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CyclingQuotes.com takes an in-depth look at the racing in February

Photo: Sirotti

ALEJANDRO VALVERDE

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CHALLENGE MALLORCA

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CLASICA DE ALMERIA

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DUBAI TOUR

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ETOILE DE BESSÈGES

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GP COSTA DEGLI ETRUSCHI

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GRAND PRIX CYCLISTE LA MARSEILLAISE

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HERALD SUN TOUR

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OMLOOP HET NIEUWSBLAD

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TOUR MEDITERRANEEN

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TOUR DU HAUT VAR

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TOUR OF OMAN

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TOUR OF QATAR

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TROFEO LAIGUEGLIA

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VOLTA AO ALGARVE

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VUELTA A ANDALUCIA

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VUELTA A MURCIA

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27.01.2015 @ 18:53 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The Tour Down Under and the Tour de San Luis was a small appetizer but now it is time for the season to kick off in earnest. During the month of February, the peloton will head back to cycling’s European heartland while also offering a solid block of racing in the Middle East and even though it is still mostly about preparation, exciting racing will be in store throughout the month. The clash between Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana in Vuelta a Andalucia will be a highlight just like the start of the classics season at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. CyclingQuotes.com takes an in-depth look at the racing in February before selecting the riders to watch in the coming month.

 

Challenge Mallorca (January 29-February 1): Will Valverde come out with all guns blazing?

One of the most popular preparation events, the four-day race series Challenge Mallorca will be held one week earlier than usual and so mark the start of the European season. At this time of the year, Europe is really not suited to bike racing but the island of Mallorca usually offers reasonable conditions for riders to get their season underway with a challenging mix of four one-day races that offers a bit for everyone. Traditionally the first two races have been for the sprinters before the riders headed into the mountains but this year the sprint races will bookend the series.

 

The opening race Trofeo Santanyi and the final race Trofeo Palma – which is no longer a criterium – are destined to end in bunch sprints even though the former event includes some climbs that may take the sting out of the legs. It will be the first chance to see watch the new Cofidis lead-out train in action as Nacer Bouhanni will make his debut with his new team and will be surrounded by his entire set of fast teammates. However, they will have to go up against one of the best trains in the business as André Greipel will make an unusual season start in Europe. The German may be aiming for a slower start than usual but he will definitely be gunning for the win to take the pressure off his shoulders. The races will also be the first chance to see Elia Viviani in action for Sky and check the progress of the British team’s new sprint ambitions and it will offer an opportunity to get a first taste of the collaboration between Edvald Boasson Hagen, Theo Bos and Gerald Ciolek on the strengthened MTN-Qhubeka team which will be a force to be reckoned with in the 2015 sprints. If one adds the likes of Bryan Coquard, Danny Van Poppel, Sam Bennett, Matteo Pelucci, Jose Joaquin Rojas and Francesco Lasca who all feature on the provisional start list, the scene is set for some powerful sprinting action.

 

Friday’s and Saturday’s race will allow the climbers to come to the fore, with the former event offering a short, steep climb to the finish and the latter featuring lots of climbing and the famous Puig Major climb close to the finish. Both races suit Alejandro Valverde down to the ground and the talented Spaniard always comes out with all guns blazing. The Movistar leader is never far from his best condition and it would be no surprise to see him leave the Spanish island with two wins in his pocket if he ultimately decides to ride both events. The races will also offer us the first chance to see Bauke Mollema in his new Trek colours as he lines up alongside fellow grand tour leaders Frank Schleck and Haimar Zubeldia, and Leopold König wear the Sky jersey. Daniel Martin is expected to start his season in Mallorca but is rarely too strong at the beginning of the year. Due to the varying level of condition, the races often produce a few surprises but it would be a good idea to look out for climbing sensation Davide Formolo who could very well kick off an excellent season by showing off his climbing legs on the Mallorca climbs.

