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Porte, Martin and Kwiatkowski are ready for a big battle in the early-season Portuguese race

Photo: Sirotti

VOLTA AO ALGARVE

RACE PROFILE
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NEWS
17.02.2015 @ 23:58 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

It's time for one of the most important build-up weeks of the cycling season, with the next few days offering no less than four stage races that will form a key part of the preparation that shall see classics and stage race riders hit peak condition for the months of March and April. One of the options for the world's best cyclists is to head to Portugal for the Volta ao Algarve which offers five days of high-quality racing under usually sunny conditions. The race has traditionally been dominated by time triallists but a twist to the course has now made it more suitable to more versatile stage race riders.

 

The month of February may not offer the most prestigious bike races on the calendar but the final winter month plays a crucial role for every ambitious cyclist. With the first big races coming up in March and the cycling season having really ramped up in the last few weeks, it is now time to get in the racing miles that will allow the riders to hit their best form for the races that really matter.

 

Hence, it is no wonder that the month of February is littered with stage races in Southern Europe and the Middle East that offer the riders the chance to test their legs and get in quality racing under reasonable weather conditions. Next week plays a special role as it offers the final chance for the riders to do some racing ahead of the Belgian opening weekend.

 

In the past, all riders headed to Southern Europe for those important early-season kilometres. With races like Etoile de Besseges, Tour Mediateraneen, and the Tour du Haut-Var, France had a lot to offer, Portugal had the Volta a Algarve, and Spain and Italy both had a nice series of short stage races that worked as solid preparation.

 

In recent years, the economic crisis has had its clear effect on the racing scene. While the wealthy Middle East now offers a very well-organized and attractive block of racing with the Dubai Tour, the Tour of Qatar and the Tour of Oman, several European races have disappeared. Italy no longer plays host to a stage race before Tirreno-Adriatico and this year the Tour Mediteraneen disappeared too. The Spanish scene has been hit hard by the difficult times as the Vuelta a la Comunitat Valenciana no longer exists and the Vuelta a Murcia is now just a one-day race, leaving just the Vuelta a Andalucia as an option in the biggest country on the Iberian peninsula.

 

Just across the border, the Volta ao Algarve is another opportunity for riders looking for nice weather and hilly terrain to prepare for the biggest races on the calendar. Like Spain, Portugal has been hit hard by the economic crisis and in 2013 the Algarve race was in a battle for survival. Luckily, the organizers managed to save the great event, albeit in a shortened 4-day version, but last year it was back in its full 5-day format.

 

Portugal is not one of cycling's powerhouses and only rarely has the chance to showcase the cycling elite. Their national tour, the Volta ao Portugal, is a big national event with plenty of live TV coverage but remains mostly a national affair that has been unable to attract a single WorldTour team in recent years.

 

This has turned the Volta ao Algarve into the marquee event on the Portuguese calendar, with the race being the only one to offer WorldTour level racing. Despite the tough economic times, the race remains a popular choice as there is a reasonable chance for good weather and the race offers a nice mix of terrain that suits most different rider types.

 

A few years ago, Algarve seemed to be the place to be in February and the race attracted some fantastic line-ups, with the race even being shown live on Eurosport. With the rise of the Tour of Oman, the race has lost a bit of prestige and the uncertainty over last year's edition prompted several riders to avoid taking the risk of adding the event to their calendar.

 

The race now again seems to thrive but it hasn’t regained its status as the preferred preparation event for stage racers. Last year the managed to attract the reigning world champions Rui Costa and Tony Martin and grand tour winners Alberto Contador and Chris Horner. This year, however, the Portuguese race is the clear loser in the battle against the Tour of Oman and the Vuelta a Andalucia which both have fields that are worthy of a grand tour. Compared to those line-ups, the Volta ao Algarve may seem like a minor event but the attendance of world champion Michal Kwiatkowski, Tony Martin, Richie Porte, Robert Gesink and André Greipel means that the race is still a very competitive one.

 

The race has had a lot of different formats. In the past, it has been a rather flat affair that has even been won overall by Alessandro Petacchi and Stijn Devolder took the win in an edition that was almost decided entirely by the time trial. However, the race has mostly included its marquee stage to the top of the short, steep Alto do Malhao and a rather long time trial, making it one for the true stage race specialists. The length of the time trial has often tipped the balance in favour of the time trialists and it is no wonder that Tony Martin has finished in the top 2 three years in a row.

