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A Ruta for the all-rounder

The 56th edition of the Vuelta a Andalucía, more commonly known as the Ruta del Sol, takes place February 21 to 25 in southern Spain. The second Spanish race of the season, following the five-day Challenge Mallorca, features a 91-rider peloton comprised of seven ProTour, four Pro Continental and two Continental squads.

Last year's champion, Rabobank's Joost Posthuma, will not be back to defend his title. In fact, nobody in the top 12 from 2009 is on the start list. Team Milram's Linus Gerdemann, 13th overall in 2009, is the highest returning finisher.

The 2010 edition of the five-day stage race will likely crown a new winner, unless Oscar Freire (Rabobank), the only previous winner in attendance this year, has brought his climbing and time trial legs.

While the Vuelta a Andalucía has been won by both pure climbers as well as sprinters, the parcours usually favors an all-arounder who can take care of himself on a variety of first, second and third category climbs dispersed throughout the road stages. In a departure from the usual all-road race format, this year's edition features a completely flat 10.9 kilometre time trial on the fourth stage. While the distance and the nature of the course precludes large time gaps, those in contention for GC honours will rely on the race against the clock to eke out additional seconds on rivals.

The thirteen categorised climbs on tap for 2010, including two category one ascents, in addition to the time trial, may play into the hands of riders like Tony Martin (HTC-Columbia), Linus Gerdemann (Team Milram), Thomas Lövkvist (Team Sky), Saxo Bank's Andy Schleck, Frank Schleck and Jens Voigt, and Damiano Cunego (Lampre - Farnese Vini).

The Vuelta a Andalucía may very well be decided on the first day as the peloton finishes atop the vicious first category Alto de la Guardia climb after 159.2 kilometres of racing. The 5.3 kilometre ascent to the finish line is unrelenting and includes sections as steep as 21 per cent.

Stage two, covering 182.2 kilometres between Otura and Córdoba, should be the only day in which the sprinters can duel for stage honours. The longest stage of the Vuelta a Andalucía contains a single categorised climb, which will rear up after only 44.6 kilometres of racing, and the final kilometres are devoid of any tricky turns.

Look for Oscar Freire (Rabobank), Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia), Borut Bozic (Vacansoleil), Greg Henderson (Team Sky) and Francisco Ventoso (Carmiooro - NGC) to go head-to-head in a rousing field sprint.

The third stage may prove to be the most taxing for the peloton as it includes three second category climbs and two third category ascents in its 162.5 kilometre trek from Marbella to Benahavis. Climbing starts almost immediately as the riders face a third category climb after 4.1 kilometres and a second category climb 6.7 kilometres later. Additionally, the riders face a gradual uphill finish to the line.

Wednesday's 10.9 kilometre time trial in Málaga should be a blazing-fast race of truth on an out-and-back course along the Mediterranean waterfront. The field contains several chrono specialists including former time trial world champion Bert Grabsch (HTC-Columbia), former under 23 time trial world champion Dominique Cornu (Skil-Shimano) and time trial world championship silver medalist Gustav Larsson (Saxo Bank). Other riders capable of a good performance against the clock include Tony Martin (HTC-Columbia), Team Sky's Thomas Lövkvist and Nicolás Portal, as well as Jens Voigt (Saxo Bank).

The Vuelta a Andalucía concludes with a 161.4 kilometre stage on Thursday. Riders face three categorised climbs, including the first category Puerto de El Torcal, the final ascent of the race. The general classification will likely be decided the previous day, so look for a break of those out of overall contention to use the first category Puerto de El Torcal as a springboard for final stage honours.

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