What’s happening in March?

Welcome to our preview of what’s happening in the world of road cycling in March. With the Classics season getting under way last weekend with races such as Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and the GP di Lugano, not to mention stage races such as the Tours of Qatar and Oman and the Volta ao Algarve earlier in February, the 2012 season is now in full flow.

March is even busier. All the big stars will be coming out to play as they start their serious preparations for the big spring Classics and the Giro d’Italia.

Strade Bianche (3rd)

Saturday sees only the sixth running of this Italian one-day race. However its distinctive 190km course, which features eight sectors of strade bianche (white gravel roads) totalling nearly 60km, has already made it a firm favourite for many riders and teams preparing for either the cobbled Classics or Tirreno-Adriatico, which starts the following week.

Starting in Gaiole in Chianti and finishing 190km later in Siena’s spectacular cathedral square, the parcours is not excessively vertical but is constantly punctuated by short, sharp digs, meaning the riders will need to be constantly wary of attacks. Previous winners include Fabian Cancellara (2008) and Philippe Gilbert (2011).

Gilbert returns to defend his title with a strong BMC team which includes Tour de France champion Cadel Evans, Paris-Tours winner Greg Van Avermaet and Alessandro Ballan, who may end up being their protected rider. Also likely to feature in a strong 14-team field are 2010 winner Maxim Iglinsky (Astana) and Paris-Roubaix champion Johan Vansummeren (Garmin-Barracuda).

You can find out more on the official race website here.

Vuelta a Murcia (3rd-4th)

A victim of the parlous state of the Spanish economy, this race was cut from five days to three last year, and two this year. However, it remains on the calendar – barely – and now comprises a mountain-top finish followed by a short (11km) individual time trial.

Nonetheless the start list includes several top riders, including Vuelta champion Juan Jose CoboSamuel SanchezRobert Gesink and Britain’s early-season sensation Jonathan Tiernan-Locke.

You can find out more on the official race website here.

Paris-Nice (4th-11th)

The 70th edition of Paris-Nice – the ‘Race to the Sun’ – comprises an eight-day, 1,155km route, and provides a testing all-round challenge suitable for those whose ambitions centre on the Grand Tours. This year’s parcours is book-ended by a pair of short individual time trials – stage one is merely hilly, while the final stage is a straight climb to the top of the first-category Col d’Eze. In between is a mix of flat days for the sprinters and three consecutive uphill finishes on stages three to five. The last of these is the race’s queen stage, which finishes at the summit of the cat. 1 Cote de la Croix Neuve, a short (3km) but vicious ascent averaging 10.1%.

Tony Martin returns to defend his title against a strong field which includes a raft of big names: the brothers Schleck, Basso, Cunego, Menchov, Valverde, Kloden, Leipheimer and Wiggins. But watch out also for Nicolas Roche (AG2R), Janez Brajkovic (Astana), Tejay Van Garderen (BMC), Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) and Rein Taaramae (Cofidis), all of whom will be looking to break into the elite ranks.

You can find out more on the official race website here.

Tirreno-Adriatico (7th-13th)

Overlapping with Paris-Nice, most of the top stage racers who aren’t heading for the south of France will be racing coast-to-coast in Italy instead in this seven-day, 1,063km west-to-east event, known as the ‘Race of the Two Seas’. Like Paris-Nice, the race starts and ends with short time trials, although both are flat and here stage one is a team rather than individual effort. In between, stage four features the first major mountains before ending in a punchy climb in Chieti – a finish won last year by Michele Scarponi. The queen stage follows the next day with a summit finish on Prati di Tivo, a 14.5km ascent averaging 7%. The penultimate stage is a rolling affair which will have breakaway artists licking their lips before the final day’s potentially decisive individual time trial.

Tour de France champion Cadel Evans achieved a battling victory here last year, holding off Scarponi, Robert Gesink, Ivan Basso and Vincenzo Nibali. Team line-ups have yet to be announced, but Evans should be back to defend his title against 2010 and 2009 winners Scarponi and Stefano Garzelli (Acqua & Sapone), as well as Nibali and a whole host of Italian climbers eager to impress ahead of the Giro.

You can find out more on the official race website here.

Milan-San Remo (17th)

The so-called ‘sprinters’ classic’ will notch up its 103rd running this year and still remains the ultimate challenge for the fast-twitch men. The first of the five ‘monuments’ of European cycling is the longest one-day race on the professional calendar, totalling a massive 298km and stretching the riders’ endurance to their limits on a course which usually takes close to seven hours to complete.

A top-class field is likely to include 2009 and 2011 winners Mark Cavendish and Matt Goss, and Andre Greipel (already a six-time winner in 2012) – all former HTC-Highroaders. The first 120km or so is flat but starts to drain the legs ahead of a series of hills in the back half of the race. It’s not uncommon for an initial selection to occur on any of these climbs, but it is the Poggio, whose summit is just 6km from the finish, which is often crucial. Last year Goss was the strongest finisher from a lead group of just eight riders, and he should be back to defend his title with new team GreenEDGE.

You can find out more on the official race website here.