 

Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race (February 1): A legend says goodbye

The Cadel Evans Road Race is set to become a major Australian cycling event but its first edition will be all about saying a proper goodbye to Australia’s only Tour de France winner. The race will be the final opportunity for Cadel Evans to pin on a race number and he has attracted a very strong line-up of riders that are all keen to be part of his farewell event.

 

Evans would love to win the final race of his career but that is unlikely to happen. The race will include climbs and potentially windy conditions but is more suited to sprinters and classics riders than grand tour contenders. Evans will definitely try to make his mark but the most likely outcome is a sprint finish. That would be the perfect outcome for sprint sensation Caleb Ewan who would love to make up for his near-misses at the national championships. With Matthew Goss, Tyler Farrar, Heinrich Haussler, Giacomo Nizzolo, Mark Renshaw and Rudiger Selig all expected to be at the start, however, there will be no gidts for the talented Australian.

 

Grand Prix Cycliste la Marseillaise (February 1): Bardet and Pinot return to action

Traditionally the opener of the European season, the GP la Marseillaise is also the first race in the Coupe de France race series and this makes it an important event for all the French teams. With Lotto-Soudal being the only non-French WorldTour team, it is mainly a national affair and it marks the start of the season for two of the French heroes from the 2014 Tour de France, Romain Bardet and Thiabut Pinot.

 

However, no one should have too big expectations for the two climbers on a course that includes a few climbs in the hilly Marseille hinterland before it returns to the coast for what is traditionally a sprint from a reduced peloton. Last year Kenneth Vanbilsen took a breakthrough win and he would love to start his time at Cofidis with a title defence. However, several Ardennes specialists will be keen to make it hard and it would be a good idea to look out for Tony Gallopin, Artur Vichot and Marco Marcato who can all create a selection and finish it off from a small group.

 

Etoile de Besseges (February 4-8): An opportunity for the time triallists

Many of the riders from the GP la Marseillaise will be back in action a few days later for the first European stage race of the year. The Etoile de Besseges has very often been marked by extremely cold conditions and stages have both been cancelled and shortened. While the biggest teams prefer warmer conditions for the preparations, the race is traditionally an important event for the French teams that use it to find the best condition for their later goals.

 

The race has traditionally been a sprint festival and this year it will again offer lots of opportunities for the fast finishers. It marked the breakthrough of Bryan Coquard two years ago and the Europcar sprinter has already won four stages in the race. This year he will try to continue his success as he build his condition for the track world championships and but he could find himself up against Giacomo Nizzolo who features on the provisional start list.

 

Despite the inclusion of a moderately hilly stage, the battle for the GC is likely to come down to the short and hilly 12km time trial on the final day. Last year’s winner Tobias Ludvigsson won’t be back to defend his title but there will be lots of contenders on the stage that suits a combination of a time triallist and punchy climber. The strong Trek duo of Riccardo Zoidl and Bob Jungels should be among the contenders but the big favourite has to be in-form Argentinean Eduardo Sepulveda who finished fourth in the Tour de San Luis and is looking for his breakthrough win in Europe.

 

Dubai Tour (February 4-7): Will Valverde conquer the Middle East?

One month of quality racing in the Middle East kicks off with the second edition of the Dubai Tour which is again expected to have a formidable line-up. The inaugural edition was a chance for the time triallists to take an early stage race victory but this year the format has been significantly changed. Three of the four stages are still suited to sprinters but this year the time trial has been replaced by a tough stage 3 which ends on a short 200m climb which has a maximum gradient of 17%.

 

Last year the sprints were dominated by Marcel Kittel but the German won’t be back to repeat his success. Instead, Mark Cavendish will be eager to make up for last year’s disappointments in Dubai and shake off the embarrassment of his two defeats in San Luis. He won’t have it his own way though as he will be up against John Degenkolb who will be eager to continue his great run of success from the second half of the 2014 in his first race of the year. Ben Swift and Andrea Guardini also feature on the provisional start list, with more sprinters set to be added as we get closer to the start.

