View from the commentary box: Eurosport’s Rob Hatch looks ahead to Vuelta a San Juan

Here we are again. Professional cyclists’ annual attempt at running, mountain biking, trekking and cross-country skiing, is over.

The pre-season training camps have been held, while for the media, team staff and everyone else who plays a role in the travelling circus, our own window for bike riding has closed.

It’s the start of the new season.

The Grand Tours seem a long way off, and the Classics aren’t quite yet around the corner, but the build up to both is underway, with new names, different team kit and winter gossip to catch up on.

My first live appointment of 2019 will be the Vuelta a San Juan, beginning on Sunday evening (27th January) and broadcast on Eurosport. 

Six teams from the UCI World Tour head for Argentina, some of the best from the second division will also be making the trip from European winter to South American summer, while domestic squads will have their opportunity to take on a field that improves year upon year. 

Peter Sagan will look to build on an early win at the Tour Down Under, taking on the three probable sprint stages around the San Juan province.

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The former three-time world champion’s Bora-Hansgrohe squad will have another star option in Sam Bennett.

The Irishman who excelled at last year’s Giro d’Italia has made no secret of his disappointment at learning he is unlikely to ride this year’s Tours of Italy or France, and won’t be short of motivation. 

Local sprint attention will be on Max Richeze, who has won stages at this race previously, and his Colombian teammate at Deceuninck-QuickStep, Álvaro Hodeg. Fernando Gaviria is no longer part of Patrick Lefevere’s Belgian super team and will head up UAE-Emirates’ challenge.

The headline sprint name however, is Mark Cavendish. Over 130 career wins to his name so far, 30 of them coming at the Tour de France, with a chance to add to that number this year, provided the Epstein-Barr virus that ruined his 2018, doesn’t get in the way.

In addition to the fast finishes, there’s a short time trial that will favour those with pure power, a chance for the puncheurs, a possible breakaway day and a summit finish at Alto Colorado, which should decide who takes the General Classification.

All involved will want to avoid a repeat of last year’s asterisked win, when winner Gonzalo Najarreturned a positive test for CERA and was subsequently banned for four years.

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That left Spanish veteran Óscar Sevilla as the winner in the record books.

Having mentioned Najar’s sanction, it’s worth nothing that Sevilla was one of the riders identified in the 2006 Operación Puerto investigation into blood doping.

Attempting to take a first overall title of the 2019 season will be names as illustrious as two-time Grand Tour winner, Nairo Quintana, his teammate and Giro d’Italia revelation Richard Carapaz and last year’s Tour de France polkadot jersey victor, Julian Alaphilippe.

Lotto-Soudal star, Tiesj Benoot, was superb at this race last season, and again begins his season in the west of Argentina.

There’s always optimism in strong supply at the beginning of a new year, and the early good news story of this season comes 12 months after a horrific training accident saw Petr Vakoč ruled out for the entirety of 2018.

The former Czech champion, Brabantse Pijl king & Tour of Britain stage winner will pin a race number on his back for the first time since October 2017. I’m sure you’ll all join me in wishing him a happy return to work.

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Some of the attention on Vakoč’s Deceuninck-QuickStep team will also fall on 18-year-old Remco Evenepoel.

An immense talent who Eddy Merckx has said could ‘end up being better’ than he was, the youngster was set to be a professional footballer, but last year won national, European and world titles in both time-trialling and road racing.

A young Fleming with the potential to be one of the greatest? No pressure, then, Remco.

I’ll leave you to look forward to our first live televised race of the season with a reminder to keep an eye on a family relationship on the road.

Tommaso Bramati will be riding for Biesse-Carrera, but won’t want to make many mistakes – his father Davide, a former pro and current Deceuninck-QuickStep sports director, will be watching on closely from the team car.

Magnus Bäckstedt will join me for stage one, with Matt Stephens summarising for the remainder of the week. It all begins at 9.30pm on Sunday. We look forward to your company!

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