 

Last year, however, the organizers tipped the balance significantly as they shortened the time trial and included an extra hilly stage, setting the scene for an exciting battle between the climbers and the time triallists. This year the time trial will again be slightly longer but with as the same two hilly stages will feature in the race, the organizers have found a very well-balanced format.

 

Last year Tony Martin was hoping for a third overall win in the race but already in the first hilly stage, it was clear that the German was not at his usual level. Instead, it was Michal Kwiatkowski who dominated the race by taking a solo win in stage 2 and by beating Martin in the short time trial. The Pole was unable to keep up with Alberto Contador and Rui Costa in the queen stage but had gained enough time in the previous stages to win the race overall ahead of Contador and Costa. This year Kwiatkowski will be back to defend his title but he will be up against new rivals as Contador has preferred to start his season in Andalusia while local hero Costa will make his debut in Oman.

 

The course

As said, the Volta ao Algarve has tried a few different formats but has mostly stuck to a well-known, tested formula that has always been a guarantee for success. A couple of sprint stages - often with some rather lumpy finishes - kick off the spectacle while the GC is decided by the mountaintop finish on the Alto do Malhao and a time trial that has often taken place on the final day. As Malhao is a rather short, explosive affair and the TTs have tended to be rather long, the race has favoured the time triallists but last year’s modifications tipped the balance.

 

In 2014, 2013 and 2012, the time trial had been 17km, 25km and 34km respectively but last year the specialists had less time than usual to gain seconds over the climbers. The race against the clock was shortened to just 13.6km. Furthermore, the TT was now held before the Malhao stage, meaning that the climbers knew how much time they needed to gain on the final climb. With the addition of the hilly stage 2, it required a lot more versatile skills to win the 2014 edition.

 

This year that format has repeated and in fact the course is almost a copy of the one that was used 12 months ago. The lumpy sprint stage to Albufeira will again start the race and then the riders will again tackle the hilly second stage that laid the foundation for Kwiatkowski’s win. The time trial will again be held on the third day but at 19km it has again become a bit longer. Finally, the queen stage will again feature on the penultimate day before the sprinters get the chance to shine in the final stage.

 

Stage 1:

The Volta ao Algarve kicks off with an Algarve classic as the opening stage will finish in Albueira for the sixth year in a row. While the tricky finale will be the well-known tricky affair that can suit a mix of sprinters and classics specialists, the first part of the course has been modified.

 

This year’s stage has a distance of 166.7km and starts in Lagos on the Algarve coast. The riders first do a mostly flat 30km loop on the western outskirts of the city before they return to the start area where they will contest the first intermediate sprint. From there they start their journey to the east and in the first part they will follow mostly flat terrain close to the coast.

 

After 65km of racing, the riders will head inland and this means that the terrain gets a bit hillier. The riders will go up two smaller climbs but none of them are very challenging. At the 109.2km mark, they hit the bottom of the only categorized climb which is a very steep 1.5km affair with an average gradient of 11.7%.

 

From the top, 56km still remain and they consist of a fast downhill and flat run back towards the coast and the finishing city of Albufeira. The riders will cross the finish line to contest the final intermediate sprint before they tackle the 24.9km finishing circuit which has been changed a bit compared to last year. The roads are almost completely flat but the well-known finish is a little bit tricky. There's a short descent inside the final 5km that leads to the bottom of a small hill close to the finish. The 500m ascent has an average gradient of 6% and summits just 600m from the line and then it descends to the finish. Furthermore, the finale is loaded with rounabouts, with 5 of those obstacles inside the final 4km. The final one comes just 600m from the line.

 

With André Greipel in attendance, Lotto Belisol is destined to control this stage firmly but they may get a surprise in the finale as this stage has often had some very chaotic and uncontrollable finales. Last year Lampre-Merida and Omega Pharma-Quick Step managed to set up a bunch sprint that was won by Sacha Modolo but in 2013 Thomas Sprengers, Paul Martens, and Tiago Machado slipped away in the finale, with the latter two narrowly holding on to 1st and 2nd on the stage. In 2012, Gianni Meersman beat Greg Van Avermaet and Matti Breschel in the sprint while Greipel was the winner in 2011. In 2010, a late break again succeeded when Benoit Vaugrenard held off the sprinters in the difficult finale.

