"It's up there with Strade Bianche" was how Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) rated the new Spanish gravel race, the Clásica Jaén Paraíso Interior, in which he finished second behind Alexey Lutsenko (Astana Qazaqstan). "It's a really nice parcours."
There was no doubt that the Clásica Jaén, with 40 kilometres of gravel roads and over 3,000 metres of climbing, represented a brutally tough challenge, particularly so early in the season. It could have been worse: the forecasted heavy rain bucketed down on Monday morning but stopped before the race began.
It was indicative of Jaén's difficulty that just 44 riders of 117 starters completed the race, and many teams had just one or two finishers. Even Astana Qazaqstan had five of their seven riders abandon. In some squads like Drone Hopper Androni and Sport Vlaanderen, not a single rider reached the finish line outside Ubeda's Renaissance-era town hall.
"It is up there with Strade Bianche," said Wellens, "but the advantage at Strade Bianche is that there are downhill sections with gravel as well. Here it was only uphill and that made a big difference."
Explaining his point, he added, "It's all about positioning when you go downhill on gravel, so it's easier when you are in the front to drop the others."
Apart from Wellens being one of the strongest in the finale, Lotto Soudal had made much of the running early on and Wellens said that the collective preparation of their bikes had worked out very well.
"We tested our material well before the race, and we were very clear with the tire pressure and width. We used 28, with 4.3 bars, much softer than usual, and today it was perfect. The uphills were quite steep, and we needed a little bit of a grip," he explained.
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While Wellens said the race represented a boost for his morale for the much higher-profile off-road event of Strade Bianche, he had to recognise that comparisons were only valid up to a point.
"Indeed, it is a little bit compatible, but let's be honest, the level will be higher at Strade because it's WorldTour. Nevertheless, it's nice to be second here."
As a former winner of Tro-Bro León and a top-30 finisher in Paris-Roubaix last autumn, it was not at all surprising to see Britain's Connor Swift (Arkea-Samsic) up there in the mix. Part of a group of five that tried to chase down Lutsenko, Swift finally crossed the line in fifth place but was satisfied with his day.
Swift and his team did a reconnaissance of several of the sections and as he told Cyclingnews before the start, "it is different to Tro-Bro Léon, because they're more muddy farm roads, and Paris-Roubaix is a really different kind of race. So this is a bit more like Paris-Tours.
"It's pretty unique, though, because all the gravel sections are on the uphill as well which you don't normally find."
The rainfall overnight was not a bad thing, either, in Swift's opinion. "I don't think it'll be slippy, It won't be as dusty for sure, so the photos afterwards will maybe not be as epic".
"But we'll still get dirty on the bikes, and the little bit of rain this morning probably helps pack it down, more, so it won't be so loose on the corners."
Arkea-Samsic aimed to have three riders in front, Warren Barguil, Swift and Matis Louvel and things actually worked out better than expected for the French Pro Conti squad, Swift explained later, with "four of us in the front group of 40 with 60 ks to go."
"There was lots of movement, it was just a case of following the moves and making sure we were represented. In the end, the bunch split and me and Matis were in front, and obviously, we wanted Warren with us so we tried to slow the tempo down. But we hit one of the gravel sections and Lutsenko attacked and you can't wait.
"We got to the top of a climb and I was with four or five guys and Lutsenko was in front and the race pretty stayed like that to the finish."
The one moment where it looked as if Lutsenko might find himself in difficulty came when there was a brief regrouping with about 25 kilometres to go. But as Swift said, "he was on another level. The guys I was with couldn't hold his wheel and neither could I.
"It was clear he [Lutsenko] was the strongest, but it's not always the case that the strongest wins the race," confirmed Wellens.
"I was hoping that he would go solo and we could catch him from behind, but he was strong enough to stay in the front. When it was clear it would not come back, we started to look at second place.
Lutsenko himself pulled off a very similar ride to the one which netted him the only other gravel win on his palmares, the non-UCI classified Serenissima Gravel last autumn. On that occasion, the Kazakh allrounder broke away no less than 80 kilometres from the finish and soloed to the win ahead of Riccardo Minali and Nathan Haas.
This time, Lutsenko's attack was 'only' some 45 kilometres to go, and there was a brief moment of doubt that he might stay away when the half dozen riders regrouped. But as Wellens and Swift both said, it was already clear that Lutsenko was on another level and he shortly went away. From then on, barring a couple of minor wobbles and what looked suspiciously like cramps at the top of the final climb - he was swerving across the road - Astana Qazaqstan's first win of 2022 was a virtual certainty.
"This wasn't my first experience with gravel, I was up there last year as well and won that race [in Italy]. This was harder though, Lotto were working really hard all the way through. And everybody's fresh so it was hard. But I found my pace and I could get away," Lutsenko said afterwards.
Lutsenko raced Strade Bianche five times, with seventh in 2019 his best placing, but with Pairs-Nice on his program, the Kazakh's one gravel road outing this year looks likely to have been the Jaén Classic.
Is Strade Bianche harder, he was asked? "That depends on your form," the Kazakh answered with a grin.
"Obviously there's a much higher level, there, you've got riders like [Wout] Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and [Mathieu) van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) there. But it's very important to start the season with a victory, good for everybody's morale."
As for the Clasica Jaén itself, whether the race stays in the Spanish one-day calendar only briefly or gains I.HC or higher status in the years to come remains to be seen. Certainly, as Spain's National Cycling Federation President, Jose Luis Lopez Cerrón, told reporters at the finish line, that is what organisers are hoping for in the future. The Clásica Jaén has certainly got off to an impressive start, and in the process offered local fans a very different kind of racing to the kind that usually predominates in Spain.
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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 Independent, The Guardian, ProCycling, The Express and Reuters.