When Evenepoel surged past teammate James Knox’s right shoulder and took flight on the sharp uphill of Rua Parque Forestal, he was only seen again some 50 kilometres later beyond the finish line.
It was confirmation of what we suspected: the Soudal-Quick Step leader will be the rider to beat in southern Portugal.
History is on Evenepoel’s side, with two overall Volta ao Algarve triumphs already to his name in his only two previous participations, in 2020 and 2022. Whoever wants to win this year’s race, will have to take on and beat Evenepoel.
Yet the list of riders honouring the 50th edition of the Volta ao Algarve are plentiful and many of them have shown impressive early-season form. The racing should be intense and intriguing, as the early season ramps from preparation races to big-name battles and hilly stage races.
Wout van Aert (Visma-Lease A Bike) is one such big-name rider.
The Volta ao Algarve’s two sprint stages, the 22km rolling time trial and two hill-top finishes in southern Portugal all offer exactly the kinds of opportunities that helps ultra-versatile Van Aert impress.
The comparative rarity of a Van Aert versus Evenepoel battle only renders this year’s race even more interesting: if their race schedules remain unchanged, Algarve is the only race in 2024 where Van Aert and Evenepoel will take both be present in their rival trade teams.
Other riders aiming to hone their Classics form alongside Van Aert in the Algarve include Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) and Stefan Kung (Groupama-FDJ), both former stage winners in the five-day race.
Küng is likely to give Evenepoel a serious run for his money in the stage 4 time trial, which the Swiss rider captured last year, while Pidcock’s ability to shine on punchy uphill finishes and longer ascents will be in his favour on the hilly stages 2 and 5.
Evenepoel is not the only previous Algarve winner to return to Portugal this year.
Defending champion Dani Martínez (Bora-Hansgrohe) already proved he is in fine early season form with victory in his National Time Trial Championships a few weeks ago and Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers), never on the backfoot when it comes to racing against the clock, has won Volta ao Algarve twice overall in 2015 and 2016. Thomas arrives in Portugal after an early block of training at altitude, something even Evenepoel has not done.
Yet more time trialling royalty will be present at Algarve, with Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers) back in action after riding the Tour Down Under. Like Thomas and Martínez, the Italian is using Algarve to build towards the Giro d’Italia.
Thomas and Evenepoel are by not the only Grand Tour winners present. 2020 Giro d’Italia winner Tao Geoghegan Hart (Lidl-Trek) will be using Algarve as an early season test with his new team as he returns to racing after his bad crash at the 2023 Giro d’Italia.
Vuelta a España winner Sepp Kuss will give Visma-Lend A Bike another option alongside Van Aert. The American climber will perhaps play a support role but is now one of the big-names to remember.
The Volta ao Algarve route and how it could play out
The first of two clear opportunities for the sprinters in the Volta ao Algarve comes on the time-honoured opening stage from Portimao de Lagos.
Arnaud Démare (Arkéa-Samsic) will be aiming to push his tally of 96 wins a little closer to the century mark, and fellow sprinters of the calibre of Gerben Thijssen (Intermarché-Wanty), 2023 Champs Elysées champion Jordi Meeus (Bora-Hansgrohe) will be doing their utmost to stop him.
Stage 2, on the other hand, heads inland to the Serra de Monchique and will likely see a first selection of GC favourites come to the fore on the 7.7km at 6.1% Alto de Foia summit finish.
Foia was where Tadej Pogačar announced himself in 2019 and where Evenepoel himself unleashed a thunderous late acceleration twelve months later Whoever moves into the lead in Foia, Algarve’s highest climb, will be a serious contender for overall victory.
Stage 3 will most likely fall prey to the sprinters again but then the race will take a twist. One of the few elements the Algarve organisers change regularly is the position of the individual time trial in the race. This year it moves back from being the grand finale slot to stage 4, like in 2022 and so before the final hilltop finish.
The last time trial to be held in Albufeira was in 2003, so it is a comparative unknown. That said, the 22 km route, on a rolling, technical course favours lighter-built Grand Tour riders rather than the pure time trial specialists. Evenepoel will likely be the point of reference once again.
A summit finish for the 19th time, Algarve’s final showdown at Malhao on Sunday is a much more familiar feature and will crown this year’s winner of the Volta ao Algarve.
The 165.8 km stage also includes the cat 3 ascents of Picota, Vermelhos and Alte which precede the climb to the finish.
The 2.6km at 9.5% Malhao is a short but sharp haul to the line and former winners there include Pidcock, and Sergio Higuita (Bora-Hansgrohe). After a fifth and third place on the same summit in 2022 and 2020, Evenepoel will surely be aiming to win.
Evenepoel could equal the record of three Volta ao Algarve victories held by legendary Portuguese rider Belmiro Silva but whatever happens, the final result will have a much deeper resonance.
The week of racing will be a first test and first indication of Evenepoel and Soudal-Quick Step’s 2024 ambitions. He is targeting the Tour de France in 2024 and the Volta ao Algarve is the first step towards July, France and a shot at the podium in Paris.
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