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Will Quintana start his season with an overall victoy in San Luis?

Photo: Sirotti

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TOUR DE SAN LUIS

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NEWS
17.01.2016 @ 17:31 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

A long off-season is finally over! On Monday, some of cycling's biggest stars kick off their season in the first major race of the year when they take off for the first stage of the Tour de San Luis. Held under the Argentinean sun far from the European cold and on a mountainous course, the young event has developed into the preferred training ground for some of cycling's greatest stage racers and while they are still far from their best condition, the race gives the first chance to gauge who's going to be firing on all cylinders when the season kicks off in earnest in cycling's European mainland.

 

2016 has barely begun but the times when January is a month for training and preparation at team training camps are long gone. Nowadays, the best professional cyclists start racing earlier than before and now use the globalization to get some early-season racing kilometres under their belt under distant and warmer skies.

 

This development has prompted the creation of the new opening week of the professional cycling season which takes place more than a month before the traditional Belgian opening weekend and a month and a half before the first major European stage race, Paris-Nice. Although the Tour Down Under and the Tour de San Luis are held on separate continents, they have combined forces to kick off the racing season by splitting the professional peloton into two halves, with most of the sprinters and classics specialists heading to Australia and the stage racers travelling to Argentina.

 

Following on the heels of the national championships in New Zealand and Australia, the two races signal the real kick off of the season for most of the WorldTour teams. It is a testament to the globalized cycling that the major stars now travel all over the world to Oceania and South America to start their season in sunny conditions.

 

On paper, the Tour Down Under may be the major event of the week as it has rapidly secured itself its place on the coveted WorldTour calendar. As a 2.1 race, the Tour de San Luis may not have the same number of points on offer but when it comes to attracting the biggest names in cycling, the race doesn't leave much to be desired.

 

In just 8 years of existence, the race has grown from being a major summer event for the best South American riders to become one of the preferred training grounds and season openers for some of cycling's greatest stars. It was an indication of the race's lofty ambitions when already in their first year in 2007 the organizers were able to attract a team from the top level, with Saunier Duval lining up riders like Gilberto Simoni and Riccardo Ricco. One year later, the Spanish team had been joined by Team CSC who brought the Schleck brothers to Argentina but despite the presence of the big names, the racing remained mostly an Argentinean affair.

 

That started slightly to change for the 2009 edition when the race was granted 2.1 status by the UCI and had riders like Ivan Basso and Vincenzo Nibali on the start line. Its real international breakthrough had to wait for another year though, with Nibali becoming the first non-Argentinean winner and the podium to be made up entirely of foreign riders.

 

From there, the race has grown from success to success, with more and more top teams being attracted by the sunny conditions, the good organization and the attractive course. This year, 7 of the 18 ProTeams will be present at the start, with 6 pro continental, 8 continental, and 8 national teams making up the rest of the star-studded field. While last year’s field was a bit less stacked than it was in 2014, the organizers must be jubilant when they look at the start list for the 2016 edition.

 

The race finds itself being involved in a battle with the Tour Down Under when it comes to attracting the biggest names but the races seem to appeal to different types of riders. While the Australian race has traditionally been known as one for the sprinters and now suits a mix of fast finishers and puncheurs, the Tour de San Luis is a more traditional stage race which suits the real specialists. With a mostly flat team time trial and two summit finishes, the race offers the perfect early-season testing ground for the grand tour contenders and this is reflected in the start list which contains some of the best stage racers in the world. This year the race offers its most star-studded line-up ever, with riders like Nibali, Nairo Quintana, Daniel Moreno, Andrew Talansky, Rodolfo Torres, Janez Brajkovic, Alexis Vuillermoz, Jean-Christophe Peraud, Jan Polanc, Przemyslaw Niemiec, Michele Scarponi, Miguel Angel Lopez, Rafal Majka, Jesper Hansen, Janier Acevedo, Eduardo Sepulveda and Chris Anker Sørensen being some of the climbers that have chosen to start their season in Argentina.

 

With plenty of WorldTour points on offer in Australia, most of the sprinters and classics specialists prefer to head to Australia but in recent years more and more fast finishers have preferred the South American race. Due to its lower status, the race carries less prestige and attracts less press coverage and so offers a gentler and calmer introduction after a long off-season. The weather conditions are just as perfect in Argentina as they are in Australia, and the race offers the riders the chance to work on their form by doing a bit more climbing. This year the sprinting field is a little less stacked but the organizers have a big trump card to play as they have attracted world champion Peter Sagan who will test himself against sensation Fernando Gaviria, Francesco Chicchi, Yannick Martinez, Jakub Mareczko, Elia Viviani, Grega Bole, Eduard Grosu, Davide Cimolai, Lucas Haedo, Boris Vallee and several more sprinters in the fast finishes.

