A selection of Grand Tour hopefuls will line up for the 2015 Vuelta a Andalucia, or Ruta del Sol, in Spain on Wednesday February 18.
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Here we rate the chances of the main contenders.
Alberto Contador, Tinkoff-SaxoDespite the race being hosted by his home nation, Alberto Contador tends to miss the Ruta del Sol in favour of other early season races. However, this year sees him ride with the intention of winning the overall, and with two tough mountain-top finishes and cheering home crowds in his favour, he will be the man to beat.
Chris Froome, SkyLike Contador, Chris Froome usually spends his early-season winning races elsewhere, but will this year make an appearance at the Ruta del Sol for the first time since 2011. The time trial isn’t long enough for him to win the race there, so the overall will likely come down to a battle between himself and Contador in the high mountains.
Benat Intxausti, MovistarWith Alejandro Valverde choosing to ride the Tour of Oman rather than attempt a fourth consecutive victory at the Ruta del Sol, and Nairo Quintana absent through injury, Intxausti has a rare chance to ride for himself. As a Spaniard riding for team with a proud tradition in this race, he’ll likely be more motivated to post a high GC finish than some of the bigger names.
Bauke Mollema, Trek-Factory RacingFor all his talent and impressive rides in Grand Tours, Bauke Mollema has, surprisingly, failed to finish first in a stage race since his breakthrough victory at the Tour de l’Avenir way back in 2007. He has performed well in recent editions of this race, but, among such a strong field, will do very well to better his third place from 2013.
Jean-Christophe Peraud, Ag2rNow 37, Peraud faces the tough task of bettering a season in which he finished second at the Tour de France. He begins his campaign in Andalucia, where he’ll be keen to retain his status as team leader ahead of younger teammate Romain Bardet.
Jurgen Van Den Broeck, Lotto-SoudalUnusually for a rider who only performs well sporadically, Van Den Broeck has finished runner-up at the Ruta de Sol an impressive three times in the past five editions. All those results, however, came before the serious injury he sustained at the 2013 Tour, and the Belgian has yet to rediscover his very best form.
Wilco Kelderman, Lotto-NL-JumboWith his results becoming more and more impressive, it feels as though any race from now could be the one where he starts riding alongside the very first tier of climbers. Still only 23, the Ruta del Sol may still be too soon for him, but a top five could still be on the cards.
Ones to Watch
John Degenkolb, Giant-Alpecin
John Degenkolb has already begun 2015 in scintillating form, with second overall and an impressive uphill sprint stage win at the Dubai Tour. He looks like the strongest sprinter on the start list here, and ought to win at least one stage.
Tim Wellens, Lotto-Soudal
The fastest improving cyclist in the peloton, there’s no telling yet how good Wellens can be, or even what kind of rider he will eventually become. He captured attention last year by winning the Eneco Tour and finishing fourth at the Tour of Lombardy, and beat several noted climbers to finish second at the Trofeo Serra de Tramuntana at the end of last month.
Moreno Hofland, LottoNL-Jumbo
Hofland’s great start to 2014 began with a sprint win in stage four of the Ruta del Sol, and he’ll be hoping to repeat that success this time round. Still only 23, a stage win ahead of Degenkolb and the likes of Tyler Farrar and Gerald Ciolek would mark yet further progression in developing career.