 

 

 

Stage 2:

The second stage was a novelty for last year’s edition of the Volta ao Algarve and offers the climbers an extra chance to take time on the time triallists. The stage produced some very exciting racing and so the organizers have decided to include the exact same finale. While the sprinters have ruled on the first day, it is now time for the GC riders to show their cards.

 

The 197km stage has a total amount of climbing of 3230m but it all comes in the final part. It travels between Lagoa and Monchique and after the start, the riders will first do a 17.8km circuit around the starting city. From there they will follow the coast before they briefly head inland to contest the first intermediate sprint at the Algarve motorsport circuit. Having turned around, they will head back to the coast and follow the flat coastal road all the way to the city of Aljezur, contesting the final two intermediate sprints at the 90.6km and 128.8km mark.

 

The final sprint marks the start of the climbing hostilities as the riders will now turn inland, climbing a 5.2km category 3 climb with an average gradient of 5.6%. From there they head over rolling terrain with an uncategorized climb to the finish in Monchique that they reach after 166.5km of racing.

 

Here they will do two different circuits to conclude the race, with the final one being very similar to the one that was used 12 months ago. The first one is 13.3km long and first consists of a gradual ascent before the riders descend back to the finish. The second one is 17.3km and much harder as the riders first descend to the bottom of the decisive category 3 climb. At 4.5km and with an average gradient of 7.8%, it is a rather tough affair and the top is located just 5.4km from the finish. They are predominantly downhill and rather technical with several corners as the riders head down to the finish in Monchique.

 

Last year Michal Kwiatkowski attacked on the final climb and managed to crest the summit with a solid advantage over a group of chasers. He reached the finish 6 seconds ahead of Rui Costa, Alberto Contador, and Eduard Prades while an 8-rider group lost an additional 11 seconds.

 

This stage offers the GC riders the first chance to make their mark and with the time trial coming up, the climbers have to try to get rid of the likes of Tony Martin in this stage. The final climb is definitely hard enough to make a difference and even though some regrouping make take place on the descent, Kwiatkowski has proved that it is possible for a strong rider to take a solo win in this stage.

 

 

 

Stage 3:

For the second year in a row, the time trial will take place earlier than usual as the riders will already make use of their TT bikes on the third day. Like last year the stage goes from Vila do Bispo to Sagres but this year the riders will continue along the coast for a few more kilometres to finish the stage at the southwestern tip of the Iberian peninsula, meaning that the distance has been increased from 13.6km to 19km.

 

Last year’s course brought the riders along mostly descending roads back to the coast, meaning that it was a very fast affair. This year the riders will again go down to the sea after they have done an early loop in the starting city, meaning that the first 10km are mostly downhill. Having reached Sagres, the riders face a very technical section through the city before they head onto the coastal road which they will follow for the final part of the stage. The final 4km are gradually ascending, meaning that the course is a bit more diverse than last year’s very fast affair.

 

The course definitely suits the big time trial specialists as it mainly consists of long, straight roads that are either slightly descending or slightly ascending. There are a few technical challenges in Sagres but the rest of the stage is very straightforward. This means that Tony Martin will be the overwhelming favourite and he will try to maximize his time gains ahead of the crucial queen stage.

 

Nonetheless, the German was beaten in last year’s stage as Michal Kwiatkowski surprised himself by beating Adriano Malori by 11 seconds and his German teammate by 13 seconds. Martin won the TT in 2013 and 2011 while Bradley Wiggins was faster in 2012. Luis Leon Sanchez won the 2010 TT while Alberto Contador took the win in 2009 and Stijn Devolder in 2008.

 

 

 

Stage 4:

The Alto do Malhao is the marquee climb of the Volta ao Algarve and it is not a true edition of the Portuguese race if the riders haven't climbed then 2.6km ascent with its average gradient of 9.6%. This year it is of course back in the race and as always the riders have to go up the ascent twice in the finale. However, the organizers have significantly increased the distance and  with a length of 218km, it is going to be a tougher affair than usual.

