12 months after Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) blazed his way to a spectacular solo victory in his first-ever participation in the Clásica Jaén Paraiso Interior, whether Wout van Aert (Visma-Lease A Bike) can have a similarly stunning debut in Spain’s top mixed-surface challenge is just one of several leading questions to be resolved this Monday.
Van Aert’s first 2024 race outing took place in the much more straightforward Clásica de Almería on Sunday, where he led out teammate Olav Kooij for their team’s opening victory of the new season.
But Monday’s menu of four challenging segments of rain-soaked gravel roads constitutes the first major test of how the Belgian champion’s radically different winter program, which featured far less cyclocross and a much earlier start than 2023 or 2022, could have benefited – or not – his form for the fast approaching cobbled Classics.
Jaén’s extensive olive tree plantations will form a stunning visual backdrop to Monday’s 158km race through central southern Spain, and one which could hardly be more different to the windswept green fields and sprawling industrial hinterlands of western Flanders Van Aert will face in a little over two weeks at the Opening Weekend of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
But two key factors will make the Clásica Jaén a Belgian Classics reference point for Van Aert: the decisive nature of the 17.9km of off-road racing – even if the total has been substantially reduced from the planned 62.4km because of this weekend’s torrential rain – and, of course, some formidable one-day rivals.
Tim Wellens (UAE Team Emirates), a former podium finisher at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and who has run second and third in Jaén’s previous two editions, is one rival Van Aert will have to watch closely. So, too, are Michał Kwiatkowski (Ineos Grenadiers) – a double winner of off-road challenges of the calibre of Strade Bianche, as well as E3 Harelbeke – and Kwiatkowski’s young British teammate, Ben Turner, Pogačar’s closest pursuer last year in the Clasica Jaén.
The role of outsiders could be an intriguing one, too: Spain’s top stage racing duo, Carlos Rodríguez (Ineos Grenadiers) and Juan Ayuso (UAE Team Emirates) will both be presumably riding in support of their more Classic-orientated teammates in their season debut.
And like them, Vuelta a España winner Sepp Kuss (Visma-Lease A Bike) could well be looking to get an early reference point for his off-road form for the Tour de France’s gravel stage this summer.
But while Rodríguez in particular will be motivated by racing on home roads – he hails from the nearby town of Almuñecar – and given the key characteristic of mixed surface racing is unpredictability, there’s nothing to say any of these three couldn’t suddenly find themselves in the thick of the action.
The same goes for Oier Lazkano (Movistar), currently Spain’s National Champion and whose second place in the 2023 Dwars door Vlaanderen constituted a rare podium finish for a rider from that country in a cobbled Classic.
And following his devastating solo performance in the Vuelta a Murcia on Saturday where he notably put Wellens to the sword, Australian Ben O’Connor (Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale) will surely be keen to test his legs again on Monday.
And as tests go, Jaén – Spain’s only pro-level sterrato race – could be brutal. After months of drought, three days of heavy rain this weekend, and very possibly more to come on Monday, have converted the backroads of eastern Andalusia into near-quagmires in places and forced a radical last-minute revision of the planned route.
With or without the riders donning their rain jackets en masse on Monday and even with those late alterations, some things won’t change. The 1.1-category race will start shortly after 1 pm in the hilltop town of Baeza and finish some four hours later in the centre of the nearby, equally hilly, Renaissance-era town of Úbeda.
Although only 10km apart as the crow flies – and with a long history of a friendly rivalry as neighbours that will presumably be buried for the day – the riders’ much more circuitous route between the two Andalusian towns includes four segments of off-road racing, all in the second half of the 158km course.
Sector 1, the gently undulating 3.7km-long Cruz de Jaboñeros at kilometre 103, could see the opening sparks fly in the final battle for victory, but the hardest of these stony sterrato tracks will likely be found on the triptych of off-road segments between kilometres 129 and 147.
Sector 4, in particular, 5.7km long, swooping down to start with and then with a sharp upward climb halfway through, is particularly challenging. And with less than ten kilometres to the finish in Úbeda by the time the first rider completes that final sector, even with the route changes, the chances of them ‘doing a Pogačar’ and making a triumphant solo entry on the finish line remain very strong indeed.