Saturday sees the first European stage race of the Women's WorldTour year, Emakumeen Bira. This is the race's 31st edition, and while the Giro Rosa was also inaugurated in 1988, it has not been contested every year, making this the oldest multi-day event on the women's calendar.
Over the years Bira has been won by some of the sport's biggest names, with Marianne Vos, Emma Johansson and Judith Arndt some of those to have won multiple editions.
Three hilly stages and a 26.6km time trial ensures this is a race only a handful of riders can win, and few would bet against the Dutch duo of Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) and Anna van der Breggen (Boels Dolmans), who is currently leading the Women's WorldTour.
Traditionally held in early June, the race settled in its current slot only two years ago, after moving around the spring to accommodate other races.
That the first of the race's four stages is on a Saturday is ironic. Having been promoted to the Women's WorldTour for the first year, organisers moved the start from Thursday to allow riders travel time from the Amgen Women's Race in California. However, the US race then changed from its previously published slot, thus engineering the first race clash since the Women's WorldTour commenced in 2016.
As a result of this conflict, some teams are absent, and others are spread thinly, though once again Bira has attracted a very strong field this year.
It's hard to see past Van der Breggen and Van Vleuten. The only difference between the pair may be time bonuses, and the advantage gained in Sunday's 26.6km time trial.
Van der Breggen starts the race with the edge, however, having won Thursday's 1.2 classified Durango-Durango, run in the same area as a prelude for the stage race. She escaped with Elisa Longo Borghini, Sabrina Stultiens and Van Vleuten, but the latter was unable to close the gap when Van der Breggen attacked solo.
The Olympic champion has had another stellar spring, with victories at Strade Bianche, the Tour of Flanders, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and a fourth successive Flèche Wallonne to her credit.
Injury has prevented such a start to Van Vleuten's year, but third place in Liège showed a return to the form which brought her only win of the season, the time trial at January's Herald Sun Tour. Indeed Sunday's time trial will be her first outing in the rainbow skinsuit since that Australian win.
If their battle is a distraction, Cervélo-Bigla's Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio is possibly best placed to take advantage. The defending champion, she had an excellent Ardennes campaign and, while she may not be as strong against the clock, she might have the punch to make a difference in the hills.
Canyon-SRAM's former Belarusian road and time trial champion Alena Amialiusik has also been going well after an injury-blighted 2017 campaign. Second place on the summit finish at the Tour de Yorkshire shows she is nearing her best.
Fourth in Thursday's one-day race, Wiggle High5's Longo Borghini has suffered from illness this year, but the route suits her, as two top-four finishes in recent years prove.
Van Vleuten's teammate Amanda Spratt will also go well, though she is not as strong against the clock as the Dutchwoman, and Stultiens' (Waowdeals) third place on Thursday was no fluke as she improves after years of injury issues.
The entire races takes place in a very small area, with no stage start more than 30km from the others.
The fourth and final stage could be classed as the 'queen stage', though all three road stages are hilly and will make for attritional racing. With 6km at an average of 9.1% gradient, the only first category climb of the race comes in that final stage, and while there are more than 30km to the line, it's bound to bring the action, whatever the state of the GC.
While the hills of the road stages will shape the overall, the subtler points of the general classification will be honed by the stage 2 time trial. At 26km it's likely to suit those more accomplished against the clock, though it is very flat. The final three kilometres are slightly downhill and technical, testing the bike handling and courage of those challengers.
2018 Emakumeen Bira
Stage 1 - Saturday, May 19, Legazpi - Legazpi, 108km
Stage 2 - Sunday, May 20, Agurain - Vitoria, 26.6km Individual Time Trial
Stage 3 - Monday, May 21, Aretxbaleta - Aretxbaleta, 114.5km
Stage 4 - Tuesday, May 22, Iurreta - Iurreta, 120km
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