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Egan Bernal and Tadej Pogačar will face off at next week’s Ruta del Sol in what will likely be their one and only chance to measure each other up until a possible rematch at the Tour de France in July.
The superstar pair headlines the Ruta del Sol on the roads across Spain’s Andalucía region February 15-19 in what will be their first race together since 2021 Tirreno-Adriatico.
A lot has happened since then.
Bernal is slowly fighting his way back to the top of the elite men’s peloton, while Pogačar is very much intent on staying there.
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It’s unlikely that either will be flying in the top gear next week for the five-day stage race, but the steep climbs and narrow roads in southern Spain will provide an interesting measuring stick, especially for Bernal.
The 2019 Tour de France winner exited his season debut early at the Vuelta a San Juan last month with knee pain in what the team said was nothing more than a precautionary move a day after finishing an encouraging fourth in the main summit finale.
For Bernal, an important test on his progress
The 26-year-old Bernal remains untested against the best of the peloton since his miraculous comeback from injury last year following his devastating training crash in January 2022.
Expectations next week will naturally be low for Bernal as he builds back toward a competitive level.
He is expected to stay in Europe through the summer, with such races as Paris-Nice and Volta a Catalunya on his radar in what will be important tests ahead of a possible Tour start in July.
de @INEOSGrenadiers para la Ruta del Sol Vuelta a Andalucía
➡️ Egan Bernal, campeón de Tour y Giro, lidera una escuadra formada por Carlos Rodríguez, Tao Geoghegan, Salvatorre Puccio, Connor Swift, Jhonatan Narváez y Omar Fraile #69RdS #UCIProSeries #AIOCC pic.twitter.com/iqPdrWuDLV
— Vuelta a Andalucía (@VCANDALUCIA) January 30, 2023
In contrast, Pogačar will be racing to win.
The Slovenian’s season debut comes at the Jaén Paraíso Interior race Monday, the second edition of a one-day race that traces gravel sectors across Spain’s “sea of olives” region.
Pogačar skipped a title defense at the UAE Tour to begin his season in Spain. For the remainder of his spring, Pogačar will follow his familiar blueprint, with highlights at Strade Bianche and Tirreno-Adriatico before heading back to the northern classics.
With each rider taking different approaches toward a possible clash at the Tour de France, the Ruta del Sol will likely be the only race where the two former Tour winners will race against each other until July.
Pogačar with nothing to prove
Bernal could be in for a shock in Wednesday’s opening stage that features no less than three first-category climbs in what will be the hardest day of racing he’s faced since 2021.
Stages 2 could be even spicier, ending with a short but very steep climb — the final kilometer is 11.5 percent — while stages 3 and 4 offer a bit of a respite for the sprinters. The final stage hits out at a first category climb midway through the profile and ends with a short uphill kicker.
For Bernal, staying close to the favorites would be considered a very encouraging step. Anything better will serve only as confirmation that his recovery is well on track.
Of course, there are plenty of other favorites. Enric Mas (Movistar) will be out to prove that the version of himself the world saw at last year’s Vuelta a España is here to stay. Michael Woods (Israel Premier Tech), Carlos Rodríguez (Ineos Grenadiers), and Jack Haig (Bahrain Victorious) will also spice things up.
Pogačar certainly won’t have anything to prove, and it will be interesting to see if races to win as he always has, or perhaps is tilting toward a bit more caution as he puts the Tour at the center of his plans for 2023.
The early season race will be telling for both riders, and everyone is hoping they both will be lining up in France in July for the Tour de France in what would be their first yellow jersey matchup since 2020.