaging 5.5 percent, the Alto da Foia is steady rather than excessively steep but it will certainly reveal the overall contenders prior to the stage three 18 kilometre individual time trial.
An out-and-back time trial route, starting and finishing in the town of Sagres, differences could be minimal between the top names, given last year's similar flattish coastal course, a kilometre longer, only created a three second gap between the three top riders. However, when you recall that stage five’s 2.5 kilometre long climb to Malhao, the traditionally decisive ascent of the entire race with an average incline of nearly 10 percent, produced differences of a bare 31 seconds between the top ten finishers, even the slightest advantage in such a finely balanced battle for the overall classification can prove a major barrier.
The other big factor in the Algarve is the weather. Run alongside the Atlantic for a significant percentage of the course, rain and wind can produce both echelons and severely toughen up the race.
Stage one: Lagos - Albufeira 177kms
Stage two: Lagos - Alto da Foia 198kms.
Stage three: Sagres - Sagres 18kms
Stage four: S.Bras de Alportel - Tavira 194kms
Stage five: Almodovar - Malhao 169kms
One of the real interest points of the Volta ao Algarve is the complete diversity of its line-up, ranging from hardline Classics riders to out-and-out Grand Tour specialists. This year's start list includes numerous past winners, too, including defending champion Geraint Thomas (Team Sky), double Tour of Flanders winner Stijn Devolder (Trek-Segafredo), time trial expert Tony Martin (Etixx-Quick Step), former World Champion Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) and double Tour de France winner Alberto Contador (Tinkoff).
Contador will undoubtably be one of the star attractions for any Spanish fans who travel across the nearby border, and with wins in 2009 and 2010, there's no doubt the Spanish Grand Tour contender is a firm favourite. However the Volta ao Algarve is Contador's first race of the season and with his main objectives of the Tour and the Olympics still a long way off the horizon, it will be interesting to see how he will fare against those who have already raced or who are building for the Classics.
The same kind of question applies to Geraint Thomas and Fabio Aru (Astana). That said, both rode well in their first race of the season, at the Tour Down Under for Thomas, and, in Aru’s case, the Volta a Valencia. Cannondale's stage racing leaders Andrew Talansky and new arrival Rigoberto Urán could also have an impact in Algarve, whilst Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Soudal) and Ion Izaguirre (Movistar), winner of last year's Tour de Pologne, are two outside favourites.
The Algarve's continuing unwritten tradition of a mid-race time trial, could favour two other former winners: Kwiatkowski and Tony Martin, the latter who tends to make that stage one of his big early season tests. The presence of some major Classics heavyweights, ranging from Ian Stannard (Team Sky) to Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo) and Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep) adds in a unique flavour to the race mix, whilst André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) and Marcel Kittel (Etixx-QuickStep) guarantee some high-quality bunch sprints, should they materialize. There are also Ardennes Classics and Grand Tour climbers, amongst them Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), Frank Schleck (Trek-Segafredo) and Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo).
Cyclingnews will have full coverage of the Volta ao Algarve, with stage reports, photo galleries, news and interviews.