A look ahead to the Ruta del Sol (Vuelta a Andalucia - February 18-22): Stages, teams, past winners & more

While half of the world’s best stage racers face off at the Tour of Oman, the other half are in Europe ready to ride the Vuelta a Andalucia.

Commonly known as the Ruta del Sol, the race usually attracts a decent number of climbers thanks to the challenging ascents of Southern Spain, but this year sees a particularly impressive start-list with Chris Froome and Alberto Contador set to ride.

This being his first race of the season, Froome will be eager to start with a bang. In the past few years he has kicked things off with overall victories at the Tour of Oman, and a repeat performance at the Ruta del Sol – which he has chosen to ride instead of Oman – would send an ominous statement to the rest of his rivals.

Although one such rival, Nairo Quintana (Movistar), has been forced to withdraw following a crash last week, his fiercest adversary of all, Contador, will be riding side-by-side with him. The two tussled through 2014, with the Spaniard ultimately gaining bragging rights when he beat Froome by just over a minute to win the Vuelta a Espana.

That result seemed to reinstate Contador as the peloton’s leading stage race rider, but Froome will begin his effort to gain the upper-hand in the rivalry with overall victory in Andalucia.

Both will have to be attentive as early as the very first stage, in which a couple of ramps in the final 15 kilometres disrupt what would otherwise have been a straightforward sprint. Later that day Froome will have a clear chance to put time into Contador in an 8.2km time-trial around the small town of Coria del Rio for stage 1b.

An invitingly-placed category three climb within the final 10 kilometres of stage two may again scupper the sprinters chance, but they’ll be determined to keep things together for at least one bunch sprint before the race heads into the mountains the next day.

Stage three features a number of smaller climbs before the finish atop the category one Alto de Hazallanas, and stage four follows a similar pattern with a trio of category three climbs preceding the category one finish at Alto e Allanadas. At 202km, this latter stage will be the longest of the race, meaning the riders could have some tired legs come the deceive final climb.

If the sprinters have missed out up to this point, stage five ought to reward them for sticking it out to the end – there is just one small climb 60 kilometres from the finish, after which the road is mostly downhill.

>>> Froome and Contador are two of the greatest rivals, says Nicolas Roche

Ruta del Sol 2015: Stages

Stage one (a), Wednesday February 18, La Rabida to Hinojos, 121km
Stage one (b), Wednesday February 18, Coria del Rio, ITT, 8.2km
Stage two, Thursday February 19, Utrera to Lucena, 195km
Stage three, Friday February 20, Motril to Alto de Hazallanas, 161km
Stage four, Saturday February 21, Maracena to Alto de Allenadas, 202km
Stage five, Sunday February 22, Montilla to Alhaurin de la Torre, 171km

Ruta del Sol 2015: Teams

Ag2r-La Mondiale
Burgos BH
Caja Rurual
CCC Sprandi Polkowice
IAM Cycling
Lotto NL-Jumbo
MTN Qhubeka
TopSport Vlaanderen
Trek Factory Racing
United Health Care
Wanty-Groupe Gobert

Ruta del Sol 2015: TV Coverage

British Eurosport will be broadcasting live coverage and daily highlights.

Alejandro Valverde on his way to winning Stage 1 of the 2014 Ruta del Sol

Alejandro Valverde has won the past three editions of the Ruta del Sol, but will not take part this year

Ruta del Sol: Recent Winners

2014: Alejandro Valverde
2013: Alejandro Valverde
2012: Alejandro Valverde
2011: Markel Irizar
2010: Michael Rodgers
2009: Joost Posthuma
2008: Pablo Lastras
2007: Oscar Freire
2006: Carlos Garcia Quesada
2005: Francisco Cabello

Ruta del Sol: Last year’s top 10 (2014)

1. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar in 18-47-45
2. Richie Porte (Aus) Sky at 31 secs
3. Luis Leon Sanchez (Spa) Caja Rural at 33 secs
4. Jon Izagirre (Spa) Movistar at 33 secs
5. Tanel Kangert (Est) Astana at 43 secs
6. Bauke Mollema (Ned) Belkin at 55 secs
7. Thomas Degand (Bel) Wanty-Groupe Gobert at 1-02
8. Daniel Navarro (Spa) Cofidis at 1-06
9. Michele Scarponi (Ita) Astana at 1-13
10. Luis Angel Mate (Spa) Cofidis at 1-24