While the WorldTour has kicked off in earnest at Australia's Santos Tour Down Under, the UCI 2.1-rated Tour de San Luis in Argentina offers an attractive alternative to riders looking to start their seasons with warm (if not actually sweltering) weather, solid competition and a challenging parcours in the shadow of the Andes mountains. And with that in mind, the sixth edition of the Tour de San Luis, whose seven stages cover 1051 kilometres from January 23 to 29, has attracted its strongest-ever field, headlined by five ProTour and seven Professional Continental squads. Also on the start list are six Continental squads plus national teams from Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Paraguay and Uruguay.
The rider garnering the most attention is Spain's Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank), who will be making his first start at the Tour de San Luis to begin his 2012 campaign. The 29-year-old Spaniard is still awaiting a ruling by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) regarding his positive test for clenbuterol at the 2010 Tour de France, and Contador's season debut may soon be disrupted as the decision could be revealed during his stint in Argentina. Saxo Bank is not without other marquee names, however, as the Haedo brothers, Juan José and Lucas Sebastian, start their seasons on home soil in Argentina. Each has won stages at previous editions of the Tour de San Luis and the duo should be a potent combination for the stages likely to finish with a bunch gallop.
2010 Tour de San Luis winner Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) returns to Argentina with designs on once again being a factor in the general classification. Nibali rode into the overall lead after winning the time trial stage in the 2010 race and then defended his lead on subsequent mountain stages, a likely strategy again for 2012. The Italian ProTour squad has additional GC horsepower with Colombia's Jose Cayetano Sarmiento Tunarrosa, the 2009 Baby Giro winner, making his Liquigas-Cannondale debut. Additionally, sprinter Elia Viviani should have multiple opportunities to showcase his finishing kick at the Tour de San Luis.
Perhaps the strongest team from top to bottom at the Tour de San Luis is Omega Pharma - Quick Step who brings Tom Boonen, Sylvain Chavanel, Francesco Chicci, Bert Grabsch, Levi Leipheimer and Frantisek Rabon. The Belgian ProTour squad fields riders capable of winning any stage, as well as contesting for overall victory. The Tour de San Luis's mixture of climbing stages with a 19.5km time trial may be a recipe for success for Leipheimer, while Grabsch and Rabon are multi-time national time trial champions and also a threat in the time trial stage. Chicci can deliver a scintillating finishing kick for sprinter-friendly stages, while Boonen and Chavanel are always capable of delivering stage wins.
Movistar also fields a squad capable of winning any stage, headlined by Italian champion Giovanni Visconti. Spain's Francisco Ventoso packs a good finishing punch and can be expected to arrive in the front group on hilly stages which may stymie other sprinters while Jonathan Castroviejo may be a contender to claim victory in stage 4's 19.5km race of truth.
The fifth ProTour squad to contest the Tour de San Luis is France Ag2R-La Mondiale, who brings punchy finisher Jimmy Casper and all-arounder Rinaldo Nocentini.
Androni Giocattoli has had an impressive record at the Tour de San Luis and the Pro Continental squad returns in 2012 looking to finally achieve an elusive overall victory. Colombia's Jose Serpa, a multi-time Tour de San Luis stage winner, has also finished on the final podium each of the last three editions (2nd in 2010-2011, 3rd in 2009) and will try to capture the overall title this go round. The team also brings former Tour de San Luis stage winners Jackson Rodriguez, a threat on any hilly stage, as well as fastman Roberto Ferrari, who sprinted to two stage victories last year.
The US-based UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team will start its 2012 season in Argentina very much in the hunt for stage wins with sprinters Robert Förster and Jake Keough while GC rider Rory Sutherland will likely have his eye on the time trial stage as well as the pair of mountain finishes.
Other notable starters include Filippo Pozzato (Farnese Vini), Christina Watches-Onfone's Stefan Schumacher and Michael Rasmussen, racing head-to-head against Alberto Contador for the first time since the 2007 Tour de France, plus Argentina's Richeze brothers, Ariel Maximiliano and Mauro Abel.
A balanced, all-around parcours
The Tour de San Luis begins on Monday, January 23 with a 189.3km stage from San Luis to Villa Mercedes. It should be a day for the sprinters as the day's sole KOM, the category 3 La Cumbre, arrives just 41.3km into the stage. From there it's primarily downhill all the way to Villa Mercedes with the final 1.5km pan flat and dead straight.
Tuesday's second stage will likely also favor the sprinters, covering 145.3km from Fraga to Juana Koslay. It, too, has a solitary category 3 climb, at 85.5km, although the route is more rolling than the previous day.
Stage 3, taking the peloton 168.2km from Estancia Grande to a mountain finish on Mirador del Potrero, should be the first day that those with general classification ambitions make their presence felt. The route has three categorised climbs, a category three ascent at 26km followed by a pair of category 1 climbs: the Alto de Nogoli at 60km, the highest point of the Tour de San Luis at 2084m, plus the stage finale Mirador del Potrero, a 4.8km ascent with an average gradient of 6.7% topping out at 1,270m.
Stage 4 is a flat, 19.5km individual time trial, covering an out-and-back route in the city of San Luis. Three of the previous five overall Tour de San Luis winners also prevailed in the time trial stage, providing strong rouleurs the chance to perhaps gain back some time lost to the pure climbers. The peloton is packed with time trial talent and it will be interesting to see who's already on good form at this time early in the season.
Stage 5's decisive feature is the finishing ascent, a 7.3km climb to the Mirador del Sol summit to cap off 160.6km of racing. The final climb's average gradient is 8.75%, but has two sectors in the final three kilometres with pitches at 15.5% followed by 14.5%. The final kilometre, however, flattens out at a 5.5% gradient.
Last year the first four finishers were the survivors of a day-long break, followed in fifth place by eventual 2011 champion Marco Arriagada. The Chilean, however, tested positive in races following his Tour de San Luis triumph in 2011 and will not be back to defend his title.
The penultimate stage of the Tour de San Luis is the race's longest, at 201km, and may be a day for a breakaway to contend for stage honours. There's a category 1 climb 57km into the stage which may serve as a launch pad for those inclined to go on the attack, and the remainder of the parcours is predominantly downhill all the way to the finish in Quines.
The 2012 Tour de San Luis concludes with a 167.1km stage starting and finishing in the city of San Luis, which once again should be a day for the sprinters and a coronation for the overall winner.