 

Despite the star-studded line, the race takes place early in the season. Nobody can expect the best riders in the world to be in top condition in the middle of January and this is reflected in the results. With 2010 being the only exception, all editions have seen lesser known Argentinean riders finish on the podium and the race will not be the scene for a big showdown between the best riders in the world. For the stars, the race is mostly a preparation race but for the local riders, it is their season highlight, and this year we can again expect to see the continental riders mix it up at the top of the standings and some major names lose several minutes in the mountains.

 

Last year it was again a local rider who came out on top. Many had expected Nairo Quintana to defend his title but he came up short against a dominant Daniel Diaz who took a comfortable second win in the race two years after his first triumph. The race was also the scene of the breakthrough for Rodolfo Torres who kicked off a great year by taking second while Quintana had to settle for third. The other big talking point was the fact that Gaviria beat Mark Cavendish in two bunch sprints. Diaz will be back to defend his title as he leads his new Delko-Marseille team on home soil while Torres will return with his new Androni team and Quintana will again start his season in Argentina. At the same time, Gaviria will try to improve on last year’s impressive results.

 

The course

After some initial experiments that included an opening prologue, the Tour de San Luis has found a rather fixed format that has been unchanged for the past several years. However, the organizers have decided to make a few modifications to the traditional recipe for success in 2016. Recently, it has been a mini grand tour with three summit finishes, three flat stages for the sprinters and a flat time trial. This year the number of mountaintop finishes has been reduced and the individual time trial has been replaced by a team time trial. There will still be three opportunities for the sprinters, with the other novelty being a hilly stage for strong sprinters and classics specialist.

 

In the last few years, the race has used many of the same stages which means that many riders are now familiar with a big part of the race. This year the course is an almost identical of last year’s, with the finales of 5 stages being unchanged and the alterations mainly coming in the early part of the stages. However, a big change comes in stage 6, the final mountain stage of the race, when the riders will add another 7.5km to the traditional finishing climb to Mirador del Sol, turning the stage into the hardest of the entire race. Furthermore, the time trial has been slightly adjusted but as it is a bit shorter than it was one year ago, the course should be favouring climbers a bit more than it did 12 months ago.

 

 

Stage 1

The first stage of the Tour de San Luis has traditionally been for the sprinters and in the last four years, the riders have faced the same finish in Villa Mercedes on the opening day. This year the new format also has an impact on the opening stage as the flat stage has been replaced by the only time trial of the race. The individual test has been skipped and instead the riders will kick off the event with the first team time trial in the history of the race.

 

At 21km, it certainly has the distance to produce some solid time gaps when the riders tackle the flat roads around the city of Durazno. It is a very straightforward affair as the stage is held on an out-and-back course that sees them travel 10.5km in one direction, do a U-turn and return along the same roads. The first part is very slightly ascending and then slightly descending roads lead to the turning put but it is really a flat team time trial for the biggest specialists.

 

Many pure climbers will be pleased to learn that the individual time trial has been replaced by a team time trial as it will allow them to limit their losses. However, the local riders will be less pleased by the news as the differences between WorldTour teams and continental teams is usually huge as the latter formations get very few chances to test themselves in the discipline. With a few big engines, the big teams can make a solid difference on this kind of course and there is no doubt that Nairo Quintana hopes to get an early advantage over some of the local riders by riding in a team that was on the podium at the last World Championships.

 

Durazno has never hosted a stage of the race.

 

 

Stage 2

After several years with a chance to claim the first leader’s jersey, the sprinters will have to postpone the first bunch kick until the second day of the race. In the last four four years, the first stage has seen the riders cover an almost identical route between San Luis and Villa Mercedes and this year those two cities will again be linked in the first sprint stage which now comes on the second day. In fact, the stage is an almost identical copy of last year’s opening stage, with only some very slight modifications reducing the distance from 186.8km to 181.9km.

 

The start is slightly undulating as the riders climb La Cumbre category 3 climb in the first 18km but from there, the stage is mostly downhill. The riders reach the lowest point at the turning point in Justo Daract after around 125km before a slightly uphill stretch leads to the downhill run to the line. The final 2.1km are all slightly downhill, with the last sharp right-hand turn coming just before the flamme rouge from where the riders follow a straight road to the finish. The intermediate sprint comes at the 53.1km and 88.5km marks respectively.

