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Euro Racing this Weekend: White Roads and a Race to the Sun

There’s plenty of racing action across Europe this week, with the Vuelta a Murcia in Spain and the Driedaagse West-Vlaanderen in Belgium, both continuing through Sunday in Spain and Belgium, respectively. In Spain, Michael Matthews (Rabobank) kicked to his first European pro victory Friday while Jesse Sergent (RadioShack) also won…

There’s plenty of racing action across Europe this week, with the Vuelta a Murcia in Spain and the Driedaagse West-Vlaanderen in Belgium, both continuing through Sunday in Spain and Belgium, respectively.

In Spain, Michael Matthews (Rabobank) kicked to his first European pro victory Friday while Jesse Sergent (RadioShack) also won his first pro race as part of a RadioShack sweep in Driedaagse West-Vlaanderen.

All eyes will turn to Italy on Saturday for the ever more popular Montepaschi race over the gravel roads of Tuscany and then to France for the opening of the season’s first major stage race at Paris-Nice.

5th Monte Paschi Strade Bianche (Ita, 1.1)

March 5 – Tuscany, Italy

Only born in 2007, this recent arrival has quickly grown into a favorite among the peloton and fans alike. Held over the narrow roads in the heart of Tuscany’s wine country, the race’s calling card are the famous white gravel roads called strade bianche.

This year’s 190km route features eight sectors of the loose gravel roads, the longest of which is 13.5km, for a total of nearly 60km.

In terms of scenery and history, the race is hard to beat. The course starts in Gaiole in Chianti and ends in Siena’s famous Piazza del Campo.

There’s plenty of drama in between as winning the race has quickly grown in prestige among the peloton. Alexander Kolobnev won the inaugural event in 2007, followed by ex-CSC teammate Fabian Cancellara in 2008 and Thomas Lovkvist in 2009. Last year, Maxim Iglinksy gave Astana a big win out of a six-man group that included Ryder Hesjedal.

Most of the big guns are back to be part of 14 teams invited to the event, but Astana was not among the invited teams. Other big names include Cancellara and Andy Schleck (Leopard Trek), world champ Cadel Evans and George Hincapie (BMC), Mark Cavendish and Craig Lewis (HTC-Highroad), Philippe Gilbert (Omega-Lotto), Tyler Farrar and Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Cervélo), Damiano Cunego (Lampre) and Team Type 1 with Rubens Bertaglioti and Jure Kocjan.

On the Web: www.gazzetta.it

69th Paris-Nice (FRA, HIS)

March 6-13 – France

The annual “Race to the Sun” is France’s most important stage race behind the Tour de France and arguably Europe’s most prestigious stage race after the grand tours.

With its long history and prestigious palmares, Paris-Nice is Europe’s first “real” stage race of the season and usually draws a top field of big names gunning for bragging rights.

It certainly is among Europe’s most glamorous of races, starting near Paris in an eight-day march that ends on the Promenade des Anglais along Nice’s glittering Cote d’Azur.

In between is a mix of rolling stages well-suited for sprinters and breakaway artists, with a healthy dose of mountains that aren’t too hard so early in the season or so demanding that the race is all but decided in one lethal attack.

Instead, the race often comes down to seconds, sometimes won in the opening prologue, and it’s rarely decided until the remnants of the pack roar down the Col d’Eze towering above France’s spectacular Mediterranean Coast and blast into Nice.

Like they’ve done at this year’s Tour de France, ASO has ditched the opening prologue in favor of a road stage, meaning that the 27km TT in stage 6 will likely crown the overall winner.

There’s no shortage of contenders. Ryder Hesjedal will fly in after racing Montepaschi on Saturday to race Paris-Nice for the first and will lead Garmin-Cervélo in the GC. Defending champion Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Sungard) is racing this weekend in Spain, so race organizers have given the No. 1 start bib to Luís León Sánchez (Rabobank), winner in 2009.

Tony Martin leads a strong HTC-Highroad team that also includes Tejay Van Garderen and Danny Pate. Former winner Alexander Vinokourov leads Astana in what he says will be his final edition of Paris-Nice. Bradley Wiggins and Simon Gerrans lead a strong Team Sky squad while Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden join recent Volta ao Algarve champion Mikel Irizar for RadioShack.

Brent Bookwalter will lead BMC while Peter Sagan at Liquigas-Cannondale, the recent winner of the Giro di Sardegna, will be looking to improve on his two-stage haul from last year.

On the Web: www.letour.fr

Stages

Stage 1 – Sunday, March 6: Houdan, 154.5km
Stage 2 – Monday, March 7: Montfort l’Amaury-Amilly, 198.5km
Stage 3 – Tuesday, March 8: 8 Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire – Nuits-Saint-Georges, 202.50 km
Stage 4 – Wednesday, March 9: Crêches-sur-Saône – Belleville, 191.00 km
Stage 5 – Thursday, March 10: Saint-Symphorien-sur-Coise – Vernoux-en-Vivarais, 194.00 km
Stage 6 – Friday, March 11: Rognes – Aix-en-Provence ITT, 27.00 km
Stage 7 – Saturday, March 12: Brignoles – Biot – Sophia Antipolis, 215.50 km
Stage 8 – Sunday, March 13: Nice-Nice, 124km