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Volta ao Algarve: McNulty, Thomas, Evenepoel headline five-day stage race

A star-studded field heads to Portugal with chances for the GC riders, sprinters and time trial specialists.

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European stage racing kicks into a higher gear this week with the five-day Volta a Algarve (February 16-20).

The 48th edition of the race is a star-studded affair with Ineos Grenadiers, Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl, UAE Team Emirates, and Bora-Hansgrohe all sending elite squads to Portugal.

João Rodrigues will hope to defend his crown against Geraint Thomas, Ethan Hayter, Remco Evenepoel, Sergio Higuita, and David Gaudu, while there’s an impressive contingent of sprinters in the race, including Fabio Jakobsen, Mads Pedersen, and Tim Merlier.

Overall, the field is stacked with a collection of sprinters, classics specialists, and grand tour leaders. VeloNews will have daily race reports, exclusive news, interviews, and race tech from the event.

Volta ao Algarve: Race route

The five-day Volta ao Algarve kicks off on Wednesday with a 199.1km stage between the coastal city of Portimao and Lagos.

As with most stages in the race, this is far from a flat affair, with a third category climb stuck mid-way through the stage. In truth, despite the undulating parcours, the stage should come down to a bunch sprint – although a small incline with just over 2.5km to go could act as the perfect launchpad for a surprise attack. This is a flip of the 2021 opening stage, which saw the race head from Lagos to Portimao, with Sam Bennett taking the win.

Stage 2 sees the race head to another familiar setting with the first summit finish of the race at Foia, where Ethan Hayter took a hugely important breakthrough win last year. Evenepoel also tasted victory on the 7.5km long climb back in 2020, after a vicious attack with around 400m to go, and it’s likely that the race lead will change at the end of the stage.

Not every rider in the field will have made a huge race effort on a climb this long at this point in the early season, so the gaps within the field could be significant as many riders open the throttle for the first time in months.

Stage 3 from Almodovar to Faro is another one for the sprinters with the 209.1km stage unlikely to alter the GC complexion at the race. There are a few small inclines peppered throughout the stage but the slightly uphill sprint finish should suit a rider like Mads Pedersen, or even a long-range move from fellow Dane, Kasper Asgreen. Fabio Jakobsen looks like another favourite for what will be the final sprint stage of this year’s race.

The Volta ao Algarve is no stranger to an individual time trial – it’s a regular staple of the five-day race – but even by their standards the 32km test on stage 4 between Vila Real de Santo Antonio and Tavira is a long one.

The route isn’t too technical, and the long gradual ascent in the middle of the stage will mean that pacing strategies are key, but at this length, the gaps on GC could be substantial. Expect Asgreen – winner of the TT last year, Evenepoel, Nils Politt, Stefan Küng, Brandon McNulty, and possibly Thomas to vie for the win.

The final day of racing is the queen stage of the race with the summit finish at the Alto do Malhao.

As ever, the race will climb the ascent twice after a start in Lago. There are three third-category climbs during the 173km jaunt but the first serious test on the Malhao peaks out after 149km of racing. With an average gradient of 9.2 percent, and pitches in double digits, this is not a climb for the fainthearted, even if it drags on for just 2.6km. Expect a wave of late attacks as riders jostle for both the stage win and the overall.

Volta ao Algarve: Race favorites and riders to watch

From an Ineos Grenadiers’ perspective, all eyes will be on Geraint Thomas, who won the race in 2015 and 2016.

The Welshman has, for now at least, become Ineos Grenadiers’ de facto Tour de France leader after Egan Bernal’s horror training crash in January. Thomas hasn’t raced since limping through the tail-end of last year but his early 2021 form indicated at the very least that his week-long stage racing form remained as formidable as ever. A strong performance in Algarve will only boost his chances and ease some of his team’s nerves when it comes to July considerations.

Also read: Porte tips Thomas for Tour de France

In truth though, Ineos Grenadiers is stacked with options for the race. Ethan Hayter finished second overall and won a stage in 2021, while teammate Michal Kwiatkowski is another former winner having claimed the 2014 and 2018 titles. Tom Pidcock is making his season debut on the road too, and has the talent to leave his mark on the race.

Away from the British superteam, there are several other highly rated GC candidates.

Remco Evenepoel, the winner in 2020, leads the line for Patrick Lefevere’s team, while David Gaudu (Groupama FDJ), Ion Izagirre (Cofidis), last year’s winner Joao Rodrigues (W52/FC Porto), Sergio Higuita (Bora-Hansgrohe), and last year’s Giro breakthrough Tobias Foss all start.

Brandon McNulty, fresh off his impressive start to the season, flies the flag for UAE Team Emirates in a race that he will have targeted all winter. The American ace already has a win under his belt after opening his campaign with a victory in the Trofeo Calvia in Mallorca, and he was close to victory in Spain last weekend before his long-distance attack was foiled.

Also read: Tour, Vuelta on cards for McNulty in 2022

This year’s route suits the 23-year-old, and the race represents an important stepping stone in his development. It’s an event he’s never taken part in but he heads into the race with the Oliveira brothers, and the dependable Jan Polanc for support.

Sprint power

Along with several heavy hitters on the GC front, the race is also stacked when it comes to the sprinters. Last year’s revelation Tim Merlier spearheads the Alpecin-Fenix and will be looking for his first win of the year in his first outing. The Belgian will go up against the might of Fabio Jakobsen and his all-conquering leadout, with the Dutchman already on two wins this year after a flurry of fast finishes in the Valenciana.

Pascal Ackermann has yet to win in his UAE Team Emirates kit, and although the German hasn’t won a stage in Algarve in two outings he did pick up the points competition in 2019.

Trek Segafredo arrives with the in-form Mads Pedersen. The Dane picked up his first win of the calendar year in Besseges at the start of February and looks to be building up nicely ahead of the spring classics. Alexander Kristoff and Bryan Coquard both have wins under their belts in 2022 and neither can be ruled out.