 

The flat terrain means that the sprinters are expected to rule on the second day but it is good idea not to take anything for granted as the roads are rather exposed on the windy plains in Argentina. In 2012, the peloton split to pieces and only 32 riders arrived at the finish in the first peloton when Francesco Chicchi won the sprint. In 2013, Mark Cavendish won a less eventful stage while the major teams failed to organize a chase and so the early breakaway stayed away in 2014, with Phil Gaimon taking a surprise solo win that nearly gave him the overall victory in the end. Last year it was again a much more straightforward affair when Fernando Gaviria turned heads all over the world by beating Cavendish. The sprinters will be ready to flex their muscles in stage 2 while the GC riders will be prepared to grab every opportunity that the wind could offer.

 

 

Stage 3

The opening team time trial was the first novelty of the race and the second and final new feature comes on the third day. In 2013, 2014 and 2015, the first major climbing challenge in the race has been the uphill finish at Mirador del Potrero. In 2016, that climb will again feature as the first main ascent but unlike in previous years, the finish line won’t be located on the top. Instead, the riders will descend to a flat finish in La Punta which is likely to change the nature of the stage significantly. Unlike in past years, stage 3 is unlikely to be a day for the GC riders and instead it should be one for the strongest sprinters and the classics riders.

 

At 131km, stage 3 is a short one that brings the riders from El Potrero de los Funes to La Punta – El Cabildo. It follows the usual format of a San Luis climbing stage as the first part is almost completely flat. The road will only be slightly ascending until the riders get to the bottom of the category 3 Alto de los Piquios at the 23.9km mark before they climb the final bit to the first intermediate sprint after 30km of racing. Then they will continue along the flat and possible windy plains, with the small category 3 Alto la Florida at the 56.4km mark being the only small challenge along the way.

 

After 90km of racing, the riders will return to El Durazno where they contested the first intermediate sprint and here the second sprint will be located. Then they will follow slightly descending roads to the bottom of the main climb of Mirador del Potrero. At just 4.8km, the climb is a short one but with an average gradient of 6.7%, it has the potential to do some damage. The climb is easiest near the bottom and gradually gets steeper. With a gradient of 7.5%, the final kilometre is the hardest and the roads are turning and twisting. Unlike in past years, they still have another 11.4km to do when they reach the summit. The first part is made up of the descent and then the final 5km are predominantly flat.

 

In theory, this could be a good day for a breakaway but as the GC is still likely to be close, the main teams will probably control things. The best climbers may test themselves on the final climb but as the ascent is not very hard, a regrouping is likely to take place on the descent. The climb will definitely be too hard for the pure sprinters but fast riders like Peter Sagan and Fernando Gaviria who both climb well, will have their eyes on a reduced sprint in La Punta. However, everybody has to be attentive as the wind can always split the field before they even get to the climb.

 

Rafael Valls Ferri got his professional career of to a great start when he won the first stage to the top of the climb when it featured on the route in 2010 while Alberto Contador beat Levi Leipheimer two years later to take a win from which he has later been stripped due to his positive Clenbuterol test at the 2010 Tour de France. In 2013 Alex Diniz laid the foundations for his overall 3rd place when he distanced all the major stars by almost 30 seconds and took over the leader's jersey for a single day before losing it again in the time trial. In 2014, Julian Arredondo kicked off his WorldTour career with a bang when he beat Peter Stetina in a two-rider sprint while overall leader Phil Gaimon only lost 19 seconds and proved that he would be a difficult rider to beat in the 7-day race. Last year Daniel Diaz laid the foundations for his overall win by putting six seconds into Rodolfo Torres and take the leader’s jersey while a disappointed Nairo Quintana was 27 seconds off the pace in seventh. Before the major WorldTour teams started to do the race, Lucas Sebastian Haedo took a surprise win in 2009 while Carlos Jose Ochoa was the first rider to win here in 2008.

 

The flat finish in La Punta has never been used before.

 

 

Stage 4

In the last few years, the riders have faced their first uphill test no later than on the third day of the race. With the reduction of the number of summit finishes, the climbers will have to wait until stage 4 before they get their first real chance to make a difference in 2016. The fourth day of racing will offer the first of the two big climbing battles. The organizers like to introduce one novelty every year and in 2014 it was the introduction of the tough climb to Cerro Amago that changed the script of the race. Apparently, they liked what they saw as the ascent was back in 2015 and this year it features on the route for a third time.

 

The 2014 and 2015 stages had an almost completely flat run to the bottom of the final climb and this year’s stage will have a very similar format. The start has been moved from San Luis but it won’t change the nature of the stage or the distance. Last year’s stage was 142.5km long and this year it will be 2.5km shorte, with the only challenge in the first 120km will be the danger of crosswinds. The highlights in the early flat part of the stage will be the intermediate sprints at the 33.5 and 117.5km marks respectively.