 

The stage starts in Tavira on the coast and as always, the riders will first do a small circuit around the starting city. It is a flat 19.6km affair and the riders will then travel along flat coastal roads for a few kilometres, contesting the first intermediate sprint at the 30.1km mark.

 

The riders will now head inland but that won’t make the race any tougher as the terrain is still manly flat. That will change after the final intermediate sprint which comes at the 82.6km mark as this signals the start of the climbing. First the riders go up an uncategorized climb as they travel in a westerly direction towards the Alto do Malhao. It is followed by a short flat section that leads to the feed zone but from there the terrain gets lumpy and is always up or down.

 

With 43.8km to go, the riders hit the bottom of the Malhao for the first time and will cross the finish line for the first time those horrible 2.6km later. They will now start the 41.2km finishing circuit which is a well-known affair.

 

The first part is rolling but predominantly downhill and leads to a short, very steep category 3 climb (1km, 13%). From the top 11.5km remain, consisting of a fast descent and a gradual uphill section that leads to the bottom of the Malhao. Then all is set for the final showdown on the steep slopes that always provide a big spectacle.

 

This stage has always been decided by the race favourites and as the race is always about seconds, the bonifications are very important. This means that a breakaway will have virtually no chance and we should see the GC riders battle it out for the stage win. With Martin likely to have gained an advantage in the time trial and the final climb being pretty short, the climbers need to make the race as hard as possible. In the past, Sky have often made use of the tough finishing circuit to set a very fast tempo and it would be no surprise for them to use a similar tactic. From there, it will be a constant elimination race until a select group will battle it out on the final climb.

 

Last year Contador took the first win of his season when he beat Rui Costa by 3 seconds and Michal Kwiatkowski by 10 seconds. In 2013 Sergio Henao took a resounding win ahead of local hero Costa while Bradley Wiggins set Richie Porte up for a beautiful solo win one year earlier. The climb has been dominated by Sky in recent years as Stephen Cummings won the stage while riding for the team in 2011 while Alberto Contador conquered the ascent in 2010 after having been beaten by Antonio Colom one year earlier.

 

 

 

Stage 5:

The sprinters will be back in action for the final stage which ends on a circuit in the city of Vilamoura in a finale that is similar to the one used for last year’s final stage. Unlike last year, however, the stage is longer and harder but with a flat finale, it should be one for the fast finishers.

 

The 184.3km stage starts in Almodovar with a small lap on a flat circuit around the starting city. After 30.9km, they return to the start where they will contest the first intermediate sprint. They will now start the southerly journey towards the coast by going up the only categorized climb of the day which is 4.4km long and has an average gradient of 3.6%.

 

From there the roads are gradually descending until the riders contest the final intermediate sprint after 110.5km of racing. They now do the final short section back to the coast where they will follow the seafront for a few kilometres until they cross the finish line for the first time.

 

Unlike last year when the riders ended the race by doing 4 laps of an 11.9km circuit, the finale is now made up of just one lap of a 27.8km circuit. It is almost completely flat but has lots of roundabouts. Inside the final 4.4km, there are three of them but the final comes 3km from the line. From there, it is a long, straight, flat road to the finish.

 

The sprinters have bided their time since the opening day and have been waiting for this stage to finally get the chance to show their speed. Hence, it is very unlikely that the stage won’t be decided in a bunch sprint and it will be the sprinters that will bring the Portuguese race to a fitting conclusion.

 

Last year Mark Cavendish became the first winner in Vilamoura when he beat Arnaud Demare and Bryan Coquard in a bunch sprint.

 

 

 

The favourites

When the race still featured a time trial of more than 30km, it often turned out to be a pretty predictable affair. A strong climber like Tony Martin was able to limit his losses on the short Alto do Malhao and it was easy for him to take it back in the race against the clock. Hence, it is no surprise that the German has won this race twice and finished second once.

 

The course changes of last year, however, made it a much more diverse affair and gave the climbers a much better chance to shine. They now have two opportunities to make a difference and even though the time trial is still a crucial stage, the race is open to a lot wider range of contenders. Last year the race maybe even favoured the climbers but with a slightly longer time trial in 2015, it seems that this year’s edition is the most well-balanced yet.

