Daniel Martínez takes stage 2 of the Volta ao Algarve ahead of Remco Evenepoel.

It’s only February, but stars are already shining at Algarve

Remco Evenepoel, Visma duo Wout van Aert and Sepp Kuss, and Bora's other big signee, Dani Martinez, are all in action in Portugal this week.

Daniel Martínez takes stage 2 of the Volta ao Algarve ahead of Remco Evenepoel.

Dane Cash
by Dane Cash 15.02.2024 Photography by
Cor Vos
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With several big names making their first stage racing starts of the year at the Volta ao Algarve this week, Thursday’s stage 2 to the Alto de Fóia was a chance to see some GC heavyweights duking it out on a summit finish for the first time in 2024. It may have come in a headwind, making it hard for anyone to create any separation until the very end, but it is still a much appreciated opportunity to make some snap judgments about who is in form and who isn’t, and isn’t that what February is all about?

Defending champion Daniel Martínez would probably be fine with that, at least. The 27-year-old Colombian, whose transfer to Bora-Hansgrohe during the offseason was overshadowed by the arrival of Primož Roglič, took his opportunity on Thursday to remind the cycling world that he is a force to be reckoned with, picking up right where he left off as last year’s winner in this race.

On a first-category climb where all eyes were on dueling duos from Soudal-QuickStep (Mikel Landa and Remco Evenepoel) and Visma-Lease a Bike (Sepp Kuss and Wout van Aert), it was Martínez who proved strongest, surging clear of an elite group with Evenepoel with around 300 meters to go and then putting Evenepoel in the rearview mirror to take the win.

Martínez has already taken a time trial national title this year (his fourth), but this climbing performance in some fine company was an even stronger statement that Bora’s other big transfer season signing is not messing around. What’s more, his teammate Sergio Higuita had a heck of a day as well, finishing fourth, seven seconds after his Colombian compatriot.

Bora sports director Bernie Eisel said last month that “Primož is lifting things for everyone” on the team, and Thursday in Portugal certainly seems like an indication that there is some truth to that. This team has some hitters, and the other top teams in the peloton should be on notice moving forward.

Here is what else we saw on stage 2 of the Volta ao Algarve, where, as it turned out, most of the GC stars that we would have expected to do well lived up to said expectations …

Remco Evenepoel and Mikel Landa can make a good team

Landa’s transfer to Soudal was one of the more intriguing moves of the offseason, raising questions about how he might fit into the squad, and Thursday was a good sign of the way that Landismo could elevate the team’s performances when the road goes up. With a time trial looming, Evenepoel is a natural fit to lead the team in this race, but having an aggressive pure climber like Landa in the ranks suits Soudal’s ambitions quite well.

The team had both Landa and James Knox on the front of a rapidly shrinking peloton in Thursday’s finale, and then Landa put in a few surges at the front inside the last two kilometers, further thinning the group and drawing responses from the likes of Kuss while Evenepoel bided his time for a final push. Evenepoel then followed Martínez to finish second on the same time. The 2022 overall winner is now in a great position to battle for another GC title over the rest of the week.

It was a fine example of how a one-two punch could work – and of how the free-spirited Landa can play a role that might see him sneak away for a stage win here and there, while putting pressure on Evenepoel’s rivals either way.

Wout van Aert is not dispelling speculation around his Giro ambitions, but he also has some work to do on the steep stuff

It was hard not to be constantly mindful of the Red Bull helmet in the lead group all the way up the final climb as he hung with Grand Tour winners like Evenepoel and Tao Geoghegan Hart (Lidl-Trek) with his own Giro d’Italia start on the horizon. Can he really challenge the GC specialists on the steep gradients consistently enough to be one of them? Does he even want to?

Wout van Aert finishes stage 2 of the Volta ao Algarve just ahead of Ben Healy.
Wout van Aert finished stage 2 of the Volta ao Algarve just ahead of Ben Healy.

We still have no idea, and Thursday’s stage just raised more questions. On the one hand, Van Aert was hunting bonus seconds at a late intermediate sprint, and he proceeded to ride (somewhat sheltered by teammates) with the GC group into the final kilometer or so. In other words, he certainly wasn’t doing anything to suggest that he isn’t interested in hunting GC results.

On the other hand, he did ultimately get dropped in the finale. It was not Van Aert but Sepp Kuss who landed the highest finish for Visma, taking third on the day, while Jan Tratnik was fifth. Van Aert lost 26 seconds in the end on a climb that is simply not as hard as some of those that await at the Giro. Obviously, it’s early, and he has big goals across the season (especially in the Classics) that make it likely that he’s not at top form yet, but he will need to get to another level if he really wants to challenge for pink (which, again, is pure speculation at this point).

Kuss, meanwhile, put in a great ride on the heels of comments he recently made about his candidacy as a GC leader even a team that has two-time defending Tour de France champion Jonas Vingegaard on the roster. He was unable to match the explosive push of Martínez and Evenepoel in the finale, but he tends to thrive on steeper and longer climbs anyway. All in all, Kuss looked very good for February, especially when you add in a sixth-place finish at the mixed-surface Clasica Jaén to start the week.

Thomas working for Thomas

Forgive the wordplay, but Tom Pidcock’s given name is Thomas after all, and Geraint Thomas seemed all-in in support of his Ineos Grenadiers’ teammate on Thursday, helping push the pace as the peloton worked to catch Andreas Leknessund (Uno-X Mobility) on the run-in to the final climb. Geraint Thomas did not last long in the lead group on Alto de Fóia, but Pidcock did.

He was somewhat inconspicuous in the finale as others made attacks and counterattacks, but he finished sixth on the day, which is all that really matters, right? This is Pidcock’s first race of a season in which he is ostensibly hoping to land a GC result at the Tour de France, and with that in mind, Thursday was a respectable showing.

Welcome back Tao Geoghegan Hart

What started out as a promising 2023 campaign for Tao Geoghegan Hart came to an abrupt and frustrating end when he crashed out of the Giro d’Italia with a fractured hip and femur. He did not race for the rest of the season, and then he signed with Lidl-Trek. The Volta ao Algarve is thus his first start with a new team, and his first start at all in nine months.

Lidl-Trek has to be pleased with how things went for Geoghegan Hart on his first summit finish in his new kit. The 2020 Giro champ was content to grind it out a few riders back in the lead group on the final climb, not showing himself much as riders were making surges off the front, but that strategy worked just fine for him. He ultimately finished in seventh, eight seconds back of Martínez and on the same time as Tratnik and Pidcock.

That should dispel any concerns that his new team might have about his form following a crash, a serious injury, and a long layoff, and it bodes well for his and his teams hopes that he can again be a legitimate GC contender in the bigger races to come this year.

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