While southeastern Spain's Vuelta Ciclista a la Región de Murcia features an interesting early season match-up between Tour de France contenders, including defending Murcia champion Denis Menchov (Rabobank), Team RadioShack's Lance Armstrong and Andreas Klöden plus Bradley Wiggins (Sky), the actions of the race organisation and the Spanish professional teams have been the bigger news prior to the five-day stage race's start on Wednesday.
In early February the Tour of Murcia made the decision not to invite any Italian teams as a protest against the ban on Murcia's Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne) from racing in Italy. "We might be mistaken, but I don't like to see how they have treated Valverde and the fact that he is banned in Italy," said race director Paco Guzmán. "For that reason I don't want the Italians coming here."
In addition to the absence of Italian teams, the top Spanish teams indicated they won't take part in the Tour of Murcia due to a dispute between the Spanish race organisers' association and the teams' association about safety issues and appearance payments. As a result Caisse d'Epargne, featuring three-time Murcia champion Valverde as well as fellow Murcian riders Luis León Sánchez, Francisco Pérez and José Joaquín Rojas, Euskaltel-Euskadi, Footon-Servetto, Xacobeo Galicia and Andalucía-Cajasur won't be participating either.
The 30th Vuelta Ciclista a la Región de Murcia will be contested by 16 teams, including seven from the ProTour (Astana, Garmin - Transitions, Rabobank, Sky Professional Cycling Team, Team HTC - Columbia, Team Milram and Team RadioShack) three Professional Continental squads (CCC Polsat Polkowice, Cervelo Test Team and Vacansoleil Pro Cycling Team), three Continental teams (Caja Rural, Endura Racing and Team Netapp) and three national teams (Spain's U23 team, Germany and Russia).
The five-day event features four road stages and a penultimate 22km time trial. The first stage, containing three category three climbs, and the fifth stage, with a single category two climb 52 kilometres from the finish favours the sprinters.
The second and third stages will test a rider's climbing prowess, although neither stage has a mountain finish to tip the scales in the favour of pure climbers. The 169.8km second stage features two category one ascents, with the final climb arriving 40km from the finish.
The following day's 166.5km stage contains the 1,150m Alto del Collado Bermejo, the highest climb of the Tour of Murcia, but the peloton will have 33 kilometres of downhill to the finish in Alhama de Murcia after cresting the summit.
Rabobank will be looking to repeat its 2009 Tour of Murcia performance in which Denis Menchov won overall, Pieter Weening joined him on the final podium in third place, and Australian sprinter Graeme Brown bookended the event with wins in the opening and closing stages.
Team RadioShack will provide a stiff challenge to Rabobank, with both Lance Armstrong and Andreas Klöden providing a formidable combination to Rabobank's Menchov/Weening duo. RadioShack brings a pair of strong Spanish domestiques in José Luis Rubiera and Haimar Zubeldia to assist in the mountains while Daryl Impey can vie for stage honours on the first and fifth stages, the two most favourable to the sprinters.
The Tour of Murcia will be Armstrong's European debut and the first competition for the 38-year-old since Australia's Tour Down Under in January.
The parcours of the five-day race, with category one climbs on both the second and third stages but no mountain top finishes coupled with a completely flat, 22km individual time trial in stage four plays to the strengths of Team Sky's Bradley Wiggins. The 29-year-old Briton finished a strong second in the Ruta del Sol's time trial on February 24, and will look for another opportunity to put both his time trialing and climbing talents to the test.
In addition to Wiggins, Team Sky will bring climbers John-Lee Augustyn and Christopher Froome to take care of Wiggins in the mountains.
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