Racing this week: Mallorca, Qatar and Tour Med

This week's racing brings the Mallorca Challenge, the Tour Mediterranéen and the Tour of Qatar.

February is a time to clear out the cobwebs, stretch the legs and get back to the business of racing.

It’s common to see Australians and Spanish riders take early-season victories, thanks in part of the mild winter (or summer, for the Aussies), which allows them to train almost uninterrupted throughout the off-season.

Some riders come in guns a-blazin’, looking to notch some confidence-building wins and hone form for the spring classics. Others are just looking to put some race miles in the legs for goals further on down the road.

In either case, everyone seems glad to be back at race speed. This week, the Mallorca Challenge in Spain’s Balearic islands and the Tour Mediterranéen along France’s Med coast fit the bill. And then there’s the Tour of Qatar, entering its ninth edition of one of cycling’s most exotic locales for a race.

19th Mallorca Challenge (Spain, 1.1)

Through February 11

In what’s a series of one-day races over a five-day period on Spain’s pleasant Mallorca island, the Challenge is a popular, early-season race for pros looking to enjoy some mild weather with the first taste of racing. There are some steep hills, but nothing too extreme for February legs.

The official opener of the Spanish calendar, the Mallorca Challenge allows riders to pick and choose which “stages” they want to compete in. There’s also an unofficial overall winner for riders who compete in all five days. Nineteen teams are taking part, including HTC-Columbia, Saxo Bank, Caisse d’Epargne, Rabobank, Katusha and Quick Step.

Robbie McEwen (Katusha) was back in the winner’s circle for the first time since his knee injury last summer after kicking to victory in Sunday’s Trofeo Palma.

Last year’s winner was Toni Colom (Katusha), a local rider who later tested positive for CERA, a charge that he denies.


Ninth Tour of Qatar (2.2)

Through February 12

Qatar seems an unlikely place to stage a bike race, but combine money from the oil-rich sheiks and the backers of the Tour de France, and Qatar proves you can host a top-end bike race anywhere. Facing almost no hills and lots of wind, sprinters seem to enjoy the mild weather and five-star accommodation that comes with racing in Qatar.

Tom Boonen (Quick Step) has won three of the past four editions, with teammate Wilfried Cretskens taking the honors in 2007. Boonen is back for the six-stage, 703km march across the sands of Qatar.

Team Sky took its first win by nailing Sunday’s opening team time trial. Edvald Boasson Hagen took the yellow jersey, but surrendered it Monday after Geert Steurs (Topsport) and Wouter Mol (Vacansoleil) launched a daylong break in Stage 2 that gave Steurs the stage and Mol the lead.

BCM, HTC-Columbia, Cervélo, Garmin-Transitions and Trek-Livestrong are among the 16 teams taking part.


37th Le Tour Mediterranéen (Fra, 2.1)

February 9-14

As the name suggests, this five-day race hugs France’s Med’ coast and remains popular among French clubs despite the rise of such events as Qatar. This year’s course will feature the first major climb of 2010 as the final stage finishes atop Mont Faron above Toulon.

Last year’s champion Luís León Sánchez (Caisse d’Epargne) is racing in Mallorca and the Volta ao Algarve next week and will not be back to defend his title. Caisse d’Epargne will send a team, along with Garmin-Transitions, Rabobank and Astana and a whole clutch of French teams.