Organisers of the Vuelta a San Juan describe the Argentinean region as 'capital mundial de la passion por el ciclismo' during the race, and the presence of Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates), Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) should entertain the many local fans and ensure global attention for the early season weeklong stage race.
The 37th edition of the race, the third after regaining UCI status and replacing the Tour de San Luis, will be held a week later than in 2018, helping Sagan to head to South America after the Tour Down Under as part of an early season global tour.
The racing begins on Sunday, January 27, and ends a week later on Sunday, February 3.
The 12km individual time trial on stage 3 will be important in the race for general classification, but the 2,565-metre high stage 5 finish at Alto Colorado will surely crown the overall winner.
Five of the stages are scheduled to finish at 7:30pm local time, which will help with the expected 35C temperatures, while a rest day after stage 4 splits the racing into two blocks and helps riders recover during their early season efforts.
Last year's race was stained by the subsequent suspension of local rider Gonzalo Najar, who won on Alto Colorado but then tested positive for the blood booster CERA. Oscar Sevilla replaced Najar in the record books and will be back this year to defend his belated title.
Fans fly Argentina's flag at the 2018 Vuelta a San Juan (Getty Images)
Peter Sagan takes centre stage on the official race posters, with Cavendish, Gaviria, Quintana and Argentina's Maximiliano Richeze (Deceuninck-QuickStep) the other headliners of the race.
Race organisers do not seem interested in WorldTour status but are happy to secure the services of several big names and big teams in the peloton. The second half of the start list is filled with local Continental teams and national teams from South America. Five Professional Continental teams join the six WorldTour squads, with Androni Giocattoli, Caja Rural, Israel Cycling Academy, Neri-Selle Italia-KTM, and Nippo-Vini Fantini-Faizane, on the six-rider 27-team start list.
Sagan showed his early season form with a stage victory and two podium spots at the Tour Down Under, and he will surely be hoping for another morale-boosting win next week before he returns to Europe and trains at altitude in February. Sam Bennett makes his season debut with Bora-Hansgrohe in San Juan, and it will be interesting to see if the two sprinters work together, take turns to go for the sprints or struggle to get along. The Irish sprinter was left frustrated when Bora-Hansgrohe signed German national champion Pascal Ackermann and told him he was unlikely to ride either the Giro d'Italia or the Tour de France. He will surely be motivated to prove a point in every sprint he contests.
Fernando Gaviria will also be looking for early success in 2019 after his somewhat surprise transfer from QuickStep to UAE Team Emirates. He took his first professional victory at the 2015 Tour de San Luis and will surely want to beat former lead-out man and local heroes Max Richeze and Colombian Alvaro Hodeg, who is considered his younger and more cost-effective replacement at Deceuninck-QuickStep.
UAE Team Emirates have shaken up their management, medical and coaching staff in recent months and the Vuelta a San Juan will also be the first test for Gaviria's new lead-out train. He will have to depend on Simone Consonni and especially Roberto Ferrari in the sprints, with Switzerland's Tom Bohli the rouleur likely to set up UAE Team Emirates in the final kilometres.
Cavendish has a more settled lead-out with Bernard Eisel as Dimension Data's road captain. The Manxman has less of a qualified lead-out but can count on the hard work of Julian Vermote, US rider Ben King and Danilo Wyss.
Cavendish has not raced since late July but has been training in California in recent weeks and seems to be in a good place after months of forced rest and contract negotiations. He turns 34 in May, and while some have written off his chances of ever returning to his best, that only serves as extra motivation for the Manxman. He may not immediately have the speed to win after so long away, but age or illness will not have blunted his sprinting finesse.
Deceuninck-QuickStep usually make the headlines with their constant stream of success, but the presence of Evenepoel, young sprinter Hodeg, veteran Richeze and Alaphilippe mean their opening week in South America will have a multitude of storylines.
Expectations in Belgium for what Evenepoel can achieve are as high as the hype around Frank Vandenbroucke or even Eddy Merckx in their days, while Alaphilippe will be looking to start anew after the disappointment of cracking on the final climb of the Innsbruck world championships.
Other names to watch for include Quintana, Lotto Soudal duo Tiesj Benoot and Jens Keukeleire, Conor Dunne and Riccardo Minali at the Israel Cycling Academy, Giovanni Visconti and Dayer Quintana at Neri Sottoli-Selle Italia and Gianni Savio's Androni Giocattoli squad. Someone from one of the local teams is sure to make an impact, but hopefully it is less demoralizing than the obviously unbelievable performance of Gonzalo Najar last year.
The peloton rides into the horizon at the 2018 Vuelta a San Juan (Getty Images)
San Juan is in a wine-growing valley east of the Andes, in the northwest of Argentina. Like Adelaide and the Tour Down Under, the riders and race caravan stay in the city for the whole race, with stages starting and finishing in different locations nearby.
The opening two stages to Pocito and Peri Lago Punta Negro suit the sprinters, with the rolling road of the latter perhaps better for Sagan after Cavendish and Gaviria have fought tooth and nail for stage 1.
The 12km time trial on stage 3 is on a flat out-and-back course and so suits the specialists who can successfully adapt to using their modified road bikes.
Stage 4 is the longest of the race at 185km and includes a mid-stage climb. However, the long descent to Villa San Agustin should see some kind of regrouping and a sprint.
The riders enjoy an unusual rest day on Thursday, as the locals get to ride a Gran Fondo. The racing resumes on Friday with the Queen stage to Alto Colorado. A 9am start and the long climb to the finish at altitude will make for a hard day out and no doubt shake up the overall classification.
The Alto Colorado climb is officially 15km long and gets steeper as it climbs into the clouds. It should be enough for an on-form climber to make up any losses accumulated during the 12km time trial and perhaps secure a winning advantage. Winds could be a big factor on the exposed climb.
Stage 6 finishes on the fast and wide Autodromo de Villicum and is perfect for the sprinters and their lead-out trains, while the final stage covers nine laps of San Juan on a flat circuit. It will crown the final winner of the white and blue overall classification jersey and be the last chance for Cavendish, Sagan, Gaviria and others to show their 2019 sprinting ability.
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