Feb. 2-6, France
The five-day “star” of Bessèges dates back to the early 1970s and has since grown into France’s first stage race of the year.
Held on the low-slung hills around Nimes and Bessèges on the western side of the Rhone Valley, the race provides ample ground for the Frenchies to strut their stuff on home roads. Sprints and the occasional successful breakaway typically marks the racing.
Samuel Dumoulin returns as defending champion for Cofidis. The field is dominated by a mix of French and Benelux teams, with Team Type 1 getting its first taste of Euro-side stage racing for the 2011 season. The team put Jure Kocjan into fourth in the GP d’Ouverture La Marseillaise on Sunday.
Yauheni Hutarovich (FDJ) kicked to victory in Wednesday’s opener, ahead of Anthony Ravard (Ag2r) and Bjorn Leukemans (Vacansoleil) to win the stage and take the first leader’s jersey.
Stages for 41st Étoile de Bessèges
Stage 1, Feb. 2: Beaucaire to Bellegarde, 153.1km
Stage 2, Feb. 3: Nimes to Saint-Ambroix, 149.4km
Stage 3, Feb. 4: Pont Saint Esprit to Saint Victor la Coste, 152.5km
Stage 4, Feb. 5: Ales circuit, 152.4km
Stage 4, Feb. 6: Gagnières to Bessèges, 145km
February 5, Italy
Despite a hilly parcours that provides the launching pad for some promising breakaways, the race almost always ends in a bunch sprint along the beach at Donoratico. It’s no surprise then that Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) has won the past six editions, especially considering he lives just down the road in La Spezia. A mix of Italian ProTeam and Pro Continental teams fill the pack with a heavy emphasis on the sprinters. Peter Sagan is expected to make his season debut for Liquigas-Cannondale.
February 6, Spain
The 116km circuit course around Palma de Mallorca opens the five-day Mallorca Challenge, the traditional opener to the Spanish racing calendar. The event’s format allows riders to start any of the five, one-day events. There’s an unofficial overall trophy presented at the end, but it does not bring any UCI points with it.
The race got a final-hour reprieve from the local tourism board to help foot the operations bill when a title sponsor fell through, thus assuring the race’s future at least for this year.
This year’s edition boasts some impressive names among its 21-team field, including 10 ProTeam squads. RadioShack, HTC-Highroad, Garmin-Cervélo, Omega Pharma-Lotto, Quick Step, Katusha, Leopard Trek, Rabobank, Euskaltel-Euskaltel and Movistar team will be starting different riders throughout the week.
Among the bigger names to race include the season debut for the Schleck brothers in their first race with their new Leopard Trek jersey. Joaquim Rodríguez, Oscar Freire, Robbie McEwen and André Greipel are also all confirmed to race.
McEwen will be returning as defending champion on the circuit course along Palma de Mallorca’s marina.