Chris Froome (Team Sky) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) resume hostilities in Andalucia this week, as the two rivals kick off their 2015 seasons at the Ruta del Sol.
Rolling out on Wednesday February 18 from La Rabida for the first part of a split-stage, which starts with a 121.3km road race and ends with an 8.2km individual time trial, Froome and Contador will go wheel-to-wheel for the first time since their epic Vuelta a Espana battle in September last year.
Three-time reigning champion Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) has opted to skip the race this year, meaning the two start as favourites to open their season by pulling on the red jersey in his place.
The race will see Contador and Froome test their legs after the winter break and look to score any early-season moral victories on the summit finishes of stages three and four, which are likely to decide the race.
Stage three concludes atop the Alto de Hazallanas, with an 18 per cent kick inside the final three kilometres, while the following day’s ascent of the Alto de las Allanadas includes a wall-like ramp in excess of 20 per cent gradient.
On the back of Contador confirming his 2016 retirement plans, the race also marks the beginning of the end of what – for the brief time they have raced against each other – has been a fascinating rivalry with Froome.
El Pistolero succeeded at the Vuelta in 2012 and Froome was victorious at the 2013 Tour de France before both missed out through injury last year, but Contador had the last laugh at the 2014 Vuelta a Espana.
After an injury-hit campaign in 2014, Froome has opted to miss the Tour of Oman, which he has won in the last two year, to kick-start his season in Europe instead.
Both Froome and Contador consider the other to be their biggest rival this season – and have publicly stated as much – with the Tour de France set to be the pinnacle of the battle between the two, though Contador has a battle with the Giro d’Italia first
Having produced stunning performances at the Vuelta a Espana last year, despite the injuries that ended their respective Tour de France campaign, their battle at the Tour this year is even more eagerly anticipated.
So, how will this latest chapter unfold? Both will ride with new team-mates in their ranks in Andalucia, with Contador’s former domestique Nicolas Roche now one of Froome’s wing men.
Roche’s move, which came despite Oleg Tinkov stating on Twitter he had wanted the Irishman to stay, has fanned the flames of the rivalry, though both Contador and Froome have huge respect for each other.
British champion Peter Kennaugh, Belarussian duo Vasil Kiryienka and Kanstantsin Siutsou and Spain’s Xabier Zandio and Mikel Nieve complete a formidable Sky line-up in Andalucia.
In Roche’s place in the fluoro yellow of Tinkoff-Saxo will instead be the not inconsiderable signing of Ivan Basso, with the two-time Giro d’Italia champion joining Contador’s support cast for the 2015 campaign.
Michael Valgren, Jesus Hernandez, Sergio Paulinho, Evgeni Petrov and Matteo Tosatto complete the Tinkoff-Saxo line-up in Spain.
Given Contador’s planned participation in the Giro d’Italia this year, he and Frome will follow very different paths ahead of the Tour de France. Contador’s desire to win the Giro-Tour double and cement his place in cycling history is matched by Froome’s desperation to add a second Tour de France title to his palmares to make up for the disappointment of last year’s aborted bid.
And while defending Tour champion Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Giro d’Italia winner Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Katusha’s perennial contender, Joaquim Rodriguez, will all form an elite cast for the Tour, it is the battle between Contador and Froome which will form the most interesting story line this season.
In the grand scheme of the season, the battles on the slopes of the Hazallanas and Allanadas at the Ruta del Sol are unlikely to last too long in the memory, but they could mark the start of something very special.
Ruta del Sol 2015: route
Wednesday February 18: stage 1a – La Rabida to Hinojos, 121.3km
Wednesday February 18: stage 1b – Coria del Rio, 8.2km ITT
Thursday February 19: stage two – Utrera to Lucena, 194.7km
Friday February 20: stage three – Motril to Alto de Hazallanas, 159.8km summit finish
Saturday February 21: stage four – Maracena to Alto de Allanadas, 202.4km summit finish
Sunday February 22: stage five – Montilla to Alhaurin de la Torre, 170.9km