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Volta ao Algarve – preview

And so it begins. One hundred and 36 days before the Tour de France Grand Départ in Liege, Bradley Wiggins will start his 2012 season with the five-stage Volta ao Algarve in Portugal on February 15.

The Tour is Wiggins’ raison d’etre this year – he talks of “unfinished business” there having finished crashed in 2011 – and every outing between now and June 30 acts as a checkpoint – a gauge of fitness – before the race.

“This year I’ve got everything to look forward to. I’m going all out to try to win the Tour and that’s bloody brilliant,” wrote Wiggins in his column for the Guardian.

After a winter’s training the Volta ao Algarve will provide a good test of early-season form for the Grand Tour general classification contenders. After all, Alberto Contador topped the podium in 2009 and 2010.

The race, classified as a a 2.1 event on the UCI Europe Tour, features a selection of category three climbs, while the Queen Stage (stage three) finishes with a category two ascent to Alto do Malhão, while a 25.8km time trial on stage five will bring the race to a close.

Wiggins spent much of the winter in Majorca, where he described his pre-season preparations as “excellent” – and the 31-year-old goes into his first race eager to test his legs in a competitive environment.

“There will be extra excitement about that first race,” he wrote. “When you’ve been working hard, you want to see where you are. All the evidence suggests I’m way ahead of last year in my fitness – the numbers I’m producing, the work I’ve been doing, the tests I’ve had – and you start to think ‘I was third in the Paris-Nice with what I had last year and now I’m ahead’. You can’t help wondering what you can do.”

Wiggins isn’t the only general classification rider in Sky’s line-up, with Chris Froome, second in front of Wiggins at last year’s Vuelta a Espana, and new signing Richie Porte, seventh at the 2010 Giro d’Italia, also likely to prosper both on the climbs and against the clock.

Two-time Tour stage winner Edvald Boasson Hagen will lead the team’s attack on the flatter stages, while Thomas Löfkvist, Lars-Petter Nordhaug, Kanstantsin Siutsou and Xabier Zandio complete Sky’s eight-man line-up.

Other key names on the start list include former HTC-Highroad rider Tony Martin, who claimed the 2011 Algarve title after winning the final time trial and the German will return in 2012 with his new team, Omega Pharma-QuickStep.

Tejay van Garderen finished second behind then team-mate Martin and now spearheads BMC Racing’s squad, which also includes former Team Sky rider Steve Cummings, who won the third stage and held the overall lead until the final stage last year.

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