C-Cycling - Ruta del Sol 2015 Preview & Favorites

18-22 February 2015

This was supposed to be the first big fight between the three top overall contenders for the Tour de France. Unfortunately, Nairo Quintana had to forfeit due to a crash in the national championship. Still, with Alberto Contador and Chris Froome at the starting line, we should be in for a great show in southern Spain this week.

The route
This year’s Ruta del Sol starts out with two stages on the first day of racing. An undulating opening stage in the morning and then a short but demanding time trial in the afternoon. Stage 2 has a tricky final but won’t create big time differences. This will, however, happen on stage 3 and 4 with two steep stage finishes on Alto de Hazas Llanas and Alto de las Allandas. Both climbs have an average gradient of around 10 %. This surely is where the general classification will be settled. Still, nothing is certain until the final stage of the race. On paper, it’s not a very difficult one but if you look closer, you will discover the brutal finish in Alhaurín de la Torre. After a flat run-in, the road starts to kick up with about 1 km to go. The steepest part comes with 500 meters left to race. On a bad day, riders can easily end up losing a couple of places in the general classification on this final day of the race. You can see all stage profiles at the bottom of this page.

The favorites
Without Nairo Quintana, this race is down to a battle between only two riders. Unless something truly surprising happens, it will be either Alberto Contador or Chris Froome who will end up winning Ruta del Sol 2015.

Chris Froome had a very difficult season last year and he’s now very eager to start out this season in style. Team Sky need to win more races and they send a very strong team to support their former Tour de France winner. With Kennaugh, Kiryienka, Siutsou, Zandio, Roche and Nieve by his side, Froome has the strongest team in the race for the mountain stages. The Kenyan-born Brit comes to Andalucía fresh off a training camp in South Africa. Reportedly, he’s already in good shape and it will be very interesting to see if Chris Froome can continue his impressive line of overall victories in his first race of the season after winning Tour of Oman the last two years in a row. The competition is obviously stronger in Ruta del Sol and with numerous tough climbs to overcome, this could be an indicator of how his season will be. Also, don’t forget Alberto Contador’s gesture as he won the last mountain stage in the Vuelta a España last year, pointing at his bad knee - humiliating Chris Froome. I’m pretty sure this is something Froome will remember for a while. If he can start off the year by beating Alberto Contador, it will be an important win for him personally.

The fascinating thing about Alberto Contador is that he never takes part in a bike race just to be another rider in the pack. He always races to win and this is why he almost always ends on the final podium in the stage races - usually on the top spot. On home soil, in Spain, Contador will naturally be eager to give his fans a win right from the start of the year. However, on the contrary to Chris Froome, Contador is trying to time his condition so it peaks already in May. He recently went to Teide with the rest of the team’s top climbers and after three hard weeks on the volcano, it’s hard to say if he’ll be strong right from the start of this race. Contador says he lost 1.8 kg on Teide, which was a bit less than he had expected. After winning the Vuelta - with one leg - against Chris Froome, Contador doesn’t have any pressure on him to win these small races. He has proven he can beat Froome in a Grand Tour. His focus is set on the Giro d’Italia and I doubt he will lose any sleep over a defeat in Ruta del Sol. On the other hand, Chris Froome has a lot to prove after his performance in the Vuelta. It may sound strange to say that Froome should have more motivation than Contador in a race on Spanish soil but I think it could very well be the case in this race. That being said, I’m sure both will fight to the last meter on the final stage to win overall.

The outsiders
If it goes as expected, Chris Froome and Alberto Contador will occupy the first two spots on the final podium. This means there is only one left to fight for. The way I see it, this fight will be between riders like Bauke Mollema, Wilco Kelderman, Romain Bardet and Dani Navarro.

After his move to Trek, Bauke Mollema has an important season ahead of him. He’s the team’s big hope for the Grand Tours and he has to prove he’s up for the task. So far, he has had a very strong start of the season, finishing 4th in the demanding second race in Mallorca and 2nd in Vuelta a Murcia last Saturday after winning the uphill sprint in the peloton. On paper, this year’s Ruta del Sol suits Mollema very well. The Dutchman finished 6th overall last year but the stages seem to suit him much better this year. He has a very strong team to support him and I would be surprised not see him close to the overall podium.

Wilco Kelderman is another Dutchman with a very good chance of making top3 in this race. He’s usually strong at the beginning of the season and he’s only getting better every year. He has already progressed a lot on the long climbs and thanks to his strong time trial, he’ll always be a solid candidate in most stage races. Kelderman, too, comes right from a training camp on Teide and it will be interesting to see how it affects his performance. Laurens Ten Dam and especially Steven Kruiswijk will be able to provide strong support on the climbs. We might even see Kruijswijk having a few goes himself, given he will have a free role in the GC.

