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It is hard to look beyond Nairo Quintana as the favourite to win the race. The Colombian won the race in 2014 and after a bit of hesitation, he has decided to return to defend his title.

Photo: Sirotti

TOUR DE SAN LUIS

RACE PROFILE
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NEWS
17.01.2015 @ 08:00 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 on 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.

 

2015 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 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 7 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, 6 of the 17 ProTeams will be present at the start, with 7 pro continental, 7 continental, and 6 national teams making up the rest of the star-studded field. The field may be a bit less stacked than it was 12 months ago when more teams from the elite division decided to travel to Argentina but the organizers can still present a fabulous line-up.

 

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 time trial and three 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. The list may not be as spectacular as it was one year ago but riders like Nairo Quintana, Michal Kwiatkowski, Igor Anton, Carlos Betancur, Rinaldo Nocentini, Thomas Voeckler, Przemyslaw Niemiec, Tom Danielson, Danile Morenom Serghei Tvetcov, Janez Brajkovic, Eduardo Sepulveda, Brice Feillu and  Miguel Angel Rubiano have all decided 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 Mark Cavendish, Sacha Modolo and Maximialiano Richeze are the three main WorldTour sprinters that have preferred the Argentinean race instead of the battle for points in Australia.

 

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 broke the trend of smaller riders winning the race when Nairo Quintana kicked 2014 off with a bang by taking an impressive overall victory. However, the Colombian seemed to have lost it all already on the opening day when Phil Gaimon took a surprise win from a breakaway and gained a lot of time over the pre-race favourites. Gaimon dug deep to defend his position in the overall standings but the combination of a solid time trial and a big attack in the queen stage allowed Quintana to relegate the American to second. Despite defending champion Daniel Diaz losing lots of time, the Argentineans were still able to make an impact in their own race, with Sergio Godoy taking the final step on the podium. This year Quintana will be back to defend his title as he prefers an early start to his season after he raced very little in the second half of 2014 and he will again be up against Godoy who is gunning for victory in his home race. Having returned to a smaller continental team in the USA, Gaimon will not be at the start in the race that served as the scene for his breakthrough.

 

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. There will be no surprises in 2014 either as the organizers have decided to follow the traditional recipe for success. This means that the race will look very much like a mini grand tour that offers a bit of everything during its 7 days of racing, with three summit finishes, three flat stages for the sprinters and a flat time trial. With the race against the clock and the mountain stages set to decide the overall, the winner will be a true stage racer that masters all disciplines.

 

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

For the fourth year in a row, the Tour de San Luis will kick off with a stage from the city of San Luis to Villa Mercedes. The opening road stage has been between those two cities in every edition of the race so far, with the 2011 being the only exception. After the race has followed the exact same route for the past two years, the 2015 edition of the stage has undergone significant changes. Instead of heading from the start to La Toma and down to the finish, the riders will travel directly to Villa Mercedes, continuing past the finish to the city of Justo Daract where they will turn around and head back to the finish. At 186.8km, the stage is slightly longer than it was 12 months ago.

 

Despite the changes, the nature of the racing is unlikely to change. The start is slightly undulating as the riders climb La Cumbre category 3 climb in the first 18.5km 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 flat terrain means that the sprinters are expected to rule on the opening 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 and the Manxman will love to start his season on a winning note by repeating that result. Last year the major teams failed to organize a chase and so the early breakaway stayed away, with Phil Gaimon taking a surprise solo win that nearly gave him the overall victory in the end.

 

 

 

 

Stage 2

For the second year in a row, the riders will hit the mountains already on the second day and stage 2 will give a clear indication of which riders will be in contention for the overall win at the end of the 7 days of racing. The stage finishes on one of the classical climbs in the race's short history, the Mirador del Potrero, which made its first appearance in 2010 and has been on the route in 2012, 2013 and 2014after a one-year absence.

 

As it has been the case for the past few years, the stage will start in La Punta very close to the famed climb and the riders will zig-zag their way through the area north of San Luis. Like last year, there will be no major climb before the final ascent, with only the category 3 Alto La Florida at the 65.7km mark breaking the monotony of the mostly flat terrain. The riders will never be far away from the final climb but this year, they will ride a bit more around before they hit the bottom of the ascent, making the stage a bit longer. The easy terrain could be exposed to the wind but will mostly serve as a long warm-up for the final climb where the climbers are expected to battle it out.

 

On just their second day of racing, the riders will receive a shock to their system when they hit the final category 1 climb at the end of the 185.3km stage. 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, with the finishing straight bending slightly to the right.

 

Rafael Valls Ferri got his professional career of to a great start when he won the first stage to the top of the climb 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. Last year 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.

