Once a largely domestic affair, the Volta ao Algarve has developed into a favoured early-season event for the WorldTour peloton over the past 15 years or so. The five-day race – which starts on Wednesday – largely adheres to a tried and tested format, which offers just enough of everything to attract a combination of sprinters, Classics stars and Grand Tour contenders to southern Portugal each February.
Indeed, the Volta ao Algarve’s shift to its current February date early in the 21st century contributed to the transformation in the make-up of its peloton. Previously, the biggest teams in professional cycling seemed to compete only intermittently in Portugal – Miguel Indurain’s appearance at the 1996 Volta ao Alentejo sticks in the memory precisely because it was so novel – but from Floyd Landis’ 2004 victory onward, the Volta ao Algarve has seemed to draw ever stronger fields.
Alberto Contador’s brace of wins in 2009 and 2010 cemented the 2.1 event’s reputation as a place for Grand Tour riders to blow away cobwebs in a pleasant climate and on relatively gentle climbs, and the palmarès over the past decade has been an imposing one, with Geraint Thomas, Michal Kwiatkowski, Primoz Roglic and Richie Porte among the winners.
Twelve months ago, Thomas kicked off his year of years with second place overall behind his teammate Kwiatkowski, and while neither the Tour de France winner or the defending champion return to the Volta ao Algarve this time out, the Team Sky line-up is a deep one. Their seven-man selection includes David de la Cruz, Wout Poels, Eddie Dunbar and Tao Geoghegan Hart – all riders who could shine on the uphill finishes at Fóia and Malhão.
Those two finales will also be an early test for Fabio Aru, who is looking to reignite his career after a subdued debut campaign at UAE Team Emirates last year. Enric Mas (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Sam Oomen (Sunweb) and Neilson Powless (Jumbo-Visma) will also hope to shine, while Dimension Data’s Steve Cummings and Ben King have an aptitude for the kind of terrain on offer here.
As ever, the field is also replete with Classics contenders honing their condition. Trek-Segafredo are fielding their cobbled specialists, with John Degenkolb – fresh from a win at the Tour de La Provence – Jasper Stuyven, Mads Pedersen and Edward Theuns all lining up together in southern Portugal before travelling onwards to Belgium’s Opening Weekend.
Michael Valgren lines out for Dimension Data alongside the on-form Edvald Boasson Hagen, who won the opening time trial at the recent Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana. Paris-Tours winner Søren Kragh Andersen (Sunweb) makes his season debut, while Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard are on hand for Sky.
The sprint contingent ought to have two opportunities over the five days, and the spoils will be very keenly contested. Fabio Jakobsen (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe), Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma), Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ), Christophe Laporte (Cofidis) and Jasper Philipsen (UAE Team Emirates) join Degenkolb in a striking sprint field. The mid-race time trial, meanwhile, is 20km in length, and should be to the liking of men such as Stefan Küng, who makes his debut in Groupama-FDJ colours, and Ryan Mullen (Trek-Segafredo).
The Algarve pelotão also includes no fewer than nine teams from the home country, including W52-FC Porto, who have made the step up to Pro Continental level this season to become the first Portuguese squad to compete in the second flight since Benfica in 2008.
Amaro Antunes, who won atop Malhão in Porto colours two years ago, is back with the revamped CCC Team, although the biggest star in Portuguese cycling – 2013 world champion Rui Costa – misses the Volta ao Algarve for the fifth successive year as UAE Team Emirates hold him in reserve for the forthcoming UAE Tour.
The Volta ao Algarve starts with a 199km leg from Portimão to Lagos, and though there are still some ripples after the category 3 climb to Nave, the terrain should lend itself to a bunch finish.
Stage 2 brings the peloton into the hills of the Serra de Monchique, with the category 2 climb of Pomba serving as an hors-d'oeuvre to the final haul up the Alto de Fóia. The steepest nine per cent ramps of the 8km ascent are at the bottom, but the gradient never wholly abates. A year ago, Kwiatkowski placed a deposit on overall victory by winning the small group sprint at the top.
The time trial on stage 3 is a replica of the corresponding stage in 2018, when Thomas hurtled around the 20.3km course in Lagoa at an average speed of more than 50kph. Küng placed third 12 months ago and will be expected to shine here.
The resort town of Albufeira hosts the start of stage 4, which winds into the hills north of Faro and then traces the Spanish border before returning to the coast for a stage finish in Tavira. The category 4 climb of Pisa Barro figures in the final 20km but should not prove an insurmountable obstacle for the sprinters.
The grand finale of the Volta ao Algarve will once more be provided by the Alto do Malhão, which is climbed twice on stage 5. The category 3 ascents of Picota, Alto da Amerixieira and Vermelhos are also on the route, although, as ever, the short and sharp haul up the category 2 Malhão ought to prove decisive. Although just 3km in length, the climb includes long stretches in excess of 10 per cent before flattening out closer to the summit. Kwiatkowski sealed overall victory by winning here a year ago, while Küng – fourth at the top – was a notably strong performer.
Even at its most demanding, the Volta ao Algarve always lends itself to a wide range of talents. At this early point in the campaign, therein lies the attraction.