Finally, it's here. Three weeks after it usually gets underway, Spain's professional cycling season kicks off this weekend at the Clásica de Almería, in the rarest of opportunities in a Spanish one-day race for a sprinter to shine.
It is true that the category 1.2 Gran Premio Valencia one-day race, held just a few hundred kilometres further north, got the European season underway back on January 24th. But with so many stage races poleaxed by the pandemic, the Clásica de Almería's 1.Pro ranking means the Andalusian event will be the first chance to see WorldTour teams in action on Spanish soil this year.
That reason alone will give the 183-kilometre event a special feel. Particularly as the next UCI-ranked men's race of any category in Spain, after so many races were cancelled, will now be the Volta a Catalunya in late March.
Almería is always interesting because it represents an almost unique yearly target in Spain for Classics riders and sprinters. Barring a couple of the four single-day events that form the Mallorca Challenge, Almería is the only one-day race in Spain with a finish so flat it is always most likely to end in a bunch sprint.
With all that in mind, Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe) would have been the logical favourite for Sunday finish in the Avenida Juan Carlos I in the coastal town of Roquetas del Mar. He is a former double winner and defending champion. However he was surprisingly missing from Bora-Hansgrohe's final line-up when it was confirmed on Friday morning. He will instead focus on preparing for the UAE Tour.
Other top name favourites who will now have a better chance of victory include Deceuninck-QuickStep trio Florian Sénéchal, Álvaro Hodeg, and Mark Cavendish, the latter also a former Clásica winner who is making his second debut for the Belgian team.
Fernando Gaviria and lead-out man Max Richeze should form a formidable pairing for UAE Team Emirates, while European road champion Giacomo Nizzolo will be teamed new leadout man Matteo Pelucchi at Qhubeka Assos.
Cofidis' Elia Viviani will not take part after recently returning to training after cardiac arrhythmia surgery, with Fabio Sabatini and Simone Consonni standing in for him.
One of the more interesting outsiders is Juan Jose Lobato, the Andalusian sprinter at Euskaltel-Euskadi. He was the last Spaniard to make it onto the Almería podium when he claimed second twice in a row back in 2014 and in 2015. His teammate Mikel Aristi took second at late January's GP Valencia, while fellow Spaniard Jon Aberasturi is an outside shout for Caja Rural-Seguros RGA.
Further names to keep an eye on include Marc Sarreau (AG2R Citroën), Danny Van Poppel (Intermarche-Wanty Gobert), Luka Mezgec (Team BikeExchange), and Timothy Dupont (Bingoal-Wallonie Bruxelles).
If the line-up is one of its best in years thanks in part to the pandemic, the route of the Clásica de Almería has barely varied compared to previous recent editions.
The start has moved to another small Almerían town on its southeasterly edge, Puebla de Vicar, but the Clásica's overall structure, consisting of a hilly first segment then a run along the windswept coast in the second half, is much the same as usual.
A second category Alto del Celín at km 54 represents the main mountainous challenge, after which there's an undulating middle section and finally coast roads for the last 70 kilometres.
The run along the Mediterranean is by no means all flat, though, with a short but steep fourth category, the Cuesta de Almerimar, at km 130, one potential flashpoint for breaks.
Furthermore, the finishing circuit, tackled once on a 21-kilometre lap and then on a much shorter, second loop of just 5.8 kilometres, contains a short climb topping out with 500 metres to go. But the climb is not so hard, nor is the finishing circuit that technical to stop a strong sprinters' team from keeping the race under control.
Factors that could prevent a sprint, apart from a long-distance break, are a possible attack on the slight rise in the final kilometre, with a rider like Luis León Sanchez (Astana Pro Team) one candidate for such late moves.
But above all the greatest threat to a bunch sprint are the coastal winds, which have given rise to echelons in some past editions.
In 2017, for example, Magnus Cort won from a group of just 30 riders after the race had split. For now – though this may change – the current forecast is for there to be virtually no wind in the area on Sunday.
While the COVID-19 pandemic provides one major historic backdrop to the 2021 Clásica de Almería, one side-effect of the pandemic race cancellations is that Alejandro Valverde will start his final season in Almería. In some ways, this feels more than appropriate, though given Almería is the same race where Valverde made his debut way back in 2002.
For the record, the then Kelme neo-pro took a notable eighth place the sprint behind the now long-retired Massimo Strazzer on a day when Almería was run off at a fearsomely fast average speed of nearly 45 km/h.
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