For other strong outsiders for the general classification, look to Beñat Intxausti, Jean-Christophe Peraud, David Arroyo, Steve Cummings, Jurgen Van den Broeck, Kenny Ellissonde, Pierre Rolland, Fabio Duarte, Sylwester Szmyd and Janez Brajkovic who usually performs well in the Spanish races.

The sprinters
You could argue that there aren’t any real stages for the sprinters in this year’s Ruta de Sol. Both stage 1a and stage 2 have climbs close to the finishing line. The pure sprinters may not be able to hang on to the peloton, but strong riders like John Degenkolb, Moreno Hofland and local favorite Juanjo Lobato should be able to fight for the win these two days. After his impressive performance in Dubai Tour, Degenkolb will also be one of the favorites for the steep finish on stage 5.

Fast riders like Tyler Farrar, Daniele Ratto, Grega Bole, Anthony Roux, Pim Lighart and Kenneth Vanbilsen may also be able to fight for the win in the opening days.

Stage previews
Below you will find all stage profiles for Ruta del Sol 2015. In the evening, prior to each upcoming stage, I will update this page with a short preview below the profile, giving my favorites and jokers and telling you what to look out for in the stage. Additionally, I will include a short update from within the race by Spanish journalist Fran Reyes, who will be following the race on site.

For live coverage of Ruta del Sol, go to steephill.tv.

Stage 1a

C-Cycling - Ruta del Sol 2015 Preview

On paper, this stage may look like a tough one with numerous hills in the final part. Don’t let the profile deceive you. Even though it does go up and down, the percentages are very low. Average gradients around 2-3 % won’t trouble the strong sprinters.

After passing under la flamme rouge, the riders enter the city center with about 700 meters to go. Here, they continue on narrow town roads, which means it’s crucial to stay in front. There is simply no room to move up. This part is slightly uphill. After turning left onto Avenida del Valle, the final 400 meters are flat and straight-out towards the finishing line.

Given their recent results, the two big favorites for this stage are John Degenkolb and the local Andalusian hope Juanjo Lobato. My best outsider tip is Moreno Hofland who won a stage in Ruta del Sol last year.

Fran Reyes:
This first stage is basically just a warm-up stage with flat and gentle roads. The only kilometers that may trouble the riders are the first 35 km close to the seaside, where the wind may hit the bunch. Still, this section comes too early to have any impact on the final outcome. I expect a rider with a big engine to win this stage. My pick is John Degenkolb but Juanjo Lobato has a fair chance too.

Stage 1b

C-Cycling - Ruta del Sol 2015 Preview

Despite its short distance, this time trial has a few demanding parts. After 3.1 km, the road kicks up for about 300 meters with an average gradient of 6.5 %. Another uphill section starts in a 180° turn with 2.2 km to go. It starts out a bit steep but it doesn’t take long before the gradients drop to a minimum. The last kilometer is flat but includes a couple of tricky corners, which could easily decide the outcome of the stage if the time differences are small.

Since there are no bonus seconds in Ruta del Sol, it’s important to gain time whenever it's possible. The top GC favorites - Chris Froome and Alberto Contador - are both excellent against the clock and they have to be amongst the favorites for this stage too. The same can be said for Wilco Kelderman. Looking at the non-GC contenders, riders like Sylvain Chavanel, Tobias Ludvigsson and the Trek duo of Jesse Sergent and especially Bob Jungels stand out to me.

Fran Reyes:
The influence of this time trial will be more psychological than anything else. There are some technical turns at the start and at the finish of the course but the time differences between the favorites shouldn’t be bigger than 30 seconds. Once again, I think this is a stage for the big engines. I go with Bob Jungels and Jimmy Engoulvent.

Stage 2

C-Cycling - Ruta del Sol 2015 Preview

The two stages on the first day of Ruta del Sol had a huge impact on the general classification. Not because of the time trial but due to the many crashes on stage 1a. Luckily - for the race - Alberto Contador and Chris Froome both managed to stay in front. Contador gained a few seconds in the time trial and he’s now leading the race overall. Most likely, we won’t see any important changes in the GC in stage 2.

With about 45 km to go, the road starts to kick up. The following 35 km are pretty much uphill. However, Alto de la Primera Cruz, starting with just 11.6 km to go, is the only categorized climb of the day. The 2.6 km towards the top have an average gradient of 6.5 %. With so many riders already out of the GC, attacks on this climb seem inevitable. Tinkoff-Saxo doesn’t need to defend the jersey already and it may be up to Movistar and Giant-Alpecine to keep the peloton together. Remember, there are less than 10 km to go from the top of the climb.

