The five-day Volta ao Algarve once again is drawing some big names as the Portuguese race bolsters its reputation as one of Europe’s top early-season stage races.

Held along the low-slung hills of Portugal’s scenic Algarve coast, the race is drawing some big names this week as riders look to hone their form ahead of the season’s first major dates in March.

Among those lining up include defending champion Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Andreas Klöden (RadioShack-Nissan-Trek), Brad Wiggins and Chris Froome (Sky), Heinrich Haussler (Garmin-Barracuda) and Tejay Van Garderen (BMC).

Van Garderen has always done well in the race, riding into the top-10 in his first European stage race as a rookie in 2010 and finishing second overall last year.

“I’d like to do well at Algarve again,” Van Garderen told last month at the BMC training camp. “I’ve always done well there and it’s a race that sets up the rest of the season well.”

Some 20 teams take the start, with 11 ProTeams among the field.

One big name missing, of course, is Alberto Contador. The Spanish rider had the race on his calendar before the Court of Arbitration for Sport handed down a two-year ban in his long-running clenbuterol case.

Contador, who returned to training this week in Spain, will sit out of competition until his ban runs out in early August. Last year, Contador rushed to start the Algarve race after the Spanish federation cleared him on the clenbuterol case, even taking a late-night taxi ride from Lisbon down to the coast to start the next morning’s stage.

The race features some challenging, early season terrain without being too hard. There will be a climbing stage up the second-category summit in stage 3, but it’s usually the race against the clock that crowns the eventual winner.

Strong time trialists such Klöden, Van Garderen, Wiggins and Martin will have the upper hand.

2012 Volta ao Algarve (Feb. 15-19)

Stage 1, February 15, Dunas Douradas to Albufeira, 151km
Stage two, February 16, Faro to Lagoa, 187.5km
Stage three, February 17, Castro Marim to Malhao, 194.6km
Stage four, February 18, Vilamoura to Tavira, 186.3km
Stage five, February 19, Lagoa to Portimao, 25.8km ITT

Teams for Algarve:

Ag2r La Mondiale, An Post-Sean Kelly, BMC,
Caja Rural, Efapel-Glassdrive, Garmin-Barracuda, La Antarte Rota dos Moveis, Lotto-Belisol, Movistar, Omega Pharma-Quick-Step, Onda-Boavista, Rabobank, RadioShack-Nissan-Trek,
Rusvelo, Saxo Bank, Team Sky, Topsport Vlaanderen, United Healthcare and Vacansoleil-DCM