 

 

 

 

Stage 3

The sprinters will be back in the spotlight on the third day when the riders travel 176.3km from Tilisarao northwest of San Luis to 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.

 

Last year the third stage also travelled between the same two cities but this time the riders will follow a different route. It won’t change the terrain very much though and as the distance and the finale are unchanged, the two races are likely to be pretty similar. The main challenge will be the wind and the uphill finishing straight that makes timing crucial for the sprinters. A stage has finished in Juana Koslay twice. 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. Last year Giacomo Nizzolo made it two wins in a row for Trek when he beat Francisco Ventoso in the tough uphill drag to the line.

 

 

 

 

Stage 4

The organizers like to introduce one novelty every year and last year 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 will again host the finish of the fourth stage of the race.

 

Last year’s stage had an almost completely flat run to the bottom of the final climb and this year’s stage will have a very similar format. However, the start has been moved from Potrero de los Funes to Villa Dolores from where the riders will follow an direct route to the final climb. Despite the starts being located far from each other, the first part of the stages will be identical as it will be completely flat. The distance has been shortened from 168.7km to just 142.5km and the only challenge in the first 120km will be the danger of crosswinds.

 

The riders will hopefully enjoy their flat run as the final 22km are anything but flat. First they head up the category 3 El Emblaise climb which is a long, non-steep affair. A small flat section will give the riders a short breather before taking on the category 1 Alto del Amago. The 10.5km ascent has an average gradient of 7,2% but 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 1,8km 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 will offer the first real mountaintop finish in the 2014 season and by the end of the day, we will know a lot more about who's going to win the Tour de San Luis.

 

Last year 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.

 

  

 

 

Stage 5

The climbers may have had the chance to excel twice but to win the race, you need to be a complete athlete. This will become evident on the stage 5 time trial. For the second year in a row, the race against the clock again coming later in the race than it has done in the past where it has always been held on either the third or fourth day. Since 2008, the time trial has been more or less identical, with only a slight change of the start and finish location reducing the distance from 19.8km to 19.5km and later to 19.2km.

 

This year, however, the stage has been completely changed. The start and finish area has been moved from the centre of San Luis and now the riders will take off from Terrazas del Portezuelo on the eastern outskirts of the city. From there they will follow a long, almost completely straight road through the city before they turn around and head back along the same road, with the only slight deviation coming near the end. The only corners come near the turning point and the start and finish, meaning that there are almost no technical challenges to handle. Furthermore, the roads are almost completely flat, with the first half being slightly downhill and the second part being slightly ascending. The distance has been reduced to 17.4km, meaning that the climbers should lose a bit less time but there is no doubt that they will suffer on a course that is perfectly suited to the specialists.

 

Last year Adriano Malori beat Taylor Phinney in an exciting battle between the two TT stars while Nairo Quintana did a very good time trial to take the overall lead. One year earlier Svein Tuft beat local hero Leandro Messineo and new leader Michal Kwiatkowski to take his first win of the season. Past winners include Levi Leipheimer, the late Xavier Tondo, Vincenzo Nibali and local riders Jorge Giacinti and Martin Garrido and the stage will again play a crucial role in the final outcome in the race.

 

 

 

 

 

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 that ascent will again play host to the stage that is likely to determine the overall winner of the race but in 2015, the stage has been made a lot harder. The main novelty of the 2015 course is the fact that the riders will pass the previous finish area and climb 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.

 

Last year the stage was the longest of the entire race but this year it is the shortest. The start has been moved from Las Chacras to Achiras and the riders will only have to do 117.5km before they reach the finish. The first part of the stage is an easy run along flat roads in a northerly direction and unless the wind plays a role, this opening part only serves as a warm-up for the dramatic finale.

 

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 two-digit gradients testing the riders on a very uneven ascent. Three kilometres before the former 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 former finish line. Here the riders will contest a category 1 KOM sprint before they tackle the final 8km 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 addition of this second part turns the stage into one for real climbers while the previous finish was better suited to punchy guys.

 

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. This year the changes to the course mean that the time differences will be a lot bigger, and the climb will definitely produce a worthy overall winner of the race.

 

 

 

 

Stage 7

The sprinters will have an incentive to stay in the race despite the many mountain stages as the final day offers 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, this year’s final day will both start and finish in the centre of San Luis.

 

At just 122.4km, it is another very short circuit that mainly consists of three laps of a 34km circuit. From the start, the riders travel along slightly ascending roads to a turning point in El Durazno – contesting the final category 3 climb along the way. From there, they will head back down to the city centre before they do it another two times – albeit with no KOM points on offer. When they get back to the city for the final time, they deviate slightly from the course to reach the finish. The final 2km are slightly downhill and follow a long, straight road, meaning that the scene is set for an exciting bunch sprint on the final day.

