The Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, which starts this Wednesday, will see both defending Tour de France champion Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) and reigning world champion Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) in action in what could be one of the most exciting early season races of 2019.
Thomas will make his season debut when he comes barrelling down the start ramp of Wednesday’s opening time trial in the elegant spa town of Orihuela, and it will be his first race since the 2018 Tour of Britain, where he finished a low-key 34th overall.
Thomas’ form will be an unknown so far out from his big objectives of 2019, and following his capture of the Tour de France last year, this February there is inevitably something of a feel of uncharted waters for the Welshman.
But the Sky leader has a strong track record of success in early season races, too, winning the time trial and finishing second overall in Portugal’s Volta ao Algarve last year, and claiming the race overall in two previous Februarys.
Even so, it almost goes without saying that Valverde is the main pre-race favourite. Three times a winner of the Valenciana, in 2004, 2007 and again in 2018, Valverde has won the five-day race more times than anyone else. Given Valverde’s liking for hitting the ground running in the early season, he is all but certain to be the main reference point for the rest of the contenders.
Valverde’s lack of a win at Challenge Mallorca does nothing to diminish that status. Last season he picked up just one podium finish in Mallorca, then promptly trashed the opposition in the Valenciana with two stage wins and the overall victory.
While it is still only February, and a certain percentage of the field will be trekking around the Valencia region this week simply to get used to the feel of racing again, the event represents a valuable prize in itself. A list of past winners decorated with names as prestigious as Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Rik Van Looy should serve to whet the ambition of the leaders of the 24 teams taking part, 11 of which are WorldTour.
The Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana is one of Spain’s most venerable stage races, which began life as the Vuelta a Levante – the geographical term for the coastal regions of eastern Spain and the name under which it was run until 1977 – back in 1929. When Spain’s economic crisis bit deeply at the end of the last decade, Valencia’s dearth of sponsors caused its most recent of several cancellations. The Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana began its newest lease of life in 2016, having been off the calendar for eight years following its 2009 postponement.
The five-day route for 2019 has marked similarities to last year’s course, right down to an identical start and finish for the final stage, running from Paterna into Valencia.
But if that particular stage is 50 kilometres shorter than last year, and much easier, the key change overall is that the race’s team time trial has been dropped, with a short opening individual time trial added in to compensate.
Although only 10.2 kilometres long, stage 1 test against the clock in the spa town of Orihuela is a combination of technical sections in the old part of town and a final, intense 500-metre ascent, averaging nine percent, finishing just outside a local seminary.
Two stages through extremely hilly terrain then take the Valenciana northwards. The first, on Thursday, is a circuit through the lower mountains behind Alicante that will likely end in a small bunch sprint or breakaway, then stage 3 on Friday is a far more dangerous trek of nearly 200km across the sierras in the west of the Valencia region, culminating in two long, punchy third category ascents to the tiny town of Chera.
Saturday’s stage 4, in northern Valencia, will likely decide the race. The 188 kilometres of rolling terrain, including a second category and then a first category ascent – the only one of the whole race – look set to shred the peloton to perhaps 50 riders at most. But the key feature of the stage is the final 3.2km, brutally steep, climb to the Santa Llusia hermitage near the town of Alcossebre.
This climb last appeared in a race in the Vuelta a España in 2017, where the stage was won from a break by Alexey Lutsenko (Astana Pro Team), with its 18 percent slopes also featuring a ferocious little skirmish between some of the Vuelta’s top favourites. These included Esteban Chaves (Mitchelton-Scott), who lines out in this year’s Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana for what will be his first appearance in a race since his rollercoaster Giro d’Italia of 2018.
Apart from Chaves, Valverde and Thomas, there is a long list of star names on the Valenciana roster this year. Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Pro Team), Stijn Vanderbergh (AG2R La Mondiale), Niki Terpstra (Direct Energie), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) Dylan Teuns and Matej Mohoric (Bahrain-Merida), Matteo Trentin (MItchelton-Scott), Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates), Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) and Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) all feature, along with Luis León Sanchez and the Izagirre brothers, Ion and Gorka in a very strong Astana Pro Team line-up. There is also a healthy list of sprinters, including Magnus Cort (Astana Pro Team) Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) and Dylan Groenewegen (Team Jumbo-Visma).
On Wednesday afternoon, however, most eyes will be on Tony Martin (Team Jumbo-Visma), who together with Thomas and his Sky teammate David de la Cruz is likely to be the favourite for the short time trial in Orihuela. While Martin has past form for strong starts in Valencia – he won a stage here in 2017 – Valverde cannot be ruled out either, given his strong showings on similar courses at recent editions of the Volta a Andalucia.