 

This should set the scene for a very exciting battle between the stage race specialists in attendance. Most of the biggest names may have preferred the races in Oman and Andalusia but the presence of Richie Porte, Michal Kwiatkowski and Martin should guarantee a highly entertaining race. Those three riders are all very versatile and have the skills to shine on this kind of diverse course.

 

Last year Martin was far below his usual level at this time of the year and so we didn’t get a real chance to see how he will cope with the harder course. This year he should be going a lot better but he will have no easy time like he has had in the past. Porte and Kwiatkowski are both excellent time triallists and Martin won’t be able to gain much time on them in the race against the clock. This should make the race an exciting and close affair.

 

Stages 1 and 5 are destined to end in bunch sprints but the riders have to be very attentive in the finale of stage 1 as there have often been splits in Albufeira. However, the race will be decided in stages 2, 3 and 4 which could all create significant time gaps. Martin will try to limit his losses in the two climbing stages while Porte and Kwiatkowski will try to shine in the hilly terrain. There will be time bonuses of 10, 6 and 4 seconds at the finishes and 3, 2 and 1 seconds in the intermediate sprints and they may also come into play.

 

Richie Porte won this race in 2012 which marked a fantastic Team Sky debut for the talented Australian who took a massive step up in his first year with the British team. Since then, the Australian has not returned to the site of his first big win but this year he will be back as he continues his build-up towards his first big goal which is Paris-Nice. This year he will have a lot of chances to lead the team as he will almost do no racing with Chris Froome and his first leadership role in a European race comes at the Volta ao Algarve.

 

Unlike many others, Porte arrives at the race with lots of racing in his legs. He took a storming victory in the Australian time trial championships which marked him out as the man to beat in the Tour Down Under. He proved that he was the strongest rider in the race when he took a convincing win in the queen stage but due to team tactics and a smart move by Rohan Dennis in stage 3, he had to settle for second.

 

Since then, he has only lined up at the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race which didn’t suit him at all and where he did nothing to make anyone aware of his presence. The Volta ao Algarve is a much bigger goal for him and he will go all out for the victory, supported by a strong team that contaoms the likes of Geraint Thomas, Lars Petter Nordhaug, Sebastian Henao and an in-form Ian Boswell.

 

To win the race, you have to be a versatile rider and that’s exactly what Porte is. He has had a hard time rediscovering his best TT skills but at the Australian nationals he did a storming ride to take a dominant win. This indicates that he is back to his best and he should be pretty close to Martin in stage 3.

 

However, he will probably need to take back some time in the mountain stages but if he has the legs he had in Australia, he will be the favourite to win the queen stage. Three years ago he crushed the opposition on the Alto do Malhao and since then he has only become a lot stronger. He may have had an injury-filled 2014 season but in 2013 he proved that he is among the very best climbers in the world and the steep slopes of Malhao suit him really well. Furthermore, he has a big chance to drop Martin in stage 2 and with a pretty short time trial, it should be enough to beat the German. Being the in-form rider at the moment, Porte is out favourite to win the race.

 

Tony Martin has the best track record in this race and there is a big chance that he will take a third win in the race after last year’s failure. For some reason, he never found his best legs in the 2014 spring season and this explains his poor performance in Algarve. In the Tour de Suisse, however, he suddenly found the climbing legs that made him a great stage race contender earlier in his career when he won Paris-Nice by showing very good skills on the ascents.

 

The time trial may have been shortened but as the climbs in Algarve are all pretty short, stage 3 still has a massive impact on the outcome. In the past, Martin has proved that he can limit his losses well on the Alto do Malhao and the climb in stage 2 is less steep and should suit him even better. Being an excellent descender, he will have time to get back in contention and so it will all come down to him making up his Malhao time losses in the time trial.

 

After his defeat at the Worlds, Martin ended his 2014 season earlier than usual and this means that he has started his training a bit earlier. In January, he claimed to be better than usual at this time of the year and he looked pretty strong in Dubai where he played a support role. If he is close to the level he had in Switzerland last summer, he won’t lose much time in stage 4 and then a third win is very much within reach.