The run-in is a big undulating. The last 1.2 km are uphill with an average gradient of around 3 %. After turning right in the roundabout with 600 meters to go, it’s straight-out, and slightly uphill, all the way towards the finishing line. After missing out in stage 1a, both John Degenkolb and especially the local hero Juanjo Lobato must be very eager to get in the mix today. For a late attack, look out for Wilco Kelderman. The young Dutchman lost over 5 minutes in the first stage but he proved to be in a great shape in the time trial where he finished 2nd. He has nothing to lose and it wouldn’t the first time he tried a late attack in this kind of stage. In case Lobato is not ready, look to Gorka Izagirre who's in good shape and finished 3rd in the demanding sprint in Stirling in Tour Down Under this year.

Fran Reyes:
In the evening time trial, I noticed a change in the mood of the race. Half the peloton had road rashes, stitches and bandages here and there. It was a stressful opening stage with a couple of scary moments. Therefore, I think riders will hope for an easy day in the peloton for this second stage. However, the finish won’t let the riders relax too much. The final climb gets steeper towards the top and it could have a serious impact on the outcome. Still, I think the fast riders who arrived safely to their hotels after the time trial, will be able be able to cope with the climbs today. Juanjo Lobato crashed on his head in stage 1a so my guess is that he won’t be in good spirit for the sprint. Once again, my favorite is John Degenkolb. Grega Bole and Edward Theuns could be some good jokers for a top3 place. They are both fast and have a good kick on the climbs.

Stage 3

C-Cycling - Ruta del Sol 2015 Preview

This is probably the most anticipated stage of the 2015-season so far. Today, we’ll see the first real fight between Alberto Contador and Chris Froome.

The riders start climbing already after 18 km on the bike. The 20 km towards the top of Puerto de la Cabra have an average gradient of 5.8 %. I wouldn’t be surprised if Team Sky and Tinkoff-Saxo decided to set a high pace already at this point, to make sure it’ll be a hard stage. Before passing the 100 km mark, the peloton faces the second categorized climb of the day. Alto del Lucero is 5.1 km long and has an average gradient of 6.3 %. From the top, there are about 50 km to the peloton starts on the final struggle of the day.

Alto de Hazallanas officially starts with 16.7 km to go. However, the first part of the climb is nothing compared to what awaits the riders after a short descent through Güéjar Sierra. The final 7.4 are uphill with an average gradient of nearly 10 % and have numerous parts of 15-18 %. The climb was on the menu in the Vuelta a España in 2013 - you can watch how it went back then by clicking here.

Obviously, the two massive favorites for this stage are Alberto Contador and Chris Froome. The Spaniard is leading the race overall and doesn’t necessarily have to attack. There are no bonus seconds in Ruta del Sol, so as long as Contador follows Froome, he will keep the jersey. As mentioned in the overall preview above, I’m sure Chris Froome will be very eager to beat Alberto Contador after what happened in the Vuelta last year. Today is his first chance to show that he’s up for the task. Froome will have Mikel Nieve and Nicholas Roche at his side. Both riders did well on this climb in 2013. Mikel Nieve is only 28 seconds behind Contador in the GC and he might have a go himself if the team allows him to do so. Looking at the domestiques, Alberto Contador probably has the best man in Ivan Basso. The Italian was amongst the strongest riders here in 2013. Together with Jesus Hernandez and Michael Valgren, Contador has a very strong team to support him.

In case Contador and Froome ends up playing the cat-and-mouse game for too long, riders like Wilco Kelderman and Bauke Mollema should try to attack. Kelderman is already out of the GC and without bonus seconds, a stage win won’t help Contador or Froome much in regards of the general classification.

Fran Reyes:
After the peloton took it easy on stage 2, we can now expect fireworks on stage 3. Hazallanas is insanely hard, even more considering we are only in February. A key factor can be Movistar’s choice of tactics. Yesterday, Javi Moreno told the media they were going to ride aggressively since neither Intxausti, Herrada nor himself are strong enough to beat Contador and Froome on the final climb. They may try something already on Puerto de la Cabra, where they can find very powerful allies in the boys from Team Colombia. Torres and Rubiano delivered good performances in San Luis and they are already out of the GC because of the crashes on the first day. Still, the terrain is very gentle after Puerto de la Cabra. Therefore, it might be better to wait attacking until the peloton starts on Hazallanas.

Stage 4

C-Cycling - Ruta del Sol 2015 Preview

Team Sky made a horrible tactical error on stage 3 when they lost positions on the short descent before the final climb. Chris Froome started out the ascent way too far behind and even though he didn’t lose many seconds to Alberto Contador, he never had a chance of catching him. Team Sky must be very eager to make up for their mistake and get it right this time.

As you can see on the profile, this stage is a real leg-breaker. Except for the first few kilometers, it’s constantly up and down all day long. Many will still be feeling yesterday’s stage in the legs but it doesn’t mean it will be a quiet day. A morning breakaway will have a good chance of making it all the way today. Therefore, we can expect a fierce fight on the first climb to join the break.

Strong climbers like Wilco Kelderman, Romain Sicard, Jurgen van den Broeck, Sebastien Reichenbach, Nicolas Roche and local hero Javi Moreno are all more than six minutes behind Alberto Contador in the GC. The same goes for the MTN-Qhubeka’s super talent Merhawi Kudus who finished 7th on stage 3 but only sites 25th in the general classification. I would expect these kinds of riders to try to join the morning breakaway and go for the stage win.

Today’s final climb, Alto de las Allanadas, is 4.4 km long and has an average gradient of over 10 %. There are numerous parts of 15-20 % towards the top, making sure only the best climbers in the race have a chance of winning this stage.

Leading the race, Tinkoff-Saxo don’t need another stage win but in case it all comes back together for the final climb, naturally, Alberto Contador is the prime pick. However, Team Sky still have four riders in top7 overall. They should really try something to test Contador and his teammates. Mikel Nieve had a mechanical problem just before the final climb on stage 3. Still, the Basque climber managed to pass most of the peloton uphill to finish 5th on the stage. Being 2:30 min behind Contador in the GC, Nieve is no imminent threat. Therefore, he might be given a little gap, should he try an attack in the final. If so, I doubt they will see him again before the line.

Fran Reyes:
Even though the terrain was cool and offered a lot of possibilities, racing was a bit passive on stage 3. Most of the DSs I talked with were wondering in what shape Contador and Froome would be in. Therefore, they decided to take a defensive approach and wait for the final climb to play their cards. This will be slightly different today, since the teams now know that they have no chance of winning if they try to go head-to-head with Froome and Contador. In any case, it will be a surprise to see any other than one of those two riders winning this stage.

Stage 5

C-Cycling - Ruta del Sol 2015 Preview

After an impressive comeback by Chris Froome on stage 4, the Kenyan-born Brit now leads Ruta del Sol just two seconds ahead of Alberto Contador. On paper, this may look like an easy final stage, but don’t let the stage profile deceive you. However, don’t let the road book fool you either.

According to the road book, there should be parts of over 20 % on the last 500 meters. This is not the case. Even though the road does kick up on the last kilometer, it’s hardly as steep as the road book leads you to believe. The steepest part comes with about 500 meters to go. The following 300 meters will most likely decide who wins this stage. After turning right in a 180° turn, the last 200 meters are flat and straight-out towards the finishing line.

Local Andalusian hero, Juanjo Lobato has already won a stage in this year’s Ruta del Sol. He made it look very easy when he flew past his rivals on the slightly uphill finish on stage 2. The gradients are higher today but Lobato still has to be the number one favorite. John Degenkolb has had a few difficulties getting it right in the sprints this season. However, he made an outstanding performance on the steep finish in Dubai Tour where he left Lobato in 3rd place. It’s hard to see any other than these riders winning this stage.

We musn’t forget about Alberto Contador though. The Spaniard always races to win and being only two seconds behind Chris Froome in the general classification, clearly he wants to try something today. There are no bonus seconds in the race, but on a finish like this, there will be numerous gaps in the peloton. I wouldn’t be surprised if Contador tried an attack on the last 500 meters. It will be more than difficult to shake off Chris Froome, but if he catches him in a poor position again, he might be able to take back the seconds he needs. If you are looking for a joker, look to Grega Bole who has been showing great shape this year. This kind of finish is right up his alley.

Fran Reyes:
It was great today, wasn’t it? What a show by Froome and Contador! We are already thinking of July but there is a chance we may watch another duel already in Alhaurín de la Torre. The stage is comfortable with nice roads ideal to develop high speed on the second half. Clearly, the peloton is going to catch all the breakaways. The finishing line is on a small hill. It’s not really steep or long but it’s enough to narrow the field of contenders by erasing the pure sprinters. I think we will see another duel between Degenkolb and Lobato – this time with the German rider as the winner. And what about the fight for the red jersey? Well, I’m pretty sure that the two second margin is going to be challenged by Contador and it looks like Froome thinks so too: “With Alberto is never over until it’s over”, he told the media after stage 4.

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