- Jane Aubrey
Spaniards set to dominate stage race
Alberto Contador returns to defend his title at the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon, riding for a different team and with his racing future under a cloud due to the Court of Arbitration for sport investigating his doping positive at last year's Tour de France.
Contador, a three-time winner of the event, will ultimately use the five days as preparation for his Giro d'Italia campaign which is now less than a month away. He is unbeaten in Spain this season.
"The last two days I've been suffering from a cold but I hope I don't suffer during the race," he said. "This will be a difficult race because the mountain finish is not very demanding and cannot make so much of a difference. The time trial is also very short so any rider who arrives in time has a chance of victory."
Outright race favourite Contador leads a strong Saxo Bank Sungard team into the five-stage race, which includes Australians Richie Porte and Luke Roberts, along with Daniel Navarro.
Second to Contador in 2010, Igor Anton headlines Basque outfit Euskaltel-Euskadi. His form looks reasonable given following an 11th placing in the Klasika Primavera last week, but like so many others, his focus is on the upcoming Giro d'Italia.
Another Spaniard keen to make an impact in the race will be 2007 Tour de France winner, Carlos Sastre. The 35-year-old leads a Geox-TMC team looking for its second win of the season after Matteo Pelucchi won February's Clásica de Almeria.
"The Vuelta Castilla y León will be especially important to evaluate my actual fitness and recover my mojo and racing rhythm. Fortunately, after Vuelta Castilla y Leon there will be another three week's time to fine tune my conditioning in the lead up to the Giro d'Italia".
One rider eying the comparatively flatter, first, second and fifth stages will be Movistar's Francisco Ventoso who hails from the nearby Cantabrian region.
"Castilla y Leon is a race that brings back many good memories because I've won four stage victories in two editions," he said.
Ventoso had been due to ride Paris-Roubaix but was glad for the last minute change to his schedule, to aid his preparation for the Giro d'Italia, explaining: "Paris-Roubaix physically leaves you damaged for a while."
Any rider looking to take overall honours will have their eye firmly on Friday's third stage between Benavente - Laguna de los Peces. With two Cat 1 climbs, the 157.2 km queen stage should prove decisive ahead of Saturday's 11.2 km individual time trial.