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Weekend preview: Strade dirt, WorldTour prologue

The first weekend in March will offer a terrific array of racing action, showcasing classics stars and GC favorites alike. Best of all, it’s the kick-off of the inaugural Women’s WorldTour.

Strade Bianche women’s race

The first race Saturday in Tuscany will pit the perennial powerhouse of the women’s peloton, Boels – Dolmans, against, well, everyone else. The Dutch team is packed with talent between defending Strade Bianche champion and U.S. national champ Megan Guarnier, world champ Lizzie Armitstead, and Chantal Blaak, who’s coming off a win at Le Samyn. After 121 kilometers, they’ll finish in Piazza del Campo around noon local time.

Strade Bianche men’s race

Finishing closer to 2:30 p.m. local time, the men’s peloton may be faced with a muddy affair on Italy’s white roads. The forecast is calling for rain all day, but around 2, the chance of precipitation is 95 percent. Remember when Cadel Evans won stage 7 of the 2010 Giro d’Italia? Yeah, it could look a lot like that.

Fabian Cancellara is hoping for a record third victory at the 176km Italian classic, which would earn him naming rights for a sector of gravel. World champ Peter Sagan is also one to watch — he’s still searching for his first win in the rainbow stripes. Etixx – Quick-Step’s Petr Vakoc is our dark-horse pick. The 23-year-old Czech champion won both the Drôme Classic and the Classic Sud Ardèche last weekend. That’s not an Omloop/Kuurne double, but he’s got a hot hand.

Paris-Nice

The second WorldTour race of the season starts Sunday near Paris with a 6.1km prologue. The eight days of hilly racing from north to south are quite favorable for Alberto Contador, but Paris-Nice’s first test will be won by a specialist. Former hour record holder and IAM Cycling rider Matthias Brandle could be a factor in the short individual TT. Sunday’s race might be a tad short for Giant – Alpecin’s Tom Dumoulin, but if he has a good ride, it will indicate that he might be a factor in the overall as the race progresses.

Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen

Starting Friday, Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen is a three-day race that is an interesting blend of classic Belgian terrain. Saturday’s 176km stage from Bruges to Harelbeke is called the “Vlaamse Pijl,” showcasing four hills, including the Oude Kwaremont, as well as the Varentstraat cobblestone sector. Sunday’s 182.7km stage from Nieuwpoort and Ichtegem, the “Omloop der Vlaamse Ardennen,” features eight hills, notably the Kemmelberg and Monteberg, and five cobbled sections. Etixx – Quick-Step’s Yves Lampaert, last year’s winner, will not defend his title, but WorldTour talent such as Dylan Groenewegen of LottoNL – Jumbo and Jelle Wallays of Lotto – Soudal are likely to dominate the action.