A look at this week’s packed pro racing calendar

From Le Samyn to Strade Bianche to Paris-Nice, here's a look at this week's packed pro road racing calendar.

Photo: James Startt

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Pro road cycling has awakened from its short 2020-2021 off-season, with the UAE Tour opening the WorldTour calendar and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne marking the unofficial start of the classics campaign. Across Europe this week, there are major one-day events and stage races on the calendar, and stars of the sport are building into their respective campaigns.

Here’s your insider’s guide for the races going on for the week of Monday, March 1 through Sunday, March 7:

Le Samyn des Dames

Image: Le Samyn

Tuesday, March 2

What to know: Pro cycling’s gaze shifts from Flanders to Wallonia for the opening race of French Belgium’s annual racing season, which is held outside of Mons right on the French border. Cobbled classics stars abound in this tough event, which features pavé, punchy climbs, and an uphill finish. The last few events have been won by either solo breakaways or from small groups, so expect a fast and tactical race. This race does not feature a Women’s WorldTour event, but rather a UCI 1.1 race. But with so many women’s pro events canceled this year due to COVID-19, the women are racing for keeps in every single race. So, you can expect everyone here to be racing to win.

The route: The 92.5km route from Quaregnon to Dour is comprised largely of two laps of a hilly circuit, and the entire journey takes on 15 sectors of pavé. The race concludes with a grinding 3km climb to the finish.

Who to watch: The entire SD Worx roster; Trek-Segafredo’s new hires Chloe Hosking and Amalie Dideriksen; Lorena Wiebes and Floortje Mackaij (DSM); Soraya Paladin (Liv Racing); Eugenia Bujak and Mavi García (Alé BTC Ljubljana); Tanja Erath and Leah Dixon (Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank) to name a few.

Broadcast: GCN+

Le Samyn Hommes

Image: Le Samyn

Tuesday, March 2

What to know: Mathieu van der Poel is here this year, which automatically makes Le Samyn must-watch TV. MVDP is still building into his top form after missing most of the UAE Tour, so you can bet he is going to try for another long move. U.S. squad Rally Cycling is also on the start list, so get ready to cheer for North Americans like Robin Carpenter, Joey Rosskopf, and Magnus Sheffield, who will be making his European pro debut.

Hugo Hofstetter of Israel Start-Up Nation won the 2020 edition from a diminished sprint to give his team a much-needed victory after a number of close calls. Hofstetter’s victory highlights a fact about Le Samyn that makes this race worthy of your attention. The start list is always glitzy with star power, yet it’s often the less-than-household-named riders who win or challenge for the win. Sure, Niki Terpstra and Arnaud Démare have victories here in the last decade, but the lineup of other winners includes Guillaume van Keirlsbulck, Maxime Vantomme, and Alexey Tsatevich. Will this year’s event be won by a star or not? It’s anybody’s guess. What you can bet on, however, is that the tough course will shatter the group as it heads to the finish. This race usually finishes with a sprint from a diminished front group or a breakaway.

The route: The men’s race is 204.5km, with the final 102 kilometers being held on the same local circuit used by the women’s race. There are a lot of cobbled sections, and I can’t quite count them all on the course profile, which for some reason is low-resolution. The race concludes with that same grinding 3km ascent to the finish.

Who to watch: Mathieu van der Poel is the big name on this year’s start list. Hofstetter is back alongside new teammate Sep Vanmarcke; Mark Cavendish, José Alvaro Hodeg (Deceuninck-Quick-Step); John Degenkolb (Lotto Soudal); Victor Campenaerts (Qhubeka Assos); Van der Poel and Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix); Niki Terpstra (Total Direct Energie); Rally Cycling

Broadcast: GCN+

Trofeo Laigueglia

Trofeo Laigueglia is incredibly scenic. Photo: Tim De Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

Wednesday, March 3

What to know: Who doesn’t want to spend early March hanging out on Italy’s Ligurian coast? This race has a storied history that dates back to the 1960s, and in 1985 Ron Kiefel became the first American to win an Italian classic there. These days, it’s become a tasty appetizer for Milano-Sanremo, as the route takes in the coastline between west of Genoa that riders will speed through in two weeks’ time.

