The 27th edition of the Tour de Beauce will look pretty familiar to anyone who has been to the race in recent years.
Canada's biggest stage race is sticking to its tried-and-true trio of road stages in the rolling hills of southern Quebec, a mountain-top finish, a time trial and a pair of circuit races to finish things off.
What's more, three previous winners of the event will be on the start line Tuesday: Defending champion Francisco Mancebo (Competitive Cyclist), 2007 and 2010 winner Ben Day (United Healthcare) and 2008 victor Svein Tuft, on loan to the Canadian national team from Orica-GreenEdge.
Mancebo is cautiously optimistic about his chances of a repeat victory this year. "My form I think is similar to last year," he said the day before the first stage. "But the rivals are strong."
This year's field is a solid mix of continental and domestic teams, with plenty of riders with WorldTour experience along for the ride.
Anybody who aspires to win the overall will have to be multi-talented.
He'll have to stay in touch with the leaders in three long, difficult stages culminating with the 8km climb to the summit of Mont-Mégantic on Thursday. He will then have to time trial well enough to take the lead in the 20km individual test on Friday, and he'll need a strong team to keep a lid on the attacks in the circuit races in Quebec City on Saturday and Ville St-Georges on Sunday.
Beauce also has a reputation of dishing out extreme weather, from chilly gale-force winds to extreme heat, not to mention some awful road surfaces.
It's a tough race that always crowns a tough cyclist.
A strong field of pro continental and continental teams, along with a few domestic squads, has the makings for an active, open race.
Last year's winner, Francisco Mancebo, comes into the tour as the obvious favourite. Mancebo is a top-10 finisher in three Grand Tours, including fourth place in the 2005 Tour de France. Now 36, he's having a good season so far and he has some strong teammates to lean on, including former BMC rider Chad Beyer and Vuelta Mexico stage winner Thomas Rabou, who was instrumental in his victory last year.
"We have a better team," said Mancebo. "If I'm in the jersey after the TT it'll be easier (to defend) than last year."
United Healthcare brings the most experience into the race. Besides two-time Beauce winner Ben Day, the team includes WorldTour veterans Marc de Maar, Jason McCartney and Kai Reus, and Rory Sutherland.
Team Type 1-Sanofi will also be a contender, with a lineup that includes TD Bank Philadelphia Cycling Championship winner Alexander Serebryakov and runner-up Aldo Ino Ilesic.
The Canadian national team has perhaps the most interesting lineup of the tour, with Orica-GreenEdge teammates Tuft and Christian Meier fresh off the Giro d'Italia riding alongside four riders who are virtually unknown on the international scene.
"If we got the jersey it would be pretty difficult to defend," said Meier, who is using the race to get his racing legs back after taking short break.
"I finished the Giro pretty empty," Meier said. "For us the main work was the first two weeks. The last week was so difficult."
Meier said he and Tuft are going to take the race day-by-day and see how things go. "Obviously Svein is going to try to rip the time trial. For us there's no pressure, especially with the teams here, it's a pretty stacked field."
The team will have to work around the inexperience and uncertain strength of its support riders if its two stars are going to have a chance at the overall.
"If we can maybe help them learn things along the way, it would be fantastic," he said.
The strongest riders on the Canadian pro continental Team SpiderTech powered by C10 are in Europe racing the Tour de Suisse, but that doesn't mean the guys doing Beauce are slouches. Ryan Roth won the French semi-classic Tro-Bro Léon in April with an impressive solo attack, and he took the Univest Grand Prix last year in a three-up sprint. He's also the best time triallist on the team and can climb reasonably well. Multiple Canadian U23 champion Hugo Houle took the KOM prize at the Coupe des Nations Ville de Saguenay, and François Parisien will be super-motivated after a lengthy break due to a knee problem.
Champion System has three riders with WorldTour experience -- Will Clarke, Craig Lewis and Chris Butler -- but its top-ranked rider is 2010 Malaysian champion Adiq Othman, just 21 but already building an impressive palmares.
Amgen Tour of California KOM winner Sebastian Salas will be the main Optum powered by Kelly Benefit Strategies rider to watch. He was third on the Mégantic stage in 2011, just 19 seconds behind Mancebo, but he lost more than two minutes in the time trial so unless he's improved dramatically it's hard to see him as a contender for the overall.
While the winner is most likely to come from one of the aforementioned teams, there are plenty of other riders in the rest of the field who will be chasing for stage results or jerseys and could play the role of spoiler in the overall.
The climb to the summit of Mont-Mégantic on Thursday and the individual time trial on Friday will choose the winner of the Tour de Beauce, but there will likely be plenty of losers coming out of the two opening stages.
Stage 1 is a 162-km loop starting and finishing in Lac-Etchemin. There isn't much rest on the undulating course and a breakaway with a good mix of teams can gain a lot of time. Last year a 22-rider group took off after the first KOM at 20 km and the peloton never saw them again, eventually finishing more than 20 minutes down.
The climbs continue on Stage 2, a 160-km slog that starts and ends in Thetford Mines, though it's a little more suited to the sprinters with the final KOM 30 km from the finish, which comes at the end of three laps of a 3.5-km circuit.
The "queen stage" is the 164-km Stage 3, which starts at the race headquarters in Ville St-Georges and finishes atop the 1,100-m Mont-Mégantic after an 8-km climb. There's plenty of climbing throughout the day and, with the key GC contenders waiting for the mountain to sort things out it could be a chance for a long-range breakaway to succeed.
If things aren't sorted on the mountain they will be after stage 4. The 20km out-and-back time trial gains nearly 200 m over 5 km on the way out, before the riders fly back down the hill to the finish. It will be a very tough course to find a rhythm on, especially if it's windy - in fact, the course is tough enough that Francisco Mancebo says it suits hinm. Svein Tuft won this stage on a flatter course a year ago and he'll have to have good legs to repeat this year.
The atmosphere changes dramatically for the 125km stage 5 in Quebec City, on a circuit that uses many of the same roads as the WorldTour Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec in September. The main feature is a steep climb crammed with spectators from the old port, which then turns into a long drag up the Grande Allée to the finish line. There's precious little recovery on this circuit and if the GC is close, this will be an opportunity to gain some precious seconds. Whoever is leading will need a strong team to keep things under control over the 13 laps of 9.6km.
It's back to Ville St-Georges for the final stage, a 10-lap, 125km circuit race. The organizers have moved the finish closer to the base of the main climb, which will give the sprinters a bit more road to play with. But they won't get the chance if the GC contenders are still duking it out: Last year this stage saw a dramatic GC battle that ended with a solo win from Tuft in an unsuccessful bid to overhaul an isolated Mancebo in the general classification.