Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Season Openers

As the rhyme of winter marches on, spring is nearly upon us, and what better way to start the spring than to consider the traditional opener races? In France, this means GP d'Ouverture La Marseilleise. In Italy, this means GP Costa degli Etruschi. In Belgium, this means the long-awaited Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

Season openers are a tricky affair both for race organizers and for riders. Doing well in them requires significant preparation in winter. We argue it also requires a bit more luck than usual, what with the entire peloton just waking up from a long winter slumber. Surely we all know how jittery those first springtime group rides can be .... And for organizers, a dose of luck in terms of decent weather is critical. We further argue it requires much more willpower than usual, what with colder temperatures, wet roads, likeliness of rain, and needing more frequent nature breaks.

Sebastien Chavanel in tactical preparation to race in the 2011 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
Photo credit brassynn
In a previous article we learned of how de Omloop started as a counter-race to de Ronde, but that over time it ceded its competing schedule to one that is complementary. With this it earned its place in the spring classics. Now we will give the stories behind the other opening races, GP La Marseilleise and GP Etruschi.

The French opener GP d'Ouverture La Marseilleise, surprise surprise, was started by the newspaper La Marseillaise. It came into being very late: it started only in 1980. Not only that, a legend started in the peloton that it is a cursed race, that winning this race bodes misfortune to the rider for the rest of the season. It is not clear how this legend started, as its first winners include the irrepressible Bernard Hinault - who went on to win the Tour and Worlds in that season - and Jan Raas who went on to win de Ronde in the same season.

Regardless, the full name d'Ouverture means literally, wait for it, wait for it .... "the opener". So who is to argue its place as the season opener? Marseille is blessed with Mediterranean climate: winters are mild and humid while summers are dry. February already brings decent temperatures around 8'C during the day, and lows around 4'C in the evenings. As long as the fierce Mistral wind doesn't blow cold but cleansing air from the Alps, the racing should be at least tolerable.

Despite all this, what draws our hardmen into this race must also be the course itself. Starting in Marseille, it is pleasant with some climbs that are not impossibly difficult, and with a downhill-to-flat finish back in Marseille. Befitting its characteristic, all-rounders seem to do well in this race up to the recent years, including Ludo Dierckxsens, Hervé Duclos-Lassalle, and Jérémy Roy. In more recent times however, it is clear that the trend tends to favor sprinters such as Baden Cooke and Samuel Dumoulin.

Further east on the Mediterranean coast we find GP della Costa Etruschi, named after the ancient civilization from Tuscany that gave its name to that coastal region facing the western Tyrrhenian Sea. The professional ranked race is even younger than GP La Marseillese, but it came about organically. Started in 1996 by local organizers (and surprisingly no newspaper sponsor), it earned UCI pro status in 1998, won by then-up-and-coming local sprinting star Mario Cipollini. With such a star on the podium, who could resist?

The Tyrrhenian coast of Tuscany has cool and damp winter, slightly cooler than Marseille's climate. No wonder it starts a week later than GP La Marseilleisse. With Cipo the sprinter extraordinaire as the first spoiler, is it a wonder that it has always been a sprinters race? Local teams take this one very seriously, with the 2011 edition seeing FOUR Liquigas-Cannondale riders drill a breakaway involving an unfortunate lone ISD rider to deliver up-and-comer Elia Viviani to the finish line. He may have come from the wrong (east) coast of Italy, but we think he can be become as great sprinter as Cipo was (although Viviani is likely to perform without needing ridiculous skinsuits).

As nature has determined, Belgium is the last country to open its road season with de Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

One natural question is then, why is Belgian spring racing more prestigious than other countries'? We'll attempt to answer this question in a future article.

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