In simpler times, when there were far fewer races on the international calendar, preparations for the year’s first major stage race, Paris–Nice, and the spring classics began on the Mediterranean. Along the Côte d’Azur in France, there was a series of one-day races over a two- to three-week period, while on the southern coast of Spain were stage races such as the Ruta del Sol and Vuelta a Murcia. Riders would choose either the French or the Spanish program.
Words: John Wilcockson | Image: Yuzuru Sunada
That’s all changed. None of February’s one-day races remain in France, mainly because of traffic concerns; the Murcia tour has changed from a five-day to a single-day race due to lack of funding; and so just the Ruta del Sol in Andalusia remains as an important preparation event. It begins this Wednesday, as does the Volta ao Algarve, just across the border in Portugal, which was a purely domestic race until this century. Those two European stage races are joined this week by the Tour of Oman, one of the recently developed events on the Persian Gulf, which starts Tuesday.
Many of the men who will be making the headlines later in the year, including climbers Romain Bardet, Alberto Contador and Thibaut Pinot, are competing at one of these three races; but others, including world champion Peter Sagan and grand tour winners Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali and Nairo Quintana, already began their seasons in the Southern Hemisphere and are currently at high-altitude training camps before starting their major European races.
Tour of Oman
Most of the publicity given to this six-day stage race in the Middle East centers on the famed stage to Jabal Al Akhdhar, a.k.a. Green Mountain, which is a 5.7-kilometer climb in the desert with a 10.5-percent average grade and long sections exceeding 13.5 percent. Time gains on that stage helped Froome and Nibali win past editions; but last year’s runner-up, Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale), and 2015 Vuelta a España winner Fabio Aru and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) are the most likely to benefit this year.
In all, there are nine UCI WorldTour teams racing the Tour of Oman, which is organized by ASO, the Tour de France promoter. A climber is most likely to win again, because besides the Green Mountain finish on Saturday, three other stages favor the uphill specialists: Wednesday’s stage 2 that includes the 1.4-kilometer, 9-percent climb of Al Jissah that’s followed by a 3-kilometer descent into the final kilometer at Al Bustan; Thursday’s stage 3 hilltop finish at Quriyat, a 2.8-kilometer, 6.5-percent uphill; and Friday’s stage 4 that scales the 3-kilometer Bousher Al Amerat climb three times in the final 43 kilometers.
Despite this emphasis on climbing, several contenders for the spring classics are using the Oman race to hone their form in the pleasant Oman climate—Fahrenheit temperatures in the 70s and 80s are forecast this week. These include Tom Boonen and Niki Terpstra of Quick Step Floors, Alexander Kristoff of Katusha-Alpecin and Greg Van Avermaet of BMC Racing. The only Americans on the start line are Dimension Data’s Tyler Farrar and UnitedHealthcare’s Dan Eaton, Chris Jones and Gavin Mannion.
Ruta del Sol
First held in 1925 and a fixture on the European calendar since the 1950s, the Ruta del Sol, a.k.a. Vuelta a Andalucía, has benefited from the demise of the one-day races and Mediterranean Tour in the south of France. The quality of the field is such that five-time UCI WorldTour champion Alejandro Valverde has won four of the last five editions, while Froome won the other one.
Valverde (Movistar) is defending his title, while he should get some keen competition from the eight other WorldTour teams, including such grand tour contenders as Contador (Trek-Segafredo), Pinot (FDJ), Mikel Landa (Team Sky) and Rigoberto Uran—whose Cannondale-Drapac teammates Joe Dombrowski, Pierre Rolland and Hugh Carthy might also play a prominent role in the climbs. Besides Dombrowski, the only other American in the race is Sunweb’s Chad Haga.
The key stages come on Thursday’s mountaintop finish on the Peña del Águila at Macha Real, a 15-kilometer ascent at almost 10 percent with some 16 percent pitches; and Friday’s 11.9-kilometer time trial at Lucena.
Volta ao Algarve
With 12 WorldTour teams, southern Portugal’s Volta ao Algarve is, on paper, the most competitive of this week’s three stage races. It has its fair share of climbing, but both of the recent winners on the start line, Tony Martin of Katusha-Alpecin and Michal Kwiatkowski of Team Sky, are all-rounders rather than climbers. So it’s understandable that several classics contenders are also in the Algarve, including Arnaud Démare of FDJ, John Degenkolb of Trek-Segafredo, Fernando Gaviria of Quick Step Floors and André Greipel of Lotto-Soudal. And with an 18-kilometer time trial scheduled for Friday, there’ll be keen competition between Martin, Alex Dowsett of Movistar and Taylor Phinney of Cannondale-Drapac for early-season honors. Besides Phinney, other Americans in the lineup include Sky’s Ian Boswell of Sky, Caja Rural’s Justin Oien and Rally Cycling’s Evan Huffman, Colin Joyce, Sepp Kuss, Danny Pate and Eric Young.