The big story this week is the season debut of defending Tour de France champion Alberto Contador and several other big names at the Volta ao Algarve.
Last year, Contador barnstormed through the five-day race along Portugal’s dazzling Algarve coast to put everyone on notice he was ready to rumble.
This year, the Spanish pistolero might be a little more discreet, but a summit finish in the third stage and a final-day time trial seems tailor made for a Contador repeat.
There’s also racing in France with the two-day Tour du Haut Var and the one-day Trofeo Laigueglia in Italy. The inaugural Tour of Oman began Sunday while the Ruta del Sol begins Sunday in Spain, but we’ll take a look at that race next week.
36th Volta ao Algarve (Por, 2.1)
February 17-21, Portugal
The 36th edition of the Algarve race is gaining traction among pros looking for mild weather and good training roads.
Lance Armstrong used the race to test a new time trial bike back in 2004, the year that then-teammate Floyd Landis scored his first major European stage race victory with the overall. Armstrong’s RadioShack team will be present without Armstrong, but Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden will be making their European season debut.
Scores of other top pros are using the race to click their respective seasons into gear. Thor Hushovd (Cervélo), Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Christian Vande Velde and Dave Zabriskie (Garmin-Transitions) and Luís León Sánchez (Caisse d’Epargne) are among the other big names kick-starting their seasons in Algarve.
This year’s route hugs the low lying hills along the spectacular Algarve coast, usually already blooming green in sharp contrast to the rest of Europe typically still deep in the throes of winter. Rain and cool temperatures are expected all week, however, though that shouldn’t put a damper on the racing.
The opening two stages should suit the sprinters before a hilltop finish at Malhao in stage 3 up surprisingly steep climbs. Stage 4 should present another shot for sprinters as anyone within shot of the GC will control the race while the final-day, 17.2km time trial will be ideal for the likes of Contador, Leipheimer and Zabriskie.
42nd Tour du Haut Var (Fra, 2.1)
Feb. 20-21, France
Two long, hard days of racing are on tap for the 42nd edition of the Haut Var tour held in the hills north of France’s Cote d’Azur.
Defending champ Thomas Voeckler (Bbox Telecom) will be back in the French-heavy field that sees a lot of the same faces who just finished the five-day Tour Méditerranéen, which wrapped up Sunday on Mont Faron in Toulon.
Tour Med champ Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) will be among the favorites. Valverde is putting in an early block of racing in France in large part because his Italian racing ban is still in place, keeping him out of such events as Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo next month.
Garmin-Transitions will bring a strong squad that includes Tom Danielson and Peter Stetina while Team Sky brings Michael Barry. BMC will see Jeff Louder and Chris Barton putting in some solid, early season European racing miles.
47th Trofeo Laigueglia (Ita, 1.1)
Feb. 20, Italy
Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) just missed winning Laigueglia last year for the third time after Francesco Ginanni pipped him in a sprint. The reigning Italian champ will be racing this week in the Tour of Oman, but Ginanni will be back with his Androni Giacattoli outfit.
Plenty of big Italian stars will be out in the force for the important, early-season semi-classic along Italy’s Riviera coast, taking in a few of the “capi” or headlands featured in Milan-San Remo before turning inland to tackle some tough climbs in the sharp hills above the coast.
Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre), Mont Faron stage-winner Franesco Masciarelli and 2008 winner Luca Paolini (Acqua e Sapone) and former Italian champ Giovanni Visconti (ISD) are among some of the top national riders lining up.
Former winner Kim Kirchen will be showing off his Katusha colors while Oscar Pereiro will be at the start line for Astana. The Efimkin twins and Cyril Dessel are lining up for Ag2r-La Mondiale in what’s always a hotly contested race.