Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Preview: Volta ao Alentejo

Did you think that Normandie was the only stage racing action you would be getting this week? I've said it before and I will say it again. Portuguese racing tends to confuse the shit out of me and I will admit that it is one of my weaker coverage areas simply because of my absolute lack of Portuguese language skills and lack of coverage in general, especially with amateur racing. Portugal has a pretty good continental system with 6 teams having UCI status but they tend to stick close to home so you will more than likely never see them outside of the Iberian Peninsula. This leads to a lot of insular competition and come the offseason, you will see something similar to French teams in that 5 guys will go from one team to the next as if it were some version of cycling hot potato.

The 32nd Volta ao Alentejo is one of the biggest sporting events in the breadbasket of Portugal. The region of Alentejo is located in south central Portugal and stretches from the Tagus river southward to Algarve. Alentejo is known as the breadbasket because of their huge agricultural presence as well as being the world center for cork production. Every summer, men use special hand-axes to strip the cork oaks of their bark is a precise way that won't damage the tree and will allow it to regenerate itself. The bark from one mature cork oak will be enough to produce 4,000 wine corks. I find it fascinating simply because it is a process that has been used for hundreds of years and could be used for hundreds more because there has been no mechanical process discovered that produced the bark as efficiently as manual labor does.

But we do have a race to discuss so I should get back to the topic at hand. The 1st stage of the race is identical to last year's opener with a nice uphill finish in Marvão; not too steep as to blow the race up but still a long enough drag to make it interesting. Last year, Daniel Silva attacked on the lower slopes of the climb and his aggression paid off as he held on by 2 seconds over Karel Hnik and Eduard Prades. All three will be back again this year so I would not be surprised if all of them were somewhere near the front.

Stage 2 can be surmised as a 190 kilometer lead-out into a 2 kilometer uphill sprint that finishes at the ancient castle in Montemor-o-Novo. The castle, which was started in 1203 and completed 162 years later, was apart of the Christian conquest of Iberia that drove out the Moors once and for all. The race features a few up and downs through the day but there is no significant challenge until the finale. It could be a prime day for a long breakaway and anyone interested in getting some intermediate sprint points. With the uphill finish, many GC teams will be eager to keep any dangerous moves in check but with small 6 man teams, it can turn into chaos fast.

Stage 3 could turn out to be the race's only true bunch sprint, just like it was last year. Leaving Redondo, the races heads due south for the majority of the day with only one small climb before hitting a finishing circuit at the town of Mértola. Mértola isn't a metropolis by any means but it does have multiple buildings dating back to the Moorish occupation that make it an important cultural site. The finishing loop is 50 kilometers that takes the riders in the viscinity of Mértola before taking a semi-technical entry back into town that opens into a long straightaway sprint.

 Time for some griping with the Volta ao Alentejo organizers. Look at this stage profile...

Why in the hell would you make the scale go up to 1600 meters? Seriously, you don't need to make molehills into mountains but this squishes down everything into a little bump that you could do a jump your bike off.

Well the above profile is from the 4th stage of the Alentejo Rundfahrt, which includes two different loops including a flat one around Odemira and an up and down one around Santiago do Cacém. The last 30 kilometers of this stage are definitely interesting. An attack could certainly go off the front but they would need a substantial gap because it would be vollgas up the final climb, which climbs around 100 meters in the last 2 kilometers. If it finishes anything like last year's final stage, the finish will be a hard sprint with many guys trickling in behind...slowly.

The race finishes with a historic tour of Alentejo. Launching from the town of Alcåcer do Sal, which has evidence of Paleolithic settlements, the race takes a jaunt across the province to the west before heading into the city of Evora, a UNESCO World Heritage site that dates back to Roman times and was one of the most important cities in Iberia at that time. Filled with stunning examples of Roman and Gothic architecture, the finish in Evora will feature 5 turns in the final two kilometers before finishing in front of Giraldo Square, which was the site of countless executions during the Spanish Inquisition. And just like that, it is over before it even starts.

The course really benefits those that are aggressive and willing to lay it all on the line for the race lead. The Portuguese do have a home field advantage but with Etixx, USA National and Euskadi will make it very hard for the home nation to win their first overall in Alentejo since Sergio Ribeiro in 2006.

The Volta ao Alentejo actually has a pretty easy to navigate website with nearly everything that you could think of in terms of a quality race website...except for any type of start list, even though the race is just 1 day away. Oh well.

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