 

The riders will hopefully enjoy their flat run as the final 22km are anything but flat. First they head up the category 3 Alto de la Candela climb which is a long, non-steep affair. It’s actually just the first part of the main climb as the road will continue to rise after they have crested the summit 11.3km from the finish. Officially the final category 1 Alto del Amago climb is 10.5km long and has an average gradient of 7,2% but it is very irregular with a number of almost flat sections and a few kilometres with a gradient above the 10% mark. The steepest section comes 5km from the finish where the road kicks up with 11.5% for a kilometre and is followed by a kilometre with a gradient of 10%. Then things get a bit easier but the final 1000m have a gradient of 10.7%. The top is located 1.9km from the finish and from there it is slightly downhill to the line in Cerro Amago. The final few kilometres follow an almost completely straight road.

 

With a finish 1710m above sea level, the stage offers a real mountaintop finish very early in the 2016 season and it will be a big test of the form at this time of the year. The final climb is a brutal affair and the steep gradients have the potential to create huge differences as it has done in the past. Again the win is a potential danger in the first part of the stage but it is all likely to come down to a battle between the best climbers on the final ascent. By the end of the day, we will know a lot more about who's going to win the Tour de San Luis.

 

In 2014 Nairo Quintana laid the foundations for his overall winning by taking the stage victory. Knowing that he needed to take back a lot of time on Phil Gaimon, he attacked from the bottom of the ascent and managed to distance the race leader by 4.15, putting 50 seconds into second placed Sergio Godoy. Gaimon defended his overall lead by just 4 seconds but would go on to lose it one day later in the time trial. Last year Daniel Diaz proved that he was by far the strongest rider in the race as he distanced nearest rival Alex Diniz by 52 seconds, Rodolfo Torres by 54 seconds and Nairo Quintana by 56 seconds. History shows that the winner on this climb will go on to win the race overall. Will it be the same in 2016?

 

 

Stage 5

The sprinters will be back in the spotlight on the fifth day when the riders travel 168.7km from Renca to the traditional finish in Juana Koslay on the outskirts of San Luis. Again the terrain is mostly flat as there is no categorized climb on the route and only several smaller ascents, mainly in the rolling second half, will test the riders’ climbing legs. The final 10km are, however, a bit more difficult as they are all slightly uphill. The final three kilometres have an average gradient of 1.8% and the road is steeper when the riders pass through a roundabout to hit the long rising finishing straight a little more than 1km from the finish.

 

In 2014 and 2015, Juana Koslay hosted the finish of the third stage but this year the stage features a little later in the race. That hasn’t changed the nature of the course though as it is almost unchanged compared to last. In fact, the only difference is a slightly changed starting location which means that the distance has been reduced from 173.2km to 168.6km. Already after 7km of racing, the riders have hit last year’s course and from there they will follow the same roads as they did 12 months ago. As the roads are only slightly rolling, the main challenge will be the wind and the uphill finishing straight that makes timing crucial for the sprinters.

 

The sprinters have three opportunities in this race and they are unlikely to miss out on this one. It is likely to be a controlled affair, most notably by Etixx-QuickStep that will be keen to set Fernando Gaviria up for a sprint win. However, with small 6-rider teams, there is always the chance that a breakaway can create a surprise. Furthermore, the GC riders will have to be attentive to the wind and potential splits in the uphill sprint.

 

A stage has finished in Juana Koslay thrice. The first time was in 2012 when Francesco Chicchi beat Tom Boonen in the bunch sprint. On that occasion, the stage also ended with the slightly uphill section near the finish and Chicchi prevailing proves that there is no reason to fear the easy gradients. In 2014, Giacomo Nizzolo made it two wins in a row for Trek when he beat Francisco Ventoso in the tough uphill drag to the line. Last year Fernando Gaviria proved that his first stage win was no fluke as he again beat Mark Cavendish in a bunch sprint.

 

 

Stage 6

In the Tour de San Luis, the climbers have always had the upper hand as the penultimate stage has used finished on the short, steep Mirador del Sol climb. This year they will have one less uphill finish to gain some time but again the famous ascent will play host to the stage that is likely to determine the overall winner of the race. However, in 2015 the stage has been made a lot harder and this will again be the case in 2016. The main novelty of the 2015 course was the fact that the riders passed the previous finish area and climbed for another 8km, making the penultimate stage the hardest of the race and a brutally tough mountain stage at this early part of the year.

 

Compared to last year’s very short 117.5km stage, the route for the penultimate stage has been made a bit longer as it will travel 159.5km from La Toma to the uphill finish at Filo Sierras Comechingones. However, the second part of the stage is unchanged and so the changes should have little impact on the racing. The first part of the stage is an easy run along flat roads and unless the wind plays a role, this opening part only serves as a warm-up for the dramatic finale. Along the way, the riders will contest the first intermediate sprint at the 47km mark.

