The seasonâ€™s heating-up with several important events taking place this weekend. Hereâ€™s a run-down of whatâ€™s going-on:
1. Letâ€™s begin in Spain, where the 5-day Vuelta a Murcia continues through Sundayâ€”albeit without any Italian and some important Spanish teams. Tomorrowâ€™s flat 22km time trial offers our first chance to see some of the Grand Tour favorites test their legs against the clockâ€”and one another. The race marks Lance Armstrongâ€™s 2010 European debut; heâ€™s already expressed his willingness to use tomorrowâ€™s ITT as a chance to check his progress. Andreas Kloden, Denis Menchov, and Bradley Wiggins will certainly use the stage as an opportunity to gauge their fitness as well. All four men sit within 5 seconds of Josep JufrÃ©â€™s lead; a good ride Saturday will take the leaderâ€™s jersey. Watch-out for Frantisek Rabon; heâ€™s proven he can time trial, and heâ€™s 3rd behind JufrÃ©, with the same time. While not a contender for the overall, Garminâ€™s Danny Pate seems to be riding himself into form; heâ€™s no slouch in a time trial and could surprise tomorrow. The same can be said for Pateâ€™s teammate Michael Kreder, whoâ€™s quickly looking to be a star in the making.
Sundayâ€™s stage offers two more categorized climbs, but none come near enough to the finish to cause any shake-ups. Look for the leader at the end of the day tomorrow to carry-through to the finish of the Spanish stage race.
2. In Belgium, the Dreidaagse van West-Vlaanderen started today in Kortrijk with Cofidisâ€™ Jens Keukeleire following-up his win in Le Samyn with another win. As a result, he takes what has to be considered one of the most unique leaderâ€™s jerseys in the worldâ€”are there any things more Belgian than frites, hops, endives, and bricks?
This 3-day Belgian affair takes place mainly on the flatter side of Flanders, with wind, rain, and cobbles constituting the main difficulties the riders will encounter. Sundayâ€™s final stage does offer some hills, taking-in the major climbs of the traditional Ghent-Wevelgem route including the Rodeberg, the Monteberg and Kemmelberg, with finishing circuits that include 3 passes over the smaller Keiberg. The 2008 winner and this yearâ€™s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne victor Bobbie Traksel returns hoping for another titleâ€”his victory Sunday proves heâ€™s no wuss when it comes the worst Belgium has to offer. Other notable starters include Saxo Bankâ€™s Nicki Sorensen, Milramâ€™s Robert Forster, Landbouwkredietâ€™s Davy Commeyne, Topsort-Vlaanderenâ€™s Geert Steurs, Skil-Shimanoâ€™s Kenny Van Hummel, and the ever-present Niko Eeckhout from An Post.
Itâ€™s a shame this race has no other choice but to share a weekend with Lâ€™Eroica and Paris-Nice, otherwise we might have another chance to see the stars hit Belgiumâ€™s cobbles.
3. This weekendâ€™s main events begin Saturday in Italy with the 4th running of the Montepaschi Strade Bianche. Also known as Lâ€™Eroica, this race navigates over 55 km of Tuscanyâ€™s white gravel roadsâ€”the strade bianche that give the race its name. You can do the same in October during the Lâ€™Eroica cyclosportive event.
Taking place a few days before the Tirreno-Adriatico stage race, Lâ€™Eroicaâ€™s start list is conveniently filled with classics specialists including favorites on both the cobbles and in the Ardennes. Throw-in several Italianâ€™s looking for a shot of glory and youâ€™ve got all the makings of an exciting race.
From top to bottom, the strongest team in this yearâ€™s edition seems to be Garminâ€”a squad whoâ€™s come close to finding success here in the past. With Farrar, Hesjedal, Maaskant, Van Summeren, and Wilson, Garmin has a team capable of controlling the race from start to finish, and hopefully placing a man or two in the winning break. Other favored teams include Sky, who brings a squad nearly identical to the team that took a win in the Omloop and 3rd in Kuurne (but minus Edvald Boassen Hagen), and Katusha, who hopes Filippo Pozzato and Kim Kirchen can bring home a win. BMC brings two of the focal points of their Ardennes and Northern classics programs in Cadel Evans and Alessandro Ballan; Saxo Bank does the same with Andy Schleck and Fabian Cancellaraâ€”two more riders who have proven effective at handling Lâ€™Eroicaâ€™s white roads. Cerveloâ€™s trio of Roger Hammond, Jeremy Hunt, and Andreas Klier could continue to exhibit the form they displayed in Belgium last weekend, while Omega Pharma-Lotto will be hoping Leif Hoste and Greg Van Avermaet can begin to show some fitness. And never forget HTC-Columbiaâ€”Cavendish is listed as a participant, but the bulk of the teamâ€™s hopes lie with Michael Rogers, Marco Pinotti, and the Velits Brothers. And last but not least, Liquigas might work for Franco Pellizotti, but theyâ€™re better-off trying to get Daniele Bennati into a situation in which he can find success.
