With the 2013 season now under way, we have a brief hiatus in the WorldTour until Paris-Nice next month. But that isn’t to say February is quiet in terms of racing – far from it. Many of the big names in the pro peloton launch their campaigns this month, some in distant, exotic and warm locales such as Malaysia, while others will be braving some downright wintry conditions as the European season gets going. Here is a summary of what we will be watching over the next few weeks.
There are three big stage races in Asia in quick succession during February. The Tour of Qatar (3rd-8th) is really one for the sprinters. Tom Boonen has won the overall here four times, including last year. Injury will prevent him from defending his title, but OPQS are sending a half-decent substitute in his place: Mark Cavendish.
The Tour of Oman (11th-16th) has only been on the calendar since 2010. It favours riders who can both climb a bit and time trial well, as evidenced by its roll call of past winners: Fabian Cancellara, Robert Gesink and Peter Velits.
Last but by no means least, Malaysia’s ten-day Tour de Langkawi (21st-2nd March) is a climber’s race packed with sprint stages. The race has been won in each of the past four years by riders from Androni Giocattoli – twice by Jose Serpa, now with Lampre – while Farnese Vini’s Andrea Guardini (now Astana) has won 11 stages in two years.
In Europe there are no fewer than 18 UCI-sanctioned races this month, mostly in the heartlands of France, Spain, Belgium and Italy.
The big stage races in France this month are the five-day Tour Méditerranéen (6th-10th) and the shorter Tour du Haut Var (16th-17th). Both favour climbers, although the former is slanted more towards stage racers while the latter is more of a Classics-style affair. Last year Endura’s Jonathan Tiernan-Locke won both races as part of an impressive early season surge which prompted his move to Sky for this season. There is also the one-day Classic Sud Ardèche (24th), which tends to be a more ‘domestic’ affair. Eight of the race’s 12 winners are French, most recently Remi Pauriol (FDJ) last year.
In Spain, we have the four races which make up the Challenge Mallorca (3rd-6th), a combination of flat and hilly parcours popular with teams looking to fine-tune their preparations for the bigger races ahead. This is followed later in the month by the four-day Vuelta a Andalucia (17th-20th) – also known as the Ruta del Sol – which last year was won by Alejandro Valverde, his first overall stage race victory since his return from his doping ban. And February closes with the Clasica de Almeria (27th), a flattish sprinter-friendly race.
Belgium offers up a series of one-day semi-Classics. Firstly there is the weekend double-header of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (23rd) and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne (24th). The former was one of the hidden gems of last year’s calendar, with Garmin’s Sep Vanmarcke achieving a rare feat – defeating Tom Boonen during his annus mirabilis – while Mark Cavendish claimed the latter. Three days later comes the hillier Le Samyn (27th), where the balance between sprinters and Classics men is more even.
The Italian season gets off to a relatively quiet start, with only the one-dayers Trofeo Laigueglia (16th) and GP Camaiore (28th) of note. The first of these is very much a sprinter’s race, the latter a climber’s.
Last but by no means least Portugal hosts the mountainous Volta ao Algarve (14th-17th), the first of many races dominated by Sky (and won by Richie Porte) in 2012, while Switzerland hosts the GP di Lugano (24th), which has been won in recent years by both stage racers/climbers and sprinters, but is particularly popular among the Italian contingent, who have won six of the last seven editions.
It’s Valentine’s Day this month, and the 14th also happens to be the 36th birthday of BMC’s Cadel Evans. No wonder the 2011 Tour de France champion is nicknamed ‘Cuddles’, eh? Speaking of which, perennial ladies’ favourite and former Cav-minder Bernhard Eisel (Sky) turns 32 on the 17th, and I’m sure there’s no shortage of female admirers who would gladly cuddle up to him.
February will also see a number of Grand Tour contenders blowing out the candles on their birthday cakes. 2008 Olympic champion and 2011 Tour de France polka dot jersey Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel Euskadi) will be 35 on the 5th, while Lotto Belisol’s Jurgen van den Broeck, four times a top ten finisher in Grand Tours including a pair of fourths in France, hits the big three-oh today. Many happy returns, Jurgen!
One of Jack’s riders to watch, Nairo Quintana (Movistar) will be 23 on the 4th. He’s not the only young ‘un who turns a year older during February, as Elia Viviani (Cannondale) – who bookended his 2012 with wins at the Tours de San Luis and Beijing – will be 24 on the 7th.
Classics specialists are also well represented this month, with Garmin’s Johan Vansummeren (Paris-Roubaix, 2011) and IAM’s Heinrich Haussler (who was edged out at the 2009 Milan-San Remo by one Mark Cavendish) celebrating birthdays on the 4th and 25th respectively.
Finally, a mention for an old personal favourite of mine. Sandy Casar is starting his 14th consecutive season riding for FDJ and turns 34 tomorrow (the 2nd). In his long career, he has won stages at the Tour de France three times (in 2007, 2009 and 2010), and is a strong enough all-round rider to have finished sixth overall at the Giro and in the top 30 at the Tour in each of the last five years.
Happy birthday one and all!
Also on the blog
In addition to the very best race reviews and analysis, we’re going to be expanding on our weekly columns over the course of February. Of course, the ever popular Tweets of the Week will hit the blog every Tuesday, with our Friday Feature continuing to bring you the best in interviews, photography and other exclusive content.
Tim will be launching his new Talking Tactics column next Wednesday, in which he delves into the race strategies employed by riders and teams. And Thursday will become the regular slot for AntBanter, which we hope will eventually become a weekly column.
Watch out for more new columns as the year progresses, with Sheree cooking up some new ideas too.
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