Vuelta a San Juan: Argentina's next big thing

Nibali, Boonen kick off the season in Tour de San Luis replacement

A budget shortfall spelled the end for the Tour de San Luis – at least for 2017 – but a warm-weather Argentinean season opener is still on the table thanks to the Vuelta a San Juan, which has stepped up to UCI 2.1 level.

San Juan is a neighbouring province of San Luis in the South American country, on the border with Chile, and it will be putting on a race that will bear plenty of similarity to the Tour de San Luis. For a start, it will take place in January over seven stages – having added a stage to the usual six – and each stage takes place within the province, meaning riders – and journalists – will enjoy the luxury of the same bed in the same hotel for the duration of the race.

The race has been going for 34 years now and has been won by an Argentinian on all but one occasion, but its newly acquired 2.1 status means professional riders from the international peloton will grace the race for the first time.

Four WorldTour teams – QuickStep, Trek-Segafredo, Bahrain-Merida, and UAE Abu Dhabi – will be on the start line with teams of six, joined by six Professional Continental outfits and a smattering of national squads and South American Continental-level outfits.

Star riders from the elite pro peloton like Vincenzo Nibali, who has won all three Grand Tours, will be putting in their first pedal strokes of the 2017 campaign and – as is the case at the Tour Down Under or the Middle East races in February – making the most of the warm weather to lay the foundations for the bigger goals later on.

"Argentina is one of the best places to kick off the season thanks to the great temperatures, good roads, and spectators who always give you a warm welcome," according to Tom Boonen. "And also the parcours is something I like, because it's well balanced. That's why I'm really looking forward to racing San Juan."

The route

The riders will cover a total distance of 889 kilometres over course of the week, with five sprint stages, one short time trial and one hilly stage with a summit finish.

It is on those two days that the general classification battle will be fought, though the margins should be tight, with the stage 3 time trial coming in at just over prologue distance at 12km and the stage 5 summit finish offering relatively benign gradients.

The Alto Colorado is the name of the climb and it's classified as a first-category ascent, though the average gradient of just over 4 per cent will give the non pure climbers hope of hanging on as the bunch begins to string out. Ramps of 7 per cent are where the stronger riders will look to make the difference, though the thinning air above 2000m of altitude will also play a part – as will the three climbs the riders will already have in the legs before they hit the foot of the 15km final ascent.

Time bonuses of 10, 6, and 4 seconds on the finish line should also ensure tight margins in the upper echelons of the GC.

The first two stages start and finish in the town of San Juan, and the tame third-category climbs shouldn't crack the sprinters' teams grip on proceedings. The stage 3 time trial is 11.9km long, pan-flat, not very technical, and so should be a fast one. Stage 4 is a 160km outing starting and finishing in San Martín but, again, it's completely flat, while stage 5 heads almost exclusively uphill on its way to the top of the Alto Colorado.

There's a brace of small category 3 climbs in the middle of stage 6 but a bunch sprint is on the cards – as should be the case in San Juan on the criterium-style final stage in the city centre.

The contenders

Nibali and Bauke Mollema are the headline acts from a general classification perspective, though at this early stage of the season, with the biggest goals still months away, form is an unknown. As is often the case with the Tour Down Under, the 'home' riders, in this case the South Americans from local teams, for whom the race is among the biggest events of the season, could prove a match for the more established names.

One such rider is Laureano Rosas, who has won the last three editions of the race. The Argentinian will be racing in the colours of his national team this year and will certainly be closely monitored. Colombian Darwin Atapuma, a new signing for UAE Abu Dhabi and top 10 at last year's Giro d'Italia, could be a threat on the summit finish stage, as could his teammate Rui Costa.

But the GC men won't dominate the narrative to the extent of the sprinters, and there are a few riders looking to get an all-important confidence boosting victory in their first outing of the season.

As above, form is largely an unknown, but it wouldn't be a stretch to imagine Fernando Gaviria making multiple visits to the podium. The Colombian made his breakthrough at the 2015 Tour de San Luis, getting the better of Mark Cavendish to take two stage wins, and returned last year, having signed a pro contract with QuickStep, to pick up another win.

Gaviria, twice an omnium world champion on the track, showed strength beyond his years in 2016 with a staggering neo-pro season that confirmed his status as one of the brightest stars of the future – or of the present, it must be said. His main goals for 2017 are Milan-San Remo in late March and the Giro d'Italia in May, but the importance of getting the ball rolling for a sprinter cannot be understated. Gaviria will be accompanied by experienced lead-out man and home Argentine favourite, Max Richeze.

Competition is set to come from an Italian contingent that includes Elia Viviani, who seems particularly keen to pick up an early-season victory – gaining permission from Team Sky to head out to Argentina in the colours of the Italian national team in the hope of doing so.

There's also Andrea Guardini, who seems to thrive in smaller hot-weather races in far-flung locations. A 22-time stage winner at the Tour de Langkawi, he has also won in Abu Dhabi and Oman in the past couple of seasons and will be full of motivation to impress his new employers and teammates at UAE Abu Dhabi, having made the switch from Astana.

Others who should be in the mix are Bardiani-CSF's Nicola Ruffoni and the Wilier-Selle Italia duo of Manuel Beletti and Pippo Pozzato.

Tom Boonen is another name that stands out on the start list as he sets off down the road to Roubaix in his final season. The Belgian is unlikely to have a great impact on the race, though he will still attract plenty of attention as one of the sport's greatest Classics riders building towards one final spring.

There are also a fair few strong rouleurs who'll be eyeing up the time trial, where a strong performance could even put them in the frame for the overall. Mathias Brandle is a former Hour Record holder, while it will be interesting to see how individual pursuit world champion Filippo Ganna (UAE Abu Dhabi) and Frenchman Remi Cavagna (QuickStep) get on in their first outings as professionals.

The Teams

WorldTour
Barhain-Merida
QuickStep Floors
Trek-Segafredo
UAE Abu Dhabi

Professional Continental
Bardiani-CSF
UnitedHealthcare
Nippo-Vini Fantini
Caja Rural-Seguros RGA
Wilier-Selle Italia
Androni Gioccattoli

National
Italy
Argentina
Mexico
Uruguay
Brazil
Chile

Continental
Sep San Juan
Municipalidad De Pocito
Asociación Civil Mardam
Asociación Civil Agrupacion Virgen De Fatima
Municipalidad De Rawson Somos Todos
Los Cascos Esco-Agroplan
Italomat-Dogo
Unieuro
Medellín-Inder
Bolivia Te Espera

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