As this race grows in prestige, it will soon become one of the highlights of the springâ€”itâ€™s already a favorite event for many riders, especially the Italians who consider the race their version of Paris-Roubaix. I wonder how long before we see someone do the Lâ€™Eroica-Roubaix double?
Overall, this is tough race to pickâ€”especially with so many favorites taking the line. In the end, I have a feeling Cadel Evans might be up to the challenge, but Pippo Pozzato will get the better of him. Acqua e Saponeâ€™s Luca Polini will be up there as wellâ€”I just have a gut feeling.
4. The weekend ends Sunday with the first stage of the Race to the Sun, Paris-Nice. This 8-day, 1288km stage race begins Sunday with a short time trial in Montfort-l’Amaury before making a beeline for warmer weather on the French Riviera. Several long, hard stages are in store for this yearâ€™s participants, including several with multiple 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Category climbs. By the end, weâ€™ll have a worthy winner, able to ride consistently well over the diffucult terrain. The main protagonists of the last 2 editionsâ€”Alberto Contador and Luis Leon Sanchezâ€”are back for more, but several challengers seem primed for victory as well.
Last yearâ€™s winner, Luis Leon Sanchez, faces the tough task of not only overcoming Aleberto Contador for a second year, but also dealing with his teammate, Alejandro Valverde. It will be interesting to see how these two interact, as both have the form to dominate the race. Their toughest challenge will come from Contadorâ€™s Astana team, a squad brimming with confidence following Contadorâ€™s overall win in Portugal at the Volta Algarve.
Other challenges could come from Euskaltelâ€™s Samuel Sanchez, Liquigasâ€™ Roman Kreuziger, Lottoâ€™s Jurgen Van den Broeck, and Radio Shackâ€™s Levi Leipheimer. Dark horses include FDJâ€™s Christophe Le Mevel, Quick Stepâ€™s Kevin Seeldraeyers, HTCâ€™s Tony Martin, Saxo Bankâ€™s Frank Schleck, and Rabobankâ€™s Lars Boom, a rider whose potential continues to impress. Garmin also brings a solid team of men hoping for good overall results including Tom Danielson, Dan Martin, and Christian Vande Velde.
In addition to these overall favorites, several riders come to the start Sunday hoping for stage wins including one-day stars like Quick Stepâ€™s Sylvain Chavanel, Cerveloâ€™s Heinrich Haussler, and Lottoâ€™s Philippe Gilbert. Katushaâ€™s Alexander Kolobnev, Sergei Ivanov, and Joaquin Rodrigues will be hoping to hone their form for later in the springâ€”perhaps with a stage or two hereâ€”as will Lampreâ€™s superstar Damiano Cunego. Team Skyâ€™s Simon Gerrans is certainly hoping to continue his teamâ€™s successful start to the season. And letâ€™s not forget French hopes Pierrick Fedrigo, Thomas Voeckler, and Samuel Dumoulinâ€”all could take wins for the home fans.
Of the sprinters taking the start, HTCâ€™s Andre Greipel, Saur-Sojasunâ€™s Jimmy Casper, Liquigasâ€™ Francesco Chicchi, Katushaâ€™s Daniele Napolitano, and Vacansoleilâ€™s Borut Borzic are the cream of the crop, with Skyâ€™s Greg Henderson and Saxoâ€™s Juan JosÃ© Haedo hoping to steal a win as well.
In the end, Iâ€™m picking an all-Spanish podium with Valverde taking the win over Contador and Sanchezâ€”but only by a handful of seconds. It will be one of the most exciting events in years, with everything coming down to the final day.
And you? Itâ€™s a big weekend, who are your picks?
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