 

Stage 3 will turn the battle for the overall victory into the hands of the puncheurs and we could be in for a dress rehearsal of the Ardennes classics on the steep slopes. Philippe Gilbert will make his season debut in Dubai but the big favourite has to be Alejandro Valverde who always comes out with all guns blazing and already will have a few days of racing in Mallorca in his legs. Joaquim Rodriguez and Vincenzo Nibali will start their season in Dubai but don’t expect too much from them at this point of the year.

 

Herald Sun Tour (February 4-8): Will Orica-GreenEDGE finally win on home soil?

A busy Australian summer is brought to an end when the riders roll out for the Herald Sun Tour which is the oldest Australian stage race. The race is no longer the biggest race in the country but its new February slot on the calendar has put new life into the event.

 

Unfortunately, Orica-GreenEDGE will be the only WorldTour team at the start of the 2015 event and this should provide them with a formidable chance to finally win a home race after they missed out in the Tour Down Under and the nationals. Simon Clarke won last year’s race and will be a strong contender in a race that is set to be decided in the opening prologue and the final stage up the short Arthur’s Seat climb. However, the best Orica-GreenEDGE option could be Cameron Meyer who climbed really well in the Tour Down Under and is time trialling excellently too. However, they will have to keep an eye on Jack Haig who finished on the podium last year and whose climbing in the Tour Down Under again underlined his status as a future stage race star. New Zealand champion Joe Cooper will be another rider to watch in a race that is dominated by continental teams.

 

The sprint stages will see an exciting clash between sprint sensation Caleb Ewan who looks to continue his excellent run of form, and Matthew Goss who was once Australia’s leading sprinter. The latter will be teaming up with Tyler Farrar to form a very strong sprint team and then the race provides Steele Von Hoff with another opportunity to prove that he deserves to return to the WorldTour.

 

GP Costa degli Etruschi (February 8): Will Colbrelli be unstoppable in Italy?

In the past, the Italian season always kicked off with a big bunch sprint at the GP Costa degli Etrusch and for years, the outcome was always the same. Alessandro Petacchi usually demolished the opposition but the days when the veteran sprinter will be able to win the first Italian battle are probably gone. Petacchi will be back in the race as he makes his season debut with the Southeast team but the days when the pure sprinters could shine in Donoratico are gone.

 

This year the riders will have to tackle the Torre Segalari climb twice in the finale – the last passage comes just 9km from the finish – and this makes it a typical Italian one-day race that suits fast finishers with good climbing legs. Last year Sonny Colbrelli was unstoppable in those kinds of races and the Italian is set to bag a solid number of victories in Italy in 2015. Defending champion Simone Ponzi and Mauro Finetto share the same characteristics and those three riders are set to battle it out several times in the coming season and they will probably start it all in Donoratico on February 8.

 

Tour of Qatar (February 8-13): Will Boonen be back to his best?

One of the big questions for the 2015 season is whether Tom Boonen will be able to return to his former level. We will get the first indication on February 8 when the Belgian lines up for the start of the Tour of Qatar, the race that he has dominated in the past. The race features its usual 5 stages through the windy Qatari desert and even though we should be in for a few bunch sprints, the race is almost guaranteed to blow to pieces at some point. No one is better for this kind of racing than Boonen and it is no coincidence that he has won the overall four times. Boonen usually starts his season very strongly and he will certainly again be a key protagonist while the Belgian fans will follow him closely to gauge whether they can realistically hope for a Boonen comeback in the classics.

 

To win the race, however, he will have to put on his time trialling legs as a 10.9km time trial will be added to the five flat and windy stages. Boonen is no poor time triallist over such a short distance but he will probably need to pick up bonus seconds to win the race overall. His teammate and defending champion will be much better suited to this kind of effort and strong time triallists like Bradley Wiggins, Fabian Cancellara, Lieuwe Westra, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Svein Tuft and Maciej Bodnar should also be in contention if they can stay with the best in the crosswinds. Wiggins’ every move will be followed with particular attention as the race starts his build-up to his Paris-Roubaix bid while not too much should be expected from Cancellara who is never at his best in Qatar.