Volta a Catalunya (19th-25th)

The week-long Volta a Catalunya, which was first held in 1911, is the third-oldest stage race in existence (behind only the Tour and Giro), and remains the second most important race in Spain after the Vuelta. The parcours traditionally contains plenty of challenging climbs, but also lots of opportunities for the sprinters.

The general classification is generally won by a climbing all-rounder, with the last three winners being Alejandro Valverde, Joaquim Rodriguez and Alberto Contador (now Michele Scarponi after Contador’s back-dated ban).

You can find out more on the official race website here.

E3 Harelbeke (23rd)

Also known as the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, this 203km Flandrian race is quite literally a race of two halves. The initial eastern leg of the route flat for its first 99km, with three sets of cobbles to help loosen up the riders before the real fun begins on the return leg. The final 104km of this year’s route features 13 climbs, some of which are also cobbled, with seven reserved for the final 55km: Taaienberg (1,250m of cobbles averaging 9.5% at a maximum of 18%), Kruisberg, Kapelberg, the excruciating Paterberg (362m, cobbled, 12% average, 20% max), Kwaremont, Knokteberg and finally the Tiegemberg, which summits just 15km from the finish. The attacks and counter-attacks will be non-stop across these climbs in what is always a thrilling final 1½ hours of racing.

Last year Fabian Cancellara overcame a series of mechanical problems to catch the lead group and then launch a solo attack which took him to victory for the second year in a row. Tom Boonen also won the E3 four years in a row between 2004 and 2007.

You can find out more on the official race website here.

Criterium International (24th-25th)

The two-day, three-stage race returns will take place in Corsica – the site for the 2013 Tour de France Grand Depart – for the third year running on the weekend of the 24th/25th. This year’s event sees the two-day running order swapped round, with Saturday opening up with a flat morning stage of 89.5km, followed by a 6.5km individual time trial in the afternoon. The second day will see the riders tackle a summit finish on the Col de l’Ospedale.

First run in 1932, the race’s former winners include Sean Kelly, Bernard Hinault, Miguel Indurain, Stephen Roche and Laurent Fignon. RadioShack’s Jens Voigt has won the event five times, most recently in 2009, while last year his teammate Frank Schleck claimed overall victory.

You can find out more on the official race website here.

Gent-Wevelgem (25th)

First run in 1934, the 74th edition of Gent-Wevelgem sees some changes designed to inject a greater degree of challenge. This year’s race has been extended from 205km to 235km and introduces two ascents of the Casselberg, a tough climb which regularly features in the Four Days of Dunkirk. Added to the cobbled Kemmelberg climb, which is usually located around 40km from the finish, this should provide additional opportunities for attackers to chance their arm.

Often referred to as a sprinters’ classic, the race is rarely decided in a bunch sprint. It is usually won by either a breakaway or a strong-man sprinter from a select group. Last year Tom Boonen emerged victorious in a small group sprint. Previous winners also include Thor Hushovd (2006), Oscar Freire (2008), Edvald Boasson Hagen (2009) and Bernhard Eisel (2010).

You can find out more on the official race website here.

Look out for full previews in advance of each race here on VeloVoices.

This month’s birthdays

A selection of the more notable birthdays in the peloton this month:

2nd: Igor Anton, Euskaltel-Euskadi (29 years old). The Basque climber enjoyed some notable successes in 2011 after crashing out of the lead of the previous year’s Vuelta a Espana. Although he was unable to maintain a concerted challenge at either the Giro or the Vuelta, he won a stage at each, and also placed fifth at Fleche Wallonne.

18th: Fabian Cancellara, RadioShack-Nissan (31). The four-time time trial world champion had a successful but frustrating 2011, losing his mantle to Tony Martin in Copenhagen and being marked out of contention by his rivals at the spring Classics after winning the E3 Harelbeke. Nonetheless, he claimed several time trial wins and podium finishes at Paris-Roubaix, Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders. Not bad for an ‘off’ year.

22nd: Jakob Fuglsang, RadioShack-Nissan (27). The Danish all-rounder lives in the shadow of the Schlecks, but emerged as a seasoned stage racer in his own right in 2011, riding to 11th at the Vuelta, his first top 40 finish at a Grand Tour. He also finished fourth overall at the Tour de Suisse and Amstel Gold, and went on to record tenth place in the time trial at the Worlds.

Also on the blog

We have a great set of Friday Features coming up this month, including Sheree’s interview with Amael Moinard, a key cog in the BMC machine which delivered Cadel Evans to Tour de France victory last July. Kathi is also penning a piece on cycling photographer Roz Jones, whose outstanding work we will be showcasing around the blog.

Of course, we’ll also bring you the all the key race reviews and analysis from this month’s key stage races and one-day Classics, Kathi’s Tweets of the Week every Tuesday, plus whatever else tickles our fancy as the month progresses.

Whether serious or light-hearted, VeloVoices is the place to come for all the latest cycling news and views!

2 thoughts on “What’s happening in March?

  1. Kittyfondue says:

    We’re going to be *really* busy this month! And I’ll have good reasons to talk about Cancellara ad nauseum!!! Result!

    • But not before I get the first punch in on behalf of Cav (and sprinters in general). Watch out for tomorrow’s Friday Feature on the fascinating (no, really) question of sprinter rankings.

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