Mark Cavendish cut straight to the nub of the matter when asked to explain his rationale for starting his campaign at the Tour de San Luis for the third successive year. "We’re very, very short on preparation races on the calendar nowadays and Argentina for me provides the best preparation race at the beginning of the year," he said last week.
One of the great ironies of the contemporary era of professional cycling is that while the average rider’s season seems to begin sooner and sooner, so too does the competitiveness of those very early-season races ratchet up by the year. Gone forever are the days when the campaign began at a leisurely pace on the Mediterranean in February and when – in the popular imagination at least – the result seemed to count for little more than bragging rights.
Compared to the Tour Down Under, the WorldTour opener taking place at the same time, the 2.1-ranked Tour de San Luis seems to provide a rather more balanced way to kick off the season. As in Australia, soaring temperatures are the norm but, on paper at least, the quality of the field is not as deep and, in the absence of WorldTour points, the racing perhaps not quite as cut throat.
That said, the eight previous editions of the Tour de San Luis have seen some high-profile winners – Vincenzo Nibali, Levi Leipheimer and reigning champion Nairo Quintana among them – while the motivated South American-based peloton has more often than not caused serious problems for their European guests. The geography of the San Luis province, meanwhile, means that the parcours is inevitably a demanding one, though the organisers typically manage to find something for everybody over the seven stages.
The 2015 edition is no different in that regard. It features increasingly tough summit finishes at Mirador del Potrero on stage 2, Alto El Amago on stage 4 and Filo Sierras Comechingones on the penultimate day, but it also includes at least two days for the sprinters, one chance for finisseurs and a 17.4km time trial that provides a very useful early-season work-out for Grand Tour contenders. In short, ideal preparation for the long, long year ahead.
After an assured overall victory twelve months ago, Nairo Quintana (Movistar) returns to Argentina for the first race of a campaign that he hopes will culminate in Tour de France victory. It remains to be seen whether the Colombian’s form is as advanced this time around but it would be a surprise if he doesn’t claim at least one of the race’s summit finishes for his own. His brother Dayer, Igor Anton and Adriano Malori – favourite, perhaps, for the time trial – join him in a strong Movistar team.
World champion Michal Kwiatkowski is the other marquee name on the start list and he is at the head of a typically compact Etixx-QuickStep line-up. While Tom Boonen – a vocal devotee of the Tour de San Luis’ virtues – sits out this year as he awaits the birth of his first child, Cavendish will look to snaffle at least one stage win and incorporate Fabio Sabatini into his lead-out train.
Carlos Betancur leads the line for Ag2r-La Mondiale and the enigmatic Colombian’s form will be under the microscope after a decidedly mixed 2014 campaign, while Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) will simply hope that his time in the southern hemisphere is rather more auspicious than trek to the Tour Down Under last year, when he crashed and broke his collarbone before the race had even begun.
Lampre-Merida’s overall challenge will come from Przemyslaw Niemiec and José Serpa, while Filippo Pozzato and Sacha Modolo have again opted to kick off their preparation for Milan-San Remo and the classics in Argentina. In the absence of Joaquim Rodriguez, Dani Moreno leads for Katusha, while Janier Acevedo and Joe Dombrowski are on hand for Garmin-Cannondale and Janez Brajkovic makes his debut for UnitedHealthcare.
Elsewhere, the revamped Nippo-Vini Fantini team takes its bow as a Pro Continental outfit but without new arrival Damiano Cunego, while Davide Cassani brings an Italian national selection that includes Enrico Battaglin and neo-professional Jakub Mareczko, already off the mark with a sprint win at the Vuelta al Tachira in Venezuela.
Of the home-based challengers, Daniel Godoy, third overall a year ago, is back with the San Luis Somos Todos team, along with Josué Moyano, while Eduardo Sepulveda, sixth a year ago, is part of Bretagne-Séché team that includes Brice Feillu.
Cyclingnews will again have complete coverage of the Tour de San Luis, with exclusive news, interviews and photo galleries.
Tour de San Luis, January 18-25:
Stage 1: San Luis - Villa Mercedes, 186.8km
Stage 2: La Punta - Mirador de Potrero, 185.3km
Stage 3: Concarán - Juana Koslay, 176.3km
Stage 4: Villa Dolores (Córdoba) - Alto El Amago, 142.5km
Stage 5: San Luis - San Luis, 17.4km Individual Time Trial
Stage 6: Achiras (Córdoba) - Filo Sierras Comechingones, 117.5km
Stage 7: San Luis - San Luis, 122.4km