 

The real excitement of the race should be the bunch sprints though as it seems that most of the best sprinters in the world will be at the start. The main absentees will be Mark Cavendish and André Greipel but Marcel Kittel will lead the line in a race that will also feature Peter Sagan in his Tinkoff-Saxo debut, Sacha Modolo, Alexander Kristoff, Andrea Guardini, Nicola Ruffoni, Sam Bennett, Heinrich Haussler, Jose Joaquin Rojas, Theo Bos and Danny Van Poppel. If Kittel and Sagan can keep up in the crosswinds, they may even win the race overall as they are both decent time triallists over short distances and should be able to score lots of bonus seconds. Finally, the race will offer the first of what should be many battles between arch-rivals Nacer Bouhanni and Arnaud Demare.

 

Tour Mediteraneen (February 13-16): Will one of the most prestigious early-season races disappear?

One of the most prestigious races in the early part of the season is the Tour Mediteraneen which has traditionally been the scene of the first big battle on a European climb. Mont Faron in Toulon has been the centerpiece of this French race which has been held every year since 1974 and always has been one of the most important preparation races for stage race contenders who are building form for Paris-Nice.

 

In recent years, however, the race has been fighting hard to survive these tough economic times and now it seems that the organizers have had to surrender. In December, it emerged that the race was likely to be cancelled and even though the organizers published a video teaser on January 6, the race is still not back on the UCI calendar.

 

At this late point, it seems unlikely that the race will go on and in any case, it will be almost impossible to attract a strong line-up for the race. Unlike many other countries, France has been able to keep most of its prestigious races on the international calendar but it seems that 2015 may be the year when we will no longer see a big battle on Mont Faron kick off the European season.

 

Vuelta a Murcia (February 14): Who will succeed Valverde in the Spaniard’s home race?

An important block of racing in Spain will start with the Vuelta a Murcia which will again be held as a tough one-day race. Once a five-day stage race in March, the race has struggled financially and has now been reduced to a warm-up race for the Vuelta a Andalucia which will attract plenty of attention in 2015. However, the Vuelta a Murcia remains a challenging race that will offer the Ardennes specialists a chance to shine.

 

Held on a hilly course, the race finishes on a short, steep climb and so it is no wonder that local hero Alejandro Valverde won the 2014 edition. This year, however, the Movistar rider won’t be back to defend his title and this opens the door for other riders to shine. Movistar will of course be a key protagonist but the Spanish team has not revealed their line-up yet. Valverde’s absence could open the door for riders like Bauke Mollema, Daniel Navarro, Luis Leon Sanchez and Tiago Machado who have all done well in this race in the past but the finale should also suit Julien Simon , Luis Angel Mate, Frank Schleck, Gianluca Brambilla, Zdenek Stybar, Artur Vichot, Ruben Fernandez and Davide Rebellin who are all scheduled to ride. Finally, the race will mark the season debut for Fabio Aru but don’t expect too much from him at this point of the year.

 

Clasica de Almeria (February 15): The sprinters come to the fore

The list of contenders will change significantly for the second day of this weekend of Spanish one-day races. While the Vuelta a Murcia was a race for the puncheurs, the sprinters will come to the fore in the Clasica de Almeria. The course features a solid amount of climbing but with a flat finale, it is usually a race for the fast guys that can handle the climbs.

 

Last year the race was the scene of a breakthrough win for Irish sprint sensation Sam Bennett but as he is scheduled to ride in Qatar, a repeat win for the Bora-Argon 18 rider is very unlikely. At the moment, the start list is very tentative and none of the big-name sprinters have committed themselves to riding the race. John Degenkolb is scheduled to ride in Murcia and Andalucia and would be a natural favourite if he decides to include Almeria on his schedule. Mark Cavendish is also likely to ride in Murcia and could use the race as an important stepping stone for Milan-Sanremo. If the biggest names stay away from the race, however, it could open the door for some of the sprinters on the Spanish teams, with Francisco Ventoso being eager to break his drought and Francesco Lasca being eager to start his season on a good note.

