Vuelta a Andalucia Preview: Valverde favourite for fourth title

When it comes to naming the pre-race favourite for this year’s Vuelta a Andalucia, to say that history will be on Alejandro Valverde’s side is putting it mildly.

The winner of the Vuelta a Andalucia, in 2012, 2013 and 2014, Valverde is the all-time record holder for one of Spain's oldest early season races, which started in 1925 before re-emerging in 1955. Valverde's predilection for Andalucia is hardly new: his first ever podium placing in a stage race, way back in his second year as a pro in 2003, was third overall in Andalucia. He also claimed the points jersey.

Valverde may have dominated the Vuelta a Andalucia recently, but the race has long been a favourite for Classics stars from outside Spain, and Philippe Gilbert's defeat of Valverde in Murcia on Saturday suggests at least one Belgian Classics star is on top form. Furthermore, Valverde's race-intensive middle segment of the season, with the Giro, Tour and Olympics all on the menu, could see him take an easier start to the year.

From the 1960s onwards, major non-Spanish stars like Gerrie Knetemann, Rudi Altig, Erik Zabel and Dietricht Thurau are amongst the winners of the Vuelta a Andalucia. Curiously enough, the one-day galacticos have tended to appear repeatedly in Andalucia's podium placings or as stage winners than right at the top of the race classification, suggesting they that were honing their form for April, rather than being at the top of their game. That foreign liking for Andalucia would also explain a Belgian squad like Lotto-Soudal with a heavy Classics slant will be participating in the race for the 22nd time in their history, too - 'surely a record', as the race website notes. Many non-Spanish teams have also taken advantage of the revived Vuelta a Valencia to send squads to Spain to race for a solid four week block of pre-Classics training from the Mallorca Challenge through to Andalucia this week.

Coming so early in the season, Andalucia unsurprisingly tends to have a rugged, but not exceptionally hard route, with one key day in the mountains and perhaps a time trial deciding the overall. Last year, though was the exception that proved the rule, as two of the top stage racing stars, Chris Froome and Alberto Contador - neither present this year, although there is still an impressive line-up - fought each other tooth and nail in one of the most dramatic editions of recent seasons.

The stages

The 2016 Vuelta a Andalucía's five stages are of increasing difficulty, culminating with a tricky medium length individual time trial on Saturday and the toughest stage of all on the Sunday. This brings the curtain down on Andalucia with a lengthy ascent and summit finish at Peñas Blancas, a climb situated both high above the Mediterranean coastline near Estepona. This means the chance of bad weather ruining the day's racing are slim, and which is conveniently close to Malaga airport for those riders subsequently catching a plane home, too.

The first stage from Almonaster la Real to Sevilla, while it has a lumpy beginning in the sierras of northwest Andalucia, is most likely to end in a bunch sprint in the region's capital. The second, from Palomares del Rio, close to Sevilla, to the city of Cordoba has a much more complicated finale, with a third category climb of the Alto de Trassiera, 22 kilometres from the finish, which is harder than it looks and which is followed by a series of twisting false flats and a very fast, potentially dangerous, descent to Cordoba.

Stage three from Monachil to Padul, with four classified second and third category climbs in the foothills of Sierra Nevada, ups the difficulty notably. With barely a metre of flat all day, it will be extremely difficult to control the race, making it a real challenge for those teams wishing to stake everything on Saturday's 21-kilometre individual time trial at Alhaurin de la Torre.

The time trial route itself is very technical in the first half and has a steadily rising finale, with a lengthy flatter section between making it very tricky for riders to calculate their strength. Another factor to add to the equation will be the wind, always unpredictable so close to the Mediterranean coast. But at 21 kilometres, the longest time trial of any race so far this season, the differences could be considerable.

The final stage is by far the hardest, with a lengthy incursion into the Grazalema sierras (and four classified climbs) preceding the race's defining ascent of Peñas Blancas. 14 kilometres long, well-surfaced, and not excessively hard (it averages around 8 percent, with the hardest ramps of 14 percent mid-way through the climb), Peñas Blancas real challenge will be that it comes at the end of five days of racing and right at the beginning of the season. (For the record, it was last used in a bike race in the 2013 Vuelta a España with a win for Leopold Konig and the race lead for Nicolas Roche, although neither Sky rider will be taking part in the Vuelta a Andalucia.)

The Contenders

Of the 24 teams of seven riders, making for a medium-sized peloton of 168, Valverde will be the outstanding favourite. Although he did not take part in Andalucia in 2015, Movistar's clinched three of the six stages nonetheless, thanks to his locally-born team-mates Juanjo Lobato, the winner of two stages and Javier Moreno, the winner of the stage one time trial - both of whom are taking part this year.

Valverde faces some stiff opposition, starting with BMC Racing, whose first ever participation in Andalucia sees them bringing a stellar line-up, including Philippe Gilbert, Tejay van Garderen and Samuel Sánchez. Tinkoff may not have Contador in their ranks for Andalucia, but Rafal Majka and Roman Kreuziger could well make for a formidable duo. Equally Team Sky does not have Chris Froome, and Mikel Landa is not racing because of sickness. But Sergio Henao, already third in the Tour Down Under, and the recent winner of the Vuelta a Valencia, Wouter Poels, could well make Sky the team to beat. As if that was not enough firepower, Vasil Kiryenka, the world time trial champion, will be a big favourite for Saturday's race against the clock.

Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), Steve Cummings (Dimension Data), Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal), Wilco Kelderman (Lotto NL-Jumbo), Sylvain Chavanel (Direct Energie) are all potential GC challengers, whilst Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) and Bryan Coquard (Direct Energie) are two of the few sprinters present in Andalucia.

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