The Vuelta a Andalucia, where Alberto Contador and Chris Froome will first cross swords next season, has released its route, which combines a short time trial challenge and two difficult summit finishes.
Unusually for so early in the season, the five-day Spanish race will feature an extremely tough mountain-top finish, at the Alto de Hazallanas in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Last used in the 2013 Vuelta a España, Hazallanas was where Chris Horner (Lampre-Merida) took a key step towards outright victory.
Other top names set to take part include Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol), three times third overall in Andalusia, the Belgian’s French teammate Tony Gallopin and Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2R La Mondiale), the runner-up in last year’s Tour de France. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who has won the race in 2012, 2013 and 2014, is unlikely to be present given he will be racing - for the first time ever - in Qatar earlier in February.
As yet, no definitive distances have been released, but the race website shows that the first stage, on February 18th, is split into two sectors. The first, starting in La Rabida, consists of a very exposed run across the flatlands of western Andalusia that will, assuming there are no coastal cross -winds that could easily split the peloton , almost certainly end in a bunch sprint.
The second sector is a very short but very technical time trial, roughly eight kilometres long and featuring two short, steep climbs, in Coria del Rio, a town just outside the Andalusian capital, Sevilla.
Stage two on February 19th is an almost equally straightforward trek eastwards to the olive-growing locality of Lucena, although there will be a third category climb close to the finish that could break up the peloton.
The following stage, from Motril to Hazallanas, is almost certain to produce the race’s overall winner. Three classified climbs are included on this stage, two of them first category. As for Hazallanas, it is 7.3 kilometres long, averaging 9.3 percent, with a final four kilometres of narrow, constantly twisting and poorly surfaced road that rarely drops below a lung-bursting 17 percent. As if that was not hard enough, the summit finish flattens out at 1,650 metres above sea level, so snowfalls could be possible.
Stage four runs northward from Maracena via three third cat ascents and through constantly rolling terrain to the Alto de Allanadas summit finish in NE Andalusia. This little-known first category climb - not as difficult as the Hazallana, which last featured in the Vuelta a Andalusia in 2010, where Sergio Pardilla won the stage, run off in a freezing downpour, and Australia Mick Rogers finished sixth en route to claiming the overall victory.
Sunday February 22nd’s last stage, from Montilla to Alhaurin on the Mediterranean coast, is likely to see the race’s third and final bunch sprint.
Between 18 and 20 teams are expected to take part. However, much of the media attention will be on Contador and Froome in the first race of the season for two of the top favourites for the Tour de France. Since turning pro in 2003, Contador has never participated in the Vuelta a Andalusia, whilst Froome has raced in it once, in 2011, finishing 50th overall.
Wednesday February 18: Stage one section one: La Rabida-Hinojos
Wednesday February 18: Stage one section two: Coría del Rio - Coría del Rio (time trial)
Thursday February 19: Stage two: Utrera - Lucena
Friday February 20: Stage three: Motril - Alto de Hazallanas
Saturday February 21: Stage four: Maracena - Alto de Allanadas
Sunday February 22: Stage five: Montilla - Alhaurin