 

Tropicale Amissa Bongo (February 16-22): Will Europcar continue their domination of Africa’s biggest race?

Africa’s biggest bike race has been moved from its traditional January slot and will not be held in the middle of February. This makes it a perfect alternative for the many preparation stage races in Europe and the Middle East and gives riders a chance to build form in good weather and under less pressure than they would face in the bigger races.

 

The race has traditionally been dominated by the strongest French teams who have lined up in Gabon alongside a host of African national teams. The terrain is not very hard but the professionals have usually been able to split the peloton sufficiently to make a selection. With 5 consecutive wins, Europcar have been the dominant team and in 2015, the French team will be searching for a 6th win. They will, however, be without defending champion Natnael Berhane who has left the team but 2013 winner Yohann Gene is expected to be back.

 

This year the only other professional teams are Wanty-Groupe Gobert and Bretagne and those three teams are expected to dominate the race. It may offer Yauheni Hutarovich a very good chance to take his first wins for Bretagne while Jerome Baugnies and Anthony Delaplace should be able to challenge the Europcar domination of the overall standings.

 

Tour of Oman (February 17-22): Valverde, Rodriguez and Nibali to face off on the Green Mountain

The triptych of races in the Middle East comes to an end with the Tour of Oman. The strong links to the Tour of Qatar means that the race has traditionally had a very similar field to the desert race but the terrain makes the two races totally incomparable. With its famous summit finish on the Green Mountain, the Tour of Oman has built a reputation as the scene of the first big battle between the leading grand tour contenders, with Chris Froome having won the 2013 and 2014 editions.

 

This year, however, the race has lost the battle for the biggest stars who will be at the start of the Vuelta a Andalucia which will take place concurrently with the Omani race. Nonetheless, it will be a very good idea to keep an eye on the Middle East too as it will provide the first indication of the form of reigning Tour de France champion Vincenzo Nibali. The Italian is likely to have had a low-key start to his season in Dubai but he usually starts to show some kind of condition in Oman. The same goes for Joaquim Rodriguez who won the queen stage on the Green Mountain two years ago.

 

However, both are unlikely to be at 100% and so they will probably have a hard time beating Alejandro Valverde. The race suits the Movistar rider perfectly and he is usually very strong at this time of the year. Having dominated the Vuelta a Andalucia three years in a row, he has decided to give the Omani race a shot and he will be the overwhelming favourite to win the race. He will face strong opposition though as Warren Barguil, Thibaut Pinot, Tejay van Garderen, Rigoberto Uran, Mathias Frank, Rafal Majka, Rui Costa, Roman Kreuziger and Leopold König are all scheduled to ride.

 

The race also features a number of sprint stages and will be the scene of another chapter in the rivalry between Nacer Bouhanni and Arnaud Demare. Alexander Kristoff, Theo Bos, Sacha Modolo, Jose Joaquin Rojas, Matteo Pelucchi, Danny Van Poppel, Tom Boonen, Sam Bennett and Andrea Guardini will make the life tough for the two Frenchmen. And finally the race offers a few hilly stages that make it very likely that Peter Sagan will take his first Tinkoff-Saxo victory if he has failed to open his account in Qatar.

 

Vuelta a Andalucia (February 18-22): The first Clash of the Titans

The Vuelta a Andalucia has been going through financial difficulties and for a few years, it has been a largely Spanish affair. Hence, it must be hard for the organizers to believe the provisional start list for their race which shapes up to be the first big rendezvous between three of the four major Tour de France favourites. Chris Froome and Alberto Contador have never done the Andalusian race but both have decided to change their plans and start their season in Southern Spain. They will be joined by Nairo Quintana and this makes the Vuelta a Andalucia the race to follow in the month of February.

