There's no getting away from it: rightly or wrongly, the presence of Chris Froome (Team Sky) in this year's Ruta del Sol is going to make for an extremely odd five days of racing in Andalucia this February.
Normally, the mere presence of any four-time Tour de France winner on the start line of any week-long stage race in February would attract plenty of attention. On this occasion, there is the additional ingredient of the ongoing controversy surrounding Froome's participation in this race - or indeed any other.
For all of Froome's 'keep calm and carry on' attitude towards the Ruta del Sol, as shown in Sky's press release on Tuesday, the heightened media attention he would normally garner now looks set to mushroom into a feeding frenzy. In fact, it has already started. Quite what, for example, the Ruta del Sol's organisers made of a newspaper like The Times calling them up to ask on Monday if they felt confident about their security measures for Froome next week we shall never know. (For the record, The Times says they're confident.)
Such questions in the Ruta's 72-year history are surely as unprecedented as the coverage of the Andalucian race in L'Equipe's Monday edition. In it, two cycling personalities of the stature of Cyrille Guimard and Richard Virenque argued at length in favour and against Froome rolling up to the Costa del Sol's start in Mijas next week.
For the record, Mijas is a pleasant enough Mediterranean coastal resort, famous for its donkey taxis and its golf, but not much else. But now, amongst cycling trivia fans, as of Wednesday, February 14, Mijas will also be known as the spot where Froome began what is arguably his most challenging season to date.
When it does begin, the scrutiny on the Ruta del Sol will increase, given that Froome won't just be 'training with a race number on' as one 1990s top sports director used to insist on calling these early season events for the big stars. Froome will likely be in with a very good chance of winning.
This is not due just to Froome's heavy - and heavily publicised - training program in South Africa this January. The expected absence of Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), a five-time winner of the Ruta del Sol, as well as the last-minute exit of Romain Bardet (AG2R-La Mondiale) due to injury, means a drop in the number of top rivals.
There are others, though: former teammate Mikel Landa (Movistar), who is making his debut for the Spanish squad, Steven Kruisjwijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), recently third in the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, will likely be Froome's three biggest challengers. It's also entirely possible that Froome's teammate Wout Poels, who has had his fair share of early season overall success, could have a crack at the GC as could the much-vaunted new Sky rider, David de la Cruz. Outsiders include Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal), ably aided by his teammate Tomasz Marczynski, the Polish all-rounder who lives locally in Granada and who won two difficult Vuelta stages last year, one on the roads of inland Andalucia.
Froome has raced Andalucia twice before, once back in 2011 prior to his rise to fame, when he finished an unremarkable 50th, and again in 2015 when he became Britain's first ever overall winner following a thrilling battle against Alberto Contador. The Briton's tendency to hit the ground running in the early season has - with the exception of 2017 - been a regular feature since 2013. This time round, it could be that Froome sees himself as having a point to prove, particularly as the race has a summit finish at Allanadas where he won the last time the Vuelta went up the climb in 2015.
A challenge in two parts
As for the route, its difficulty comes in two very different parts. The organisers have placed the first big challenge on stage 2, but have then tried to ensure the uncertainty over the winner will endure to the very last moment of the race. Presumably, this is because the battle stopped midway last February. They had an electrifying first three stages, with a battle royale over the mountains of eastern Andalucia between Contador, Valverde and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), and a hotly disputed time trial. However, it subsided into a very dull finale in the final 48 hours, with one bunch sprint, a breakaway stage and a torrential downpour in Malaga making for a fairly humdrum, soggy, conclusion.
Stage 1 from Mijas to Granada takes the peloton up from the Mediterranean to city at the foot of Sierra Nevada, just like the opening stage of 2017. Whereas 2017's first stage concluded with the extremely difficult first category final climb of Monachil and a fast drop to Granada, there is a much more rolling finale in 2018. A last-minute attack or a small group sprint is the most likely conclusion.
Stage 2 is the toughest single mountain stage, with an ascent to the Allanadas summit finish following a constantly undulating drive through Andalucia's inland sierras. Allanadas is not long, just 5.2 kilometres in total, but when combined with a painfully steep average gradient of around 12 per cent and with segments reaching 21 per cent, it can clearly do a lot of damage. Indeed, three years ago, after a thrilling battle with Contador on a day of miserable cold and rain, Froome's victory there effectively netted him the overall victory 48 hours later by a scant two seconds.
This time round, Allanadas will not be so decisive. After stage 3's likely bunch sprint at Herrera as the race heads westwards, a second, punchier uphill battle awaits on stage 4, with a 1.7-kilometre final ascent at Alcala de los Gazules.
The crunch day for the 2018 Vuelta a Andalucia, though, will likely prove to be the 14.2 kilometre individual time trial in the coastal town of Barbate. Whilst not too long and with very little climbing, the time trial's 5.5 kilometres of steadily rising rough trackway in the first half - or sterrato, as the organisers have decided to describe it - will call for expert bike handling and a fair dose of good luck to avoid punctures and mechanicals. The weather could also prove critical. The Atlantic coastline is just a few kilometres away at most and the riders will be racing on very, flat and exposed terrain throughout. This is one of the world's most popular areas for windsurfers, so there are no prizes for guessing what could be a critical factor on this last day of racing.
Whether or not Froome wins the race, the big story of the week will surely be about the Briton in any case, both in terms of the reception he gets from the fans and the other riders and teams. Let's not forget, this will be a first test of form for Froome's toughest racing season to date, no matter how the controversy over his salbutamol adverse analytical plays out. Other sub-plots, such as how Landa shows off his Movistar colours for the first time this year, shouldn't be ignored. But, in the bigger picture and for many fans, the Ruta del Sol will be about one rider.
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