The Volta ao Algarve attracts many of the world’s top cyclists to the region as its undulating terrain offers ideal preparation for the long cycling season ahead. Sports Editor David Lugg went along to see the race in action.
The 49th edition of the Volta ao Algarve lived up to all expectations and delivered another roller-coaster race of excitement and tension. At the end of five gruelling stages, Colombian Dani Martinez (INEOS Grenadiers) took the overall honours after a final barnstorming day time-trial, but the lead of the race fluctuated as much as the Algarve hills and a number of riders went into the last stage with victory on their mind. Nevertheless, Martinez took the glory, though his name was not on many lips at the beginning of the race.
It all began on stage one with a blustery, cool day in Portimão. One hundred and seventy-three of the world’s finest cyclists undertook a 200km endurance test through the Serra de Monchique mountains. Initially, the peloton was blown apart by a combination of brutal headwinds and a relentless pace set by the INEOS Grenadiers team, but the stage came down to a bunch sprint on the Avenida dos Descobrimentos in Lagos, where Norwegian speedster Alexander Kristoff edged out the chasing pack.
Stage two saw the fine Algarve weather return, but with a tough finish at Foia (the highest point of the Algarve), the riders were certainly in no mood to enjoy the scenery. INEOS again set the pace in the peloton as they reeled in an early breakaway. At the top of the final 7.7km climb to Foia, Marcus Cort Nielsen lunged his front wheel past a despairing Ilan van Wilder, who had prematurely raised his hands in celebration.
After the dizzy heights of Foia, day three brought the riders back down to earth with a much flatter stage that suited the sprinters. At 203km, this was also the longest stage of the race. Various breakaways tried to eke out an advantage over the main field without success. Not content with his mountain stage win, Marcus Cort Nielsen was on hand to give the main sprinters a lesson as he timed his run to the line perfectly. The Dane finished ahead of Portuguese favourite Rui Costa and rising British star Tom Pidcock.
The penultimate day at this year’s event was known as the Queen’s Stage, as it was considered to be the toughest on this year’s Volta. The route from Albufeira to Malhão included five category climbs and certainly didn’t disappoint in terms of an exciting finish. Olympic gold medallist Tom Pidcock powered passed young Portuguese star João Almeida on the final reaches with a brilliant ride that also propelled him into the overall lead.
With the final day’s time trial upon us, all the talk was on whether Italian national champion Filippo Ganna would reel in Pidcock’s 30-second advantage. As it transpired, he surpassed him by over a minute, but it was another of his INEOS colleagues, Dani Martinez, who took the race by surprise to win the general classification by two seconds. The Swiss rider Stefan Küng won the 24 km stage in 29:34, but the day belonged to twenty-six-year-old Martinez, who surprised everyone, including himself. “This morning, everyone on the team said, okay, Filippo (Ganna) was the number one favourite to win the GC (Grand Classification). Day after day in the Algarve, I felt better, but this victory was something of a surprise for me.”
Teammate Pidcock dropped to seventh overall after almost falling off his bike, but this was still a strong performance from the young British star at the beginning of his road racing career. The top Portuguese rider was João Almeida, who finished in sixth place, forty seconds down on Martinez.
After five thrilling stages and 795km of racing, the Volta ao Algarve has truly come up trumps once again. It is not difficult to see why the race is favoured by so many top teams as it acts as a perfect springboard for the season, in particular for the three grand tours in France, Italy and Spain. For the 49th time, the region has a cycle race it can be proud of. We look forward to the celebratory 50th edition next year.
Photo © Volta ao Algarve