 

 

Even though the finish has changed compared to the last few years where the sprint was slightly uphill, it is no novelty that the final day is one for the sprinters. Last year 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.

 

 

 

 

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 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 victory being the most recent example.

 

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 three big summit finishes and a flat time trial, the race is one for the real stage race specialists that master all disciplines. In the past, however, the race has been dominated more by climbers than time triallists. At this early time of the year, the differences in hard mountain stages can be massive and this means that the losses in the time trial can be erased rather easily. This year that tendency will be even more evident. The climbing is harder than ever before and the time trial has even been shortened. Of course there is a chance that the time trial will play a crucial role but there is a big chance that the race will be won by the strongest climber in the race.

 

If that is the case, it is hard to look beyond Nairo Quintana as the favourite to win the race. The Colombian won the race in 2014 and after a bit of hesitation, he has decided to return to defend his title. As he ended his season prematurely, he needs to get back to racing very quickly and this race offers his first big opportunity and also allows him to race in front of the South American fans.

 

Quintana has made it clear that the win in the Argentinean race is not a big goal for him as he gradually builds his condition for the Tour de France. In fact, he has hinted that he will have a slower build-up than he had in 2014 when he admitted to being a bit too strong in January. Furthermore, the injuries he sustained in the Vuelta, makes it a bit uncertain how well he is riding.

 

On the other hand, Quintana can allow himself to chase a few more results in the spring. Last year he was focused on the Giro which means that he had to hold something back in the first races. This year his main objective comes a lot later and it is well-known that it is possible to have a first peak in the spring while also targeting the Tour. Of course his spring goals come at Tirreno-Adriatico and the Vuelta al Pais Vasco but he could already be at a pretty advanced level in January.

 

On paper, Quintana is by far the strongest climber in the race and he will have plenty of terrain to make a difference. He has improved in the time trials and in last year’s Tour de San Luis and Vuelta a Burgos, he did some pretty good short, flat TTs. More importantly, hevhas a history of starting his seasons strongly. Compared to the Europeans, he has had much better conditions for training as he has been staying in his native Colombia while most of his rivals have battled the European cold. Finally, Quintana is one of those riders that is rarely riding very poorly and at this time of the year, that is likely to make a big difference.

 

Quintana will be supported by a formidable line-up as he can count on his brother Dayer and Igor Anton who has aimed at a stronger start to his season and claims to be riding pretty well. For the flat stages, he will be supported by Jasha Sütterlin and Adriano Malori who will provide him with the needed firepower for the potentially windy conditions in the flat Argentinean terrain. Finally, neo-pro Marc Soler will be keen to shine in his first race as a professional. The line-up clearly indicates that Movistar have certain ambitions in the Argentinean race even though they claim to use it mainly for preparation and this makes Quintana the clear favourite.

 

Whether it will actually be enough to win the race remains to be seen. Quintana is certainly nowhere near his best condition but most of his rivals find themselves in a similar situation. At his best, Quintana is the strongest climber in the race and he will relish the many summit finishes. He is backed by a very strong team that includes strong climbers like Benat Intxausti and Andrey Amador. He will certainly lose time to the specialists in the flat time trial but most of the GC contenders are not much better in the race against the clock. Quintana will try to limit his losses in the fifth stage and use the summit finishes to test his condition. It will be no surprise if that is enough to kick start his season in the best possible way.

 

While most riders are in San Luis to prepare for major WorldTour races, the Argentinean event is the highlight on Daniel Diaz' calendar. The 25-year-old local rider is a big talent who has a formidable track record in the race. After finishing 34th in his first participation, he made it onto the podium in 2012 before winning the event 12 months later. Last year ended up as a big disappointment for Diaz who suffered right from the beginning and ended the race back in 41st.

 

This year Diaz will be back with the firm goal of returning to the top spot of the podium. He has signed with the Brazlizian Funvic Brasilinvest team and will be the leader of the squad. He can count on formidable support from Alex Diniz who finished third during Diaz’ winning ride in 2013 and the South American pair have the potential to animate the mountain stages and put the WorldTour teams under pressure with their two-pronged attack.

 

Diaz may have failed in last year’s race but by winning the Argentinean road race championships and finishing second in the time trial, he has proved that he is still riding strongly. He has prepared meticulously for the race and there is no doubt that he will be more ready than most of his rivals. As a pure climber, he will lose time in the flat time trial but two years ago he only lost 1.07 to Michal Kwiatkowski who was the best GC rider in the race against the clock. He has improved in the discipline since then and doesn't face too strong time trialists in the field of GC contenders. With bonus seconds and three summit finishes on offer, he has plenty of opportunities to take back any lost time and he could very well find himself on the top step after a one year absence.

