The 2024 road racing season steps up another level this weekend with the opening men’s and women’s races on the European calendar overlapping with the final stages of the men’s Tour Down Under and the Benidorm cyclocross World Cup.
The men’s Clàssica Comunitat Valenciana 1969 and the Trofeo Felanitx-Colònia Sant Jordi in Mallorca kick off a packed five-week unofficial ‘early-season’ calendar of racing that runs through February to the Spring Classics, that begin with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in Belgium on February 24.
The early season is one of the busiest times of the year. Every team, sponsor and rider want some early victories to boost morale and show they are ready for 2024. There are also a haul of UCI ranking points available, which are vital to WorldTour status and ProTeam invitations to future WorldTour races.
The early-season events help riders work on their race fitness and race craft after long blocks of winter training, new teammates get to race together for the first time, sprint leads outs are tested and polished, and everyone lays the foundations for the bigger goals later in the season.
Multiple options for the men
From Valencia and next week’s Challenge Mallorca races, the men and their teams can follow a variation of calendars depending on their ambitions, season plans and abilities. WorldTour, ProTeam and Continental teams race together in a myriad of races.
The early calendar includes Etoile de Bessèges and other races in the south of France, the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, Tour Colombia, the Volta ao Algarve in Portugal, the Vuelta a Andalucía Ruta Del Sol, the AlUla Tour in Saudi Arabia, the Tour of Oman, men’s and women’s UAE Tour WorldTour races, and many others.
While the likes of Jonas Vingegaard (Visma-Lease a Bike), Mark Cavendish (Astana Qazaqstan) and some Classics contenders may opt to combine or precede training at altitude with their 2024 debuts, most teams will run double or even triple race programmes.
Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), Primož Roglič (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Wout van Aert (Visma-Lease a Bike) are racing less and training in the spring, while the sprinters are especially keen to rack up early season victories.
From team camps to early racing in Spain
Most teams have spent a large part of December and January in Spain at training camps, taking advantage of the warmer, drier weather.
The early-season Spanish races offer similar benefits, and Saturday’s Clàssica Comunitat Valenciana 1969 includes the Coll de Rates climb, where many riders have done their testing. Michael Matthews and Dylan Groenewegen lead Jayco AlUla, Bryan Coquard is a threat for Cofidis and the start list includes a host of talented young riders.
The 2024 early season also includes the Ruta de la Cerámica-Gran Premio Castellón race on Sunday in the north of Valencia, offering a second chance for a very early win and test of form.
The men’s five-day Challenge de Mallorca follows between January 24-28 and will attract another series of riders making their season debut, with the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana back on the Costa Blanca between January 31-February 4. There are other races in Murcia and then the Vuelta a Andalucía Ruta del Sol between February 14-18.
O Gran Camiño is scheduled for February 22-25, with Vingegaard set to make his season debut in the hilly four-day race, racing alongside Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers), Cian Uijtdebroeks (Visma-Lease a Bike) and other big names that avoid the Opening Weekend and the UAE Tour.
The traditions of the South of France
France once hosted the first early-season races as teams trained on the Mediterranean. Most teams have migrated to Spain and the Tour Down Under globalised the early season, but the French races remain a vital stepping stone to the spring.
The 45th edition of the Grand Prix Cycliste la Marseillaise kicks off racing on January 28 in Marseille. All the French teams will be in action, with Magnus Cort also making his debut for Uno-X Mobility. The Etoile de Bessèges-Tour du Gard follows between January 31 and February 4, and ends with a team time trial around stunning Alès.
Next up is the Tour de la Provence between February 8-11, followed by the Classic Var and the two-day Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var on February 16 and 17-18. The last races of the French early season are the Faun-Ardèche Classic on February 24 and the Drôme Classic on February 25. More single race days mean more UCI points on offer, attracting more teams.
Australia, Saudi Arabia, Oman and then the UAE Tour
Some riders began their 2024 season at the Tour Down Under in Australia and they will ride the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race next weekend before travelling to Europe perhaps via the Middle East races.
The AlUla Tour offers another warm weather early race between January 30 and February 3, while the Tour of Oman is held between February 10-14, with the Muscat classic adding an extra day of racing on February 9.
The UAE Tour is only a short flight away and offers more sprint opportunities and WorldTour points before the overall classification is decided on the Jebel Hafeet climb on February 25. The Tour du Rwanda is a lower level alternative for late February racing.
Fabio Jakobsen (Team dsm-firmenich PostNL) is expected to make his season debut in Oman, with Tour Down Under revelation Isaac Del Toro a possible overall contender, alongside UAE Team Emirates teammate Adam Yates.
The USA’s Luke Lamperti will be part of the Soudal-QuickStep lineup after making his debut at the Challenge Mallorca and he could also make his mark in the sprints. The mountain finish on Green Mountain will decide the overall winner.
The UAE Tour lasts seven stages between February 19-25 and so overlaps with the Opening Weekend but offers desert racing, great hotels and some winter sun instead of the cobbles and cold weather of Belgium.
A Colombian altitude experience
The Vuelta a San Juan is no more due to economic difficulties in Argentina but Colombia offers an alternative South American early-season experience, with the Tour Colombia back on between February 6-11.
