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Ruta del Sol: Miguel Ángel López and Simon Yates vie to fill Valverde void

GC field wide open against a very challenging route at the Vuelta a Andalucía.

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UBEDA, Spain (VN) — Alejandro Valverde was supposed to be the king of Spain all this month.

Instead, the Movistar rider is sidelined with COVID-19 complications, leaving a void to fill in this week’s Ruta del Sol across Spain’s sunny underbelly.

That opens the door to one of Spain’s most important early season crowns at the five-stage Vuelta a Andalucía, as the race is also called.

Here’s what to watch this week in Spain:

Five days, lots of hills

The 68th edition of the race begins in Ubrique in a remote corner of the vast province of southern Spain.

There are flats in Andalucía, but it appears course designers have purposely detoured around them.

It’s hot from the start, with the 200.7km opening stage Ubrique to Iznájar featuring a big climb early, and with a biting Cat. 3 in closing 10km and uphill kicker awaiting any would-be sprinters who are still in the frame.

Stage 2 from Archidona to Alcalá la Real is a hilly 150.6km profile with five rated second- and third-category climbs. A “wall” finish with ramps at 11 percent to the finish line will see the first important GC selection.

Stage 3 from Lucena to Otura sees five moderate climbs with an uphill kicker in the 152.6km course. This is the race’s “easy” day.

Stage 4 from Cúllar Vega to Baza at 165.6km is the “queen stage,” opening with back-to-back Cat. 1 climbs in the first half of the stage in Spain’s towering Sierra Nevada. There’s another second category climb with rolling terrain to close out the stage.

Stage 5 from Huesa to Chiclana de Segura at 167.1km with tidy up any loose ends with two moderate climbs with Cat. 2 summit finale to decide everything.

Who to watch: No Valverde or Nibali, but plenty of others

Another big name missing is Vincenzo Nibali (Astana-Qazaqstan), who also was zapped by the coronavirus. Even without Valverde or Nibali, there are plenty of contenders.

Alexey Lutsenko and Miguel Ángel López lead Astana-Qazaqstan. Both are showing signs of top form early in 2022, with Lutsenko winning big Monday at his season debut at the Jaén Paraíso Interior, while López has been moving in some early season races.

López won last year’s rescheduled Ruta in May during his controversial and abbreviated one-season stint at Movistar. He lines up against his former team, who will bring a squad of stage-hunters led by Gonzalo Serrano.

Simon Yates (BikeExchange-Jayco) and Ben O’Connor (Ag2r-Citroën) will both be trying to steal the beat. Both of those riders will be making their season debuts, so it will be hard to predict exactly how hard they will be charging out of the gate. Yates is building toward the Giro d’Italia, while O’Connor targets a return to the Tour de France.

“We’re finally back racing after the long winter preparation,” Yates said in a team note. “I’m really happy to be back at the Vuelta a Andalucia after racing it in 2019. I have good memories of this race and we’ll try to make the best of our preparations for the new season. Of course, we’ll be looking at the GC classification, but also on the various stages it will be a good test to see where we are before moving forward to bigger goals in the year.”

Mikel Landa (Bahrain Victorious) and Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers) could be both in the fray, but with early season racing, it’s difficult to predict. Hart debuted at Valenciana with 12th, while Landa and teammate Damiano Caruso both make their season debuts.

Luis Ángel Maté (Euskaltel-Euskadi) is among a retinue of local riders who is among the 22-team field that also includes Ineos Grenadiers, BikeExchange-Jayco, Israel-Premier Tech, and UAE Emirates.

“It’s the biggest race in Andaluciá, and since I am from the region, I naturally want to do well,” Maté said. “The course is always challenging. It’s a very good early season test.”

Human Powered Health brings riders such as Chad Haga, Ben King, and Nate Brown as part of a busy February that will also include Gran Camiño later this month in Spain.

68th Vuelta a Andalucía/Ruta del Sol

Stage 1: Ubrique to Iznájar, 200.7km

Stage 2: Archidona to Alcalá la Real, 150.6km

Stage 3: Lucena to Otura, 152.6km

Stage 4: Cúllar Vega to Baza, 165.6km

Stage 5: Huesa to Chiclana de Segura, 167.1km