What? When? Where? An early season race guide

Early season used to be a straight forward affair. But that was when cycling was a whole lot more Eurocentric than it still is today. The first events of the year would be sometime in February down around the Mediterranean, before the racing would quickly drift up north to Belgian Classics territory. 

Remnants from this old calendar still exist. But splattered around them on the schedule are a whole raft of newer events in locations alien to that old school cycling world. From Australia to South America, the Middle East and back to the Balearics, World Tour teams will be racking up the air miles in January and February. 

We take a look at some of the most prominent early season events.

Tour Down Under 

Dates: January 11-14 (Women); January 16-21 (Men)

What is it? Pretty much what it says on the tin, mate.

The Tour of Australia? Well, the governmental region of South Australia to be specific. Stages head out into the Barossa and McLaren Vale vineyards, climb the Adelaide Hills and take in scenic rolls along the St Vincent Gulf coast. Introduced as Adelaide’s response to losing the Australian Grand Prix, this year’s men race will be the twentieth edition.

Suits: Australians, who typically come into the race bronze and fit after their homeland summer. The men’s race has seen a home win 12 times, including a record four wins by Simon Gerrans, while all three editions of the relatively new women’s tour (including this year’s race, which finished on Sunday with Amanda Spratt taking her second consecutive title) have been won by Aussies. Andre Greipel has also won twice while the recent introduction of a hillier parcours has seen the like of Richie Porte and Rohan Dennis score victories.

Typical photo op: Rider holding baby kangaroo at the beach.

Read: Caleb Ewan on the art of sprinting 

Vuelta San Juan

Vuelta San Luis 2015

Dates: January 21-28

The Argentinean one? Correct. The Vuelta San Juan took over from Vuelta San Luis as South America’s foot in the early season door last year. San Juan’s race is actually the longer established of the two events with 2018 bringing its 36th edition but it only started to attract a more international field in 2017 after San Luis (pictured) ran into financial difficulties.

What’s the terrain? Tucked up close to the Andes, think barren landscapes with some city-ring-road action thrown in. There’s something here for sprinters and time trial specialists but the main event is stage five’s spectacular summit finish on Alto Colorado which tops out at over 2,500m. Rui Costa won that stage in 2017 while Bauke Mollema took the overall.

So who’s in? UAE, Movistar, Bahrain-Merida, Trek-Segafredo and Quick Step have all confirmed. Vincenzo Nibali and Fernando Gaviria are the biggest names making the trip.

Don’t forget: Your sunscreen – last year brought several shortened stages amid rider protests as the mercury went north of 40 degrees.

Challenge Mallorca

Dates: January 25-28

In a nutshell: Four individual races, or Trofeos, over the course of one week. With Mallorca a favoured training ground and teams able to swap riders in and out of their squads, it all adds up to an ideal early-season test.

Mallorca is hilly, isn’t it? The Trofeo Serra de Tramuntana starts in Sóller and finishes in Deià on the northwest coast and has the most climbing of the four races – some 2,800m over its 140km. Tim Wellens won there in 2017 while Britain’s Dan McLay won the flatter Trofeo Palma from a 40-strong bunch sprint.

History lesson: First held in 1992, over the years the races have changed with many of the island’s towns having a Trofeo at one stage or other. The race into Palma used to open the week but since 2015 it has instead brought proceedings to an end.

World Tour Team Roll-Call: Sky, Bora-Hansgrohe, Trek-Segafredo and Movistar.

Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race

Dates: January 27 (Women); January 28 (Men)

Cadel has his own race? Sure. Since 2015 Evans has put his name to a one day race near Melbourne, that passes through his home town of Barwon Heads. The event also includes a couple of criteriums and a mass participation People’s Ride.

Why? Why not? The world’s best teams have made the long trip from Europe for the Tour Down Under earlier in the month and the long established Herald Sun Tour starts a few days later. This fills the gap nicely and provides a testing race to help teams in their preparation for Europe’s one-day classics.

What’s the route? Out from Geelong for a blast along the Surf Coast and, briefly, the Great Ocean Road, before heading back inland for the Challambra Crescent climb (1km at 10%) and a sprint finish on the Geelong waterfront.

What’s new? The women’s peloton will scale the Challambra Crescent climb for the first time.

Etoile de Bessèges

Etoile de Besseges 2014

Dates: January 31-February 4

This is France, right? Oui. The Gard department to be exact, between the Rhône River and the Cévennes national park. Dating from 1971 this is France’s first major stage race of the season. On la carte are four stages of around 150km and a race closing 10.7km ITT with a haul up to the finish-line in Ales.

