World Champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), teammate Rafal Majka and multiple Grand Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) are the headline names in this year's edition of the Tour de Pologne WorldTour race that starts on Saturday with a tricky sprinter's stage in the country's former capital of Krakow.
Sagan was last seen in action in the first week of the Tour de France but was controversially disqualified for dangerous riding in the sprint in Vittel. Sagan's last visit to the Tour de Pologne was a much happier affair. It was in his second year as a professional in 2011, with overall victory giving the Slovak his first ever WorldTour stage race success. Sagan picked up two stage victories - including one to the southern locality of Zakopane - revisited this year - as well as the points jersey.
Like Sagan, the Tour de Pologne - a venerable stage race which started way back in 1928 by the newspaper Pzeglad Sportowy and the Warsaw Cycling Society, and organised annually since 1952 - has continued to flourish.
A wealth of big name overall contenders
The race has a longstanding summer slot on the UCI WorldTour and often attracts riders looking to kick-start the second part of the season and build-up for the Vuelta a Espana.
Last year Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) snapped up two stages, and both Gaviria's team-mate Davide Martinelli and Niccolo Bonifazio (Bahrain-Merida, then with Trek-Segafredo) claimed their first WorldTour stage wins. Back in 2012, new professional Moreno Moser (Astana) won the race outright and he will return this year. Former winners of stages or the race outright include Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) - whose first ever professional victory here was a time trial back in 2003, and Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors), who won it outright in 2010, at the time the biggest win of his career.
This year there is a wealth of big-name overall contenders in addition to Sagan. Majka returns to racing at home following an injury-blighted Tour de France, culminating in an abandon after he was yet another of the crash victims of stage 9. Majka's overall victory of his home national Tour came hard the heels of his best ever Tour de France, in 2014, which was won by Nibali who leads the Bahrain-Merida team this year.
After racing just one day since the end of the Giro d'Italia, Nibali kicks off the second half of his season in Poland. He followed a similar path in 2013, when he won the Giro d'Italia and finished second in the Vuelta a España. The Tour de Pologne offers both a prestigious prize in itself and a tried-and-tested foundation stone for his build-up towards the Spanish Grand Tour.
The Tour de Pologne's combination of flat stages with rides through the mountains and hills of southern Poland make this a rouleur's paradise, with Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) the latest example of how a strong all-rounder can win outright in 2016.
This year's route, with individual time trial like in 2016, will likely see more all-rounders able to shine. Bob Jungels (Quick-Step Floors), who impressed at the Giro d'Italia, is one obvious candidate, as would be last year's Eneco Tour winner and teammate Niki Terpstra. Tour de Suisse winner and week-long stage race specialist Simon Spilak (Katusha-Alpecin) is another potential contender, as is his teammate Ilnur Zakarin.
Adam Yates (Orica-Scott) will begin his build-up for the Vuelta a Espana in Poland, whilst other stand out names and potential contenders include Wout Poels and Diego Rosa (Team Sky) as well as former world champion Rui Costa (UAE Team Emirates) and Nathan Haas (Dimension Data).
For the sprints, apart from Sagan, Giro d'Italia stage winner Caleb Ewan (Orica-Scott) is likely to be a contender, along with Boy van Poppel (Trek-Segafredo), his brother Danny van Poppel (Team Sky), Sacha Modolo (UAE Team Emirates) and, on the tougher stages, Spain's Jose Joaquin Rojas (Movistar).
Ardennes-like uphill stages and finishes
Such an deep field will inevitably make it a hard race to predict. The course could produce a last-minute showdown. Stage 1, short and finishing with three city centre laps of Krakow, has a rolling finale and stage 2 to Katowice is even more undulating. The name of the stage 3 finish village of Szczyrk, in a natural park close to the Czech and Slovak borders may contain no vowels, but Szczyrk does contain a steep uphill finish which should provide a clear indication of who is in the fight for overall victory.
Whilst stage 4 from Zawiercie to Zabrze is relatively flat, if very long at 238 kilometres, stage 5's much shorter looping leg from Olimp Nagawczyna to the south-eastern city of Rzeszow is once again almost constantly hilly. Then the final two stages into Zakopane, Poland's winter sports capital and the village of Bukowina Tatrzanska, both conclude with short Ardennes-like uphill finishes after relentlessly hilly and mountainous terrain in the Tatra mountains.
For the first time, the Tour de Pologne will feature seven-man teams. A smaller peloton of 154 riders - the 18 WorldTour teams and four wildcards - will make it a proportionately harder race to control, and precedes the general reduction from nine to eight riders in Grand Tours in 2018.
Overall, Pologne presents a tough, intriguing challenge.
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