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65th Ruta del Sol. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

Evenepoel, Nibali and other stars converge on Algarve, Ruta del Sol

Races in Portugal and Spain provide important early season climbing and time trial tests for many marquee names.

Big names are converging on the Iberian Peninsula as the 2020 racing calendar heats up for a pair of five-day stage races.

With the spring classics and first European WorldTour stage races just around the corner, some of the peloton’s biggest names are heading south to test their legs and new equipment.

The Volta ao Algarve in Portugal and the Ruta del Sol in Spain — both running Wednesday through Sunday — are attracting grand tour favorites and classics-bound stars, with several riders debuting their new colors. And both races serve as important early season markers of form and ambitions.

“It’s my first race, so one of the objectives is to check my preparation,” said Mikel Landa, who debuts at Ruta del Sol for Bahrain-Merida. “If I have the opportunity to win, I will certainly not back down.”

Of the two races, Algarve has emerged as more international. Ruta del Sol is remains heavily Spanish, though both races provide an appealing mix of climbs and time trials for riders targeting the spring classics and the Giro d’Italia, still months away on the horizon.

Each race features an individual time trial, for many the first big test against the clock on European roads of a new season. And both see enough vertical, with two key climbing stages in each race, to reveal who is on form and who can be expected to shine in the coming weeks.

Of the two, Algarve serves up a bit gentler terrain to provide more chances for the sprinters. As a result, riders such as Elia Viviani (Cofidis), Greg Van Avermaet and Matteo Trentin (CCC Team), Philippe Gilbert (Lotto-Soudal) and Alexander Kristoff (UAE-Emirates) all line up in southern Portugal.

The Algarve’s two uphill tests in the Monchique Mountains — in stages 2 and 4 — are not quite as long as what awaits in Spain, but equally as explosive. A 20.3km time trial in Lagoa often decides the GC.

Dylan Groenewegen at the Volta ao Algarve
Dylan Groenewegen at the Volta ao Algarve. Photo: Tim De Waele/Getty Images

Vincenzo Nibali makes his highly anticipated debut in Trek-Segafredo colors, while Miguel Angel López (Astana) and Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) also make their road season debuts in Portugal.

“It will be a long season, and my first big goal is the Giro d’Italia,” Nibali said. “To reach my best condition there, I need to do it step by step, with a clear roadmap, and without excessive stress to the physique. Algarve is the perfect starting point.”

The GC battle could be a real fight, with Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), former winners Geraint Thomas and Michal Kwiatkowski (Ineos), Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation), and Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) all lining up Wednesday in Portimao.

“It’s good to be back into the racing rhythm as the legs are getting better every day,” said Van Avermaet. “So far, everything has gone well when it comes to building my shape before the classics season. Volta ao Algarve is the next step in my preparations.”

Across the Spanish border from the Algarve region lies the Ruta del Sol, which traces across much of Spain’s sprawling Andalucia province.

This year’s Ruta features plenty of vertical, but does not include a true mountaintop finale. Instead, organizers have included pitched climbs sprinkled across each stage, but with the finish lines coming after a decisive climb.

Stage 1 will certainly weed out the field to a handful of GC challengers, with a first-category Puerto de las Palomas (12.4km at 6.5 percent) topping out about 8km from the finish line. Stage 2 could see a mass sprint across undulating terrain, while stage 3 sees more GC fireworks with a first-category and second-category climb in the closing 50km. Stage 4 tackles the Cat. 1 Alto del Purche (8.8km at 7.8 percent) with about 17km to go, all stages to put the hurt on the pack.

If the general classification is not locked up, the closing-day 13km individual time trial in Mijas could crown the winner.

Ruta has long been the dominion of Alejandro Valverde, who’s won it five times, but he will be racing instead at the UAE Tour (February 23-29). Defending champion Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) makes his season debut at Ruta, with Movistar packing its new stars, Enric Mas and Marc Soler. Mikel Landa debuts in his new Bahrain-Merida jersey. Jack Haig (Mitchelton-Scott) and Brandon McNulty and David de la Cruz (UAE-Emirates) should all be in the running for the overall crown.

“It is always a hard race and having seen the route, it won’t be any different this year,” De la Cruz said. “Stage one and four stand out as the days which will count most for the GC and then the final time trial also will be key.”