Tuesday, March 19, 2013

31st Volta ao Alentejo Preview

The official name of the race is the Volta ao Alentejo Crédito Agricola Costa Azul. Can we get a longer name? Will the UCI step in with limits on name length for races? Anyways, the Volta ao Alentejo has been happening since the mid-1980's and is only one of three UCI stage races in Portugal. It also is the only one of four stage races in Portugal, which might sound like a a decent amount but in 2007, Portugal was home to 8 stage races. It also is notable in that it is the only Portuguese stage race that is growing; from 4 days in 2012 to 5 this year.

Volta ao Alentejo Quick Hits

  • Date: March 20th-24th
  • Total Kms: 807.7
  • Stages: 5
  • 150 riders with 19 teams
Alentejo is the break basket of Portugal with agriculture being the main economic driver of the region. Alentejo is also notable in that it is one of the most important areas in the world for growing...cork. Cork oak trees are everywhere and the cork industry employs tens of thousands of people every year. The bucolic surroundings make for a picturesque background to a race that if fierce and is decided by mere seconds every year.

Stage 1 Castelo de Vide to Marvão (167km)

The race begins in Castelo de Vide, a municipality founded in the 13th century, which lies in east-central Alentejo, close to the Spanish border. The riders will depart from here and go west then turn south to the town of Crato, where the first sprint will be held. The race continues south and then southeast to the village of Monforte for the 2nd sprint. The race continues east to the extreme east of Alentejo at Campo Maior before turning north for the final sprint point at Degolados. The race continues north and begins to climb. The final 25 kilometers sees two categorized climbs, the first through the village of Monte Paleiros before a quick descent and then starting the final climb to Marvão, an ancient city that has ties to the neolithic era. The final climb itself is 4.5 kilometers long and averages around 6.5% which will shake up the G.C. for the rest of the week.

Stage 2 Sousel to Portel (172.1 km)

Sousel at dusk
The race makes an 80km transfer south to the town of Sousel, known for its olives and rustic beauty. The race begins by heading more of less south with three sprint points at Vila Viçosa, Redondo and Reguegos de Monsaraz. The race turns east and heads to Monsaraz and again flirts with the Spanish border but heads south and crosses over the massive Lake Alqueva and Guadiana river. The race goes west and finishes in the small town of Portel. The race finishes on a false flat, which rises at about 3% for the final 2 kilometers, which will hurt some pure sprinters.

Stage 3 Vidigueira to Mértola (174.6 km)

The race starts about 20 kilometers south of Portel in the town of Vidigueira. Vidigueira is notable for the fact that after Vasco da Gama returned from his voyage to India, he was made the count by King Manuel I. The race does a small loops around the municipality, which goes back through Vidigueira for the first sprint of the day. The race essentially follows the Guandiana River and heads south over rolling terrain through Serpa for another sprint and onwards towards Mértola. At Mértola, the race will have a sprint point and then make a big loop before coming back into town for the stage finish. The race should finish in a sprint unless someone is really feeling frisky

Stage 4 Ourique to Odemira (153.3km)

From Mértola, the race goes 60 kilometers to the west to the town of Ourique, situated in the southern quarter of Alentejo. This stages essentially makes a half loop that starts in Ourique and goes east & north for a bit before turning west and heading for the Alentejo coast. The race runs for about 30km along the ocean before turning inward again at Zambujeira do Mar, which lies in the Odemira municipality, the biggest in Portugal. The race finishes in Odemira proper with a technical sprint, which features two 90-degree turns in the final 500 meters.

Stage 5 Vila Nova de Santo André to Santiago do Cacém (135.4 km)

Up until this point, the race has been rather tame with only one proper hilltop finish and 3 sprint stages. The final circuit stage will feature 5 categorized climbs in and around Santiago do Cacém, about 80km northeast from stage 4's start at Ourique. The start at Vila Nova de Santo André is on the circuit itself and will feature as 3 sprint points during the final three laps of the race. Santiago go Cacém is home to a medieval castle, just one of many which pepper Alentejo and Portugal. The race finale, which features the categorized climb, is tricky in that it features multiple corners within the last few kilometers. In the final 2 kilometers, there are 5 corners to negotiate, including a roundabout at 750 meters to go. Last year featured a similar stage in Santiago do Cacém where Alexey Kunshin (Lokosphinx) made a solo break and won by 10 seconds over a chasing peloton.

The Contenders (sort of)

Racing in Portugal is normally an insular affair with Portugese teams and riders making up the majority of the startlist and tending to dominate events. The Volta ao Alentejo in recent years has been opening up more and this year features 9 foreign squads, including development squads such as: Euskadi, Rabobank Development, Bontrager-Livestrong, Etixx-iHNed and Zappi's. I must admit that I am not the best with Portuguese Continental riders so I won't be making any overall predictions. 
  • One Portuguese rider I am aware of is Antonio Carvalho (LA Aluminios-Antarte). He is 24 this year and had good results here last year and was 2nd at the Portuguese Championships.
  • Carlos Barbero (Euskadi) is his team's best shot at getting a result here. He was 5th in a stage of the Volta ao Portugal last season.
  • Rabobank Development are bringing a young team after Daan Olivier had to pull out do to sickness. Ruben Zepuntke was 20th overall here last year and showed some form at the Kattekoers. Etienne van Empel is said to be a climbing talent but it remains to see how he will go.
  • Bontrager-Livestrong are here for their first race of the season. Gavin Mannion will be the designated sprinter while they have boatloads of horsepower in Lawson Craddock, Nate Brown and Jasper Stuyven. The whole team is strong so we shall see how they go.
  • Etixx-iHNed will be able to use Dieter Bouvry and Patrick Konrad on the uphill stages while Florian Senechal and Daniel Hoelgaard could have a go in the sprints.
That's all I got...from what I understand, there will be video highlights every day so I will keep every updated on that front.

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