While all over the region of Valencia the annual harvest of its famous orange trees is well underway, for Remco Evenepoel (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana Qazaqstan) and the rest of the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana stars, this week's racing in eastern Spain represents their first opportunity of stage race glory in 2022. But will it be a fruitful one?
Evenepoel's 2022 debut will be just one of many interest points when Valenciana kicks off in a small agricultural town, Les Alqueries, (surrounded by – you've guessed it – orange trees) this Wednesday lunchtime.
For one thing, the Quick-Step-AlphaVinyl racer will be taking on riders of the calibre of veteran Spanish champion Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Slovenian all-rounder Matej Mohorič (Bahrain Victorious). Valverde has clearly been in good form at the Mallorca Challenge one-day series, though, and, as the overall victory record holder with three GC wins in Valenciana, he has to be considered a favourite.
Other prestigious names on the start list include powerhouse sprinter Fabio Jakobsen (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl), Norway's Classics veteran Alexander Kristoff (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert), 2020 Giro d'Italia winner Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers), and 2021 Vuelta a España podium finisher Jack Haig (Bahrain Victorious).
As ever, in fact, Valencia's usually warm-ish early spring weather and mixture of easier sprint stages and (usually) good roads with only a couple of tough days has once again ensured a high level of participation for its 2022 edition, which runs from Wednesday, February 2 to Sunday, February 6.
But the route of a historic Spanish stage race, now steadily closing in on the100th anniversary of its first edition in 2029, also contains a few surprises of its own this year.
Stage 1's hilly inland run from Les Alqueries to the tiny village of Torralba del Mar – where the 161-strong Valenciana peloton will easily outnumber Torralba de Mar's resident population of 61 – contains much of the five day course's 8,814 metres of vertical climbing.
Three second-category climbs, the last peaking at just three kilometres from the finish in Torralba del Mar and immediately preceded by a long draggy third-category, the Puerto de Ayodor, offer ample terrain for the stronger teams in an aggressive mood to lay down a powerful pace and eliminate a good few GC rivals in the process.
"The first stage is that tough it could even decide the race," Fernando Ferrari, editor of well-known Spanish cycling website Ciclo21 and who trains regularly in the region, tells Cyclingnews.
"You could say it's a Vuelta al País Vasco day – up and down all the time, lots of small roads and not easy to bring back a break. But my instinct says that it'll come down to a group of 50 or 60 riders at the finish, who'll then fight it out for the GC on the race's toughest day – stage 3."
Stage 2 from Betera to Torrent on the south-eastern outskirts of Valencia, although hilly in its first two thirds, looks set for a bunch sprint, with only a single third-category climb with some 15 kilometres to go possibly causing upsets for the fastmen.
Jakobsen is one favourite should there be a sprint, of course, particularly with lead-out ace Michael Morkov to guide him through the closing metres. But interest will be high to see if Elia Viviani hits the ground running in his first race back for Ineos Grenadiers, and the same goes for his Italian compatriot Giacomo Nizzolo (Israel-Premier Tech), always a strong early season racer.
Kristoff too, has a long history of early season success, with stage victories ranging from the Tour of Oman to Bessèges, although curiously enough in his lengthy career, he has never won in Valenciana, his best result being a second place a few years back.
Stage 3, though, is a very different kettle of fish. Starting in Valencia's southern capital of Alicante, the first 60 of its 156 kilometres are a flat run along the Mediterranean coast. But the 18-kilometre long – although with a very uneven and mostly gentle gradient, including some downhills – second-category Col de Rates takes the peloton deep into the Sierras del Herrero mountain range, and should see the main battle for the GC get underway.
Some 100 kilometres further on, after relentlessly rugged terrain and another second-category climb, what remains of the lead group will tackle Valencia's hardest single ascent and sole summit finish at the Alto Antenas del Maigmó Tibi.
"It's not that long, but the ones that really matter are the last three which are off-road – sterrato," says Ferrari. "But the surface is hard-packed earth, running through a forest so that gives some protection as well, and so even if it rains it won't be impossible to ride up."
There's no getting away from the climb's steady percentages, though, which will be around 10 percent at worst. But then, with just two flat stages remaining and – regrettably – no time trial this year, the odds of a definitive leader emerging that day at the summit of the Maigmó Tibi are high.
Neither of Valenciana's last two stages are excessively challenging, though on Saturday's flat leg from Orihuela to the seaside resort of Torrevieja, where the Vuelta a España started in 2019, there's always the chance of crosswinds on the coast. Equally, Sunday's traditional short, straightforward, final sprint stage into the capital city of Valencia will not likely produce too many surprises.
However, as the first 2.Pro or higher race of 2022 and with 15 WorldTour teams in its line-up, Valenciana traditionally produces some of the best early action of the season all round. Two years ago, the Spanish stage race was exceptionally memorable even by its own standards as Valenciana became the first victory of the year for Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) en route to the Tour de France.
And this time round – for local fans at least – interest in how his widely rated young Spanish teammate Juan Ayuso fares against Belgian rising stars like Evenepoel and veteran Spanish champions like Valverde will be almost equally high.
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