Dennis favourite to take first red jersey of Vuelta a Espana - Preview

A year on from the opening team time trial in Nîmes, history could repeat itself this evening when Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing Team) rolls down the start ramp on stage 1 of the the Vuelta a España in Malaga.

Winner of four time trials this year alone – not to mention the opening time trial at the 2015 Tour de France – Dennis claimed la roja of Vuelta race leader last year in France as first rider across the line in the BMC formation. On Saturday evening, as the Vuelta returns to much more familiar terrain – this is its 30th visit to the southern seaport of Malaga – the Australian champion is favourite to do so again, this time in an individual time trial.

Dennis was the only BMC rider who checked out the route on Friday, before the roads were closed, with the rest of his team due to reconnoitre the course on Saturday.

“It’s pretty straightforward, there’s actually not too many points when it’s slow,” Dennis told Cyclingnews. “If you look at the map it looks like it’s going to be really technical, but the windiest part is all uphill, and there are minimal points, I believe, without seeing it fenced off, where you really need to brake.”

Exactly eight kilometres long, meaning time gaps between the favourites will be small, the route itself has three main segments: a four-kilometre ride through docklands and along the seafront, a short, fairly easy climb and descent, and then a final blast along two of Malaga’s most emblematic city centre streets, the broad Paseo del Parque and the pedestrianised Calle Marques de Larios. There is even a small section of pavé, in this case broad slabs of pavement, in the final, slight rise to the finish.

The sporting interest centres in how much time an out-and-out specialist will gain on the flat but perhaps lose on that ascent, but as Dennis told Cyclingnews, “I think a pure time triallist will win, it won’t be a climber.” Riders named elsewhere as top candidates for the win include Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) and Victor Campenaerts (Lotto Soudal).

There could be room, too, for longer shots like David De La Cruz (Team Sky), who won a similarly short, although much more technical and hillier TT in the region’s local stage race, the Vuelta a Andalucia, this February.

Starting in the shadow of the Centre Pompidou modern art museum, the first section comprises a long, high speed, blast along the dockside before reaching a roundabout and U turn to send the race back into the main city. There are a couple of big bends, though, as BMC sports director Marco Pinotti maintains, “the big factor here could be the wind. Much of it is very exposed.” The usual evening sea breeze could be a challenge, along with, of course, the summer heat in Malaga and the humidity.

“It’s a course for specialists, fast riders, not many technical sections,” adds Pinotti. “Being so short, it’s more open because there are no opportunities to correct any slight errors, and you don’t need the endurance riders like Rohan have over longer distances to do well. You have to start well, climb fast and not lose any time on the fast descent.”
After three kilometres the route stays close to the sea as it veers alongside one of Malaga’s most popular beaches. Running on the Boulevard Pablo Picasso a little inland, it continues to be flat, and on this section the big-gear time triallists will be able to maintain their high early pace.

A sharp bend left takes the race uphill into a residential quarter of the city and after crossing an A road, onto the only climb of the day. Around 800 metres long and gently rising with a gradient of roughly six percent at most, the road curves back and forth past tall palm trees and some well-appointed homes.

Not classified as a climb, it peaks out at all of 100 metres above sea level, and is followed by a fast 1.5 kilometre descent past shopfronts and bars on some more busy-looking streets. A sharp left-hand bend brings the route through a broad 300-metre tunnel back down to the shore again.

The final segment of around a kilometre along the boulevard Paseo del Parque ends with a right-hand turn into the city’s old quarter and a broad 300-metre paved section up to the finish. Once again, the TT specialists will have the upper hand.

Although not overly technical and running on generally well-surfaced roads, the inherent risks of any city centre race, particularly with the grime that builds up on all urban roads, will be present. AS reported that three Movistar riders crashed while training on Friday when they skidded on a patch of oil on a roundabout, although fortunately none were injured.

All in all, this year’s stage 1 time trial is a very different beast from the 2000 Vuelta’s opening individual time trial in Malaga, which was 13.3 kilometres long, featured a third category classified climb of Alto del Rodeo, and which saw Alex Zulle beat Abraham Olano by two seconds.

Not everything about Saturday’s will be about whoever becomes the first leader of the Vuelta 2018 in any case. The stage will start with a minute’s silence in homage to Javier Otxoa, the former professional who died aged 43 on Friday in the nearby town of Alhaurín de la Torre after a long illness. Otxoa suffered permanent brain damage in a training crash in 2001 near Malaga, and in the same accident his twin brother Ricardo was killed.

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Alasdair Fotheringham

Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The IndependentThe GuardianProCycling, The Express and Reuters.