 

In the second half of the stage, there is a long, gradual ascent to Villa Larca before the riders descend to the final intermediate sprint which is located at the 136.3km mark. From there, all hell breaks loose. First up is a small category 3 climb that leads directly to the bottom of the brutal Mirador del Sol ascent. The new climb is a massive 16km long and has an average gradient of 7.8%. The numbers are even deceptive as the first four kilometres are rather easy, with the gradient hovering around 5-6% for most of the time. The next part is significantly harder, with double-digit gradients testing the riders on a very uneven ascent. Three kilometres before the previous finish line at Mirador del Sol, the riders will be tested on a 15.5% section, with the next kilometre being slightly easier at 14.5%. The road levels out a bit as the riders climb up a 5.5% road to reach the previous finish line. Here the riders will contest a category 1 KOM sprint before they tackle the final 7.5km along a twisting road with several switchbacks. This part of the climb is a bit more regular with a rather constant gradient of 7-8%.

 

The final climb is where the race will be decided and this is the biggest day for the climbers in the race. They will have to be attentive due to the wind in the first part of the race but as they would all love to win this prestigious stage, it is likely to come down to a GC battle on the final ascent. In the past, the climb suited the puncheurs as only the final part was really steep but the addition of the second part turns the stage into one for real climbers who will hope to gain enough time to win the race overall on what will be one of the most exciting races of the early part of the year.

 

The climb was the scene of Alberto Contador's only win in 2013 when he went head-to-head with eventual winner Daniel Diaz and Alex Diniz on the steep slopes. The South American pair only lost two seconds to the grand tour star, sealing their overall podium places while Contador repeated his 2012 win on the climb (from which he has later been stripped, with the victory being given to Diaz). Luis Angel Mate and local rider Leandro Messineo were the first two winners on the climb. Last year Kleber Ramos became the first rider to win at the new finish as he accelerated clear of a small group to put two seconds into Rodolfo Torres, six seconds into Daniel Diaz and 15 seconds into Nairo Quintana.

 

 

Stage 7

The sprinters will have an incentive to stay in the race despite the many mountain stages as the final day has traditionally offered them a chance to be back in the spotlight. After a few years with a final stage from San Luis to Terrazas del Portezuelo on its eastern outskirts, last year’s final day both started and finished in the centre of San Luis and it will be the same in 2016. However, the stage has been changed significantly as it will mainly take place on a circuit in the city centre.

 

At just 119.6km, it is the shortest stage of the race. First the riders will do one lap of the circuit that has traditionally made up the main part of the stage. The riders travel along slightly ascending roads to a turning point in El Durazno – contesting the final category 3 KOM sprint at the top of Alto los Piquios. From there, they will head back down to the city centre along descending roads.

 

After 34.6km of racing, the riders will cross the finish line for the first time to contest the first intermediate sprint and from there the final part of the stage is made up of five laps of a 17km circuit. The first half is very slightly ascending and the second half very slightly descending but in reality it is a flat affair that is perfectly suited to the fast riders and a high-speed finish to the race. The final 2km are slightly downhill and follow a long, straight road, meaning that the scene is set for a very fast bunch sprint on the final day.

 

This kind of circuit race has bunch sprint written all over it and as the stage mainly takes place in the city, there is little chance that the wind will play a role. This is the biggest chance for the pure sprinters and it will be a big surprise if it is not decided in a bunch kick.

 

Even though the finish was changed in 2015 compared to the previous years when the sprint was slightly uphill, it is no novelty that the final day is one for the sprinters. In 2014 Sacha Modolo took his first win of the season while Mattia Gavazzi was the fastest in 2013. Tom Boonen, Hector Aguilar, Alberto Loddo, Juan Jose Haedo (twice) and Daniel Moreno are the other riders to have won the final stage and only the latter breaks the trend that indicates that a sprinter will emerge as the strongest at the end of the 7-day race. Last year Mark Cavendish became the first rider to win the downhill sprint as he finally managed to beat Fernando Gaviria.

  

 

The favourites

Outcomes of early-season races are the hardest to predict. As none of the best riders in the Tour de San Luis have any races in their legs yet, no one - not even the riders themselves - know how everyone is going. Furthermore, none of the WorldTour stars are really gunning for the win in the Argentinean race which mainly serves as preparation for later objectives but they will be up against local riders for whom the race is the major highlight and who are in the middle of the most important part of their season. This makes the race extremely unpredictable and it is no wonder that the race has often had a surprise winner, with Daniel Diaz' 2013 and 2015 victories being the most recent example of a local rider coming out on top.