Cavendish and his Astana Qazaqstan teammates are already in Colombia, training at altitude, while Rigoberto Uran and Richard Carapaz will make their season debuts with EF Education-EasyPost and Bernal leads the Colombian national team. Nairo Quintana will also race for Movistar after riding the Colombian national championships next week.
Big names face off in Portugal
Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico are traditionally the first stage race showdowns of the season but as the season is starting earlier and earlier, and the Volta ao Algarve has grown in importance.
This year the February 14-18 five-stage race will see Remco Evenepoel (Soudal-QuickStep), clash with Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers), João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates), Tao Geoghegan Hart (Lidl-Trek) and Van Aert and others. A total of 14 WorldTour teams will be on the start line, elevating the quality of the racing.
The route includes a hilly stage to the Alto da Fóia, a final stage up to Alto do Malhāo and a hilly 22km time trial. It seems perfect for Evenepoel to give an early indication of his 2024 form and stage race intentions.
A new Spanish twist to the women’s early season
The women’s peloton began racing at the Women’s WorldTour opener Tour Down Under, won by Sarah Gigante (AG Insurance-Soudal), and those riders and teams will stay in Australia for the next round at the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race on January 27.
Not all teams made the trip to the southern hemisphere and many will begin their road racing seasons in Europe at the new event for women at the Mallorca Challenge, which offers three one-day races held from Jan 20-22.
The women’s race precedes the men’s event on the Spanish island, with the entire eight days of racing rebranded as the Garden Hotels Luxcom Challenge. Both the men’s and women’s races will be broadcast live on Eurosport and Teledeporte in Spain.
The women’s racing in Mallorca begins with the Trofeo Felanitx-Colònia Sant Jordi followed by Trofeo Palma Femina and then Trofeo Binissalem-Andratx, and they offer plenty of opportunity for the Continental teams to race against the Women’s WorldTeams.
There are six WorldTeams expected to line up for the three races with headlining riders: Olympic Champion Anna Kiesenhofer (Roland), Arlenis Sierra (Movistar), Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (AG Insurance-Soudal) and Joscelin Lowden (Uno-X Mobility). Paris-Roubaix champion Alison Jackson will compete with the newly-formed EF Education-Cannondale, and Mavi Garcia (Liv AlUla Jayco) will lead the Spanish national team.
More Spanish races
A hotbed for early-season racing, mainland Spain will also host a quality peloton across four events – three 1.1. one-day races and a ProSeries stage race – and continue to offer the nation’s elite and second-tier teams plenty of opportunity for competition.
It is also the perfect time of the season for the WorldTeams to combine racing and training camps under the warm Spanish sun along the coastal communities from Almeria to Valencia.
With a lineup of races that offer a mix of short, steep climbing and fast finishes, the routes provide a combination of challenging racing and additional training ahead of the WorldTour-level racing in Europe.
The Women’s Cycling Pro Costa de Almeria is the first of the series of Spanish races held on January 28, won by Arianna Fidanza (Ceratizit-WNT) last year. A lumpy 135km of racing between Campo Hermoso and Cuevas del Almanzora is likely to see a successful breakaway or a reduced group sprint.
Another one-day race at the Vuelta CV Feminas on February 4 is now in its sixth edition and has become one of the staples of the early-season races. Movistar finished 1-2 in last year’s edition, with Floortje Mackaij taking a solo win ahead of Liane Lippert. At 95km, the route is shorter, but with two mid-race ascents at Oronet and La Frontera, it is truly one for the breakaway specialists.
The peloton will then compete at the four-day Setmana Ciclista Valenciana-Vuelta Comunitat from Feb 15-18. The level of competition also moves up a notch as this event is part of the Pro Series.
A well-attended event, Setmana Valenciana allows teams to get rid of any pre-season nerves and get to know one another in a stage-race setting. It’s also a race that can reveal which teams and riders are in form and which need more preparation and could produce a surprise overall winner as it did last year in Justine Ghekiere (AG Insurance-Soudal).
The one-day Clasica de Almeria on February 25 is the last chance for teams to secure a pre-season win ahead of the Spring Classics. The 137km race from Puebla de Vicar to Vera is hilly, with a mid-race ascent but a long descent into the finish, where Emilie Fortin took the first win for Cynisca Cycling.
The UAE Tour Women
At this time of the year, teams will be returning from Australia, while others will be competing in Spain, but the big focus and a bigger goal will be on the UAE Tour Women, the third round of the Women’s World Tour held from February 8-11.
The inaugural event was held in 2023 as the women’s peloton headed to the Middle East for the four-day race, which offered three sprint opportunities dominated by rivals Lorena Wiebes (SD Worx) and Charlotte Kool (DSM).
A summit finish spotlighted stage 3 atop Jebel Hafeet, won by Elisa Longo Borghini (Lidl-Trek), and she went on to secure the overall title.
Expect much of the same for the 2024 edition with similar courses, starting with the pan-flat stage to Dubai Harbour, a similarly flat stage from Al Mirfa to Madinat Zayed, and the decisive stage to Jebel Hafeet before the final featureless stage around the Abu Dhabi waterfront.