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GP La Marseillaise opens Euro calendar

The long winter wait is over for fans champing at the bit to see some real European bike racing.

The 2009 European calendar officially opens this weekend in France with the 26th GP La Marsellaise featuring 17 teams lining up for a 136.8km circuit on Sunday.

The loop course around Marseille in southern France tackles some local climbs, including the Col de la Gineste, hard enough to give the adventurous rider a chance to escape the clutches of the main pack. The finish won’t be at Marseille’s glamorous Vieux-Port due to local roadwork and has been moved out toward the university.

French riders are typically favored for the first race on home roads, with last year’s winner, Hervé Duclos-Lasalle (Cofidis), angling to repeat.

Other contenders include Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom), Sébastian Chavanel (FDJeux) while Belgian Philippe Gilbert (Silence-Lotto) is always a threat in the opening part of the season.

Early season French racing continues with the Etoile de Bessèges (Feb. 4-8) and the Tour Mediteranéen (Feb. 11-15).

The Italian season clicks into gear with the G.P. Costa degli Etruschi (Feb. 7) followed by the Giro della Provincia di Grosseto (Feb. 13-15) ahead of the Trofeo Laigueglia (Feb. 21).

The Spanish calendar kick starts with the Mallorca Challenge, a series of one-day races (Feb. 8-12), followed by the Ruta del Sol (Feb. 15-19) while Portugal gets things rolling with the Volta ao Algarve (Feb. 18-22).

Countries further north in Europe start racing later, with Switzerland beginning racing with Gran Premio dell’Insubria (Feb. 28) and Belgium with the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (Feb. 28).

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