The Criterium du Dauphine, the Tour de Suisse, and the Route du Sud have attracted the majority of the overall Tour de France contenders but the start list for the 2016 Tour de Slovenia includes the likes of sprinters Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) and Elia Viviani (Team Sky), and recent Giro d'Italia stage winners Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida), Alexander Foliforov (Gazprom-RusVelo), and Katusha's Rein Taaramäe.
While there is strong international representation with six WorldTour teams - Dimension Data, Katusha, Lampre-Merida, Orica-GreenEdge, Tinkoff and Team Sky -Slovenia's top male road cyclists will also all be in attendance, minus LottoNL-Jumbo's defending champion Primoz Roglic.
With four different stages on offer, the racing promises to be diverse and offer something for the majority of the 139 starters.
The 23rd edition of the Tour de Slovénie starts in the capital Ljubljana with a 177.8km stage taking the riders south to Koper over lumpy terrain with a sprint finish on the cards.The peloton will complete one lap of the finishing circuit before contesting the sprint where the added bonus of the leader's jersey awaits. The stage suits the likes of Cavendish and Viviani while Lampre-Merida's Marko Kump, who won the final day stage last year, will be aiming to impress on home soil.
"I already have two stage wins here and would like to add another one or two," Viviani said ahead of the race.
Stage 2 should see the first selection on the general classification with the finish in Golte at 1386 metres elevation featuring a section of road that peaks at 23 per cent gradient. However, with an average gradient of seven per cent, the time gaps should be seconds rather than minutes between the overall contenders.
The climb last featured back in 2011 when Ulissi took the stage ahead of Radoslav Rogina, and went on to claim the overall victory. The climb should see the likes of Foliforov, Taaramäe and Sky's Beñat Intxausti setting the tempo and looking for the win. In total, stage 2 is the longest of the race at 217km with three catergorised climbs before the uphill finale.
Stage 3 is a team time trial and short at just 16.8km but is testing with the final five kilometres averaging 6.5 per cent gradient. In particular, the start of the final climb is the steepest of the stage with one pitch averaging 23% gradient. The team should see another shake up on GC with one of the WorldTour teams likely to take the win.
The fourth and final stage into Novo Mestro, on the banks of the Krka River, is one for the sprinters after two tough days in the saddle. The 179.8km stage kicks off in Rogaška Slatina, heading west before turning south where the peloton will complete three-laps of the finishing circuit. The stage offers a shot of redemption for the sprinters who missed out on stage 1 or perhaps the opportunity to double up with a second victory of the week. Cavendish, Viviani, Kump and Erik Baška (Tinkoff) look like being the riders to beat.
"You have a spectacular country, but I didn't come here as a tourist," said Cavendish of his race intentions.
Riders to watch, overall favourites
With six WorldTour teams on the start line, there is once again a quality peloton assembled for the Tour de Slovénie. Joining the top tier teams are four Pro-Continental squads, four Continental and a national Slovenian team lead by Janez Brajkovič of UnitedHealthcare.
Looking at the overall contenders, there are several riders capable of putting time into their rivals on the decisive stage 2 climb to Golte but the challenge will be remaining consistent from day one to four. Taaramäe enjoyed a debut Giro stage win last month but when it comes to the GC, is yet to finish inside the top-20 in 2016. In 2015, the Estonian won the Arctic Race of Norway and Vuelta a Burgos but is yet to replicate his GC form with his new Katusha team. With a strong third week of the Giro, Taaramäe could well return to his 2015 stage winning ways.
Intxausti is another rider capable of challenging for overall honours but with the Basque rider missing from action since February, he comes in severely under raced with neo-pros Gianni Moscon and Alex Peters looking like better options for Team Sky.
Matej Mohoric is yet to win a race in the professional ranks but the Tour de Slovenia could well be his breakthrough race. However, Ulissi looks to be the better GC rider of Lampre-Merida's squad for the race with stage wins the possible focus for Mohoric. Ulissi knows how to win the race and should again challenge for at least a podium position.
Other potential riders for the overall include Foliforov, Jack Haig (Orica-GreenEdge), Pawel Poljanski (Tinkoff) and potentially Slovenian duo Brajkovič and Rogina. Androni-Sidermec's 19-year-old Egan Arley Bernal could well be the surprise packet of the race having recently impressed by winning the best young rider classification at the Giro del Trentino.
In terms of the sprinters, Cavendish starts the race with his usual lead out men Mark Renshaw and Bernhard Eisel and looks good for a stage win. Kump and his teammate Sacha Modolo are sure to try and upset the 'manx missile', as will Team Sky with Viviani with the race offering the fast men a final dress rehearsal before the big show next month.
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