SAN LUIS, Argentina (VN) — Argentina gave a warm welcome to the stars of cycling on Saturday ahead of Monday’s start of the Tour de San Luis.
Around 100 local press and 20 international journalists attended the press conference with Mark Cavendish and Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Peter Sagan (Cannondale), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Joaquím Rodríguez (Katusha) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar). About the same number of fans stood in the Hotel Vista’s lobby or peered in the windows to see the six.
The turnout failed to compare to the attention surrounding the WorldTour-level Tour Down Under, which is scheduled to kick off on Tuesday. Funding and fan support put the Australian race on another level.
But San Luis can boast a veritable constellation of stars — Sagan won the most races last season, Rodríguez topped the WorldTour rankings, Nibali won the Giro d’Italia, and Cavendish kept winning the sprints.
“In this period of the year, in January, it’s the best race for European riders with ambitions in the classics,” Boonen said.
“It has it all: a few mountain finishes, long stages, a time trial. Also you only have a four-hour time difference coming here. It doesn’t destroy you for a week coming here and back. Those things, plus the weather.”
Tour winner Chris Froome (Sky) has never raced San Luis. He’ll start his season next month in the Tour of Oman next month.
But Nibali won here in 2010 and then went on to help Ivan Basso win the Giro d’Italia while placing third. Last year, the Argentinian race kick-started Nibali’s season, in which he won his Giro title.
“Also this year, it’s an important start for team Astana with our aims in Europe,” Nibali said. “This is very important for the season and the Tour de France.”
The race started in 2007 after the former governor of the San Luis province, Alberto Rodríguez Saá, saw the 2006 Tour de France while on business in Paris.
It was mostly locals who raced and won the first editions. Nibali took the 2010 title, while Levi Leipheimer won in 2012. Last year, even with nearly a dozen first-division teams in attendance, Argentinean Daniel Diaz topped Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) by 33 seconds.
This year, the provincial government welcomes 12 of the 18 WorldTour teams. It pays the teams to come, but the riders need little persuasion, as the warm weather is good for getting in some early season racing kilometers.
“Word of mouth helps this race grow,” race director Andrés David Martínez told VeloNews. “A few champions began coming, like Nibali, Sagan and [Alberto] Contador, and we built off of that.”
With the press conference finished, the riders quickly kitted up to train. Boonen and Cavendish’s Omega Pharma team left first, followed by Sagan and Cannondale. Quintana spoke with fans in the lobby and left later.
The race starts Monday with a 164km stage to Villa Mercedes. On Tuesday, it climbs to its first of three summit finishes, Mirador del Potrero. The forecast at the moment is for temps in the mid-30s (95°F), though the first stages may see some clouds and rain.