Wellens takes breakthrough win at Ruta del Sol

After an unexpected but well-deserved victory in the Ruta del Sol, Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) is aiming higher than ever this season.

Wellens has taken wins in the Tour de Pologne, the Guangxi Tour and the Eneco Tour (twice) in the past, as well as the GP Montreal, and last year he netted victory in the Ruta del Sol's rainsoaked final stage from a breakaway.

However, he recognised that mastering the Ruta del Sol's tougher mountain climbs, as he proved at Allanadas on stage 2, where Wellens attacked but did not crack when caught by the other favourites, represented a big step forward.

"I didn't think I could compete with the others on a climb like that," Wellens said. "But when they caught me, I rested for a moment and that's why I could end the stage well.

"I really learned that I've taken a big step forward this winter. I can compete uphill with the best in the world and it's really a nice surprise for me."

On top of that, Wellens proved more than a match for Mikel Landa (Movistar) in the Ruta's second summit finish at Alcala de los Gazules, gaining the overall lead on a much shorter, punchier climb.

Saturday's triumph gave Wellens the top spot overall and a small-but-vital advantage over previous leader and Allanadas winner Wout Poels (Team Sky).

Then finally Wellens' eighth place in the last time trial allowed the Lotto-Soudal rider to capture Belgium's first win in the Ruta del Sol since Edwig Van Hooydonck back in 1988. Poels regained three seconds on Wellens in the final time trial, but overall he remained eight seconds adrift. Meanwhile, talented young Spaniard Marc Soler (Movistar) claimed an impressive third overall.

"At the beginning of the week I said the only thing that mattered was the win here," Wellens reflected. "If you're second or third then nobody remembers. But then this is perfect and I've won the Ruta del Sol."

If Wellens laid the foundations for his overall victory in Allanadas and at Alcala de los Gazules, the final time trial in Barbate on Andalucia's Atlantic coastline was another challenge where Wellens could not afford to fail.

"It was a complicated time trial course," he said. "I knew the first part was the most important, I built up some good power and my legs were really good. It was a little bit more difficult on the downhill section with the headwind, but I succeeded. I wasn't really aware of any time splits, though, until close to the end."

Wellens' sports director at Lotto-Soudal, Marc Sergeant, also won the Ruta del Sol back in the 1980s, and Wellens said that made his victory even more special.

"Marc was here in the beginning of the race; he comes every year to the Ruta del Sol. He told me that he won it, and he has a special relationship with the organisation, so every year he comes here," he explained.

It has been hard, too, for Wellens to avoid the controversy surrounding Chis Froome's participation, particularly when the Belgian has been such an outspoken critic of the Briton taking part.

"Everybody has their opinion, not everybody says it because the subject is very delicate and everybody knows my opinion," Wellens said on Sunday. "Maybe it would have been better if he was not at the start, but he was at the start. A lot of journalists talk about it, but it's like that."

As for Wellens himself, "The next big objective is Het Nieuwsblad, it's the first time I'm going to do it, but I think with this condition I've shown here I can be ambitious. Normally riding on the cobbles is not my kind of race, but being in such good form, I want to see what I can do."

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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.