 

The Tour de San Luis is even more of a preparation race than the Tour Down Under whose status as a WorldTour race has made several riders write it down as a real target early in the year. That's not the case for the San Luis race which is only a genuine objective for the local riders. This leaves observers with very few tools to point out the favourites and one has to rely on select statements from the riders, their history in the early seasons and the nature of the course when it comes to selecting the winner candidates.

 

With two big summit finishes and a team time trial, the race is one for the climbers with a strong team. In the past, the race has included a flat time trial which has made it an affair for the versatile stage race specialists but this year a tiny climber can even gain time in the timed test if he has a strong team at his side. At the same time, the race only has two summit finishes compared to the usual three which means that the climbers have one less chance to make a difference. On the other hand, those two stages offer real mountains where you can easily gain some time and so there is little doubt that the race will be won by a formidable climber.

 

The introduction of a team time trial means that the WorldTour riders will be favoured compared to the continental riders as there is usually a huge difference between the pro and continental teams in this very special discipline. Furthermore, there is the preeminent risk of crosswinds and the WorldTour teams are much likely to benefit from any potential split. For a continental rider to win the race, he has to be clearly the best in the mountains like Daniel Diaz was in 2015.

 

With the WorldTour riders being favoured, it is hard to look beyond Nairo Quintana as the favourite to win the race. The Colombian won the race in 2014 but failed to defend his title in 2015. However, he went into last year’s race with lots of uncertainties as he had just recovered from his two crashes at the 2014 Vuelta a Espana and he was clearly not in the condition that he had when he won the race two years ago.

 

This year we can expect Quintana to be at a much higher level. Of course he is nowhere near his Tour de France form but he has had a much better winter and we can expect him to be as strong as he was in 2014 when he was clearly the best in this race. Unlike many of the Europeans, he has had great conditions for his winter training in Colombia and so he is in a much better position to challenge the local riders for whom this is the season highlight.

 

There is little doubt that Quintana is the best climber in the race and he will benefit from the introduction of a team time trial. He has usually done pretty well in the San Luis TTs but he has always lost time to some of his rivals. Movistar is one of the best team time trial teams in the world and even though they don’t have their best team for the event in Argentina, they can still rely on Adriano Malori. Only Etixx-QuickStep and Tinkoff have a real chance to beat them in the opening stage and this means that Quintana is likely to gain time on most of his key rivals right from the beginning.

 

From there, it will be enough to ride defensively in the mountains but he may aim for more. Last year he clearly got better as the race went on and at this time of the year, we are likely to see a similar tendency in 2016. The key climbing stages both come in the second part of the race and this should favour the Colombian who also has an excellent recovery. He can rely on strong support in the mountains where his brother Dayer, Daniel Moreno and Marc Soler should stay with the best for a long time. Movistar have done nothing to hide that they have certain ambitions in Argentina and this indicates that Quintana aims for a strong start to his season. With a seamless winter behind, Quintana is the man to beat in the Tour de San Luis.

 

Daniel Diaz is the only multiple winner of the race. He came out on top in 2013 and 2015 and as he was second in 2012, he has been on the podium three times in the last four years. That speaks volumes about his climbing skills and motivation for this race and it is actually a bit surprising that it has taken him so long time to find a pro team in Europe.

 

This year things will be different though. In the last few years, he has been riding for continental teams for whom the Tour de San Luis was a highlight and Diaz aimed at being at 100% for the race. Now he has moved to Europe to join the Delko Marseille team and so the race is no longer the most important event on his calendar. Instead, he needs to peak for some of the major European races.

 

However, Diaz has done nothing to hide that he still aims for a top result in his home race. For Delko Marseille, another win in San Luis would be welcome as they are aiming for wild cards for the French WorldTour races. If Diaz can emerge as a potential GC contender in a race like Paris-Nice by beating the likes of Quintana and Nibali in San Luis, they will certainly not have hurt their chances. Hence, we can expect Diaz to be at a high level and history shows that he is hard to beat on the Argentinean climbs.

 

The introduction of a team time trial is a clear disadvantage for Diaz. He may be riding in a pro team but only Delio Fernandez is a real TT specialist. Compared to Quintana, he can expect to lose a chunk of time on the opening day and it will be hard to get that back in the mountains, especially as there are only two summit finishes. On the other hand, he was in a class of his own 12 months ago and if he is at the same level, it will be hard even for Quintana to match him in stages 4 and 6. Diaz could certainly become the first rider to defend his title in Argentina.

