UBEDA, Spain (VN) — Every race counts on the international calendar, and the five-day Ruta del Sol only served to reconfirm that.
There were plenty of plot lines through the week, from sneaky tech (see below) to the confirmation of a new Italian star in the making with Alessandro Covi.
Riders and teams came out swinging across a challenging route that delivered a searing GC battle that saw defending champion Miguel Ángel López leaving the podium Sunday with third overall and refusing to speak to the media.
VeloNews was down there all week soaking up the racing and enjoying the Spanish sun as the race lived up to its name. Here are five of the key takeaways from the Ruta del Sol, and how the storylines will play out in the coming weeks:
Magnus Sheffield: A star is born
When asked who was the most dangerous rider in Sunday’s final breakaway, stage-winner Lennard Kämna didn’t hesitate, “Sheffield.”
The 19-year-old barnstormed across the hilly and challenging course across southern Spain, leaving with his first pro win and packing big confidence into the “opening weekend” in Belgium.
On Friday, Sheffield jumped out of the front group in the final kilometer to turbo home to victory. Sunday was even more impressive. He snuck into the day’s main breakaway across the kingmaker stage, and though he couldn’t match Kämna’s attack, he dug deep to finish fourth.
“He is very mature and responsible for his age,” said Ineos Grenadiers teammate Cameron Wurf, who roomed with Sheffield all week. “You can see he has a huge engine. It’s going to be exciting to see how far he goes.”
Also read: Magnus Sheffield on his dramatic win
Sheffield, who is slated to race Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne next, is soaking it all in.
“It feels so good in the confidence, and it shows back to the team how much they believe in me,” he told VeloNews.
“I am looking forward to continuing this journey with the team. I cannot thank the guys enough. My teammates rode so hard today, I cannot be more proud of them.”
Perhaps it was no mistake that Ineos Grenadiers gave him the “21” start number after all. The kid’s the real deal.
Altitude camps paying off early
Top pros camping out on top of Spain’s Teide volcano is nothing new. What is new is how soon and how early in the season riders are mixing in altitude into their training programs.
Overall winner Wout Poels and his top Bahrain Victorious teammates were perched on Teide’s volcano for three weeks before debuting at Ruta del Sol with his first win since 2019, and his first GC victory since 2016.
“We did a good pre-season altitude camp, and it’s something the team does really well to invest and puts a lot into the preparation for us before races,” Jack Haig told VeloNews. “And you can see that it shows.”
Also read: From Teide to Ruta, Poels powers to win
Alexey Lutsenko (Astana Qazaqstan) was also up on Teide, and he parachuted off the cone to win last week’s Clásica Jaén Paraíso Interior in his 2022 debut.
Even the classics riders are getting in on it. Sep Vanmarcke confirmed to VeloNews he will mix in altitude camps ahead of the major northern classics.
Poels will bounce out of Ruta del Sol into the Volta a Catalunya, the Ardennes and a return to the Giro in May. On paper, he’ll be helping Mikel Landa, but added, “I will see some opportunities.”
Alessandro Covi: Just what the Italians need
Everyone in Italy is excited about Alessandro Covi, and they should be. The 23-year-old kicked to victory in stage 2, and held the leader’s jersey into Saturday’s queen stage.
The third-year pro won his first win at the Vuelta a Murcia two weekends ago to confirm his hot start to 2022.
“I worked hard over the winter and managed to lose a bit of weight and I’m just making the most of the good legs I have at the moment,” Covi said. “Right now I am enjoying my cycling.”
Charismatic, young, and easy going, Covi is just what Italian cycling needs right now.
Many of Italy’s top stars are easing toward retirement, and Covi brings a wide skillset that can suit him well in reduced bunch sprints in stage races and one-day racing.
Italy needs a new generation of stars to carry the sport into a new decade. Covi could be one of them if he keeps winning.
Up next is the “opening weekend” and a full slate of classics before the Giro d’Italia in May.
Sneaky tech: Handlebars on the limit
Rune Herregodts (Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise) popped for victory in stage 1 at Ruta after winning a perfectly executed raid in the opening day breakaway.
VeloNews spotted the very narrow handlebars (he said 36mm width), and Herregodts confirmed he used them specifically to be more aerodynamic during the stage. With extra padding and lift, Herregodts could ride within the UCI’s new rules but in a much more tucked and aero position. That helped him save energy for the finale.
Also read: Check out these ultra-narrow handlebars
Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) was also spotted using similar bars at Clásica Jaén.
Is that a dodge of the UCI rules, or simply the case of riders working within the new guidelines? Watch this space.
Classics riders: Desperately chasing form
Usually by February, the classics-bound riders are flying.
Nearly even major classics rider at Ruta told VeloNews they are still chasing form, and hope to hit it in time for the major dates in April.
From Vanmarcke, to Oliver Naesen and Greg Van Avermaet at Ag2r-Citroën, to Zdenek Stybar at Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl, everyone said they were behind the curve ball compared to previous years.
“I am still searching for my best form, but it’s coming up slowly,” Van Avermaet told VeloNews. “I keep on working, so hopefully I will be ready for the spring classics.”
The culprit? There are many, but all of them the said the ongoing disruptions around COVID 19 continue to hamper and stall their collective progress.
Training camps are being disrupted, a few riders have tested positive and were forced to sit out. Others fear missing out entirely if they get sick in the coming weeks.
“If you test positive in March or April, your classics season could be over,” Stybar told VeloNews. “You miss training, you miss races. It would be very hard to come back from that to be competitive in a race like Paris-Roubaix.”
Up next for the cobble bashers is Belgium’s “opening weekend.” That will provide further clues of who is on track, and who’s lagging behind.