Aren’t there other major races at the same time? Yes – the Herald Sun Tour and the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana. That helps explain why the only WorldTour teams confirmed at the time of writing are AG2R and FDJ.

Who’s going to win? A rider who can sneak away in a successful breakaway, not lose any time in the sprint stages and time trial well.

No, who is going to win? If we must name names, Tony Gallopin finished second here three years in a row while riding for Lotto-Soudal. Now he’s with AG2R maybe he can go a step higher.


Read: French racing reinvented at Boucles Drôme-Ardèche

Dubai Tour

Dates: February 6-10

To the Middle East: Five days of action in the United Arab Emirates. There are four sprinter-friendly stages and an intriguing ride to Hatta Dam through three deserts that ends with a 200m drag to the finish with maximum grades of 17%.

Race history: Just five years old, like the Abu Dhabi Tour held later in February, the race is owned by RCS Sport. In 2017 a fifth day was added to increase the breadth of the race.

Is this going to be a sprint-fest in the sun? Probably. Taylor Phinney won the first race in 2014 after winning the opening time trial. With the time trial stage cut, subsequent editions have been won by Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel who in 2017 retained the Circle of Stars trophy he won in 2016.

Watch for: Time bonuses – they are key, as is the ability not to lose time on the climb to Hatta Dam. Desert winds could also play havoc. 

Colombia Oro y Paz

Dates: February 6-11

This is new, right? Yep. Following the rise of Colombian cyclists on the world stage, the UCI has awarded Colombia a 2.1 rated race, enabling their top riders to race on home roads.

They will show up, won’t they? Nairo Quintana, Rigoberto Urán, and Fernando Gaviria all attended the race launch in November and confirmed they would race. Team Sky will be there with Sergio and Sebastián Henao.

Good. What can they expect? You mean apart from incessant fan and media attention? Six stages in the western Valle del Cauca region of Colombia, starting in Palmira and heading north to Manizales. The race climaxes with two stages finishing at over 2000m but the climbing is measured, especially considering what could have been thrown at the riders.

They say: “I’m already counting the days left until I’ll race in my country.” Fernando Gaviria.

Read: How a timely phone call brought Esteban Chaves back from the brink

Tour of Oman

Tour of Oman 2014

Dates: are the fruit at the cultural heart of Oman. But the race takes place between February 13-18

Background: ASO’s first race of the year and its only Middle East presence now the Tour of Qatar has fallen off the calendar. While the Tour of Qatar was a windswept, pan-flat affair, the Tour of Oman is hillier and altogether more appealing for GC riders.

What’s the route? Good question. At the time of writing the 2018 route has still not been formally announced but expect some punchy stages and a summit finish atop Green Mountain that has featured every year since 2011.

Who’s in? Nine WorldTour teams including Astana, Katusha-Alpecin and UAE Team Emirates. BMC Racing -who won the race last year with Ben Hermans- also return.

Previous winners include: Fabian Cancellara, Robert Gesink, Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali. 

Volta ao Algarve

Dates: February 14-18

Back to Europe: Yes, for the first European HC rated stage race of the season (along with the Vuelta a Andalucia which runs at the same time). This is the 44th edition of the Portuguese race although it only started to attract a more international field towards the late 1990s.

How many stages? Five. Starting in Albufeira the race heads to its now traditional finish five days later on the summit of Alto do Malhão. There are two sprint stages, two climbing days and a 20km race against the clock that the organisers promise will be more technically demanding than previous years.

Who’s riding? Dan Martin is the earliest of the big names to confirm attendance.

Did you know? Last year’s stage win on Alto do Malhao by Amaro Antunes was the first on the iconic climb by a Portuguese rider since João Cabreira in 2006.   

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

Het Nieuwsblad 2012

Date: 24 February (Women and Men)

Ah, Belgium at last: Yes, and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne is the day after. Spring must be around the corner. The men’s race will be its 73rd edition; the women’s its 13th

Anything new? Glad you asked, it’s all change this year. The organisers, Flanders Classics, have moved the finish to Ninove, enabling the race to use the much-missed closing 60km of the pre-2012 Tour of Flanders route. That means the return of the Muur van Geraardsbergen and Bosberg one-two punch.

Last year: Greg Van Avermaet won at the start of his stellar Classics season while Lucinda Brand claimed the women’s event.

A legend says: “The finale with the Muur and Bosberg speaks to the imagination … It’s going to be a real spectacle.” Three-time winner and race director Peter van Petegem.

Read: Off piste at Het Nieuwsblad with the Danish duo 

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