The route: There race’s website has no information on the route — why would anyone want such useful info? If the route goes according to its recent course, then the 203-kilometer journey from Laigueglia to Laigueglia will take in three major ascents before returning to a hilly circuit that the route will circle four times before a fast finish. Each circuit includes the steep Colla Micheri, which should break things up.

Who to watch: Egan Bernal and Michal Kwiatkowski (Ineos Grenadiers), Nairo Quintana (Arkea-Samsic), Mikel Landa (Bahrain-Victorious), Vincenzo Nibali and Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo), Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ).

Broadcast: No

Strade Bianche WE

Image: RCS Sport

What to know: This race reminds us why we love cycling. The white roads of Tuscany come alive in this celebration of bike racing, and every year Strade Bianche delivers thrilling action and great drama on the route to Siena. The biggest stars of the Women’s WorldTour all want to win this race, and the start list contains the sport’s biggest names. Annemiek van Vleuten is the two-time defending champion, and the last time the race had a non-Dutch winner was way back in 2017.

The route: The traditional 136-kilometer route from Siena to Siena returns, and the route includes constant up and down, with eight sectors of gravel for a total of 31.4km on the white dirt. The race always finishes with the leg-cracking climb to the Piazza del Campo.

Who to watch: Anna van der Breggen (SD Worx), Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar), Lizzie Deignan and Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo), Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope), Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma), Floortje Mackaij and Liane Lippert (DSM), among others.

Broadcast: GCN+

Strade Bianche

Image: RCS Sport

What to know: Cycling’s most thrilling rivalry returns, as Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin Fenix) are set to start this Saturday. Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) makes his return to racing following a COVID-19 infection. Julian Alaphilippe and the Deceuninck-Quick-Step “Wolfpack” returns to wreck stuff. And Tadej Pogačar will be there, too. And plenty of other top riders will be here to add their name to the race’s short but illustrious list of winners. Again, Strade Bianche is one of those rare Saturdays when you just need to tune in, tune out, and let the bike racing wash over you.

The route: It’s shorter than monuments at just 184 kilometers. Make no mistake, this race is HARD, as the constant undulations and heavy gravel roads require plenty of power to survive.

Who to watch: Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), Julian Alaphilippe, Zdeněk Štybar, and Davide Ballerini (Deceuininck-Quick-Step), Greg van Avermaet (AG2R-Citroën), Michael Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation), Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Simon Yates (BikeExchange), Tadej Pogačar (UAE-Team Emirates), Egan Bernal and Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers), Romain Bardet (DSM).

Broadcast: GCN+

Paris-Nice stage 1

Roglič returns to racing at Paris-Nice. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

What to know: The yearlong Jumbo-Visma vs. Ineos Grenadiers war kicks off at Paris-Nice with Primož Roglič taking on Tao Geoghegan Hart at Paris-Nice. This year the race kicks off with a hilly circuit around Saint-Cyr-L’École on the western edge of Paris that the peloton circles twice for 166 total kilometers. The big GC battles will occur later in the week, but Sunday’s stage will no doubt deliver some thrilling bike racing, as the route looks like it could cater to a sprint or a breakaway. Paris-Nice was the final race held in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic stopped racing in its tracks. While parts of southern France are still in lockdown, the race is expected to complete its annual voyage from north to south.

The route: Stage 1 is a constant up-and-down parcours for 166 total kilometers, with the last hill coming just 6km from the finish.

Who to watch: John Degenkolb and Philippe Gilbert (Lotto Soudal), Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma), Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana-Premier Tech), Tao Geoghegan Hart and Richie Porte (Ineos Grenadiers), Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), Neilson Powless (EF-Nippo), Michael Matthews (BikeExchange)

Broadcast: NBC Sports Gold

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