The 40th edition of Portugal's Volta ao Algarve begins on Wednesday with the UCI 2.1-rated stage race once again featuring five days of racing following a four-stage event in 2013.
Defending champion Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), also the winner in 2011, returns to seek a third overall title, but some changes to the route since his victory last year will provide a substantial challenge for the time trial world champion.
While the Volta ao Algarve once again makes use of the Alto do Malhão summit finish on stage 4, this year features a second mountain finish, stage 2's B.V. Monchique, plus a much shorter time trial stage. Last year's concluding 34.8km time trial was won in a runaway by Martin, who claimed both the stage win and overall title with his dominating performance against the clock. The 2014 edition will provide a shorter race of truth, 13.6km from Vila de Bispo to Sagres, sandwiched between the two mountain stages.
The opening stage, 160km from Faro to Abufeira, and the final stage, 155.8km from Tavira to Vilamoura, are days that the sprinters should shine, although Paul Martens' victory in 2013's opening stage from an attack in the final kilometre shows that the teams of the fast men must stay vigilant to ensure bunch sprint finales.
If Tony Martin isn't up to the task of defending his 2013 title, then his teammate, Polish road champion Michal Kwiatkowski, may prove a worthy and capable heir to the throne having already displayed a fine display of climbing and time trial prowess to win the Trofeo Serra de Tramuntana race during the Challenge Mallorca. Kwiatkowski finished second to Martin on 2013 Volta ao Algarve final time trial which was also enough to finish second overall to his teammate.
In addition to Martin, two other riders starting the Volta ao Algarve have won overall, with Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), a two-time winner in 2009-2010, choosing the Portuguese stage race to kick off his 2014 campaign. The 31-year-old Spaniard has won the mountain stage to Alto do Malhão and with a second mountain stage and a shorter time trial on tap in 2014 he could very well start his season out with both stage and overall victories.
The Volta ao Algarve provides Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) his first opportunity to show off the rainbow jersey on home soil, and the 27-year-old Portuguese rider will have ample motivation to improve on his runner-up finish on the Alto do Malhão summit plus fifth place overall result from last year's edition.
Other riders who should figure in the general classification mix include Portugal's Tiago Machado (Team NetApp-Endura), a rider who placed third overall in 2010 and had placed in the top six on four different occasions, as well as Wilco Kelderman (Belkin), the promising 22-year-old Dutchman.
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Regarding the likely sprint stages, Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) is the man to beat as the Manx Missile has the lead-out riders Mark Renshaw and Alessandro Petacchi (the 2007 overall Volta ao Algarve champion) at his side in Portugal. Cavendish has yet to win in 2014, however, as his primary ambitions lie further along in the season, but he's a threat to win in any race finishing in a bunch sprint scenario.
Likely challengers to Cavendish for sprint wins include Sacha Modolo (Lampre-Merida), who's already won three races thus far in 2014, Francesco Ventoso (Movistar), Arnaud Demare (FDJ.fr) and Bryan Coquard (Europcar), winner of two stages this year at Etoile de Bessèges.
Reigning world champion Tony Martin is a heavy favourite to win the time trial stage, but also in the hunt to challenge the 28-year-old German are a trio of Movistar riders - Jonathan Castroviejo, Alex Dowsett and Adriano Malori - plus Jan Barta (Team NetApp-Endura).