By Andrew Hood
After a relative lull in mid-March, with the European racing schedule dominated by two big races (Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico) and the first classic of the season with Milan-San Remo, the peloton is making up for lost time.
There are major races this week in Spain, Belgium and Italy and the women’s World Cup begins in Switzerland.
There’s a lot to cover, so let’s jump right in:
Monday to Friday, March 23-27
24th Vuelta a Castilla y León (Spa, 2.1)
By far the best field this race has ever seen, scores of big names are converging on this five-day race in northern Spain, most with eyes toward upcoming goals.
All eyes were on Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador, who were to race together for the first time. But following Armstrong’s crash, it was left to Contador, the two-time defending champion, to provide the show for Astana. Contador’s already hinted that he doesn’t have pressure to win again (we’ve heard that before).
Three-time Tour of California champ Levi Leipheimer is making his European season debut, bouncing back from an injury that kept him out of Paris-Nice.
Christian Vande Velde and David Zabriskie head up Garmin-Chipotle while Rock Racing brings a strong crew led by Francisco Mancebo, José Enrique Gutiérrez and Fred Rodriguez.
Other big names include Denis Menchov (Rabobank), Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) and Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre (Cervélo).
The five-stage race across the wide-open meseta and steep mountains of northern Spain serves up plenty of early season challenges for the stars looking to test their legs.
Monday’s opening stage should be for the sprinters if a break doesn’t stay clear while all eyes will be on Tuesday’s 28.2km individual time trial on a rolling course in Palencia.
Wednesday’s third stage finishes atop the Cat. 2 climb to a ski area at San Isidro. At 1,500m, the altitude will be a factor and the final few kilometers are steep.
Thursday’s fourth stage should go a long way toward crowning the victor, with one first-category climb midway through the stage before ending at the Cat. 1 Laguna de los Peces (Lake of the Fish) summit.
The final stage from Benavente to Valladolid is for the sprinters, though a short climb to the finish is ideal for puncheurs like Valverde.
Tuesday to Saturday, March 24-28
9th Settimana Ciclistica Internazionale Coppi e Bartali (Ita, 2.1)
Damiano Cunego (Lampre) and Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto), winners in 2006 and 2008, respectively, are the top names for this Italian stage race.
The hilly route favors the sprinters and puncheurs, who can blast up the short but steep climbs.
Tuesday’s split stage, with a 14.3km team time trial in the afternoon, will be key for the rest of the week.
Jason McCartney is part of the Saxo Bank lineup that includes Fabian Cancellara, who is trying to overcome a string of injuries and illness to regain fitness for the upcoming northing classics.
Michele Scarponi (Diquigiovanni), the winner in 2007, will try to use his Tirreno-winning form to secure another victory while Michael Rogers heads the Columbia-Highroad team.
Colombian climbing sensation Mauricio Soler (Barloworld) will be trying to get back on track in time for the Giro d’Italia
Wednesday, March 25
64th Dwars door Vlaanderen (Bel, 1.1)
The Northern classics season begins in earnest with this mid-week semi-classic. The 200km route from Roeselare to Waregem winds over circuits and includes 12 helling or climbs, including the Oude Kwaremount and several sections of cobbles to serve up as a nice appetizer for bigger things to come in the coming weeks.
Sylvain Chavanel took the flowers last year and is back to defend his title with a loaded Quick Step team that also includes 2007 champ Tom Boonen and Stijn Devolder.
Greg Van Avermaet (Silence-Lotto) and Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) will each be looking for a big win against a strong field. Roger Hammond, twice on the podium, will lead a motivated Cervélo TestTeam.
Saturday-Sunday, March 28-29
78th Critérium International(Fra, 2.HC)
Dubbed a Tour de France in a miniature, the three-stage, two-day race in northern France includes the three elements of a grand tour: a sprint-friendly stage, an individual time trial and a mountain stage.
Some of the bigger names in cycling have won the race, including recently retired and two-time winner Bobby Julich, who is the only American to win. Jens Voigt has dominated the race, with the marauding German winning four times in the past 10 years. Voigt will be looking to break the record he holds with Jacques Anquetil as the race’s only four-time winners.
This year’s format is interesting, with a longer road stage on Saturday with an 190km route from Monthois to Charleville-Mézières. Sunday’s split stage features a hilly, 98.5km stage from Les Vieilles Forges to Monthermé, featuring eight climbs across France’s Ardennes country before the uphill finish.
Suspense will be held to the last rider in the afternoon individual time trial, held on a mostly flat, slightly technical 8.3km course in Charleville-Mézières.
Saturday, March 28
52nd E3-Prijs Vlaanderen (Bel, 1.HC)
Tom Boonen (Quick Step) has owned the race, simply called Harelbeke, winning four consecutive times from 2004-07. You can imagine after his cramps derailed his chances in Milan-San Remo, Boonen will come out all guns a blazing.
George Hincapie, who expertly led out Mark Cavendish in Milan-San Remo, will return to the spotlight for Columbia-Highroad as he amps up his run for the northern classics. Cervélo, Katusha and Rabobank are bringing their A-teams to challenge the Belgians with last year’s winner, Kurt-Asle Arvesen, leading Saxo Bank.
Sunday, March 29
49th Brabantse Pijl (Bel, 1.1)
Sylvain Chavanel won last year as part of a great week that also included a win at Dwars door Vlaanderen. Oscar Freire, still recovering from injuries suffered during a fall at the Tour of California, won three straight editions previous to that.
Some of the bigger names skip this race after the more punishing and prestigious Harelbeke the previous day. The 191.5km course from Leuven to Alsemberg favors the sprinters, but a mass gallop is no guarantee.
60th GP Llodio (Spa, 1.1)
This Iberian-heavy race draws mainly Spanish and Portuguese team, with Rock Racing on the start list as part of their European swing. Held up in Spain’s hilly Basque Country, weather can be a major factor, but the forecast looks good for the entire week in Spain. A tight finishing circuit features two third-category climbs, ideal for the featherweight Spanish attacks to go full gas.
33rd Trofeo Binda Cittiglio
And if that were not enough to satiate your cycling fix, the women’s World Cup clicks into gear this weekend with the opening event of the 10-race series near Varese, Italy.
Some 24 teams will line up for the hilly course featuring five climbs over a challenging circuit. Last year, Emma Pooley, now riding with Cervélo TestTeam, rode away with victory. Two-time winner and double world-Olympic champion Nicole Cooke is always one of the favorites.
The teams lining up include national teams from the United States, Germany, France, Hungary, Slovenia and Belgium alongside professional teams Columbia-Highroad, Nürnberger, Selle Italia Ghezzi, Team Flexpoint, Safi Pasta Zara Titanedi, Cervélo TestTeam, Bigla, Gauss Rdz Ormu-Colnago, Red Sun Cycling Team, Vision 1 Racing, Lotto Belisol Ladiesteam, Usc Chirio Forno D’Asolo, Team Uniqa-Elk, Team Cmax Dilà, Fenixs, SC Michela Fanini Record Rox and Top Girl Fassa Bortolo Raxy Line.