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Irish men’s road race champion Ben Healy will begin his new season with EF Education-EasyPost this week (Photo: Marco Alpozzi)

Lots of Irish riders have already been in road race action in the last couple of weeks and now the European season is ramping up with stage races this week, featuring some of our top names.

We’ll have experienced pro riders, looking for wins this year, in action in France and Spain and they will be joined by younger Irish riders who are newer to the international pro peloton.

Ben Healy (EF Education-EasyPost) gets his 2024 campaign underway in France tomorrow when he starts Etoile de Bessèges; the UCI 2.1 ranked event featuring five hard stages, including a final time trial in Alès on Sunday.

While the race usually delivers a few sprint stages, it also tends to split at times with the strongest riders coming to the top. The mix of an undulating course and a TT can really suit Healy, who is a possible stage and general classification winner.

Healy, one of the breakthrough men of pro cycling last year, will be joined by team mate and neo pro Darren Rafferty.

The 20-year-old has already put in some very solid performances at Challenge Mallorca, where he was on team duties last week and was able to mix it at the pointy end on the flat and on the climbs.

As well as the two EF Education-EasyPost Irishmen, Dillon Corkery will also line out for his new team, St Michel-Mavic-Auber 93. The 24-year-old, who won Rás Tailteann last season, has been racing on the elite scene in France for several seasons and is now getting his chance in the pro peloton.

Tomorrow’s opening stage in France is a 160km flat run, starting and finishing in Bellegarde, before the final 800m kicks up to the line, averaging 7 per cent but with some pitches of 12 per cent which may sting a few legs.

Thursday’s stage 2 features two climbs in the mid part of the stage before a 900m incline of 9 per cent to the finish in Rousson after 164km of racing. Friday’s stage 3 – some 161km starting and finishing in Bessèges – is undulating for the day, and should result in a serious thinning out of the field.

The general classification should be decided, or at least serious shape put on it, on Saturday’s 4.4km finish climb of Méjannes-le-Clap. Then comes the 10.65km TT on Sunday. That whole course looks well suited to Healy while both Rafferty and Corkery will also get a serious test.

As Healy, Rafferty and Corkery take on Etoile de Bessèges, Eddie Dunbar (Team Jayco AlUla) will ride his first stage race of the year in Spain; Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana (2.Pro).

That race also gets underway tomorrow and it will be a tough test for Dunbar as he builds towards an expected appearance at the Giro again this year.

While there is a solid start list in Spain, it is absent the biggest names in the sport and Dunbar should be in the mix with climbs throughout. There are definitely some very strong riders on the start line, but the Irishman can match them, and maybe more.

Bora-hansgrohe has an especially strong trio in Jai Hindley, Lennard Kämna and Aleksandr Vlasov, who will all be out for wins in the next five days of racing.

Jan Christen, the 19-year-old hotly tipped Swiss rider, Pavel Sivakov and Brandon McNulty all line out for UAE Team Emirates. Einer Rubio (Movistar Team) can also impress, as can Pello Bilbao and Matej Mohorič (Bahrain-Victorious), among others.

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