Racing this Week: Across Tuscan roads and Armstrong’s Euro debut

In Europe this week, the Vuelta a Murcia and the Monte Paschi Eroica are the big races, while mid-week races in Italy and Belgium keep things rolling. Andrew Hood takes a look.

The 2007 Monte Paschi Eroica. Photo: Graham Watson

There’s plenty of racing across Europe this week, highlighted by Lance Armstrong’s European debut at the Vuelta a Murcia in Spain and the wildly popular strade bianche race across the gravel roads in Tuscany.

30th Vuelta Ciclista a Murcia – Costa Calida (Spa, 2.1)
March 3-7 – Murcia, Spain

The five-day stage race in Spain’s arid Murcia region plays host to Lance Armstrong’s European debut in 2010. The Murcia was frequently on Armstrong’s early-season racing schedule before his retirement and the second season of his comeback sees him returning to familiar roads in Spain.

Joining him at RadioShack are Haimar Zubeldia, Jason McCartney and Andreas Kloeden. There are some other big names, including Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) and defending champion Denis Menchov (Rabobank).

The field will be light this year, however, as Spanish teams are boycotting the race in a disagreement with race organizers over fees required to help cover insurance.

Race organizers also did not invite Italian teams as a move of solidarity with local hero and three-time winner Alejandro Valverde, who is banned in Italy for what Italian officials say is irrefutable proof that he is linked to the Operación Puerto doping scandal. Valverde’s team, Caisse d’Epargne, though backed by a French sponsor, is joining the Spanish team boycott and not taking part.

The five-stage course provides some good early season tests, including the traditional mountain pass at the Cat. 1 Alto del Collado Bermejo in Friday’s third stage. A dead-flat 22km individual time trial in stage 4 will give the GC riders a chance to test their progression against the clock.


32nd Giro del Fruili (Ita, 1.1)
March 3 – Sacile, Italy

Four ProTour teams will be among the 22 squads lining up for the 190km race in the Pordenone region of northern Italy. Among the big names expected to start include Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank), Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) and former winner Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas).

The race returned last year following a five-year absence, with Mirco Lorenzetto (Lampre) taking the flowers. Cyclists cover two laps on an opening circuit around Brugnera, then head north toward a five-lap finishing circuit that includes steep Castello di Caneva climb in the final 10km.


41st Le Samyn (Bel, 1.1)
March 3 – Frameries to Dour, Belgium

After a big opening weekend, Belgian racing continues with the 191.9km Le Samyn began as an homage to José Samyn, who died in a crash in 1969.

While many of the big names from the previous weekend skip the mid-week race, the race still attracts a strong field of Belgian teams keen to score some early season results. Last year, Wouter Weylandt (Quick Step) bested Bjorn Leukemanns (Vacansoleil) to take the win. Other recent former winners include Robbie McEwen, Philippe Gilbert and Jimmy Casper.

The route across the southern reaches of Wallonie concludes with five laps on a 20km circuit featuring two short climbs each lap, so a sprint in not guaranteed.


11th Driedaagse West-Vlaanderen – Johan Museeuw Classics (Bel, 2.1)
March 5-7, Kortrik to Ichtegem, Belgium

The three-day test across the windy flats of West Flanders covers some of the holy ground featured in April’s big classics. Strong winds and foul weather can disrupt the sprinters’ well-laid plans.

Five ProTour teams join the 22-squad field to assure solid racing. BMC brings a squad that includes Americans Chad Beyer, John Murphy and Jackson Stewart.

Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil) won last year in what was a solid season for the Dutchman, but he won’t be back to defend his title. Former winners include Erik Dekker, Jimmy Casper and Bobbie Traksel, winner of Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.


4th Monte Paschi Strade Bianche (Ita, 1.1)
March 6 – Tuscany, Italy

Only born in 2007, this recent arrival has quickly grown into a favorite among the peloton and fans alike. Held over the narrow roads in the heart of Tuscany’s wine country, the race’s calling card are the famous white gravel roads called strade bianche.

This year’s 190km route features eight sectors of the loose gravel roads, the longest of which is 13.5km, for a total of 57.2km.

In terms of scenery and history, the race is hard to beat. The course starts in Gaiole in Chianti and ends in Siena’s famous Piazza del Campo.

There’s plenty of drama in between as winning the race has quickly grown in prestige among the peloton. Alexander Kolobnev won the inaugural event in 2007, followed by ex-CSC teammate Fabian Cancellara in 2008. Last year, Thomas Lovkvist held off Fabian Wegmann to take the win for Columbia.

Lovkvist will be back with his new Team Sky outfit as part of 15 teams invited to the event. Other big names include Cancellara (Saxo Bank), world champ Cadel Evans and Alessandro Ballan (BMC), Stefano Garzelli (Acqua e Sapone), Mark Cavendish and Marco Pinotti (HTC-Columbia) and Italian champ Filippo Pozzato (Katusha).

One rider with some unfinished business with the race is Canadian Ryder Hesjedal, who will lead Garmin-Transitions in what he calls one of his favorite races of the season.

“I have my mind on Eroica, I’ve been trying to get my head around that one,” Hesjedal told VeloNews in an article published last month. “I’ve been close in two tries – that would be a beautiful victory. I love that race.”