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Euro racing this week: Belgian classics season opens

The European racing calendar gets busier with each passing week and this weekend sees the opening of the Belgian racing season with two important semi-classics that will see the top guns sharpening their form with the northern classics just around the corner.

Sky Highs and Sky Lows: Flecha wins Omloop
Sky's Flecha wins the 2010 Omloop

Racing continues in Spain with Thursday’s conclusion of the Ruta del Sol, where cancer survivor Markel Irizar (RadioShack) is holding a slender, one-second lead with just one stage to go.

The Tour of Sardinia opened Tuesday with Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) taking a sprint victory and Damiano Cunego (Lampre) grabbing the flowers in Wednesday’s stage. The race concludes Saturday.

Here’s a look at what’s on tap over the course of a very busy European weekend:

66th Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (1.HC)

February 26 – Belgium

Related: Preliminary startlist Past winners

It’s still Het Volk to a lot of people, but the traditional Belgian opener at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad gives the Belgian fans a chance to cheer on their heroes after a long winter of watching cyclocross.

This year’s 204km route starts and concludes in Ghent, a bustling college town right in the heart of Flanders country. Garmin-Cervélo’s Tyler Farrar lives in an apartment in downtown Ghent and knows the local roads well.

The route tackles many of the cobblestones and bergs featured in the Tour of Flanders, including a triple passage over a new sector at Haaghoek. Nine climbs and nine cobble sections are featured in this year’s parcours, enough to make for a grueling day of early season racing.

Winds and foul weather are always factors in late February and sometimes snow has forced the cancellation of the race. Forecasters are calling for partly cloudy skies, with temperatures around 50F and light westerly winds.

Belgians have naturally dominated the race. In fact, only six other nations have produced winners, with Juan Antonio Flecha (Team Sky) taking an emotional victory after some close calls for the hard-core classics specialist.

There are plenty of big guns lining up in Ghent, including Flecha, world champion Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo), Stijn Devolder (Vacansoleil), Tom Boonen (Quick Step), Filippo Pozzato (Katusha), Lars Boom (Rabobank) and two-time winner Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto).

A women’s race will be held on a similar course ahead of the men’s event.

One the web: www.omloophetnieuwsblad.be

3rd GP dell’Insurbia (1.1)

February 26 – Switzerland

A recent edition to the European calendar, the 190km route rips over the challenging countryside around Lugano in Switzerland’s Ticino region.

Francesco Gianni (Androni) won the inaugural edition in 2009 while Sam Dumoulin (Cofidis) won last year. Both will be back in a field highlighted by Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale). Team Type 1 also lines up.

One the web: www.3vallivaresine.com/insubria

26th Clásica de Almería (1.1)

February 27 – Spain

Dating back to the mid-1980s, the one-day race typically comes down to a bunch sprint. Theo Bos won last year with Cervélo and JJ Haedo (Saxo Bank) won in 2008. Bos will be back with Rabobank and the Schleck brothers are headed there after wrapping up the Ruta del Sol on Thursday. United Healthcare also brings a squad for the 179km course.

One the web: www.domifoto.com/clasicadealmeria

64th Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne (1.1)

February 27 – Belgium

Related: Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne startlist | Past winners

KBK complements Het Nieuwsblad and typically ends in a bunch gallop in the more sprint-friendly route.

The start list is almost identical to Het Nieuwsblat, with some extra sprinters thrown into the mix who might have skipped racing Saturday to be fresher for Sunday’s battle. Tyler Farrar will lead Garmin-Cervélo while André Greipel gets a nod with Omega Pharma-Lotto in a route that’s ideal for the fastest in the bunch.

Quick Step has owned the race, winning four in a row until Bobbie Traksel (Vacansoleil) ended the streak last year. George Hincapie won in 2005 in what’s one of his most important Belgian results.

Forecasters are also calling for some nasty weather, with a chance of rain and strong winds up to 30kph out of the south.

One the web: www.kuurne-brussel-kuurne.be

65th GP di Lugano (1.1)

February 27 – Switzerland

The second half of the Lugano weekend, the GP di Lugano used to be a time trial race, but switched over to become a road race in 1981. Roberto Ferrari won last year’s edition on a circuit course that features some challenging hills around the lakes. Team Type 1 also lines up for this one.

One the web: www.veloclublugano.ch

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