A notably tougher version of the Vuelta a Andalucia Ruta Ciclista del Sol starts this Wednesday, with stage 4’s incursion into the mountains of Sierra Nevada all but certain to decide the five-day race.
The more mountainous route is in marked contrast to the 2018 edition of the race, where the presence of Chris Froome (Team Sky) on the start-line, at a point where his participation in events was being strongly questioned in some quarters, completely overshadowed the race action itself.
The tougher format also continues to set Spain’s highest-ranked early-season stage race apart from the Volta ao Algarve - the other 2.HC race which runs concurrently with the Ruta del Sol and has a route more to the liking of the Classics specialists.
The Ruta del Sol kicks off on Wednesday, February 20 in the region’s westerly coastal town of Sanlucar de Barrameda, which is far more famous (in Spain at least) for its annual horse race along its beach than for its cycling. The stage 1 finish on Wednesday in Alcala de los Gazules is more familiar terrain for cycling fans, with the short and steep cobbled ascent where Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) won the race last year, fending off Mikel Landa (Movistar). Landa was set to race again this year, until he fractured his collarbone in Mallorca.
Thursday’s long stage eastwards through hilly terrain to Torredonjimeno will likely culminate the Ruta del Sol’s only bunch sprint of 2019, with Danny van Poppel (Jumbo-Visma) a likely favourite for the win. The stage 3 time trial across the sierras of Jaén places the ball back in the GC riders’ court. The short, technical nature - the time trial is only 16 kilometres long and includes a steady grind over a third category climb mid-way through - will probably mean the GC remains tightly locked together for a third stage.
This will most definitely not be the case after Saturday’s ultra-mountainous trek over two major climbs of the Sierra Nevada mountain range during the queen stage of the race. Only 115 kilometres long, stage 4’s first big challenge is the first category Camino del Purche. Then, after looping back down into Granada, it tackles the even harder Hazallanas ascent - immediately preceded by the second category Alto de Guejar Sierra - before a fast, straightforward descent back into Granada and the finish once again.
Both the Purche and Hazallanas are well-known to cycling fans. In the 2013 Vuelta a España, Hazallanas was where Chris Horner first moved into the limelight and where Alberto Contador out-duelled Chris Froome in the snow-affected 2014 edition of the Ruta del Sol. As for the Purche, its winding switchback roads take the race over another shoulder of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and this was where Contador went on the attack in the 2017 Vuelta a España, en route to the Sierra Nevada.
Whatever happens next Saturday on these two climbs, it will almost certainly wipe out any time trial specialist’s advantage gained in Jaén. And, whoever holds the GC lead in Granada will have little to worry about on Sunday’s final stage. The route to the race’s traditional finish in the town of Alhaurin de la Torre near Malaga on the south coast normally lends itself to a breakaway or small bunch sprint victory rather than any last-minute upsets overall.
Mitchelton-Scott and Astana expected to clash
Given the mountainous nature of Andalusia, the most likely candidates for victory will be from Mitchelton-Scott or Astana, on paper the two strongest GC squads in this year's race.
The Australian squad have brought both Yates brothers as well as Esteban Chaves. This will be Simon Yates’ season debut, while Adam arrives after a win last week in the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana’s toughest stage. The two Britons will likely be a key reference point on the climbs. Teammates Chaves, Jack Haig and Mikel Nieve could both provide strong support when the road steepens, or even sparkle in their own right.
The toughest opposition looks set to be from Astana, who have been dominating in many of the early-season events in Spain and France.
Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana winner Ion Izagirre will receive ample backing from both Vuelta a Murcia champion Luis León Sánchez as well as teammates Pello Bilbao and Jakob Fuglsang. Jumbo-Visma leader Steven Kruijswijk’s form remains something of an unknown on his 2019 debut but he has been training at altitude. Young American Sepp Kuss, the 2018 Tour of Utah winner who rode strongly in Andalucia in last year’s Vuelta a España, is another possible challenger.
Wellens also makes his return to Andalusia, although the route may prove too tough for him, and Dylan Teuns and Matej Mohoric (Bahrain-Merida) have strong past form in hilly week-long stage races.
Whoever is wearing the leader’s jersey next Sunday in Alhaurin de la Torre will have to have shown some very strong climbing form.