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Road racing cranks up around the globe after winter slumber

There will be racing on three continents, with the season's first UCI-ranked raced set for South America

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After a few weeks’ respite, road racing clicks back into gear in earnest this month with a strong international flavor.

There’s plenty of racing across the globe to feed the jones, but there’s very little of it in Europe, still in the throes of winter. Reflecting a growing internationalization of the sport, the traditional European hotbed will not see its first race until the end of January, just as winter is finally starting to break.

There will be racing on three continents (planned events for India this month are being pushed back to March or April), with the season’s first UCI-ranked raced set for South America with the Vuelta Ciclista a Chile starting on Thursday.

There’s also racing in Africa and Australia, while Europe’s season opener won’t be until Jan. 29 with the GP La Marseillaise in France.

This month’s highlights will be the WorldTour calendar season-open at Tour Down Under (Jan. 17-22) and a higher-profile Vuelta a San Luís in Argentina (Jan. 23-29).

Alberto Contador will be making his season debut at the San Luís tour, if he’s cleared of clenbuterol charges that are still be considered by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. CAS officials have promised a decision in the long-running case before the middle of January, meaning that Contador’s fate should be decided before the South American race commences.

Also on the start list is Michael Rasmussen (Christina Watches-Onfone) in what will be the first time Contador and Rasmussen have squared off since the 2007 Tour de France.

Rasmussen, of course, was forced out of that Tour while wearing the yellow jersey, opening the door for Contador’s first of three Tour victories.

The pair have had quite different trajectories since that 2007 Tour, with Rasmussen struggling to find a place back in the elite peloton after serving a racing ban while Contador has gone from one success to another only to find himself looking at a possible two-year ban and disqualification from his 2010 Tour if CAS rules against him.

Other big names for San Luís on the preliminary start list include Tom Boonen and Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick-Step), Giovanni Visconti making his debut with Movistar, Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Filippo Pozzato, making his respective debut with Farnese Vini.

The Tour Down Under marks the opening the WorldTour calendar and boasts an elite field.

All eyes will be on GreenEdge, which makes its major international debut as a new squad with Cameron Meyer lining up as defending champion. The Aussie-backed team will be under immense pressure to win on home roads and brings a crack squad that includes veterans Robbie McEwen and Stuart O’Grady as well as Simon Gerrans, Matt Goss and Jack Bobridge.

Scores of sprinters will be stretching their legs in the early-season clash, with Oscar Freire (debuting with Katusha), two-time overall winner André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol), Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-ISD), Daniele Bennati (RadioShack-Nissan), Michael Matthews (Rabobank), Romain Feillu (Vacansoleil) and Gerald Ciolek (Omega Pharma-Quick-Step) all likely to be bumping shoulders in the sprints.

Ryder Hesjedal will be making an early season debut with Garmin-Cervélo while Danny Pate will be debuting in Team Sky colors.

The Tour Down Under is preceded by the Australian and New Zealand national championships, as well as two one-day crates that make for a busy month of racing in the antipodes.

January racing

Jan. 4 – Jayco Bay Cycling Classic (Aus)
Jan. 5-15 – Vuelta a Chile, (2.2)
Jan. 5-10 – Australia road championships
Jan. 6-8 – New Zealand road championships
Jan. 13-22 – Vuelta a Táchira (Ven – 2.2)
Jan. 15 – Tour Down Under criterium (Aus)
Jan. 17-22 – Santos Tour Down Under (Aus – WT)
Jan. 23-29 – Tour de San Luís (Arg – 2.1)
Jan. 25-29 – Tour of Ivory Coast (2.2)
Jan. 29 – GP Cycliste la Marseillaise (Fra – 1.1)