Ruta del Sol preview: Can Valverde make it five out of six?

Spaniard is clearly on form after Vuelta Murcia win

History has every chance of repeating itself in the Vuelta a Andalucia Ruta Ciclista Del Sol this year, with Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) the odds-on favourite to take a fifth victory.

Valverde's hugely impressive solo victory at the Vuelta Murcia on Saturday shows he is clearly on form. But even without that victory, he is historically the favourite for the Ruta del Sol. With four wins in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2016, Valverde is already the all-time record holder for victories in one of Spain's most venerable stage races, which started way back in 1925 and which now boasts a newly awarded higher ranking of 2.HC in the UCI calendar.

Valverde's first appearance on the Ruta del Sol podium dates back to 2003, when he placed third overall and won the points prize. Last year was arguably his toughest victory to date, when El Bala delivered a stunning solo performance on the race's final summit finish stage at Peñas Blancas to oust Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) from the leader's jersey. In 2015 - the only edition of the race Valverde hasn't taken part in (or won) since 2012, victory went to Chris Froome (Team Sky), but Movistar took three stages nonetheless.

Another win for Valverde seems the likely outcome at the 2017 Ruta del Sol. However, it is also true that this year's 675.6km trek across six of the eight Andalucian provinces has many of the ingredients for a more unpredictable race. Valverde and Movistar will have to fight for that fifth victory.

A testing start to five days of racing

Rather than a relatively easy sprint stage, this year the challenges start from stage 1, with a hilly 155km opening day's racing that ends with the tough first category ascent to Monachil and a fast drop back to Granada. Interestingly, this is exactly the same finale where Valverde lost the 2006 Vuelta a España to a downhill attack by Alexandre Vinokourov.

This opening stage will almost certainly whittle down the number of true overall contenders. However, the most decisive day of the entire race will probably be stage 2, which ends with the unprecedented, 6km first category summit finish to Peña del Aguila in northern Andalucia.

The time gaps created in the first 48 hours of racing will likely prove more than enough for the leader to fend off the other favourites in a very short (11.9km), technical stage 3 time trial in the Cordoban town of Lucena. This is barely half the distance of the 21km time trial in last year's race, won by van Garderen, where the top 20 riders were crammed into a 46 second bandwidth, so differences will probably be minimal.

The final two stages, particularly the last - which runs through the Sierras of Cadiz for the half of the 151km distance before a lumpy final circuit round near Malaga - will be more likely a test of team strength rather than an individual challenge.

Will Contador challenge Valverde?

Given the first and second stages are the toughest, Valverde will have to be ready to hit the ground running, particularly with the wealth of top names who will be taking part and looking to beat him.

His headline rival is undoubtably Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), making his debut for his new team in a race where he finished a narrowly defeated second in his previous participation back in 2015. Supporting Contador - whose objectives for the Ruta del Sol are yet to be fully specified - will be the only other previous winner of the race, other than Valverde: Trek Segafredo's Markel Irizar, who won the Ruta del Sol back in 2011.

Pierre Rolland and Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac), Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal), Warren Barguil (Team Sunweb) are also top names to look out for and should spark some aggressive racing.

Meanwhile, the strongest team line-ups are almost certainly set to be Movistar and, above all, Team Sky, whose Ruta del Sol squad - Mikel Landa, Vasil Kiryenka, Christian Knees, David Lopez, new signing Diego Rosa, Mikel Nieve, and Wout Poels - contains some serious stage racing firepower. In the Ruta del Sol, Valverde has history on his side but he will have to fight for victory.

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