Hoping – and possibly praying – for warmer weather, the riders head for southern Spain and the 58th edition of the Vuelta a Andalucia Ruta Ciclista de Sol. It starts today (Sunday 19th February) and takes place over five days, finishing on Thursday. Many of the teams and riders robbed of racing kilometres in Challenge Mallorca will be taking part, keen to test their legs ahead of key races such as next month’s Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico.
What kind of race is it?
It’s a regional Spanish event which was held once in 1925 and then not again until 1955. Since 2005, it has been a 2.1 category five-day race on the UCI European Tour which provides a good mix of racing; again, something for everyone. A prize pot of €52,142 is on offer, with €6,865 for the overall race winner.
There are 16 teams taking part:
ProTeams (7): Vacansoleil–DCM, Rabobank, RadioShack-Nissan, Movistar, Lotto-Belisol, Katusha and Euskaltel-Euskadi.
Pro Continental teams (8): NetApp, Spidertech-C10, Accent Jobs-Willems Veranda, Saur-Sojasun, Cofidis, Project 1t4i, Caja Rural and Andalucia.
Continental teams (1): NSP Ghost.
Among the participants are a number of recent GC winners, including defending champion Markel Irizar (RadioShack Nissan) and 2007 winner, the evergreen Oscar Freire (Katusha), looking to add to his stage win in the Tour Down Under. Equally there are a number of other riders, including former stage winners, who’re looking to record their first wins of the season. In years gone past it’s largely Spaniards and Belgians who’ve topped the podium, including Freddy Maertens, Gerrie Knetemann, Rudi Altig and more recently Erik Dekker and former sprint king Erik Zabel, who’s now working with Katusha.
The most recent winners of the race are:
- 2007: Oscar Freire (Rabobank)
- 2008: Pablo Lastras (Caisse d’Epargne)
- 2009: Joost Posthuma (Rababank)
- 2010: Michael Rogers (HTC-Columbia)
- 2011: Markel Irizar (RadioShack)
What happened last year?
Saur-Sojasun recorded back-to-back wins after Jimmy Engoulvent won the 6.8km prologue and his teammate Jonathan Hivert, who on stage one outsprinted a leading group of 43 riders including sprinters Francisco Ventoso (Movistar) and Oscar Freire (Rabobank). However, it was Markel Irizar who assumed the red leader’s jersey after a day of racing over undulating terrain.
Ventoso got his revenge in the following day’s sprint finish into Jaen, holding off Juan Jose Lobato (Andalucia-Caja Granada) and Davide Appollonio (Sky). The day’s racing was enlivened by an Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) attack which came to naught.
Freire won the next two stages. The first into Cordoba was marred by a number of crashes whch took fellow sprinters Ventoso and Koldo Fernandez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) out of contention. The second saw him beat Sammy Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Hivert to the line.
UCI rules only permit four jerseys to be awarded. However, the Spanish love to give prizes for all sorts of things: most stylish rider, most aggressive rider and so on. Irizar, with some judicious riding, took the overall and was the best placed ‘Spaniard’. Freire picked up the points jersey while the sprint equivalent was won by Jan Bakelants (Omega Pharma-Lotto). Local team rider Javier Ramirez (Andalucia-Caja Grenada) was the KoM and his team-mate Jose Alberto Benitez the best placed Andalucian. RadioShack won the team prize.
1. Markel Irizar (RadioShack) 16:27:21
2. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +0:01
3. Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) +0:02
4. Jerome Coppel (Saur-Sojasun) +0:03
5. Luis Pasamontes (Movistar) +0:08
6. Thomas Lovkvist (Sky) +0:08
7. Rigoberto Uran (Sky) +0:09
8. Haimar Zubeldia (RadioShack) +0:12
9. Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +0:16
10. Ivan Rovny (RadioShack) +0:18
This year’s race
It follows a not too dissimilar pattern to last year and includes many of Andalucia’s well-known towns and resorts.
The race starts with a pan flat 6km prologue in San Fernando which will appeal to time-trial specialists and sprinters alike. Stage one – even with three category three climbs early on – will be one for the sprinters. Stage two’s queen stage takes place over more rolling terrain, with category three, two and one climbs early on. However, as you can see below, it finishes on a category one climb which should whittle down the potential contenders. This could be where the leader’s red jersey is both lost and won.
The two subsequent stages are again over rolling terrain with three and four category three climbs respectively. Nonetheless, these should provide a challenge for those who can both sprint and climb. Neither of these stages is likely to be decisive in terms of the overall general classification.
Who to watch
There’s a pretty impressive field taking part, probably as teams and riders are desperate for racing kilometrage following a number of cancelled races in Mallorca and shortened stages in Southern France due to exceptionally bad weather.
With the exception of the prologue, the stages are kicking up in terms of both mileage and terrain by comparison with those only a couple of weeks ago.
RadioShack-Nissan are sending a very strong team to support the defending champion some of whom, such as Daniele Bennati, may be let off the leash to enliven the sprint stages.
Movistar are also pitching up with a strong team who’ll be riding in support of Alejandro Valverde – who’s already won a stage in the Tour Down Under – or maybe Benat Intxausti.
Rabobank have rising stars Steven Kruijswijk and Bauke Mollema supporting Robert Gesink. Katusha have Oscarito who’s already won eight stages in this race in previous years, Denis Menchov and Daniel Moreno. Lotto-Belisol have the Vanendert brothers, Jelle and Dennis [more of whom later – Ed].
Euskaltel-Euskadi have both Igor Anton and Sammy Sanchez on their team. The two Spanish Pro Continental squads will be looking to animate the race, give television exposure to their sponsors, and in so doing expect riders such as David de la Fuente (Caja Rural) and Jesus Rosendo (Andalucia) to set their caps at the minor jerseys.
Cofidis are bringing their dual sprint weapons: diminutive Samuel Dumoulin (who’s already bagged the GP Marsellaise) and petite Columbian Leonardo Duque. While Saur-Sojasun have former stage winners Engoulvent and Hivert.
On the VeloVoices wide-screen we’re going to be keeping a beady eye on Markus Fothen (number 151), who has ridden for German Continental team NSP Ghost since 2011. Prior to that he rode for Milram (2009-10) and Gerolsteiner (2004-08). Having won the under-23 World Championship time trial in Canada, he signed to Gerolsteiner and posted some impressive results: 12th overall in the 2005 Giro d’Italia and 15th overall in the 2006 Tour de France, having worn the white jersey for the best young rider – which he ultimately lost to Damiano Cunego – for 13 stages. He won a couple of stages of races in 2008 but since then his results have been solid rather than spectacular. His younger brother Thomas joined him at all his previous teams and rode for NSP Ghost last season but this year he’s not on the team.
February 19th: Prologue – San Fernando (Cadiz) ITT, 6km
February 20th: Stage 1 – Zahara de los Atunes to Benalmadena, 197.9km
February 21st: Stage 2 – Malaga to Alto Santuario ntra. sra. De Araceli (Lucena), 150.7km
February 22nd: Stage 3 – Montemayor to La Gabias, 157.1km
February 23rd: Stage 4 – Jaen to La Guardia de Jaen, 135.7km
The Vuelta a Andalucia starts on Sunday 19th February and ends on Thursday 23rd.