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Ruta del Sol gets moment in sun with Froome’s 2018 debut

The five-day race in Spain kicks of Feb. 14 and will provide a challenging route for the peloton.

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Spain’s five-day Ruta del Sol will get its place in the sun next week with the imminent arrival of Chris Froome.

The Sky captain confirmed Monday he would make his season debut February 14-18 in Spain’s dazzling Andalucía region. Despite the controversy surrounding Froome’s ongoing Salbutamol case, the race is glad to welcome the former Ruta winner and the attention that will come with it.

Speaking to the Spanish wire service EFE, race director Joaquin Cuevas said Team Sky had confirmed Froome’s start about two weeks ago.

“He can compete because the UCI has not taken any decisions about his case,” Cuevas told EFE. “It is a pleasure and honor to have Froome at the race. The course returns to the Las Allanadas climb three years later, and Froome knows this climb.”

Froome’s return will surely draw a lot of media interest, and the Spanish race will be the backdrop for the Sky captain’s return to racing for the first time since his Salbutamol case was leaked last year.

Controversy aside, the race will also mark the first matchup between Froome and former teammate Mikel Landa (Movistar). It’s unclear how race-ready Landa will be, but Froome has been clocking some impressive distances in his off-season training sessions in South Africa. Landa raced two years alongside Froome and joins Movistar looking for opportunities to lead.

One rider who won’t be at the start line is Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale), who will be sidelined for two weeks following a domestic accident at his home in France. Bardet has been one of the most outspoken critics of Froome’s case and has insisted that it is better for the sport if Froome stands down while his case plays out.

Former pro Alberto Contador, speaking to the media during the presentation of his team, was hesitant to express his view of the Froome case.

“I am concentrated on my team. Those that have to respond are the ones who manage the sport,” Contador said. “This has to be resolved as quickly as possible. It’s bad for everyone if a situation like this drags on too long.”

Froome is no stranger to the race and will be competing for the third time. He was 50th in 2011 and won in 2015. This year’s course is ideal for Froome to open his season with a W.

Also known as the Tour of Andalusia, the race dates back to 1925 but has been held continuously since 1955 (except for 1978). Spanish riders typically dominate the race, with Alejandro Valverde holding a record five victories. Hot off winning the Volta a Valenciana in his comeback from injury, Valverde will not be defending his title and will instead race at Abu Dhabi later this month.

The 64th edition, which runs next Wednesday-Sunday, has something for everyone. And perhaps that’s one reason why Froome chose it for his season debut. There are plenty of climbs packed into the five-day route in what are the hardest mountains so far in the young European season.

Stage 1 to Granada is lumpy, with six rated climbs that could see the pack busted up on the first day of racing. Stage 2 to Jaén finishes atop the Alto de las Allanadas. It was on the same climb in 2015 where Froome beat back Contador to position himself for victory in that year’s Ruta. Stages 3 and 4 will be a chance for the sprinters and stage-hunters, with the race ending with a 14.1-kilometer individual time trial.

That route is perfect for Froome, and it’s likely the reason why he chose it to make his season debut.

The race is one of the survivors of the economic crisis that’s swept across Spain over much of the past decade. Several races have died on the vine or were reduced to one-day affairs (like the Vuelta a Murcia). The Volta a Valenciana made a comeback two years ago, but many of Spain’s second-tier, non-WorldTour races have suffered. Organizers once had to resort to crowdfunding to salvage the race five years ago, but it’s weathered the storm.

While much of the media might be focused on the Salbutamol drama, the racing should be intense for such an early-season event.