Mark Cavendish, Peter Sagan, Tom Boonen, Vincenzo Nibali, Joaquim Rodriguez, Nairo Quintana
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Increasing amount of Euro star power drawn to Argentina
The Tour de San Luis's opening press conference featured a 50/50 split among its six participants regarding their respective realms of sprinters and general classification contenders, and while there was decided contrast between their expectations in Argentina, both camps confirmed that the Tour de San Luis provides an ideal start to the season.
The marquee names representing the peloton's fastmen included Omega Pharma-QuickStep teammates Mark Cavendish and Tom Boonen as well as Peter Sagan (Cannondale), while the general classification faction was made up of Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar).
Cavendish and Boonen, each with one Tour de San Luis stage win in their palmares, made no bones about their aspirations to win sprint stages, and ideally run the table of three on offer in Argentina as their Omega Pharma-QuickStep did at the 2012 edition courtesy of Boonen and then team member Francesco Chicchi. Cavendish won the opening stage last year in his Omega Pharma-QuickStep debut, and was eager to return in 2014.
"I came here to the Tour de San Luis the first time last year and enjoyed it," said Cavendish. "After the Tour de France, it's a race I want to do every year. We've got a selection of very very strong riders...I think everyone's in great form and we'd like to get it started here in San Luis."
For Boonen, who hasn't raced in nearly six months after his 2013 season came to an early conclusion due to health issues, his desire to compete once again was palpable.
"I'm feeling good, and I'm ready to start racing again," said Boonen. "It's been a while since my last race and it's been a long time training to get here. I'm looking forward to a nice race and maybe try to get a stage victory here together with the team."
Along with Boonen and Cavendish, Italy's Alessandro Petacchi makes up a very strong contingent of fast finishers for Omega Pharma-QuickStep, and while Cavendish is the likely option to win stages it will all depend on the circumstances within the peloton each day.
"We always have to consider the heat and the parcours here is very hard so it's always difficult to say in advance, but I think the shape of the three of us is very good and we'll decide inside the race who will sprint for which stages," said Boonen.
While Boonen's immediate concern is the upcoming seven days of racing in Argentina, ultimately his focus is on the Spring Classics and the Tour de San Luis provides a strong foundation.
"At this period of the year, in January in particular, I think this is the best race for a European rider's condition for the Classics and for the beginning of the season in general," said Boonen. "It's a real race - you've got nice mountain stages, long, flat stages and a time trial so it's a very competitive race. You have a few long distances as well and that makes it good. Also, you only have a four-hour time difference coming here so it doesn't destroy you for a week to come over here and to go back. Both of those things plus the good weather and the nice people make it worth coming over here."
Peter Sagan (Cannondale) won more races than any professional cyclist in 2013, but the young Slovakian was shut out in his Tour de San Luis debut last year with a runner-up finish to Mattia Gavazzi the final day his best result. While he was noncommittal about whether the overall winner of this year's Tour de San Luis was sitting with him at the press conference table, he had a more definitive response regarding the sprint stages.
"Last year it was a very hard race," said Sagan. "It's very hot and for everyone from this table it's the first race of the year. For the GC [riders at the press conference)] maybe yes, maybe no [for the overall], but for earning stage victories it is for sure."
While Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) has one Tour de San Luis overall victory in his palmares (2010), and finished in the top-10 overall on two other occasions, this season's goal is victory at the Tour de France. Nibali is joined in San Luis by the core of Astana's expected Tour line-up and while the Italian has every intent to respect the race his participation is imbued with a long-term perspective.
"It's really good to be here and train," said Nibali. "This is a very important race, not just for me but for the whole team. This will be really good training for the Tour de France."
After finishing third overall in the 2013 Tour de France and fourth at the Vuelta a Espana, Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) has opted to return to the Giro d'Italia in 2014. The Spaniard made his Tour de San Luis debut last year where he finished in 55th overall, 26:08 off the pace, with teammate Dani Moreno the squad's best GC finisher in 21st overall. Rodriguez is joined by is very similar roster to last year's San Luis squad, albeit with none of the drama regarding his team's place in the WorldTour.
Like Nibali, Rodriguez is appreciative of a solid first race of the season amidst brilliant sunshine and warm weather.
"The Giro d'Italia is in May so this is a really good race to be here training," said Rodriguez. "It's much better than being home in the cold."