Hereâ€™s just about everything you need to know about the next few days of racing:
1. Before we preview the weekendâ€™s festivities, we should take a minute to wrap-up the Tour of Oman, which finished today with an ITT won byâ€”as we correctly predictedâ€”Edvald Boassen Hagen. Unfortunately, thanks to an untimely stop to answer natureâ€™s call during Wednesdayâ€™s Stage 4, Boassen Hagen was unable to take the overall title. Stage 6 runner-up Fabian Cancellara took his first win of the season insteadâ€”and looks to be right on track for April.
So what did we learn? First, the racing in Oman was fast, serious, and a good indicator of the fireworks we expect to see come next Saturday in Belgium. With all of the usual classic favorites firing on all cylindersâ€”plus a few new facesâ€”the time between now and Paris-Roubaix is certain to be one of the most competitive in recent memory. Second, given the weather weâ€™ve seen on the Continent so far this month (even Portugalâ€™s been rainy and cold), look for more and more riders to contest the races in Qatar and Oman next yearâ€”especially if this yearâ€™s Arabian Knights (I canâ€™t believe I just made that pun), take a big win or two in the next several weeks.
2. Speaking of Portugal, the Tour of Algarveâ€™s first three stages are in the books and there have been two main surprises: first, the weatherâ€™s been awfulâ€”cold and rainy; second, several Grand Tour riders decided to come out of hiding and show themselves on todayâ€™s Stage 3 summit finish. Alberto Contador took the win, following a strong effort by his teammates to put him contention for the victory. Tiago Machado and Levi Leipheimer took 2nd and 3rd on the day, saving face for Team Radio Shack. Two stages remain including a time trial in Sundayâ€™s final stage. Barring any more shake-ups between now and then, Contador should take what he hopes will be the first of many overall titles in 2010.
3. Racing returns to Italy on Saturday, with the annual running of the Trofeo Laigueglia. Androni Giacattoli (thatâ€™s a team) takes the line with returning champion Francesco Ginanni supported by a strong roster including Michele Scarponi and Alessandro Bertolini. Katusha has a former winner as well with Kim Kirchen, as does Acqua e Sapone with Luca Paolini. If all goes according to plan though, look for Lampreâ€™s Alessandro Petacchi to continue his run to San Remo with another early season win. We wonâ€™t know for sure if Ale-Jet has what it takes for success on the Via Roma until we see him face some tougher competition, but in this race, heâ€™s clearly the man to beat.
4. Moving from Italy we head to France and the Tour du Haut-Var. Haut-Var used to be the first event of a French weekend that included the Classic Hariboâ€”named for the French candy company. In recent years though, Hariboâ€™s moved-on and the Haut-Var expanded to become a 2-day event with races on both Saturday and Sunday in the Draguignan region of Provence. Itâ€™s a beautiful race in one of Franceâ€™s most picturesque regions.
This yearâ€™s start list features several strong teams and many riders eager to take a victory or two. Last yearâ€™s winner, Thomas Voeckler, returns with BBox ready to defend his title. Teammate Pierrick Fedrigo has enough talent to take the win as well. Ag2r brings Rinaldo Nocentini, fresh from his 2nd-place in the Tour de Medâ€”his performance on Mont Faron proves heâ€™s ready for business. Nocentiniâ€™s supported by the current French Champion, Dimitri Champion, a rider eager for a win in his French maillot. FDJ found much success in the Med Tour, led by Yauheni Hutarovich and Jussi Veikkanen; theyâ€™re eager to continue their winning trends here.
Other men coming from the Med with some fresh legs and a chance to win in the Var include Garminâ€™s Danielson and Rabobankâ€™s Gesink. But when itâ€™s all said and done, I think we might see a repeat performance from many of the protagonists at the Med with Nocentini and Veikkanen finding their biggest challenge in the shape of the defending champion, Thomas Voeckler.
5. Finally, on Sunday weâ€™re back to Spain and the start of the Ruta del Sol. When the season began weeks ago, the racing featured mainly flat courses, with sprint finishes the norm. Now, as we move closer and closer to the first important dates on the 2010 calendar, weâ€™re starting to see races with more challenging profiles. Case in point: Sundayâ€™s Stage 1 of the Ruta del Sol finishes atop the first category Alto de la Guardia after about 160km of racing. Look for men like Rabobankâ€™s Juan Manuel Garate, Vacansoleilâ€™s Brice Feillu and Johnny Hoogerland, Saxo Bankâ€™s Schleck brothers, Skyâ€™s Simon Gerrans, and Lampreâ€™s Daminao Cunego to test their legs, ultimately hoping for success by dayâ€™s end. Stage 2 is really the only â€œflatâ€ day, one in which the sprinters like Oscar Freire, Mark Cavendish, Borut Borzic, Greg Henderson, and Chris Sutton might find success. Stages 3 and 5 feature more climbing, and Stage 4 is a bone-flat time trial that has Gustav Larssonâ€™s name all over it. In the end, a rider with all-round abilities will likely emerge victoriousâ€”someone who can climb, avoid splits on the flats, and pull a good result in the time trial. Tony Martin, Linus Gerdemann, Hoogerland, Thomas Lovkvist, and Cunego all come to mind. This race might prove most interesting for fans of the Ardennes classics, as this provides one of the first chances to see several late-April favorites go head-to-head. It should be exciting!
What about you? Who are your picks for the weekend? And with one week until the â€œrealâ€ start season with next Saturdayâ€™s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, who are you early picks?
Share your thoughts, comments, and questions below!