Grand Tour contenders open season at Algarve

Defending champ Contador begins 2010 campaign in Portugal

The 36th edition of the Volta ao Algarve commences on Wednesday in the Algarve region of southern Portugal. With the later, May date of the previously concurrent Tour of California, the five-day Volta ao Algarve's start list has been bolstered by a greater concentration of stage racing talent which previously had been split between Portugal and the United States.

Twenty-three teams will contest the Volta ao Algarve including 11 ProTour, six Professional Continental and six Continental squads.

The defending Volta ao Algarve champion, Alberto Contador, will kick off his 2010 season in Portugal. This Volta ao Algarve will be the first outing of Contador as captain of the revamped Astana team and he'll be supported by a mixture of Spanish and Kazakh teammates.

The 27-year-old Spaniard's victory in 2009 resulted from a strong showing on stage three's mountain finish on Alto do Malhão coupled with a victory in the penultimate stage time trial. The 2010 parcours is slightly different, but still offers the same tandem of opportunity. The mountain finish is once again included, taking place on the third stage, while the time trial's length has been reduced to 17.2km this year from 2009's 33.7km distance and now occurs as the final stage.

Former Contador teammates Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Klöden lead a strong RadioShack presence at the Volta ao Algarve, providing an intriguing early season head-to-head opportunity to compete against the Spanish Tour de France champion, particularly on the 173.7km third stage's mountain finish on Alto do Malhão and the time trial finale. While Leipheimer and Klöden vie for the general classification, Belgium's Gert Steegmans will have an opportunity to contest the sprint stages for the American ProTour squad.

Garmin-Transitions' Christian Vande Velde and Dave Zabriskie will likewise start their 2010 campaigns in Portugal instead of the United States' Tour of California as in previous years. Zabriskie is targeting overall victory in the Tour of California later this year, while Vande Velde will contest the Giro d'Italia held concurrently, but both will utilize this early-season stage race as an opportunity to open their seasons and gauge their fitness as compared to their GC rivals.

Two members of the Quick Step team have had success at the Volta ao Algarve in recent years and will look to continue their results in 2010. Stijn Devolder won the 2008 edition while teammate Sylvain Chavanel finished as runner-up to Contador last year.

Caisse d'Epargne brings a strong squad to Portugal with Rui Costa, José Iván Gutiérrez and José Joaquin Rojas all putting in strong performances at the recently concluded Challenge Mallorca.

The route

The Volta ao Algarve, taking place February 17-21, begins with a 157.5km stage from Faro to Albufeira. The Algarve opener, containing only two category three climbs, will likely end in a field sprint. Last year Heinrich Haussler (Cervelo TestTeam) took top honours on the opening day, but this year he will be joined by Tour de France green jersey winner Thor Hushovd to form a powerful sprinting duo.

HTC-Columbia's Andre Greipel has already picked up five victories in 2010 and will provide a stiff challenge to the Cervelo TestTeam pair. Additional top-shelf sprinting talent included Robbie McEwen (Katusha), winner of the first stage of this year's recent Challenge Mallorca, Koldo Fernandez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), a stage winner last year and a multi-podium finisher at the Challenge Mallorca, Portuguese champion Manuel Cardoso (Footon-Servetto), Gert Steegmans (RadioShack), Graeme Brown (Rabobank) and Spain's José Joaquin Rojas (Caisse d'Epargne).

The second stage, covering 207.5km from Vila do Bispo to Lagos, is the Volta ao Algarve's longest day in the saddle and is a hillier affair than the opener, including four category three climbs. The final climb, however, comes nearly 30 kilometres from the finish which will likely result in another day for the sprinters, particularly a rider like Greipel who won a similarly hilly stage on the final day of the Mallorca Challenge.

The Volta ao Algarve's most challenging stage occurs on Friday, as the peloton travels 173.7km from Castro Marin to the mountain finish on the category two Alto do Malhão. Contador finished in second place on this stage last year in the same time as winner Antonio Colom and will look to once again to test his early-season climbing prowess. In addition to other GC contenders such as Leipheimer, Klöden, Vande Velde and Zabriskie, riders such as Sammy Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Maxime Monfort (HTC-Columbia), Vladimir Karpets (Katusha) or Ezequiel Mosquera Miguez (Xacobeo Galicia) may figure prominently.

Stage four, covering 169km between Cacela and Tavira, once again favors the sprinters with only two category three climbs on tap for the day. The final categorised ascent comes 63 kilometres from the finish and should provide ample opportunity for the teams of the sprinters to absorb any breakaway attempts.

The Volta ao Algarve concludes on Sunday with a 17.2km time trial to sort out the final general classification. Alberto Contador won the 2009 Volta ao Algarve time trial and took over the race leader's jersey, but this year he should face stiff competition from noted chrono men as Leipheimer, Klöden, Zabriskie, Vande Velde, David Millar (Garmin-Transitions), Gutiérrez and Karpets. With a time trial only half the distance of the 2009 race of truth, the race for general classification honours should be tight.

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