 

If Martin fails, another Etixx-QuickStep rider will be ready to strike. In fact, this race is perfectly suited the skills of defending champion and world champion Michal Kwiatkowski. Being an Ardennes specialist, he excels on this kind of short, steep ascents and he is an excellent time triallist too. Furthermore, he is a fast sprinter with excellent descending skills and this makes him the favourite in stage 2.

 

However, Kwiatkowski is aiming at a slower start to his season as he wants to avoid the fatigue that hampered him in 2014. Hence, he was far off the pace in San Luis and we can’t expect the same kind of showing that he delivered 12 months ago. On the other hand, Milan-Sanremo is first big goal of the year and this means that his condition cannot be too far away. In San Luis, he was nowhere near the best but in Algarve we expect him to be in contention. To beat an in-form Porte, he needs to be very good though and we doubt that it is the case. On the other hand, he is a very talented rider and nothing suggests that he won’t make another leap forward in 2015. On a course that suits his down to the ground, he is definitely a contender.

 

Like many other, we were about to lose all hope that Rein Taaramae would rediscover the legs that saw become one of the most promising stage race riders in the world. Breathing problems made him disappear into anonymity but after surgery solved his problems, he suddenly seemed to get back to his best when he won the Tour of Turkey in 2014. Unfortunately, it was again a one-hit wonder and he was again far off the mark for most of the remaining part of the season, with a beautiful win in the Tour de Doubs being the notable exception.

 

Taaramae has now joined the Astana team and apparently that move has served him well. In his first race with the Kazakh team, he crushed the opposition in the Vuelta a Murcia, escaping on the biggest climb and then time trialling away from a hard-chasing peloton for more than 40km despite riding into a headwind. His rivals were all full of praise and admiration of his performance and this suggests that it may now finally be time for Taaramae to fulfill his potential.

 

In 2015, he will mainly have to work as a domestique but in Algarve he should be the clear leader. In his heydays, he was a solid time triallist and a great climber and he was always very string in the early part of the season and a perennial Paris-Nice contender. He is obviously in great condition and even though he will definitely lose time againt Martin, Porte and Kwiatkowski in the time trial, everything seems to be possible for the in-form Estonian.

 

Davide Formolo had a fantastic debut season among the professionals and it is no wonder that his new team manager Jonathan Vaughters has described him as a future Giro winner. At last year’s Italian championships, Vincenzo Nibali was unable to drop him and everybody knows how strong Nibali was last summer. This year he made his debut in Mallorca where he stayed with the best on day 3 and only Alejandro Valverde was stronger than him in the summit finish on stage 2 after Stephen Cummings had escaped with a surprise attack.

 

Formolo is destined for big things in 2015 and he is clearly already in very good condition. However, this race doesn’t suit him too well as he is no outstandings time triallist. However, it would be no surprise if he turns out to be the strongest climber and a win on the Alto do Malhao is definitely within his reach. It will be hard for him to make up for his losses in the time trial but his climbing skills should make him a contender.

 

A perennial contender in this race is Tiago Machado who actually got his big breakthrough in this race when he battled with Alberto Contador on the Alto do Malhao in 2009. At one point, he seemed to turn into a great stage racer but in his final years with the Radioshack team, he had a hard time. Last year he found his best legs again and he has proved that he is in great form right from the start of the year. He would have finished in the top 10 in the Tour Down Under if he hadn’t been held up behind a crash in the final stage and he finished a solid seventh in the Vuelta a Murcia which didn’t really suit. Machado has always been among the best on Malhao and last year he suddenly found his great TT skills back. This means that he has the versatility that should make him a danger man in his home race.

 

Another rider who is clearly in very good condition is Tony Gallopin. The Frenchman was very strong in the Etoile de Besseges where he won the uphill sprint in stage 4 and finished second overall and in the final time trial. After his massive step forward in 2014, he should make further progress in 2015 and he is destined for great things this year. He may not be a pure climber but the short climbs in Algarve are perfect for an Ardennes specialist like Gallopin and he has always been strong in shorter time trials. Furthermore, he is very fast in a sprint which makes him one of the favourites for stage 2 and a few bonus seconds in that stage should set him up for a great overall performance.

