Madrid – Tour de France winner Chris Froome will race against Alberto Contador for the first time this season when the seven-stage Tour of Catalonia gets under way on Monday.
Both men have been in fine early season form as Froome eased to victory in the Tour of Oman, whilst Contador won the Tirreno-Adriatico 'Race of the Two Seas' last week.
Froome had been due to compete in Italy as well, but was forced to pull out due to a back problem. However, the Briton insists his absence was merely a precaution with bigger targets to come later in the year.
“It's definitely been disappointing to miss out on Tirreno. It was an important race for me and offered me a good opportunity to build on the form I had at the Tour of Oman,” he told TeamSky.com.
“With my back problem though, we felt it was a better idea to play it safe and look at the bigger picture, which is making sure I'm ready for the Tour de France in July. We've erred on the side of caution in that respect.
“I'm training hard for that right now and looking forward to competing again. It's a very testing race and they've put some pretty hard stages in there with some tough summit finishes. It's going to be a good test for everyone, and with it being a World Tour race, we've got a really strong squad going there.
“I've ridden Catalunya twice before at Team Sky and really enjoyed it. It's hard to find races that go high up into the mountains at this time of year, but Catalunya always provides that and it attracts the best general classification riders as a result.”
Froome will not though be supported by teammate Bradley Wiggins in northern Spain as he has instead decided to embark on a climb-specific training block ahead of the Paris-Roubaix one-day race and the Tour of California.
Contador's start to 2014, meanwhile, has been particularly encouraging for his Saxo-Tinkoff team after a disappointing season last year as he finished a distant fourth to Froome at the Tour de France.
However, the team's sports director Phillippe Mauduit is wary of putting too much pressure on the Spaniard so early in the season.
“Alberto came to Tirreno in great shape,” he said.
“Now he will get some rest and then he'll race again in Catalunya, but we don't want to put too much pressure on him and we will also focus on big goals later in the season. Of course, if he's good and doesn't have to strain himself too much, a rider like Alberto is always among the favourites in a mountainous stage race.”
Froome and Contador aren't the only big names riding in Catalonia as the second and third-placed finishers in last year's Tour de France, Nairo Quintana and Joaquim Rodriguez line up for Movistar and Katusha respectively. – Sapa-AFP