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Simon Yates, O'Connor, Trentin headline field for Ruta del Sol 2022 - Preview

The peloton rides through the province of Jaén on the 2020 Ruta del Sol
The peloton rides through the province of Jaén on the 2020 Ruta del Sol (Image credit: Getty)

A last stop-off before the Opening Weekend in Belgium, another early test run for the Ardennes Classics, or a slow but steady step towards the Grand Tours? All and any of these objectives are writ large for many of the top names taking part in this year’s very hilly, five-day Vuelta a Andalucia Ruta Ciclista del Sol, which starts this Wednesday in the sierras of south-west Andalucia.

One of Spain’s most venerable stage races, which kicked off way back in 1925, this year’s Ruta del Sol - or Vuelta a Andalucia as it is also known -  returns to its usual February slot after the pandemic forcibly postponed the Ruta to May in 2021. 

Riding for Movistar last year, Miguel Angel López secured the overall victory with Antwan Tolhoek (Team Jumbo-Visma) in second and Julen Amezqueta (Caja Rural- Seguros) in third. López will be back this time with Astana Qazakstan to defend the title.

The route

The format, in any case, is very similar to 10 months ago, with the route containing one or possibly two bunch sprint stages at most, a couple of punchy uphill finishes and for a second year running no individual time trial. Essentially, the only difference with 2021 is that the decisive GC stage, which came mid-way through the race last May, comes right at the end this year, with a seven-kilometre, steady final ascent to the mountain village of Chiclana de Segura likely to hold the key to victory.

Stage 1’s technical finale and draggy kilometre, long, uphill finish to Iznajar, last tackled in 2020, and stage 2’s much punchier, partly cobbled, drag up to the castle at Alcala la Real, also used in the 2021 race, both saw thrilling finales. (For the record,  the Iznajar stage culminated with a solo victory for Gonzalo Serrano taking one of the biggest wins of the season for Spanish Pro Conti team Caja Rural, while the one at Alcala la Real saw an equally impressive dash to glory for young Ineos rider Ethan Hayter.)

With 19 classified climbs spread over five stages, opportunities for ambushes abound, from the first category Puerto del Boyar, which the opening stage ascends almost in the first hour of racing, to the brace of third categories late on stage 3, and the notoriously difficult Alto del Purche (the hardest part of a much longer ascent to Sierra Nevada) early on stage 4.  

But interestingly, the lack of major climbs - that is to say, first category -  late on in any stage will make it less of a mountain battle than Andalucia has been in the past, and more one for breakaways. The Ruta’s lack of bonus seconds for any of the stages will likely have an effect on how the GC battle plays out.

Riders to watch

Unfortunately the Ruta del Sol has lost three of its biggest players directly or indirectly to the effects of the pandemic. Jakob Fuglsang (Israel-Premier Tech), who captured the overall in 2019 and 2020 is out for the count, while Tour de France champion Vincenzo Nibali (Astana Qazakstan) has also been sidelined with COVID. 

Probably the most important absence, at least for the Spanish fans, though, is Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who has had to drop out as a precautionary measure. Five times victorious and a podium finisher way back in 2003 when he was a second year pro, the veteran Spaniard not only holds the record for wins in the Ruta, but was also planning on using this year’s race to give his fans one last chance to see him race in the Spanish stage race before retiring. However, after missing out on the Vuelta a Murcia, his home event, and the Clásica Jaén this weekend, Valverde will now be absent from Andalucia as well.

At the other end of the age spectrum, while one talented young Spanish racer Juan Ayuso (UAE Team Emirates) has also fallen foul of COVID-19 and will not be taking part, another, Carlos Rodriguez (Ineos Grenadiers) will be on the start grid. A second strong, local favourite will undoubtably be Mikel Landa (Bahrain Victorious), making his debut in a race where in 2020 he briefly went head to head with final winner Fugslsang.

Further stage racing and/or Ardennes specialists include Italy’s Damiano Caruso (Bahrain Victorious) and Britain’s Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange-Jayco). Other GC racers include Tour de France top-five finisher Ben O’Connor (AG2R Citroën), star Colombian climber Angel López and both 2020 Giro winner Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers) and one of his key challengers in the race, Wilco Kelderman (Bora Hansgrohe).

However, the stage racing specialists are by no means certain to have it all their own way, given a solid delegation of top Classics names have opted for the Ruta rather than the Volta ao Algarve in neighbouring Portugal, which runs concurrently and which is also a favourite for one-day racers. AG2R Citroën duo Greg Van Avermaet  and Oliver Naesen, both of whom are looking to hit the ground running after an uneven 2021, will be present alongside Matteo Trentin (UAE Team Emirates), Zdenek Štybar and Florian Sénéchal (both QuickStep-AlphaVinyl) and double Paris-Roubaix podium finisher Sep Vanmarcke (Israel-Premier Tech).

Should one of these Classics racers suddenly find themselves in the GC battle at Andalucia - among the current crop of racers Matteo Trentin took a couple of stage wins in the Ruta two years ago -  it would not be surprising. A quick glance at the Ruta’s palmares shows that alongside victories for the Valverdes, Contadors and Froomes of this world, Classics specialists also abound.

Names of the calibre of  Oscar Freire and Erik Dekker in the noughties, Erik Zabel and Johan Museeuw in the 1990s and before them figures of the stature of Edvig Van Hooydonck, Adri Van der Poel, Freddy Maertens, Gerrie Knetemann and Rudi Altag have also all finished in the top three steps of the Ruta podium. And the reason for this is simple.

With the paves of Opening Weekend coming less than a week after the Ruta del Sol finishes, the Ruta takes place at a point where a large number of one-day cobbled Classics specialists have one of their best chances in the year of beating the stage racers at their own game. So as far as TV viewing goes for fans, that rare clash of radically different types of racing specialists almost invariably lends the Ruta a different kind of narrative that few, if any, other races can match in the season.

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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The IndependentThe GuardianProCycling, The Express and Reuters.

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