 

Movistar line up at this race without any of their grand tour stars but as usual they have lots of potential winners. Ion Izagirre has twice finished on the podium in the Tour de Pologne and he is destined for a great future in one-week stage races which will be his main goal in 2015. He will get one of his first chances to lead the team in Algarve and the Portuguese race suits him really well. Izagirre is both a solid climber and a great time triallist who finished in the top 10 in almost all his 2014 time trials. The course for stage 3 may be a bit too much about power to suit him perfectly but he should not be too far off the mark. He hasn’t shown great condition yet but he showed progress in the Vuelta a Murcia and if he can continue that trend, he could have a decent ride in Algarve.

 

His teammate Ruben Fernandez had a fantastic start to 2015 when he finished third in the queen stage of the Tour Down Under and took fifth overall. The 2013 Tour de l’Avenir winner has clearly improved a lot and he always seems to be strong at this point of the year. This made him one of the favourites for the Vuelta a Murcia but surprisingly he was unable to keep up with the best. This makes his performance in Algarve very uncertain and he is not favoured by the inclusion of a 19km time trial. He is very unlikely to win the race but if he has the climbing legs from the Tour Down Under he should be among the best like he was in 2014.

 

Their teammate Jonathan Castroviejo may be known as a loyal domestique and a time trial specialist and he has rarely tried to target the GC in stage races. Last year, however, he gave it a try in Algarve but a mechanical in the time trial took him out of contention. This race suits him perfectly and if he wants to shine in a stage race, this is a very good choice. In 2014, he climbed outstandingly well but unfortunately he did pretty poor TTs. At the Worlds, however, he found back his best legs and with a combination of good climbing skills and a powerful TT, he should be able to well in Algarve.

 

Luis Leon Sanchez was once a perennial contender in the early season stage races but he is no longer the rider he once was. However, he seems to have got his career at Astana off to a reasonable start. He was slightly disappointing in Australia but he did well to take fifth in the Vuelta a Murcia. With an important time trial this race suits him well and he will try to gain as much time as possible in stage 3. The Alto do Malhao may be a bit too steep to suit him perfectly and he is unlikely to be with the best on that climb. However, he may limit his losses sufficiently to remain a podium candidate.

 

Geraint Thomas will be here as a key domestique for Richie Porte but in the past, the Brit has been able to do well despite working as a support rider. He will be the plan B for Team Sky and will probably try to stay in contention until Porte needs his help. Thomas has had a slower start to the season and wasn’t very strong in Dubai and Australia but he aims to be at 100% for Paris-Nice. He excels on this kind of shorter climbs and he is a great time triallist too. If Porte is hit by bad luck, Thomas will be ready to take over the leadership role.

 

In last year’s Vuelta, Robert Gesink proved that he can return to his former level after his heart surgery. Unfortunately, personal problems forced him to leave the race and put a premature end to his season. However, he is now back to full health and we should see him return to his best in 2015. This race comes a bit early though and he has admitted that he is unlikely to be too good in this race. He was once a very good time triallist but as he no longer has those skills, this race is not tailor-made for him. Being one of the best climbers in the race, however, he may create a surprise.

 

Katusha have a very strong team for this race and one of their cards is Sergey Chernetskii who is knocking on the door for a big breakthrough. After he got through the Vuelta, he took a big step up in the final part of 2014 and he should be much stronger in 2015. Unfortunately, he crashed in Dubai and so no one really knows how he is going. He still hasn’t been able to stay with the best on the climbs and so the shorter ascents in this race should suit him well. Furthermore, he is a good time triallists and he has the versatility to do well in this kind of race.

 

***** Richie Porte

**** Tony Martin, Michal Kwiatkowski

*** Rein Taaramae, Davide Formolo, Tiago Machado, Tony Gallopin

** Ion Izagirre, Ruben Fernandez, Jonathan Castroviejo, Luis Leon Sanchez, Geraint Thomas, Robert Gesink, Sergei Chernetskii

* Jesus Herrada, Michele Scarponi, Yury Trofimov, Andre Cardoso, Alberto Losada, Sebastian Henao, Rui Sousa, Ricardo Mestre, Gustavo Cesar Veloso, Delio Fernandez

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