Algarve an alluring opener for the world's best

Now we know Alberto Contador will be racing the 37th Volta ao Algarve, the eyes of the cycling world will be on Portugal to see whether the unwanted publicity he has received in the last six months has affected the reigning Tour de France champion.

Defending champion at this event, Contador will go into this year's race as the favourite and aims to repay the faith placed in him by Saxo Bank-Sungard boss Bjarne Riis. And with a course that suits the mercurial Spaniard, there's every chance he could sweep away the dust that has covered him since last October with a win in Portugal.

We'll soon see if the attention he's received has been a major distraction for his 2011 season preparations.

While the star status offered by Contador's presence is good for the organisers, the quality field is also a coup for the event. The world's biggest teams are sending multi-pronged attacks, with GC men and sprinters lining up for the start in the Estádio Algarve on February 16.

Talented Czech rider Roman Kreuziger makes his debut for Astana, as do Matti Breschel and Luis Leon Sanchez for their new team, Rabobank. Michael Rogers will be Team Sky's man for the overall while Nicolas Roche will start 2011 as Ag2R-La Mondiale's leader.

Rein Taaramae kicks off Cofidis' 2011 campaign and will be a dark horse for overall honours, whilst it's a big step for US ProConti team UnitedHealthcare, which will take a solid squad that includes Australian Rory Sutherland, Charley Wegelius and Canadian Christian Meier.

No high mountains but a little something for everyone

The course for this year's Volta ao Algarve doesn't favour pure climbers with the absence of high mountain passes but there's a little for most types of riders throughout the 707km of racing.

The likes of André Greipel and countryman John Degenkolb, Tyler Farrar, Allan Davis and Juan José Haedo will all get their chance to fight it out in sprint finishes, while the aforementioned Sanchez and Breschel may find themselves with the opportunity to gain the upper hand with a successful late-stage break, particularly on the uphill finish of stage three.

As is his strength, however, Contador will be aiming to keep a keen eye on those looking to take control of the general classification. The Saxo Bank-Sungard team is largely geared to favour its Argentine sprinter Haedo, although Jesus Hernandez and Dani Navarro will again be by their countryman's side, having also made the switch from Astana.

The final day's 17.2km time trial isn't anything special but could be an opportunity for Contador to seal another victory or allow the unearthing of a new star - someone such as Kiwi pursuiting talent Jesse Sergent of Team RadioShack, or Leopard-Trek's strong young Australian, Will Clarke.

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