Although the Santos Tour Down Under lays claim to the opening race of the UCI WorldTour, the Vuelta Ciclista a la Provincia de San Juan in Argentina provides an alternative for riders who want to start their 2018 campaigns in January.
The 36th edition of the race, which regained UCI status last year after the demise of the Tour de San Luis, is set to roll out of San Juan January 21 with seven WorldTour teams among the 27 squads competing in the seven-stage, 2.1-ranked race.
San Juan is a perfect venue for professional racing. The fan base in San Juan is even greater than San Luis. Cycling comes in a close second to soccer in the hearts of the province's residents, according to Sebastian Alexandre, the Argentinean-born director for UnitedHealthcare, a US Professional Continental team lining up for the race.
"There are big crowds because lots of people are big fans of the sport," Alexandre told Cyclingnews. “The weather is very extreme there. We have stages in the past where we've raced over 110 degrees, so stages normally start in the afternoon, and you can see when people go out to the roads there are a lot of people there.
"Normally, they like to finish late at night so when people get off work they can go and watch the finish," Alexandre said.
Teams flock to Argentina this time of year because of the weather, which is forecast for sunny skies and temperatures in the upper 20s C and low 30s next week.
But Alexandre said the weather in San Juan is anything but predictable.
"The weather changes a lot," he told Cyclingnews. “You can have no wind for three days and then the next day is crazy windy and you have echelons and the peloton splitting into five pieces."
Among the other possible GC contenders, Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) has the most impressive palmares, but he'll have to contend with Darwin Atapuma (UAE Team Emirates), Eduardo Sepulveda (Movistar), Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) and a handful of hungry South Americans if he wants to add San Juan to his list of achievements.
Oscar Sevilla, runner-up last year, will also return with Medellin-Inder to add a bit of spice to the race. Neither Mollema nor Sevilla won a stage last year, but their consistency led them to the top of the GC.
Quick-Step Floors return to the race with a team built around sprinter Fernando Gaviria, the Colombian who shot to the fore of international cycling two years ago in Argentina at San Luis. Lotto Soudal have a team that could make it tough on the sprint teams, with a line-up that looks primed to light things up in the breakaways.
The Vuelta a San Juan is not as hilly as San Luis, and the first two stages look on paper like a good day for Gaviria and the rest of the fast men. With time bonuses of 10, 6 and 4 seconds, there is also the possibility of the general classification coming into play if any of the contenders sneak into a breakaway or contests the sprints.
The 14.4km stage 3 time trial will definitely set the pecking order among the GC riders, especially with only one day of real climbing.
"San Juan compared to San Luis is similar," Alexandre said, "but San Luis had more climbing. San Juan has less climbing, so the TT makes a bigger difference.
"It's a big race at the first of the year, so WorldTour teams can control the race more, so in that it's not much different than San Luis. The difference is the terrain. San Juan is a faster race."
Stage 4 from San Jose Jachal to Valle Fértil-Villa San Martín is again suited to a bunch finish, but two category 1 climbs will test the sprinters.
The peloton will get a rest day on Thursday, January 25, and the riders will likely need it to face the big summit finish for stage 5 on Alto Colorado at 2,565 metres in elevation.
The climb will give the GC men another chance to separate the contenders from the pretenders, but Alexandre said it is not difficult enough to create huge gaps among the riders who ascend well.
The race concludes with two more stages for the sprinters. Although time bonuses are up for grabs all but stage 3, the climb to Alto Colorado will most likely decide the overall winner.
Vuelta Ciclista a la Provincia de San Juan 2018
Stage 1, January 21: San Juan - Pocito, 148.9km
Stage 2, January 22: Peri Lago Punta Negra - Peri Lago Punta Negra, 149.9km
Stage 3, January 23: San Juan - San Juan (ITT), 14.4km
Stage 4, January 24: San Jose Jachal - Valle Fértil/Villa San Martín, 182.2km
Rest Day, January 25
Stage 5, January 26: San Martín - Alto Colorado, 169.5km
Stage 6, January 27: San Juan/Cantoni - Difunta Correa - San Juan/Cantoni, 152.6km
Stage 7, January 28: San Juan - San Juan, 141.3km
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