 

On paper, Vincenzo Nibali is the Astana leader but we don’t have big expectations for the multiple grand tour champion. Nibali won the race in 2010 but in the last few years he has had much slower starts to the seasons. He claims to have had a much better winter this time and we expect him to do much better in the spring but this race probably comes a bit too early.

 

That doesn’t mean that Astana won’t have a card to play. As said, the Tour de San Luis is usually dominated by South Americans and the Kazakh team go into the race with a formidable card from the home continent. Miguel Angel Lopez had an injury-marred debut season at Astana but when he managed to reach some kind of form, he proved that he is one of the future climbing stars. He was one of the best in the mountains at the Tour de Suisse and he was really impressive when he claimed a stage win in the Vuelta a Burgos.

 

Lopez has not said much about his form but he has had a much better preparation than he had last year when he had to postpone his debut until March. He has proved that he doesn’t need any racing to find his best form and he has benefited from the good weather in Colombia. His main goal is the Vuelta a Espana so he doesn’t have to build for a major race later in the spring which means that he can allow himself to be at a reasonably high level right from the start.

 

Astana are not as strong as Movistar in the team time trial as only Nibali is a good time triallist. Lopez is likely to lose some time on the first stage and this requires him to go on the attack in the mountains. However, he has proved that he can beat the best riders in the world and he could easily kick a magic 2016 off with a big win in San Luis.

 

Going into the 2015 season, not many had ever heard about Rodolfo Torres. That changed completely as the Colombian climber had a marvelous breakthrough season. He had lots of bad luck throughout the year which cost him several top results but he proved that he can mix it up with the best on the climbs, most notably with his second place in the queen stage of the Vuelta a Espana. Hence, it was no surprise that he was one of the select few Colombia riders to find a new team when his employer folded.

 

Androni won the battle for Torres’ signature and he will be keen to kick off his time with the Italian team in the best possible way. Last year it was the Tour de San Luis that signaled the start of his great season as he finished second in the Argentinean race. This year he aims to do even better and he won’t be hampered by the omission of an individual time trial where he was set to lose a lot of time. Androni is definitely not one of the favourites for the team time trial either but with a few strong riders for the flats and a TT specialist like Serghei Tvetcov in the team, he should be able to limit his losses better than he would have done in an individual time trial.

 

However, he still needs to gain some time in the mountains and that won’t be easy against his classy rivals. On the other hand, there is no reason to believe that he won’t be at least as strong as he was last year and as there is still room for improvement, he will maybe be even stronger. If that’s the case, he could be the strongest climber in the race.

 

A rider that will regret the lack of an individual time trial, is Eduardo Sepulveda who is the leading Argentinean rider. As a TT specialist, he would have gained time on most of his rivals in an individual test but now he can expect to lose time in the time trial. Fortuneo-Vital Concept is a pro team but doesn’t have any real TT specialists to support Sepulveda and so he will definitely lose time to Quintana on the opening day.

 

Sepulveda is the Fortuneo captain in the major stage races and this means that his main goals come later in the season. Hence, he cannot be at a too high level at this early point of the year. On the other hand, it is his home race and he is hugely motivated. He was sixth in 2014 and fourth in 2015 so he will be targeting the podium this year. He hasn’t proved that he can climb with the very best though and with no time trial, the course suits him less. Nonetheless, the local hero stands out as one of the favourites.

 

As said, we don’t have huge expectations for Vincenzo Nibali but we won’t rule him out either. After all he is a former winner of the race and a few years ago he was known for his ability to ride at a competitive level in every race. That has definitely changed and he is unlikely to be close to his best. On the other hand, he still managed to finish in the top in San Luis in 2012 and 2013 and unlike in 2014 and 2015 when he had a terrible start to year, he has had a pretty good winter after ending the past season extremely well. Hence, we expect him to be much better than he has been in recent years.

 

However, it is still a massive task to win this race as he will lose time to Movistar in the team time trial and it would be a bit of a surprise if he can already match Quintana in the mountains. On the other hand, Nibali was extremely motivated at the end of 2015 and if he can start the season with the same kind of fire, you can never rule out one of the best bike riders in the world.

 

The third local rider with a chance to win the race, is Sergio Godoy who will lead the local San Luis team. Godoy was third in 2014 but had to abandon last year’s race. Like in the past years, this race is his season highlight and he will be very keen to put last year’s huge disappointment behind him. He has not had any major results in a UCI race since his overall third place two years ago but that doesn’t mean that he won’t be at a high level in San Luis. Last year he was in a good position to achieve a top 10 until he crashed in stage 3 and that tumble ruined his race.

 

Godoy is a great climber but his big disadvantage will be his team. There is no doubt that he will lose a lot of time in the team time trial and it will be very hard to make up for that in the mountains. On the other hand, that may provide him with the freedom to go for a stage win and if he is climbing like he did two years ago, his rivals will have to keep an eye on him.