 

Another Argentinean talent could prove to be the biggest threat to Diaz and Quintana. Last year Sergio Godoy gained a lot of attention due to his excellent climbing. After a poor start, he finished second in the two biggest mountain stages and he defended himself surprisingly well in the time trial. That was enough to finish the race in third overall.

 

This year he will be back for more and he will be more confident in his chances after last year’s great showing. He is the undisputed leader of the local San Luis team and like Diaz, he has the advantage of being a lot better prepared than his more famous rivals. The main question mark stems from the fact that he doesn’t have an awful lot of experience in UCI races as he has mainly obtained great results in the Vuelta Ciclista De Chile and last year’s Tour de San Luis. He needs to confirm that he can repeat last year’s excellent showing. That makes him more of an unknown element but if he rediscovers the legs he had 12 months ago, he should be up there with the best and even challenge Quintana in the mountains.

 

One rider that is very eager to do well is Eduardo Sepulveda. With an 6th place in San Luis, 4th in the Tour Mediteraneen and 5th in Criterium International, the Argentinean rode very strongly in the early part of the 2104 season and expectations for the Bretagne captain were great. Unfortunately, he suffered from injury for most of the year, missed the Tour de France and never found back his best legs. He returned to racing in the second half of the year and laid the foundations for a strong start to 2015.

 

Sepulveda is likely to have had lots of motivation for his winter training and unlike many of his European rivals, he has been training in good conditions in his home country. Compared to most of his GC rivals, he has the advantage of being a very good time triallist and he should be able to gain time on almost all the top contenders in the race against the clock. He would probably have preferred a course with less climbing but in last year’s ride to Mont Faron in the Tour Mediteraneen, he proved that he can be up there with the best on the climbs. If he can limit his losses in the three summit finishes, he has a chance to win the biggest race in his country.

 

Michal Kwiatkowski is one of the big dark horses for the race. In 2013, he suddenly emerged as a GC rider when he led the race for a day after a solid showing in the first mountain stages and the time trial. He faded a bit later in the race but the race marked a turnaround for the Pole who had mostly been known as a time triallist until that point.

 

Last year Kwiatkowski skipped the Argentinean race but in his European races, he turned out to be the riders of the early season. Due to fatigue, he suffered a bit in the Tour de France and this has prompted him to go into the season with the plan to have a slower start. The world champion claims that he will probably be unable to mix it up with the best at this early point of the year.

 

However, Kwiatkowski is a very talented bike rider and it is definitely no coincidence that he has traditionally started his seasons strongly. Even if he claims to have held something back in training, there is a solid chance that he will be riding stronger than most of his European rivals. He is clearly the best time triallist of the GC riders and should gain time in the race against the clock. On the other hand, the race may have a bit more climbing to suit him perfectly and even though the explosive finish in stage 2 suits him well, there is a risk that he will suffer in the two big mountaintop finishes. This kind of race may come a bit too early for the world champion but you can never count out on of the most talented riders in the world.

 

Cannondale-Garmin will be eager to get their season off to a great start and they have a few cards to play. One of them is Tom Danielson who was riding excellently well in Argentina 12 months ago. He decided to put himself in the service of surprise leader Phil Gaimon but claimed to be feeling so good that he could have challenged for the win in the big mountain stages.

 

This year he will have more freedom and if he has the legs he had 12 months ago, he should be in the mix. During the last few years, he has proved that he is able to beat some of the very best climbers in the races that are his goals, and the rivals in Argentina should not be too fearsome. Even though he is no longer the time triallist he once was, he should still be able to gain time on most rivals in the race against the clock and then it all comes down to his legs in the mountains. He missed most of the spring season due to injury and this makes it more likely that he has prepared strongly for the first part of the season.

 

Another team with a strong attack is Lampre-Merida. After several years of solid showings in Italy, Przemyslaw Niemiec finally got his chance in the WorldTour a few years ago and 2013 became the season when he proved that he is a genuine contender in the hardest stages races in the world. Crashes and injuries set him back in 2014 but by winning the big mountain stage to Lagos de Covadonga in the Vuelta, he proved that he is still an excellent climber.

 

Niemiec’s 2014 season may have been a disappointment but in the Giro del Trentino, he was one of the strongest riders in a race that was loaded by Giro d’Italia stars. Later in the year he went on to ride well in the Tour de Pologne and if he can stay injury-free, there is nothing that prevents him from mixing it up with the best in the hardest races. His form is a big uncertain but in the past he has started his seasons strongly. He has improved a lot in the times trials and the longer mountains in the final two summit finishes should suit him well. If he has trained well and is ready for another good start to his season.

