The UCI WorldTour returns to Europe after the Santos Tour Down Under race in Australia, with the Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico stage races promising spectacular racing as the world's best riders choose between France and Italy for a week of intense racing.
Paris-Nice (3rd to 10th March) is known as the 'Race to the Sun' as the route heads south from the French capital to the Mediterranean coast, while Tirreno-Adriatico (6th to 12th March) crosses central Italy from the Tyrrhenian sea to the Adriatic. Both races include stages for the sprinters and attackers, with the mountains and final time trials set to decide the final overall winner.
Both races offer precious UCI WorldTour points for the UCI WorldTour rankings. The overall winner scores 100 points, with lesser points awarded down to tenth place overall. Stage winners score six points, with lesser points for placings.
Tour Down Under winner Tom Slagter (Blanco Pro Cycling Team) of the Netherlands currently leads the UCI WorldTour individual rankings with 111 points. Spain's Javier Moreno (Movistar) is second with 86 points and Britain's Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) is third with 77 points.
The Blanco Pro Cycling Team also leads the Teams ranking, while Spain is the early leader in the Nations classification. All three rankings will no doubt be shaken-up after Paris-Nice and then Tirreno-Adriatico.
Paris-Nice: An open race in the absence of Wiggins
Paris â€“Nice starts and ends with short time trials. The opening prologue is a 2.9km blast around the town of Houilles near Paris, while the final 9.6km time trial is a classic: from the centre of Nice to the summit of the Col dâ€™Ãˆze, overlooking the French Riviera. In between are a series of three largely flat stages suited to the sprinters and then three mountain stages.
Stage five from the vineyards of ChÃ¢teauneuf-du-Pape to La Montagne de Lure looks set to be most important. It is only 176km long but ends with a 13.8Km climb to the finish at an altitude of 1600m â€“the highest ever reached during Paris-Nice.
Stage six is also packed with climbs and a fast descent to Nice but the final time trial will surely be decisive. Last year Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) won this last stage, setting a time two seconds faster than Lieuwe Westra (Vacansoleil-DCM). That gave the Briton a final winning margin of just eight seconds after a week of thrilling racing.
Wiggins is not riding Paris-Nice this year but there is lack of overall contenders. Richie Porte replaces Wiggins as leader at Team Sky but the Australian will have to beat Westra, talented young American Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing Team), Robert Gesink (Blanco Pro Cycling Team), Roman Kreuziger (Team Saxo-Tinkoff) and Thomas LÃ¶fkvist (IAM Cycling).
Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Elia Viviani (Team Cannondale), Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge), Thomas Voeckler (Team Europcar) and Heinrich Haussler (IAM Cycling) will all be names to watch for as they target stage victories on the road from Paris to Nice.
Tirreno-Adriatico: A prestigious selection of riders
Tirreno-Adriatico starts on Wednesday March 6 with a spectacular 16.9km team time trial and ends a week later with an equally flat and fast individual time trial in San Bendetto del Tronto.
In between the race crosses the Italian Apennine mountains with a tough mountain finish on stage four to Prati di Tivo. The climb ends where the ski piste begins and will create significant time gaps amongst the overall contenders. Stage five is another tough day in the saddle, with the leg-hurting climb up to the finish in Chieti. It will be vital to fight for the time bonuses (10, 6 and 4 seconds) on offer at the finish of stage.
Tirreno-Adriatico is traditionally seen as the best race to prepare for the Spring Classics. But more than ever, it will be a battle of prestige between many of the big-name stage race riders in the sport as they fight for the race leader's blue jersey and the special trident trophy.
Chris Froome (Team Sky) showed his form by winning the recent Tour of Oman but faces huge opposition from Alberto Contador (Team Saxo-Tinkoff), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel Euskadi) and Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step). Also on the start list are Thor Hushovd and Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing Team), Peter Sagan (Cannondale Pro Cycling), Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Merida) and Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard)
Many of the world's best sprinters will also be in Italy for Tirreno-Adriatico. Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) will go head to head with AndrÃ© Greipel (Lotto Belisol), Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp), Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEdge) and John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano).