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Valverde, Contador heat up Ruta del Sol

It’s one of the few stage races that Alberto Contador’s never won, but standing in his way is Alejandro Valverde, who’s won this week’s Ruta del Sol a record four times.

The Movistar captain is hot off a dramatic victory on home roads at the Vuelta a Murcia Saturday, while Contador makes his season debut in Trek – Segafredo colors. Joining the fray over the five-day race across Spain’s Andalucía region will be Mikel Landa and Wout Poels (Sky), Ion Izagirre (Bahrain – Merida), Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), Rigoberto Urán and Pierre Rolland (Cannondale), and Warren Barguil (Sunweb) in what should be a telling GC fight as the European stage race season heats up following its winter slumber.

Five stages, including two mountaintop finales and an individual time trial, should provide a solid early season test for the peloton. Valverde has won four of the past five editions, with only Chris Froome in 2015 breaking the streak that started in 2012.

“With Nairo Quintana winning the Vuelta a Valenciana, this has been a great start of the season for us,” Valverde said. “Now we go to Andalucía, with Contador and some other good riders there, so we’ll have to be at their level.”

Valverde, 36, will be among the favorites in a deep GC field that also sees Contador stepping out in his new Trek colors. Second in 2015 to Froome, Contador has never won at Ruta, in part because he often races at the nearby Volta ao Algarve (which he’s won twice) held on the same dates.

Contador is hoping some feel-good sensations at Trek – Segafredo, in sharp contrast to the tension of his former Tinkoff team, will pay off with top results this season. Ruta del Sol will see him test his legs ahead of early season goals at Paris-Nice, Vuelta al País Vasco, and the Volta a Catalunya, with an eye on a return to Tour form.

“The Tour is my big objective, and I hope I don’t have any setbacks. I want my performance to depend on my legs, not other factors,” Contador said. “Up until now, all the data from our training camp in Tenerife are very good, and that gives us a lot of confidence.”

Ruta del Sol will also mark the season debut for Landa, the highly touted Spanish rider who struggled in his first season at Sky. This year, he will once again target the Giro d’Italia, and his start to 2017 is already looking smoother than last year, when a winter bout of the flu postponed his season debut. Diego Rosa also makes his debut in a Sky jersey.

Cannondale — which will race on disc brakes — brings an ambitious squad to test their legs ahead of March’s major stage races at Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico.

“The Ruta del Sol is very interesting for all WorldTour teams, as it’s only two weeks away from the first WorldTour races in Europe,” said Cannondale sport director Juanma Garate. “We’re looking for a good performance by Hugh Carthy and are aiming for the GC with Rigoberto Uran. We also see chances for Tom Van Asbroeck in stages 4 and 5.”

The five-day Ruta certainly delivers up a challenge. Stage 1 tackles the Cat. 1 Monachil climb late in the race, and stage 2 finishes atop the Cat. 1 Peña de Aguila. The rolling 12km time trial presents one of the first major TT’s of 2017, meaning the GC should be wrapped, while sprinters will see chances in stages 4 and 5.

Who will win? It’s hard not to pick Valverde, who’s already won in his daring breakaway last weekend at Murcia. The challenging profile will provide an interesting preview to see who’s in shape ahead of March and even provide a give of who’s on track for the Giro. The Ruta course has gradually become more difficult over the past few editions, opening the door for the likes of Valverde and Contador to have realistic chances at the GC.

2017 Vuelta al Andalucía / Ruta Ciclista del Sol

Stage 1, Feb. 15: Rincón de la Victoria to Granada, 155km
Stage 2, Feb. 16: Torredonjimeno to Alto Peña de Águila, 177km
Stage 3, Feb. 17: Lucena to Córdoba, 12km (ITT)
Stage 4, Feb. 18: La Campana to Sevilla, 179km
Stage 5, Feb. 19: Setenil de las Bodegas to Coín, 151km

Contador on Quintana double

Contador also had some interesting remarks on Nairo Quintana’s Giro-Tour double, and how he expects the Tour de France to stack up:

“It’s obvious that Froome has been the Tour dominator the past couple of years, and he will be the top favorite again this year,” Contador said. “Froome will arrive 100 percent, while Quintana is taking a big risk racing the Giro. What he is trying to do is difficult. It all depends on how he handles the Giro. I would leave all the responsibility with the Italians, like Nibali or Aru, who are centered on the Giro centenary … Quintana will be one of the favorites for the Tour, even though the Giro maybe isn’t his best option.”