 

Another big question mark if Carlos Betancur. If the Colombian has the legs he had in 2013 and the early part of 2014, he will be one of the biggest favourites for this race. Unfortunately, nothing suggests that this will be the case after the Colombian has been unable to find his best form since he won the 2014 Paris-Nice. Much has been said about his public fallout with the Ag2r team during the Tour de France and unlike in 2013, he never found any kind of form after doing the Vuelta in the final part of the year.

 

However, Betancur claims to be feeling better at this time of the year than he has ever done and he is eager to start from scratch after his poor showing in the second half of 2014. In fact he claims to be riding well enough to fight for a stage win in San Luis. We honestly doubt that this is the case and we would expect Betancur to again be off the pace in Argentina. On the other hand, he is one of the most gifted climbers in the peloton and with more climbing, the course suits him well. He doesn’t need an awful lot of training to reach his best condition and if he turns up in decent condition, he has the skills to win the race.

 

If Betancur is not up to the challenge, Ag2r may turn their attention to Alexis Vuillermoz. The Frenchman had an outstanding first year with the French team, playing a key role for Betancur in Paris-Nice and finishing 11th in the Giro d’Italia despite riding in support of Domenico Pozzovivo.

 

Vuillermoz is likely to take another step up in 2015 and we have big expectations for this talented French climber. Of course his form is very uncertain and last year he didn’t come out with all guns blazing. That is unlikely to have changed in 2015 as he aims for a strong showing in his first Tour de France. On the other hand, he has the skills to win this race as the smaller amount of time trialling should suit him well. The race is likely to mainly be preparation but we won’t rule out a great showing from Vuillermoz.

 

One rider that will be very eager to ride well is Janez Brajkovic. After two very poor years at Astana, the Slovenian is now the undisputed leader of UnitedHealthCare and he is eager to prove that he is still a top contender in the stage races. His main goals are the big North American races but he will probably try to get his season off to a strong start to prove that he deserves his leadership role.

 

It may be a long time since Brajkovic was fighting for the win in a WorldTour stage race but last year he proved that he is still among the best when he finished third in the Vuelta a Burgos. He didn’t get the chance to ride many races later in the year but for once, he didn’t have any major injuries. That should have provided him with a solid foundation for 2015 and we expect him to ride strongly right from the start. He should be able to gain some time in the time trial and if he can defend himself well in the mountains, he will be a contender.

 

Another strong time triallist is Serghei Tvetcov. The Moldavian had a fantastic 2014 season that saw him finish tird in the USA Pro Challenge and 6th in the Tour of Alberta. In the former race, he climbed alongside the best in the world an even beat Rafal Majka in the mountain time trial.

 

His good results attracted the attention of the Androni team and he will be eager to prove that he deserves his spot in the European peloton. The race in San Luis may be a bit too mountainous to suit him perfectly and it will be hard for him to limit his losses in the mountains. On the other hand, he will take time in the time trial and if he has trained well over the winter, he may able to mix it up with the best on the climbs at this early point of the year.

 

Another strong all-rounder is Ilnur Zakarin. On paper, Daniel Moreno is the leader of the Katusha team but the Spaniard is never very strong at this early time of the year. As opposed to this, Zakarin rode very well in the early part of 2014 and he will be eager to get his WorldTour career off to a great start.

 

In last year’s Tour de Slovenie, Zakarin proved that he is an excellent climber and he is a very good time triallist too. In the long-term, he has the skills to become a great stage race specialist and this race offers him another good chance to prove his skills. The climbing may be a bit too tough for him as he still hasn’t showed that he can mix it up with the very best. On the other hand, form is the most important factor at this time of the year and this could make the difference for the talented Russian.

 

***** Nairo Quintana

**** Daniel Diaz, Sergio Godoy

*** Eduardo Sepulveda, Michal Kwiatkowski, Tom Danielson

** Przemyslaw Niemiec, Carlos Betancur, Janez Brajkovic, Alexis Vuillermoz, Serghei Tvetcov, Ilnur Zakarin

* Rinaldo Nocentini, Daniel Moreno, Gregory Brenes, Gianfranco Zilioli, Mauro Finetto, Ben Gastauer, Joe Dombrowski, Thomas Voeckler, Daniel Jaramillo, Enzo Moyano, Mattia Cattaneo, Arnold Alcolea, Igor Anton, Fabrice Jeandesboz, Alberto Losada

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