Spain's Vuelta a Murcia (Tour of Murcia), which starts today, has traditionally been the first stage race of the season for many top riders, with Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich both starting their preparation for the Tour de France last year in a race that was won by local hero Alejandro Valverde.
The 2005 edition, however, will lack all three of those riders. Ullrich is out of action with flu, while Valverde and Armstrong have both chosen to start Paris-Nice, a ProTour event.
Nevertheless, 16 teams will start in Murcia today, and the field is not bare of top riders, with Lampre-Caffita fielding young gun Damiano Cunego, Joseba Beloki lining up for Liberty Seguros, climber Michael Rasmussen leading the charge for Rabobank and Gerolsteiner tipping sprinter Danilo Hondo for stage wins and a tilt at the general classification. Gerolsteiner will also field American Levi Leipheimer, but team spokesman Udo Bölts says Leipheimer has bigger fish to fry this season.
"For Levi it is the first race of the season," said Bolts. "He is still building his form and certainly has other goals. He is preparing for his season high point to be the Tour de France. Therefore we are not going to raise our expectations of him too high right now."
Murcia's first three days present no major difficulties, with third category climbs in stages one and three and a 22km time trial making up stage two. Stage four's 152km trip from Águilas to Collado Bermejo should shake things up, though, with a third category climb at the halfway point to warm the climbers' legs, and a finale atop the 1150m, category one Alto de Collado Bermejo.
The race finishes with a 150km final stage that begins and ends in Murcia.
Acqua & Sapone, Barloworld, Bouygues-Telecom, Chocolates Jacques, Comunitat Valenciana, Gerolsteiner, Illes Balears, Kaiku, Lampre-Caffita, Landbouwkrediet-Colnago, Liberty Seguros, MrBookmaker.com, Rabobank, Relax-Fuenlabrada, Saunier Duval, T-Mobile
Stage 1 - March 2: Murcia - Molina de Segura , 162 km
Stage 2 - March 3: Alhama de Murcia - Alhama de Murcia , 22 km
Stage 3 - March 4: Mula - Fortuna , 155.8 km
Stage 4 - March 5: Águilas - Collado Bermejo , 152.3 km
Stage 5 - March 6: Murcia - Murcia , 150.6 km