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By Andrew Hood
After an exciting opening weekend of the classics season – with Thor Hushovd and Tom Boonen taking a pair of victories in Belgium – the hammerheads have plenty on their plates this week.
The top draw for the first week of March is Monte Paschi Eroica in Italy, already considered a major event despite only its third year on the calendar.
Spanish stage racing continues in the sunny south with the Vuelta a Murcia, where Denis Menchov (Rabobank) is the top name joining mostly Spanish riders in the five-day race.
Many of the top names return to action this weekend with Paris-Nice, the first race on the new historical calendar. The Race to the Sun, which starts Sunday with a 9.3km time trial in Amilly, will be featured in next week’s column.
Wednesday, March 4
40th Le Samyn (Bel, 1.1)
Defending champion Philippe Gilbert will headline his new Silence-Lotto team for the Belgian midweek, semi-classic. The 199km course from Frameries to Dour often comes down to a mass sprint, with such riders as Robbie McEwen and the recently retired Magnus Backstedt as recent winners. The race is named after local pro and winner of the inaugural edition in 1968, José Samyn, who died in a crash the following year.
30th Giro di Friuli (Ita, 1.1)
This midweek Italian one-day race gives the Italians something to shoot for ahead of this weekend’s main highlight, the Monte Paschi Eroica, on Saturday. With a hilly course northeast of Venice, it’s back on the schedule after a four-year hiatus. Top names include Ivan Basso (Liquigas) and Davide Rebellin (Diquigiovanni) while world champion Alessandro Ballan (Lampre) is hoping to earn his first win of the 2009 season before questions about the rainbow jersey curse start to appear.
Wednesday to Sunday, March 4-8
24th Vuelta a Murcia (Spa, 2.1)
The five-day Spanish race along the Med coast is Alejandro Valverde country. The local hero won last year’s edition, but he’s not defending his title, a decision made before his recent dip into Italian hot water as his alleged links to the Puerto doping scandal heated up again.
The race is drawing a top field, with GC favorites like Denis Menchov (Rabobank), Igor Anton (Euskaltel) and Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo) warming up their season on some decent climbing sprinkled through five stages.
Time trial specialists Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank), Bert Grabsch (Columbia-Highroad) and Garmin-Slipstream’s Dave Zabriskie (who appears on a preliminary start list but might not start due to the recent burglary of his Utah home) will face off in a rolling, 16km test against the clock in stage 3 at San Pedro del Pinatar.
Watch Stefano Garzelli (Acqua e Sapone) to make a run for the overall. The veteran Italian was third in the GP Almería on Sunday and seems keen to prove he’s still a factor ahead of this year’s Giro d’Italia.
Friday to Sunday, March 6-8
Three Days of West Flanders (Bel, 2.1)
Officially called the Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen/Johan Museeuw Classics, we’ll call it the Three Days of West Flanders until that shipment of Stella Artois shows up.
The three-day pedal fest across the cobbles of western Belgium is the cycling-crazed nation’s first stage race of the year and provides a good tip on who’s on form ahead of the spring classics.
Former winners include Erik Dekker, Jaan Kirsipuu, Quick Step DS Wilfried Peters and Jimmy Casper, so big, strong sprinters have a good chance of taking the flowers. Several big names are missing, but defending champion Bobbie Traksel will lead the Vacansoleil team and Tony Cruz will lead the troops for BMC.
Saturday, March 7
3rd Monte Paschi Eroica (Ita, 1.1)
The week’s big race, the 190km course tackles the already-famous “strade bianche” – or white roads – as the peloton hammers across the heart of Tuscany.
Held over dusty gravel roads split into seven sectors called “sterrati,” the Monte Paschi Eroica is already considered a major event despite only its third year on the calendar.
Monte Paschi Eroica (named after a regional bank while eroica means heroic in Italian) starts in Gaiole in Chianti and ends in Siena. The fight in between so far has come down to hammerheads, with Fabian Cancellara beating back reigning world champion Alessandro Ballan in 2008.
Coming through third was German wünderkind Linus Gerdemann, who later broke his leg in a crash at Tirreno-Adriatico, which Cancellara also won. Martijn Maaskant’s fourth place foreshadowed his impressive debut a few weeks later at Paris-Roubaix.
Curiously, Cancellara is penciled in to start the Vuelta a Murcía instead of defending his title while 2007 winner Alexandr Kolobnov isn’t starting either, leaving it up to likes of Stuart O’Grady, Kurt-Asle Arvesen or Matti Breschel to keep Saxo Bank’s two-year winning streak intact.
There will be plenty of contenders, including Mark Cavendish and George Hincapie (Columbia-Highroad), the ambitious Filippo Pozzato (Katusha), Ballan and Daniele Bennati (Liquigas).
Maaskant leads a strong Garmin-Slipstream squad also featuring Ryder Hesjedal (10th last year), Tyler Farrar, Svein Tuft, Will Frischkorn and Mike Friedman.
The event carries extra heft because it’s organized by RCS Sport, the same company that manages Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-San Remo, the Giro di Lombardia and Giro d’Italia.