Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) returns to the Tour de San Luis (January 21-27) and headlines the race's most competitive ever line-up. The Spanish climber will again use the Argentine stage race as his season opener but with three potential sprint stages, three up-hill finishes, and a time-trial the race offers plenty of variety for the world-class field.
Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) also make season debuts south of the equator, and both riders will do so with new teams. The week-long stage race also sees Peter Sagan, Joaquim Rodriguez, Tejay van Garderen, Thor Hushovd, and Jurgen Van den Broeck line-up.
Cavendish, who joined Omega Pharma-QuickStep from Sky, has never taken part in the race but with the first two stages likely to end in bunch sprints, all eyes will be on both his form and his first lead outs with the Belgian team.
Stage one from San Luis to Villa Mercedes is a direct repeat of 2012's opening encounter, and one third category climb aside, is virtually downhill to the finish. Last year, Francesco Chicchi claimed the win but with 13 non- WorldTour teams on the start list, controlling the sporadic early attacks could weaken any of the six-man teams racing for a sprint.
Stage 2 from Tilisarao to Terrazas del Portezuelo follows a similar trajectory to the first but stage 3 from La Punta - Mirador del Potrero should see the likes of Contador, Rodriguez, Nibali and national favourite Daniel Diaz show their hands. On the same climb last year, Contador took his first win of the season against a dogged Levi Leipheimer. This year, Rodriguez, smarting from Katusha's denial
of a WorldTour licence, could be the 2012 Vuelta winner's closest rival. The final slope averages 6.7 per cent but the gradient kicks up inside the final kilometre to give the freshest of climbers the
perfect springboard for an attack.
The following day's 19.2 kilometre time trial should again see Contador in the mix, but Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), Svein Tuft (Orica-GreenEdge) and Jonathan Castroviejo (Movistar) could spring surprises. Last year Leipheimer used the race as a springboard for overall victory but the American misses out this year after he was suspended and fired from his team in the wake of USADA's doping investigation.
However, the overall title could be decided on stages 5 and 6. Stage 5 from Juana Koslay to Carolina ends with a 10.5 kilometre climb and a long but undulating plateau. Stage six, and its final climb up Mirador del Sol, looks tailor-made for Rodriguez. At 7km in length it gently ramps up, but with 3km to go the pitch reaches 15.5 percent, before easing to 5.5 per cent at the finish.
All that's left is the 7th and final stage from San Luis to Juana Koslay. With the overall almost certainly secured, the third category climb at 17km appears as the perfect place to launch an early move. However if Peter Sagan is hungry for the win, the gentle uphill finish will be to his liking.