Britain?s top professionals on the mainland European circuit are just weeks away from starting their 2008 road season – with Credit Agricole?s Jeremy Hunt the earliest of the early birds and hitting the road in the Tour Down Under in Australia on January 22.

Already racing in the Jayco Bay criterium series, Hunt, who has just signed for the French squad, will be in his element in the Australian season-opener. At least four of the stages are expected to end in bunch sprints.

On the same day that the Tour Down Under ends – January 27 – David Millar, as well as British-based Magnus Backstedt will start racing in the Tour of Qatar for their Slipstream squad.

?It starts with a six kilometre team time trial,? team manager Jonathan Vaughters told Cycling Weekly, ?so that should suit both of them.?

?At the same time, we?ll be backing our team sprinter Julian Dean against the likes of [Alessandro] Petacchi and [Tom] Boonen, and they?ll both be working to that end, getting Julian up there in the field sprints.?

?Whilst Magnus will be focusing on the Classics, Dave?s first big objective will be Paris-Nice.?

Millar will also be taking part in the Tour of California which runs from February 17-24, where Team High Road?s Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins will be making their season debut.

?For High Road, a team which has its American side, California is a vital event,? team directeur sportif Allan Peiper explained. ?Both Cav? and Bradley will be key elements in the team line-up there. We?ll also be having the team presentation there as well.?

Next under starters? orders will be British Cyclo-Cross Champ Roger Hammond (High Road) and Barloworld?s young pro Geraint Thomas. Both of them will be taking part in the Tour of the Algarve in Portugal, a race traditionally decided by a single summit finish and with no time trial. ?After that, Roger will be heading for the one-day Classics in Belgium at the end of February,? explained Peiper.

?It starts three days after the Danish round of the World Cup [in Ballerup from Feb 15 - 17].? Thomas told Cycling Weekly. ?Normally after that I?m heading to the Tour of the Cape in South Africa.? – held in early March and for his Barloworld team, a key event in the 2008 calendar.

Thomas new Barloworld team-mate, Steve Cummings, is down to start the season in mid-February in Italy, but is currently concentrating on overcoming a knee injury.

Logically for a rider whose first big objectives are in May, the last pro to see race action in 2008 will be veteran Charly Wegelius. The Liquigas climber will be starting in the Laguiglea Trophy in Italy on February 23, followed by a series of one-day races in Switzerland and – possibly – the Tour of the Basque Country in Spain.

Wegelius also confirmed to Cycling Weekly that he will be doing the Giro, his sixth start in the sport?s second biggest stage race.


WHERE THEY START
Magnus Backstedt (Slipstream): Tour of Qatar (Jan 27-Feb 1)

Mark Cavendish (Team High Road): Tour of California (Feb 17-24)

Steve Cummings (Barloworld): Italian one-day races (mid-February)

Roger Hammond (Team High Road): Tour of the Algarve (Feb 20-24)

Jeremy Hunt (Credit Agricole): Tour Down Under (Jan 22-27)

David Millar (Slipstream): Tour of Qatar (Jan 27-Feb 1)

Geraint Thomas (Barloworld): Tour of the Algarve (Feb 20-24)

Charly Wegelius (Liquigas): Lagueglia Trophy (Feb 23)

Bradley Wiggins (Team High Road): Tour of California (Feb 17-24)