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From Volta a Catalunya to Gent-Wevelgem, a look at this week’s packed pro racing calendar

The GC stars converge at Volta a Catalunya while cobblestone classics ramp up with E3 Saxo Bank Classic and Gent-Wevelgem.

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The 2021 pro road season keeps on chugging this week, with major stage races in Spain and Italy, and the northern classics hitting high gear in Belgium. Stars of the cobbled classics will be battling on the pavé at E3 Saxo Bank Classic and Gent-Wevelgem while Tour de France favorites are blitzing at Spain’s oldest stage race at the Volta a Catalunya.

Here’s your insider’s guide for the races going on for the week of Monday to Sunday, March 22-28.

100th Volta a Catalunya

Miguel Ángel López, winner of the 2019 Volta a Catalunya, is not defending his title. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

Monday to Sunday, March 22-28

What to know: The Volta, celebrating its centenary this week, is Spain’s oldest stage race. The race started in 1911, and saw disruptions during the years between World War I and Spain’s Civil War in the 1930s. It was one of the few major European races to continue during World War II, until last year, when COVID-19 forced its cancelation. This year’s edition sees an all-star cast of grand tour-bound favorites sharpening their form.

Who to watch: The shorter list is who isn’t here. The start list is as deep as it is long, from Chris Froome to Richard Carapaz and Geraint Thomas to Sepp Kuss and Steven Kruijswijk. With the exception of absences of Primož Roglič or Egan Bernal, nearly every major team brings its heavy hitters.

Peter Sagan chose to race here instead of E3 Saxo Bank Classic and Gent-Wevelgem, two races he’s won, in favor of the sharper profile this week to hone his form for the more important targets at Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Rally Cycling also brings a loaded squad in one of its first major stage races of 2021.

Our eyes will be on Froome’s ever-steady progress, Brandon McNulty’s ability to bounce from his crash at Paris-Nice, and if Kuss can finally get a chance to test his GC mettle.

The route: This week is a climber’s paradise, with hulking mountains and sharp hills in just about every stage. An individual time trial in stage 2 will set up the GC battle in back-to-back summit finales in stage 3 and 4. With barely a flat stretch of road, expect a taut, attack-riddled week of racing.

45th Oxyclean Classic Brugge-De Panne

Wednesday, March 24

What to know: Formerly Three Days of De Panne, the race converted to a one-day race in 2018, and now features both men’s and women’s races.

Who to watch: On the women’s side, the race opens up a busy few weeks of racing across Belgium and France (fingers crossed). Lorena Wiebes (Team DSM) lines up as defending champion, but riders such as Lotte Kopecky (Liv Racing) and Amy Pieters (SD Worx) have been quicker so far this season. The men’s field is packed with sprinters, with the likes of Sam Bennett, Fernando Gaviria and Pascal Ackermann elbowing for victory.

We’ll be interested in seeing if SD Worx can bounce back from its drubbing Sunday at Trofeo Alfredo Binda, and we’ll keep on eye on David Dekker, the Jumbo-Visma rookie who’s showing promise in the bunch kicks.

The route: Pancake-flat, with the ever-present chance of strong crosswinds along Belgium’s western coast.

64th E3 Saxo Bank Classic 2021

Friday, March 26

What to know: For many, this grueling, technical race is the best indicator of who will be on form for Flanders and Roubaix. The race is pocked with cobbled sectors and narrow farm roads, so positioning is often just as decisive as brute strength. The winner’s list is a who’s who of northern classics superstars.

Who to watch: Most of the hitters are racing, including Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) and Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo). Peter Sagan is racing in Catalunya (see above) while Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) cools his jets ahead of Dwars door Vlaanderen and Flanders.

We have a feeling that van Aert and van der Poel will be champing at the bit to make up for relatively flat performances at Milano-Sanremo, and will hit out often and early to forge an early selection. Can Deceuninck-Quick-Step and Trek-Segafredo have the muscle to stop these two from powering away? Get your popcorn.

The route: After being a COVID victim in 2020, the race is back with some significant tweaks. Three new climbs — Kanarieberg, the Oude Kruisberg and the Eikenberg — are included, while the Hogerlucht is out of the 203.9km course that includes 17 bergs.

83rd Gent-Wevelgem in Flanders Fields

Gent-Wevelgem always delivers a thrilling race. Photo: Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images

Sunday, March 28

What to know: A lot of people are making the argument that Strade Bianche should be considered cycling’s sixth monument. An equally strong case could be made for Gent-Wevelgem, a race that’s only become longer and more challenging over the past 15 years. Gone is the treacherous descent off the Kemmelberg, but a new course design on the men’s race sets up a more unpredictable and demanding finale. The women’s race is one of the most competitive of the year, and typically delivers a reduced bunch sprint.

Who to watch: Interestingly, the peloton’s two “vans” — Annemiek van Vleuten and Anna van der Breggen — are both skipping the race. Trek-Segafredo brings the full weight of its classics program, while SD Worx will be riding for a bunch gallop, with defending champion Jolien d’Hoore looking for her first win in 2021.

On the men’s side, defending champion Mads Pedersen leads a strong Trek-Segafredo featuring Milano-Sanremo winner Jasper Stuyven and Quinn Simmons. Mathieu van der Poel is giving it a miss, with Alpecin-Fenix riding for Jasper Philipsen and Tim Merlier. Deceuninck-Quick-Step, Lotto-Soudal, Jumbo-Visma all bring loaded squads.

The route: No longer a mid-week classic sandwiched between Flanders and Roubaix, Gent-Wevelgem now gets star billing on the marquee Sunday slot. The addition of the gravel-bound plugstreets in 2017 brings a new wrinkle to the race marked by two ascents of the decisive Kemmelberg, with the mostly flat 35km road to the finish in the men’s 233km race. The women’s race 150km also tackles the Kemmelberg before the run into the finish in what’s a tug-of-war between attackers and the sprinters. Wind is usually a decisive factor in every edition of Gent-Wevelgem.

Other races: Italy, France, and Slovenia

Despite growing threats of new waves across Europe of COVID-19, the racing calendar is full-speed ahead. There is another stage race in Italy, with one-days in France and Slovenia.

36th Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali, Tuesday to Saturday, March 23-27

Perhaps Italy’s second most important weeklong stage race behind Tirreno-Adriatico, Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali always draws a good field. Mark Cavendish will continue on his elusive hunt for a victory, while Matteo Jorgenson (Movistar) looks to keep the momentum going from his top-10 at Paris-Nice.

43rd Cholet-Pays de la Loire, Sunday, March 28

Part of the French Cup series, the race draws all the top French teams plus a solid field of ProTour teams.

7th GP Adria Mobil, Sunday, March 28

The 1.2 race sees a mix of Continental and ProTeams lining up for the Slovenian race.