Until recently, January was synonymous in the world of cycle sport with the Tour Down Under, and little else. The Australian stage race is the only WorldTour race of the month, with most other events populated by riders still burning off the Christmas calories and failing to attract the attention of fans and the media.
But the Tour de San Luis (January 18-24) has emerged as another non-European early-season race worthy of headlines. Last year, Colombian revelation Fernando Gaviria caught the eye by getting the better of Mark Cavendish in bunch sprints, while Colombian star Nairo Quintana was involved in a GC race ultimately won by 2013 champion Daniel Diaz.
This year’s tenth edition of the Argentine stage race takes place the day after the People’s Choice Classic (a sort-of prelude to the Tour Down Under), and shouldn’t be dismissed as the default secondary season opener. Its status as a 2.1 may suggest inferiority, but some of the peloton’s biggest names are flocking to San Luis in favour of its more-established Australian rival.
The race will provide the first chance this season to see Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) as he begins his season adorned in the rainbow stripes as world champion. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) also rides, in a rare opportunity to race in his home continent. And Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) hopes for a strong ride following a 2015 in which he failed to get going after a slow start until very late into the season.
They won’t be joined by rival Chris Froome, or any Sky rider for that matter as the team misses the race altogether. But the competition still runs deep, with the likes of Vuelta podium finisher Rafal Majka (Tinkoff) and Cannondale’s Andrew Talansky all capable of challenging provided they didn’t indulge too much over the festive period.
Looking at the Tour de San Luis route, it’s easy to see why so many top stage racers have opted to ride. Unlike the Tour Down Under and many other early season races, there’s a variety of types of stages during the seven day race that amount to a balanced route that offers something for climbers as well as sprinters.
Before reaching more challenging parcours, the race kicks off with a 21km team time-trial in the village of El Duranzo – the first time a TTT has ever featured in the event. Both stages two and three are flat enough for the likes of Elia Viviani (riding for the Italian national team) and Gaviria to have a chance of controlling any attacks and winning from bunch sprints.
Stage four will be the first major GC day, with a finish atop the Alto del Amago climb that has played a key role in the last couple of editions. Smaller time gaps are possible the day after thanks to a short uphill finish, although the lack of any climbing prior to the finale should ensure most GC candidates still have fresh legs.
The final showdown will take place on Saturday’s stage six, which culminates in an ascent of the fearsome Filo Sierras Comechingones. Like last year, the peloton will ride a further 7.5km uphill after reaching the first Mirador del Sol peak, which will likely see riders sprawled all across the road. A circuit stage in San Luis the day after will round-off the race, by which time we’ll know who the overall winner is.
Watch: Men’s WorldTour contenders for 2016
Tour de San Luis 2016: Stages
Stage one, January 18, El Durazno, 21km TTT
Stage two, January 19, San Luis to Villa Mercedes, 182km
Stage three, January 20, Potrero de Los Funes to La Punta, 131km
Stage four, January 21, Terrazas del Portezuelo to Cerro El Amago, 140km
Stage five, January 22, Renca to Juana Koslay, 169km
Stage six, January 23, La Toma to Filo de la Sierra de Comechingones, 160km
Stage seven, January 24, San Luis, 120km
Tour de San Luis 2016: Teams
Ag2r La Mondiale (France)
Androni Giocattoli (Italy)
Banco Provincia (Argentina)
Continental Team San Luis (Argentina)
Delko KTM Marseille Provence (France)
Fortueno Vital Concept (France)
Holowesko-Citadel-Hincapie Sportswear (USA)
Inteja-MMR Dominican Cycling Team (Dominican Republic)
Jamis-Sutter Home (USA)
Nippo-Vini Fantini (Italy)
San Luis Somos Todos (Argentina)
Sindicato de Empleados Publicos de San Juan (Argentina)
Strongman Campagnolo Wilier (Colombian)
Tour de San Luis: Recent winners
2015 Daniel Diaz (Arg) Carrefour Funvic Soul Cycling Team
2014 Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar
2013 Daniel Diaz (Arg) San Luis Somos Todos
2012 Levi Leipheimer (USA) Omega Pharma-Quick Step
2011 Marco Arriagada (Chi) Chile National Team
2010 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas-Doimo
2009 Alfredo Lucero (Arg) Argentina
2008 Martin Garrido (Arg) Palmeiras Resort-Tavira
2007 Jorge Giacinti (Arg) Lider Presto Chile
Tour de San Luis: Last year’s top 10 (2015)
1. Daniel Diaz (Arg) Carrefour Funvic Soul Cycling Team in 24-03-16
2. Rodolfo Torres (Col) Colombia at 1-05
3. Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar at 1-34
4. Eduardo Sepulveda (Arg) Bretagne-Seche Environnement at 2-02
5. Rodrigo Contreras (Col) Seleccion de Colombia at 3-16
6. Daniel Moreno (Esp) Katusha at 3-26
7. Joe Dombrowski (USA) Cannondale-Garmin at 5-29
8. Daniel Jaramillo (Col) Jamis-Hagens Berman at 5-35
9. Leandro Messineo (Arg) San Luis Somos Todos at 5-39
10. Ilnur Zakarin (Rus) Katusha