The Tour de San Luis has once again cemented its position as South America's premier stage race as the eighth edition, taking place January 20-26, will draw the strongest-ever field contesting the UCI 2.1-rated event.
The seven-day, 1,031km Argentine stage race has attracted 12 WorldTour and five Pro Continental squads with the peloton rounded out by four Continental squads plus national teams from Argentina, Cuba and Uruguay.
Quite a few stars of the WorldTour peloton have opted to start their 2014 campaign in Argentina, no doubt attracted by the prospect of warm, dry weather, a challenging parcours with an equal mix of flat and mountainous stages, all in front of an enthusiastic San Luis city and province who roll out the red carpet to the participating teams.
Based on 2013 palmares alone, there's an impressive array of GC riders on the start list, highlighted by riders who finished on the final podium in all three Grand Tours: world number one rider and Tour podium finisher Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), making his second straight appearance in San Luis, reigning Giro d'Italia champion, Vuelta runner-up and 2010 Tour de San Luis winner Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) plus Tour de France runner-up Nairo Quintana (Movistar), also the best young rider and mountains classification winner at the Tour.
Other riders who may make an impact on the GC in San Luis, or who at least test their legs in the mountains, are AG2R-La Mondiale's Carlos Betancur and Domenico Pozzovivo, BMC's Darwin Atapuma and Peter Stetina (each making their debut for the US-based WorldTour squad), Garmin-Sharp's Janier Acevedo (making his WorldTour team debut) and Tom Danielson, Lotto-Belisol's Jurgen Van den Broeck and Jelle Vandendert, Orica-GreenEdge's Pieter Weening and Trek Factory Racing's Haimar Zubeldia.
There's also an impressive list of sprinters who should have three opportunities to shine in San Luis, headlined by Omega Pharma-QuickStep's Mark Cavendish. The Manxman made the most of is debut for the Belgian WorldTour squad last year in San Luis, winning the opening stage in his first outing for the team, and he'll line up this year with an impressive lead-out team including Tom Boonen, out to prove he's back on form after a disastrous 2013 season, plus Alessandro Petacchi.
Vying for sprint finish victories alongside Cavendish will be none other than Peter Sagan, the Tour de France points champion and winningest rider of the 2013 season. Sagan, too, contested the Tour de San Luis last year with his best result a second place finish on the final stage.
Other top tier sprinters starting their seasons in San Luis include Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp), Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek Factory Racing), Davide Appollonio (AG2R La Mondiale), Francisco Ventoso (Movistar), Kenny Dehaes (Lotto-Belisol) and Aidis Kruopis (Orica-GreenEdge).
The x-factor in the mix at the Tour de San Luis has been the performance of the South American riders on Continental and national teams, who come into the race at the peak of their summer fitness. There's ample motivation to go head-to-head with WorldTour and Pro Conti teams from afar, who generally come into the race with their primary competitive goals much further along in the season. Daniel Diaz, of the local Continental team San Luis Somos Todos, won overall in 2013 (plus finished third behind Levi Leipheimer and Alberto Contador in 2012) and returns seeking another title.
A familiar parcours in San Luis
For those who have competed at the Tour de San Luis in previous years, the parcours will have a very familiar feel. Once again the opening stage on Monday, January 20, will be a day for the sprinters on the 164km route from San Luis to Villa Mercedes. It's predominantly downhill, in fact, with one category three climb situated 55km into the route. Mark Cavendish won in Villa Mercedes last year and he's the odds on favourite to repeat this go round.
The first of three mountain finishes of the Tour de San Luis arrives on the 170.6km stage from La Punta to Mirador del Potrero. The peloton faces a winding, sometimes wind-swept 5km ascent to the finish with an average gradient of just under seven percent. Last year Brazil's Alex Diniz of the Continental Funvic Brasilinvest team attacked at the base of the climb and soloed to victory from a bevy of WorldTour riders. As the least taxing of the mountain finishes, a similar scenario may play out again.
Stage 3 from Tilisarao to Juana Koslay should be another day for the sprinters while the following day the peloton will face a very difficult mountain finish on Alto del Amago. The 10.5km ascent has featured in stages in previous years at the Tour de San Luis, but this is the first time that the finish will come so close to the summit, just 1.8km after the top of the category one-rated climb. While the average gradient is 7.2 percent, the extremely twisting, narrow road (described as concrete slabs placed on a goat path by a European team director last year) offers frequent changes in pitch and many steep switchbacks with gradients frequently over 10 percent. It's the type of climb that should favour a rider like Nairo Quintana, Joaquim Rodriguez or Domenico Pozzovivo if they're so inclined to push the pace.
Stage 5 is a 19.2km, out-and-back time trial in San Luis which looks ideally suited to Taylor Phinney (BMC), but the GC winners in recent years have also figured prominently, particularly Vincenzo Nibali who won the time trial in 2010 en route to his overall San Luis victory.
The penultimate stage features the final mountain finish on the 7km ascent to Mirador del Sol. The overall gradient is 8.75 percent, but there's a very steep sector between three kilometres to go through to the flamme rouge where the road pitches to 15.5 percent for extended periods. In 2013, Alberto Contador won his only race of the season on Mirador del Sol, and once again it should be a day for the WorldTour climbers to test their early season fitness.
The seventh and final stage should be both a coronation for the overall winner and a day for the sprinters in the 148.1km route beginning in San Luis and concluding nearby at the Terrazas del Portezuelo after returning from an three laps of an out-and-back circuit.