Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Chris Froome (Team Sky) will be the two star stage race specialists in this week's Vuelta a Andalucía, with an exceptionally difficult course and no lack of other top rivals set to test the Spaniard and Briton in what is their first race of the 2015 season.
Contador and Froome last crossed swords in September's Vuelta a España, which finished in the remote northwesterly region of Galicia. Five months later, they will once again stand on a start-line together in Spain, but this time in the southerly region of Andalucia in one of Spain's most venerable week-long stage races – and by no means one of the easiest.
Photo: Tim de Waele
First run in 1925, but then with a 30 year gap before its next edition in the mid 1950s, this year's six-stage, five-day Vuelta a Andalucia has three main difficulties. First is a short, highly technical time trial on the second sector of the opening split stage on Wednesday, February 18, followed by two challenging first category summit finishes, the 16.7 kilometre Alto de Hazallanas on Friday's stage three and the Alto de Allanadas on stage four.
Hazallanas, a notoriously steep, narrow and roughly surfaced ascent in the lower slopes of Sierra Nevada, with its hardest segment concentrated into the last seven kilometres of its official 16.7 kilometre length, will be familiar to Vuelta a España fans.
In the 2013 race, this was the climb where Chris Horner established himself as a serious overall contender by soloing to victory ahead of the top favourite, Vincenzo Nibali. Rather than searing August heat as when Horner and co. tackled the climb two years ago, this time around poor weather and cold temperatures – the summit is 1,700 metres above sea level and snow is forecast earlier in the week – could well add to its difficulty.
Whilst this stage is the most difficult and will probably decide the winner, the five-kilometre Alto de Allanadas summit finish the following day comes at the end of a long, 199.8 kilometre grind across the sierras of Jaén and Granada. Other crunch moments could come as soon as the short opening leg on Wednesday morning across the marshlands of Western Andalucia from La Rabida to Hinojos, given the chance of strong crosswinds there, and the extremely challenging, if short, 8.2 kilometre time trial in Coria del Rio, later in the same day.
The 2015 Vuelta a Andalucía finishes with a fast, rolling 169.8km stage on Sunday, February 23, from Montilla down to the Meditteranean coastline at Alhaurin de la Torre. But even that features a tricky uphill finale that could see the peloton split apart again – and whoever is in the lead will have to stay alert.
Curiously enough, in his 10-year career Contador has never raced the Vuelta a Andalucia, whilst Froome's only previous participation was in 2011, when he finished 50th. But given their predilection for hitting the ground running in the early season, it is likely both will be in contention at least on some of the stages, and perhaps for the overall. Certainly, given the huge speculation over which of the two will have the upper hand this season, fans will not miss this first opportunity to watch what could be an gripping early season battle.
It goes without saying there are a host of other contenders, though, who could equally challenge. Even without the initially expected participation of Nairo Quintana (Movistar), who is recovering from a crash in Colombia, and with his team-mate Alejandro Valverde, three times a winner in Andalucía, also a non-starter, the field remains an exceptionally strong one.
Ivan Basso (Tinkoff-Saxo), Jurgen Van Den Broeck and Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Belisol), Jean-Christophe Peraud and Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale), Bauke Mollema, Bob Jungels and Frank Schleck (Trek Factory Racing), Sylvain Chavanel (IAM Cycling), Wilco Kelderman (Lotto-JumboNL) and Pierre Rolland (Europcar) are all potential overall contenders. For the race's three possible sprints, John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin) and Tyler Farrar (MTN-Qhubeka) are stand-out candidates.
The key to Andalucia, though, is that – particularly with no Valverde – it is always difficult to predict. Andalucía's fast-changing weather in February, one of the most challenging courses of the first few months of the year and, on top of that, some top riders' as yet uneven form can make this race a real wake-up call. The key question for many fans, though, will be seeing whether Contador, Froome or one of the other big names present in Andalucia this week decide to push the boat out for real so early in the season.