This is one of the busiest weeks of racing of the year, with enough major events across Europe to keep even the most ardent cycling junkie well-fixed.
Changes in the international racing calendar play out this week, with the Volta Cyclista a Catalunya and Ghent-Wevelgem both slotting into their new – and conflicting – spots on the schedule. So much so, that teams have had to make choices on which events they can and must attend.
Riccardo Riccò (Flaminia) makes his much-maligned comeback while Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong are expected to face off at Critérium International this weekend on Corsica. The northern classics season clicks into gear in Belgium while stage racing begins in Spain and Italy.
90th Volta Ciclista a Catalunya (Spa, PT)
March 22-38 – Spain
The oldest stage race in Spain has a new date on the calendar, moving from May to March and filling the dates of the now-defunct Setmana Catalana.
With the new dates comes a new type of race. With spring snows still choking the high mountain roads in the Catalan Pyrenees, the race won’t see the major climbs that were typical for the race. That means that time bonuses, breakaways and the opening time trial will prove decisive in who claims the overall.
A top field will duke it out, including 2008 Tour champ Carlos Sastre (Cervélo), making his first race appearance since last year’s Tour de France, nearly nine months ago.
Saxo Bank will have two pairs of brothers, with the Schlecks and Haedos lining up, while Bradley Wiggins (Sky), Ivan Basso (Liquigas) and Denis Menchov (Rabobank) are headlining GC riders in the mix.
There’s a strong North American contingent, most of them based in nearby Girona. Levi Leipheimer, Bjorn Selander and Jason McCartney line up for RadioShack, with Craig Lewis and Tejay Van Garderen for HTC-Columbia. Garmin-Transitions brings many of its grand-tour hitters, with Ryder Hesjedal, Dave Zabriskie and Christian Vande Velde joining Svein Tuft, Steven Cozza and Tom Peterson.
Following a hard-fought victory at Paris-Nice, defending Tour champ Alberto Contador (Astana) has juggled his schedule, opting to race the less demanding, two-day Critérium International this weekend rather than push it too hard so early in the season.
Without Contador’s dominance, riders such as Luís León Sánchez (Caisse d’Epargne), local rider Joaquin Rodríguez (Katusha) and Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas) could be ready to step into to fill the void.
The race opens with a 3.6km prologue along the Med at Lloret de Mar, ideal for the specialists and strong sprinters who can hold the distance. The second stage to Banyoles features a sharp, first-category climb in the opening 60km, but there’s plenty of road to reel in attackers to set up a sprint.
Attackers and breakaway artists will have plenty of chances early in the race. Three second-category climbs in the third stage to La Seu d’Urgell, with a technical descent toward the finish line, will provide a stiff challenge to control dangerous breakaways. Two second-category climbs and a hilltop finish to Ascó in stage four and an equally bumpy route in stage five will also prove difficult to control. Stage six into Barcelona tackles a hilly circuit, but could serve gritty sprinters who can get up shorter climbs. The final-day stage should provide a final chance for the sprinters.
Settimana Ciclista Internazionale (Ita, 2.1)
March 23-27 – Italy
The week’s other stage-race offering, the five-day, six-stage race gives the Italian teams a chance to keep racing on home ground following what’s always a very busy March in Italy.
With such a busy week, Liquigas and Lampre are the only ProTour teams able to compete in the race.
One name to watch will be Riccardo Riccò (Flaminia), racing for the first time since his controversial ban for testing positive for CERA during the 2008 Tour de France.
65th Dwars door Vlaanderen (Bel, 1.1)
March 24 – Belgium
The traditional opener of “Flanders week,” the one-day semi-classic offers all the best of Belgian racing: wind, cobblestones, drunken fans and the sweet stench of cow manure. Up-and-comers often win here, striking early success before fighting for a spot among the elite.
79th Critérium International (Fra, 2.HC)
March 27-29 – Corsica, France
The big news this weekend will be the faceoff between Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador on the Mediterranean island of Corsica.
Some fans are sick of talking about these two riders, while others just can’t seem to get enough. Either way, Contador and Armstrong will race together for the first time since standing on the podium in Paris last July.
Contador has been on a tear, winning his first two races at Algarve and Paris-Nice, while Armstrong is easing into the season. His top-10 showing at Murcia earlier this month has some tongues wagging that he won’t be ready for a serious run at Tour victory, but Armstrong has proven time and again that July is the only month that he’s worried about.
Critérium International is often called the “mini Tour de France,” so the arrival of these two seems even more appropriate.
The other big news is that the race has moved from northern France to Corsica, the only part of France that’s never hosted the Tour. The arrival of Critérium International this year is seen as a way to ease the way for a likely Tour departure in the coming years.
Changes in the 2010 racing calendar mean that Jens Voigt will not have a chance to make history at Critérium International title later this month. The German veteran has won the two-day race five times, tying a record held by Emile Idée and Raymond Poulidor, but the 38-year-old won’t be going back this year — with Ghent-Wevelgem and Volta a Catalunya coinciding with the two-day race window of Critérium International on March 26-27, Voigt’s Saxo Bank squad is stretched too thin to send a minimum of six riders to the French race.
“Can’t I just start alone? I don’t need a team. All I need is a mechanic and a car!” Voigt told VeloNews. “I can take the jersey on the first day, then I can just hide in the bunch, then you do a time trial. You don’t need anybody else.”
In Voigt’s absence, there will be plenty of candidates for overall victory in a challenging format.
The route opens Saturday with a mountaintop finish that’s ideal for Contador. Sunday’s morning road stage precedes a mostly flat, 7.7km time trial in Porto Vecchio.
53rd E3 Prijs Vlaanderen (Bel, 1.HC)
March 27 – Harelbeke, Belgium
One of the traditional semi-classics to warm things up before the true northern classics, the 210km course is seen as a tip on who’s on form to win the Tour of Flanders the next weekend.
The first half of the course is mostly flat before tackling many of the same climbs that the pack will see at Flanders. Twelve hard climbs in the half of the race usually make for a small group rallying in for the final kilometers.
Rik Van Looy holds a record four victories, a mark tied by Tom Boonen in 2007. Fresh off his second place in Milan-San Remo, Boonen will be back to try to win his fifth and set a new standard. Defending champion Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) returns against a top-notch field.
72nd Ghent-Wevelgem (Bel, PT)
March 28 – Ghent, Belgium
Considered by some a sprinter’s course long sandwiched between Flanders and Roubaix, Ghent-Wevelgem gets slotted into a higher-profile position on the calendar, now a week ahead of Flanders.
Race organizers wanted the new date to make the race a centerpiece of the northern classics and try to nudge it up in prestige. While Ghent-Wevelgem will never be on the same level as Flanders or Roubaix, riders who often skipped the race on its mid-week date will now be more likely to start.
The route has been toughened up, with 16 climbs, including a double passage up the Mont des Cats en Mont Noir. The distance isn’t quite “classics” length, but at 219km, Ghent is definitely moving up on the food chain this year.
Edvald Boasson Hagen, whose win last year confirmed his arrival to the world’s stage, will be back to defend his title in Sky colors. A top-flight field guarantees an exciting finale.