37th Volta ao Algarve (2.1)
Feb. 16-20 – Portugal
The presence of Alberto Contador at the start line for the first time since last year’s Tour de France overshadowed the first stage of the five-day Volta ao Algarve. Contador didn’t waste any time following the surprise decision by the Spanish cycling federation to clear him and rushed to Portugal via a plane and four-hour taxi ride to make his season debut less than 24 hours after hearing the news.
Contador is the two-time defending champion of this hilly five-day course along Portugal’s picturesque Algarve coast and starts with the No. 1 bib, but he admits he won’t have the legs to try to for the win. Contador will be more than happy to be pack-fill after all he’s been through the past six months.
Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) put down a trademark attack on a late-stage hill to leave the sprinters choking on his dust to claim his first victory in 2011 in Wednesday’s opener. The sprinters will have their chances tomorrow and Saturday, while Friday’s second-category climb up Malhao and Sunday’s 17.2km individual time trial at Portimão will crown the winner.
André Greipel will be under pressure to score his first victory in an Omega Pharma-Lotto jersey. This time last year, Greipel had already won six races.
Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Columbia) is back to the Algarve, where he notched a top-10 last year to kick start his breakout 2010 season. Tyler Farrar leads Garmin-Cervélo and he’ll be looking to add to his early-season haul that already includes two wins taken last week at Mallorca.
RadioShack lines up with pre-race favorite Tiago Machado while Michael Barry (Team Sky) makes his second start of the year after competing in the Tour Mediterranéen last week. United Healthcare also makes a start as part of its expanded European racing calendar this season.
On the web: www.voltaalgarve.com
43rd Tour du Haut Var (2.1)
February 19-20, France
This two-day affair in the hills around Draguingnan will keep French riders busy in what’s the third major race on the French calendar in February.
Defending champion Christope Le Mevel will be back with his new Garmin-Cervélo jersey. Andrew Talansky, hot off his impressive fourth-place up Mont Faron on Sunday to conclude the Tour Mediterranéen, will also be lining up for the Garmin crew.
All the major French teams will be at the start line in La Croix Valmer on Saturday. Ritchie Porte will make his European season debut with Saxo Bank-Sungard while Team Type 1 brings a solid squad to the hilly parcours ideal for attacks and breakaways.
On the web: www.tourduhautvar.com
48th Trofeo Laigueglia (1.1)
February 19 – Italy
Ivan Basso will make his European debut at this popular stop along the Italian coast. Basso will be joined by Liquigas-Cannondale teammate Peter Sagan for the one-day battle along Italy’s sparkling Riviera coast.
Two-time defending champion Francesco Ginanni will be headlining his Androni-Giocattoli team in a quest to become the first rider to win the race on three occasions.
Two Americans are among the palmares, with Ron Keifel taking the flowers back in 1985 and Lance Armstrong, who just announced his retirement Wednesday, winning in his rookie year in 1993.
Spidertech and BMC will be among the field that’s dominated by Italian and French jerseys.
The race starts and finishes in Laigueglia, with the route hugging the same stretch of coast road featured in Milan-San Remo before turning into the hills for five rated climbs on narrow, spectacular roads before dropping back down to the Med for a final, 20km flat run to the line.
On the web: www.trofeolaigueglia.it