 

One of the really exciting aspects of the 2016 Tour de San Luis will be to follow Rodrigo Contreras. As a 20-year-old rider for the Colombian national team, he was a hugely surprising fifth in last year’s race. That prompted Etixx-QuickStep to offer him a contract and he is now ready to turn pro after riding as a stagiaire last year.

 

Contreras will be pretty much on his own as the rest of the team is built for the sprints with Fernando Gaviria. However, the powerful riders will be extremely useful for the team time trial where Etixx-QuickStep is one of the only teams that can probably challenge Movistar. If they win the opening stage, Contreras is in the perfect position and as he comes straight from Colombia, he is likely to be in good condition. Last year he was close to the best riders and with another year in his legs, he should do even better this time around.

 

There is little doubt that Quintana is the Movistar captain but the Spanish team have another card to play. Daniel Moreno is making his debut with the team in Argentina and he will be keen to get his comeback off to a good start. His wife is from Argentina and he always spends the winters in the South American country. Nonetheless, he has had mixed performances in the Tour de San Luis and apart from last year’s sixth place, he has never been in the top 10. However, 2015 proved that he can be competitive at this time of the year and if Movistar play a tactical game, Moreno may be the man to benefit.

 

A rider that will be extremely keen to get revenge, is Janier Acevedo. The Colombian was the revelation of the US domestic scene in 2013 when he proved that he can climb with the best. However, his two years at Cannondale and Garmin were marred by health issues and he has now returned to Jamis. There is no doubt that he wants to prove that he can return to his best level and this race should be a big early-season goal for him. It still remains to be seen if he can again be the rider he was in 2013 but if he has had a solid winter in Colombia and Jamis can do a reasonable team time trial, he will be an overall contender.

 

On paper, Rafal Majka is one of the best climbers in this race but we don’t have huge expectations for the Pole. He has played down his ambitions for his season debut and Tinkoff have done nothing to hide that they don’t expect their GC star to be competitive. His main goal is the Giro and so he can’t really allow himself to be very good at this time of the year and in general he has never been very strong in the early months. On the other hand, Tinkoff should be among the best in the team time trial and if he finds himself with an early advantage, you can never rule out such a classy rider.

 

Drapac will make their debut in San Luis and they will be riding for young Brendan Canty. Their new signing rode to 13th as a stagiaire at the Abu Dhabi Tour in 2015 and so proved that he can mix it up with the best on the climbs. The rest of the team mainly consists of strong rouleurs which means that they should do reasonably well in the team time trial. Canty climbed really well at the Australian Champpionships and made it clear that he feels ready to achieve a top result in Argentina.

 

Unitedhealthcare go into the race with a three-pronged for the GC. Matthew Busche and Janez Brajkovic are probably targeting races a little later in the season but this race should be a goal for new signing Daniel Jaramillo. The Colombian was one of the best domestique climbers in the US in 2015 and his performances earned him a professional contract. Like all other South Americans, he is likely to be at a relatively good level and Unitedhealthcare should do well in the team time trial, meaning that he will be a contender.

 

Ag2r go into the race with Jean-Christophe Peraud and Alexis Vuillermoz. The former is never good in Argentina so it will be the latter that will go for GC. With no individual time trial, he should find the course to his liking but Ag2r have a pretty poor team for the team time trial. Furthermore, the longer climbs in the finales don’t suit him as well as the punchy finishes that have featured in the past. The race is probably a bit too mountainous to suit his punchy skills but at this time of the year, form is more important than anything else. If he has trained well, he will be a contender.

 

Finally, Andrew Talansky deserves a mention. The American is one of the biggest names on the start list but like Majka and Nibali, he is unlikely to be in his best form. On the other hand, he had a disastrous 2015 season and there is little doubt that he is fired up for 2016. He has usually started his season much later but has proved that he can reach a very good level only by training. If he has had a good winter, it is not completely impossible that he will already be competitive.

 

***** Nairo Quintana

**** Daniel Diaz, Miguel Angel Lopez

*** Rodolfo Torres, Eduardo Sepulveda, Vincenzo Nibali, Sergio Godoy, Rodrigo Contreras

** Daniel Moreno, Janier Acevedo, Rafal Majka, Brendan Canty, Daniel Jaramillo, Alexis Vuillermoz, Andrew Talansky

* Enzo Moyano, Jonathan Millan, Janez Brajkovic, Matthews Busche, Jan Polanc, Lawson Craddock, Remi Di Gregorio, Ilya Koshevoy, Michele Scarponi, Eros Capecchi, Richard Carapaz

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