 

It’s unclear what has prompted those three riders to all include the race on their schedule but it is a clear fact that the 2015 edition is unusually hard for a February race. In addition to a few sprint stages and a short time trial, the riders will tackle two big summit finishes. One of them will take them up the very steep Alto de Hazallanas where Chris Horner laid the foundations for his 2013 Vuelta a Espana win, and it is almost unheard of for riders to test themselves on such a difficult mountain at this time of the year.

 

The entire cycling world will have their eyes on Andalusia on February 20 and 21 when the riders go up those two big climbs in the finales as it will offer the first chance to gauge the form of the three titans. An early prediction is that Froome will win the race as the Brit usually starts his seasons very strongly and is never using a race for pure training. Contador is set to do the Giro and cannot allow himself to be riding too strongly at this time of the year and Quintana usually has a slower start than the Sky leader. However, it won’t just come down to those three riders as Jean-Christophe Peraud, Romain Bardet, Bauke Mollema, Daniel Navarro, Frank Schleck, Haimar Zubeldia, Pierre Rolland, Jurgen Van Den Broeck, Fabio Aru, Wilco Kelderman, Steven Kruijswijk, Laurens Ten Dam, Sergio Pardilla, David Arroyo and Janez Brajkovic will make the 2015 edition of the race the most competitive yet.

 

Volta ao Algarve (February 18-22): Will Tony Martin be a Paris-Nice contender?

While the Tour of Oman and Vuelta a Andalucia will take most of the attention, the Volta ao Algarve offers an alternative path for riders to prepare for their later objectives. In the past, the race has been the preferred testing ground for Alberto Contador but this year the race will be significantly more low-key.

 

That doesn’t mean that the race won’t be a competitive affair and much of the focus will be taken by Tony Martin. The German has won the race twice, laying the foundations with a win in the time trial and limiting his losses in the summit finish on the Alto do Malhao. This year the German has made Paris-Nice a very big goal and to win that race, he will have to climb at the level he did in last year’s Tour de Suisse. Due to an earlier end to his 2014 season, he expects to be further ahead in his preparations and this race will be the first chance to gauge whether he is climbing well enough to realistically challenge for the Paris-Nice crown.

 

He won’t have an easy time though as he will be up against determined home rider Tiago Machado who is back to his best after a few disappointing seasons. Ion Izagirre may use the race to confirm his potential as a stage race contender and he will be joined by Ruben Fernandez, Jesus Herrada, Jose Herrada, Jonathan Castroviejo and John Gadret who could all do well in this kind of race. Michele Scarponi, Luis Leon Sanchez and Rein Taaramae lead a very strong Astana team and then it will be a very good idea to watch out for Davide Formolo. Due to the time trial, he may not win the race overall but he could very well be the next king of Malhao. Defending champion Michal Kwiatkowski will line up alongside Martin but the Pole is aiming at a slower start to his season and he is unlikely to be at the same level as he was one year ago. Finally, the race will see André Greipel return to competition and it would be no surprise to see the German dominate the two sprint stages.

 

Trofeo Laigueglia (February 19): Another one for Colbrelli?

The Italian season continues with one of its prestigious one-day races. The course will be announced later this week but it is guaranteed to live up to tradition of being a typical Italian affair. This means that it will include its usual amount of hard climbing before it descends to a flat finish along the Ligurian coast.

 

This makes the race another perfect event for Sonny Colbrelli who dominated the Italian one-day races in the second half of 2014 and there is no reason to suggest that it will be any different in 2014. Bardiani will do their best to keep things together for a bunch sprint where he is likely to be up against Simone Ponzi, Francesco Gavazzi and Mauro Finetto who form a very strong block of fast Southeast riders. The race should also have Thomas Voeckler at the start and even though he is unlikely to achieve a result, it will provide an indication of whether the Frenchman can find back his best legs at 35 years of age.

 

Tour du Haut Var (February 21-22): Will Gilbert be back at his 2011 level?

The first very busy week on the cycling calendar offers a fourth stage race that will be held concurrently with the races in Oman, Algarve and Andalusia. While those three events are for real stage race specialists, however, the two-day Tour du Haut Var is one for the classics specialists and puncheurs. The two stages are held in the hilly terrain in Southern France and include several short, steep climbs that make it a treat for the riders that excel in the Ardennes and the strongest sprinters.

