Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) and Lance Armstrong (RadioShack) are two of the big names lining up for the Tour of Murcia starting today (Wednesday) and finishing on Sunday (March 7).
The two Tour de France hopefuls will go head-to-head for the first time this year in the tough five-day stage race that features climbs aplenty and an individual time trial.
Although it is still early in the year, both Wiggins and Armstrong are likely to be testing their own - and each others' - form alongside other likely contenders such as 2009 winner Denis Menchov (Rabobank), Inigo Cuesta (Cervelo), Andreas Kloden (RadioShack) and David Zabriskie (Garmin-Transitions).
Wiggins ranks as one of the outright favourites to win Saturday's decisive 22km time trial in the UCI 2.1-ranked race, having placed second in the individual test against the clock in the Tour of Andalusia in February. And whoever wins the TT stands a good chance of grabbing the overall.
By comparison, Armstrong has had a quiet start to the season thus far. He started early at the Tour Down Under but has really been content to build slowly with the Tour de France in July his major target - as ever.
That said, Armstrong's RadioShack squad looks to be one of the strongest at Murcia, with seasoned Tour veterans Andreas Kloden, Jose Rubiera and Haimar Zubeldia all present and correct. All are riders that Armstrong has ridden with at various times on previous teams - Astana, US Postal and Discovery Channel. He knows them well, and he knows he can rely on them.
Wiggins' Team Sky line-up is far less experienced in comparison, and Murcia represents a good chance for the squad to gel in a stage race that may demand solid team-work. Chris Froome and John Lee Augustyn are likely to be Wiggins' biggest help in the hills. Let's not forget that Wiggins won the Jayco Herald Sun Tour at the end of the 2009 season after winning that race's time trial, but that was with Garmin and he's since switched teams.
Murcia's curious team mix
Organisers of the Tour of Murcia have refused to invite any Italian teams to the race in protest against Spaniard Alejandro Valverde's two-year ban from competing in Italy.
The irony is that Valverde himself will not be at the 2010 race as his Caisse d'Epargne team have joined other Spanish ProTour squads in boycotting the race over 'safety issues' and non-payment of appearance fees. Oh dear...
The result is that there are as many teams registered in the US as there are Spanish squads in the race (three apiece).
So... the team list consists of several strong non-Italian and non-Spanish ProTour teams alongside Professional Continental, Continental and national squads.
One of those lining up will be the British-based Team Endura outfit, continuing its baptism of fire in mainland Europe. It will be interesting to see how the likes of Rob Partridge and Ian Wilkinson fare against some of the top riders on the big stage.
Tour of Murcia 2010: Wiggins vs Armstrong
Best 2010 result so far: Second in Tour of Andalusia TT
Tour de France 2009 result: Fourth overall, 6-01 behind winner Alberto Contador
What else has he done? Won 2009 Jayco Herald Sun Tour; Olympic track cycling multi-gold medallist
How will he do in Murcia? Wiggins only has to keep up with his rivals in the mountains then blitz the final TT to win. Easy.
Bradley Wiggins: Rider Profile>>
Best 2010 result so far: Appearance fee at the Tour Down Under
Tour de France 2009 result: Third overall, 5-24 behind winner Alberto Contador
What else has he done? Won the Tour de France seven times, and a few other races along the way
How will he do in Murcia? He'll have a dig or two to test the legs, but will probably be content to let team-mate Andreas Kloden take the win to build up some brownie points ahead of the Tour de France, where Lance will need his help
Lance Armstrong: Rider Profile>>
Tour of Murcia 2010: Stages
Wednesday, March 3 - stage one: San Pedro del Pinatar-San Pedro del Pinatar, 166.5km, Report>>
Thursday, March 4 - stage two: Calasparra-Caravaca de la Cruz, 154.3km Report>>
Friday, March 5 - stage three: Las Torres de Cotillas-Alhama de Murcia, 166.5km
Saturday, March 6 - stage four: Alhama de Murcia-Alhama de Murcia, 22km ITT
Sunday, March 7 - stage five: Redyser (Murcia)-Murcia, 121.1km
Tour of Murcia 2010: Teams
Team Sky (GB)
CCC Polsat Polkowice (Pol)
Caja Rural (Spa)
Endura Racing (GB)
Spanish national under-23 team (Spa)
German national team (Ger)
Russian national team (Rus)
Tour of Murcia 2010: The Brits
Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky)
Russell Downing (Team Sky)
Chris Froome (Team Sky)
Ross Creber (Endura)
James Moss (Endura)
Evan Oliphant (Endura)
Rob Partridge (Endura)
Ian Wilkinson (Endura)
Tour of Murcia 2010: Previous winners
2009 Denis Menchov (Rabobank)
2008 Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne)
2007 Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne)
2006 Santos Gonzalez (Comunidad Valencia)
2005 Koldo Gil (Liberty Seguros)
2004 Alejandro Valverde (Kelme)
2003 Javier Pascual (Kelme)
2002 Victor Hugo Pena (US Postal)
2001 Aitor Gonzalez (Kelme)
2000 David Canada (Banesto)
Stage one: Hunter wins Murcia opener
Froome looks to Giro, Sky's first Grand Tour
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