 

Last year the race kicked off Carlos Betancur’s amazing early season but this year the Colombian won’t be back to defend his title. Instead, the race could offer an important indication of Philippe Gilbert’s 2015 season as it is likely to be the Belgian’s first outing on European soil. The race will allow him to get used to the colder weather after his stint in the Middle East and offer him some quality racing for the Tour of Qatar but on this kind of course, it will be hard for him to avoid the temptation to chase a result.

 

The race is mostly a French affair but the list of French contenders for this kind of race. Samuel Dumoulin, Julien Simon, Kevin Reza, Armindo Fonseca and Jonathan Hivert are all among the riders that can win this kind of race and at the end of the weekend, we should know a lot more about what we can expect from the home country in Paris-Nice.

 

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (February 28): The season starts in earnest

Most Belgians claim that the cycling season doesn’t start before the classics riders roll out of Ghent to take on the first big cobbled race of the year, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Many certainly disagree but it is certainly true that the Belgian semi-classic is the first big one-day race of the year. It may not be as prestigious as the biggest races later in the spring but there will be no holding back. The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is a race that every classics rider would love to win.

 

When the riders hit the Taaienberg, the entire Belgian cycling world will be holding their breath. This has traditionally been the place for Tom Boonen to test his legs and put in a fierce acceleration that proves that he is ready for the classics. Everybody will expect him to do the same but this time it may be time for the Belgian to finish it off with a win. Despite having dominated the cobbled races for a decade, the Belgian has never won the opening race of the Belgian season and the best thing he could do to show that he is still a contender, would be to finally erase that gap.

 

However, it could easily be another Belgian who takes the spotlight. Last year Sep Vanmarcke was arguably the strongest rider in the race and unlike Boonen, he is actually a past winner of this race. In 2014 he was the most consistent rider on the cobbles and nothing suggests that he won’t take another step this year. Vanmarcke could easily become the cobbles rider of his generation and 2015 could be the year when he takes over the throne.

 

Being a mini-Tour of Flanders, the only big difference from Vlaanderen’s Mooiste is the brutally cold conditions that often make this race a very testing affair. However, the combination of short, steep climbs and cobbles make this the first real test for the classics contenders and with Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan being the major absentees, all the big names are expected to be at the start. As usual, the race will provide us a first glimpse of who’s going to dominate the cobbles in 2015.

 

Boucles du Sud-Ardeche (February 28): A preview of the Ardennes

While most of the cycling world will have their eyes on Belgium and the cobbles, some riders will be looking a bit further ahead in France. The Boucles du Sud-Ardeche is the first race in a series of two one-day races over the weekend and its hilly course makes it comparable to the Ardennes classics. Coming a week before Paris-Nice, the best French riders usually use it as a final preparation for their big home race and this year will be no exception.

 

The race includes several small, steep climbs before it descends to a flat finish and this means that it often comes down to a sprint from a small group. Last year Gianni Meersman missed out on the win in a race that suits him perfectly as a crash in the final turn prevented him from launching his sprint. This year the Belgian will be eager for revenge and as he is set to be surrounded by a strong team that includes Rigoberto Uran, he will be an obvious favourite. Meanwhile, Fonseca will be eager to get his revenge after missing out on his first pro win 12 months ago.

 

The French eyes will mainly be on Romain Bardet and Pierre Rolland who will both use the race to prepare for Paris-Nice. On paper, the race doesn’t suit their characteristics too well but last year Bardet managed to win the second race of the week, Drome Classic, which is very similar. The Frenchman aims to become a strong classics rider and this could be the place for him to test his potential.

 

The rider to watch in February: Alejandro Valverde

Keep an eye on: Sonny Colbrelli, Tony Martin, Chris Froome, Nacer Bouhanni, Philippe Gilbert, Davide Formolo

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