And we’re back!
The UCI Pro Tour resumes this weekend with Saturday’s Clasica San Sebastian and the 7-day Tour de Pologne beginning Sunday. Lets’ take a look:
Saturday’s Clasica San Sebastian is traditionally the first meaningful race after the Tour de France. This year’s event features a new and improved finale, offering two trips over the Jaizkibel and two over the Arkale—for a total of 22 uphill kilometers in the last 50. It’s hoped that doubling the difficulty of the final 2 hours will decrease the odds of a surprise winner. (Ironically, many of which have been Spanish.)
Last year’s first two return this year, with Quick Step’s Carlos Barredo and Liquigas’ Roman Kreuziger both hoping to repeat their performances—with Kreuziger hoping he can go one better than he did a year ago. Barredo will have the support of the French polka dot-wearer, Jerome Pineau, and the Belgian top-20 surprise, Kevin De Weert. Unfortunately, he’ll be without French Tour hero Sylvain Chavanel—he’s home nursing an infected toe. (I’m just as baffled as you are.)
Kreuziger will have the support of Vicenzo Nibali; the Giro’s third-place rider is making his first appearance since June’s Italian National Championships.
Other contenders include Tour third and fourth-place finishers Denis Menchov and Samuel Sanchez—the latter hopes the bone he broke in a fall on last Thursday’s stage to the Tourmalet won’t be too much of a hindrance. If he feels good, he might be the top favorite in a race suiting his deadly mix of uphill and downhill speed. As for Menchov, he might have to bow to his teammate Robert Gesink, a rider who has gained much confidence since his sixth-place finish in the Tour and “Queen Stage” victory in the Tour de Suisse. He’s also a better one-day rider than Menchov, something that could work in his favor during Saturday’s difficult finale.
Astana’s Alexandre Vinokourov is another rider to watch—his Tour de France proved that the Kazakh is back and better than ever. And with Alberto Contador’s exit all but finalized, Vino might be out to prove Astana’s not been left for dead by the 3-time Tour champion.
Speaking of departing Tour champions, Andy Schleck’s on the start list for Saturday’s race—a bit of a surprise following his second-place finish in Paris. Despite two stage wins and the white jersey to go with his place beside Contador on the Tour’s final podium, Andy might be feeling as if he has some unfinished business to attend to—he also might appreciate one final chance to drive his asking price (wherever he goes) a bit higher.
Katusha brings the deepest squad to the race with Joaquin Rodriguez, Filippo Pozzato, and Alexandre Kolobnev taking the start. While all three are capable of taking the win—especially Pozzato should a small peloton hit the line—the team’s success will rely largely on its ability to combine each rider’s individual strengths to form a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. As we saw in the Ardennes, Katusha’s unafraid to attack—especially Kolobnev—but those attacks have yielded little against teams more willing to gamble on races coming back together. If Katusha saves its fireworks for the final hour, working together to place one of its champions in the final move, don’t be surprised to see the Moscow skyline on the top step of the podium.
Another rider hoping to find himself on the podium’s top step, Philippe Gilbert returns to action following a month spent training for late-summer and autumn goals. Despite the time away from racing, Gilbert’s a rider not to be discounted—especially in a race as selective as this one looks to be. The same can be said of Caisse d’Epargne’s Luis Leon Sanchez, another rider talented enough to force selections going both up and downhill. A commodity in this season’s transfer market, Sanchez could use this race to raise his asking price.
The same goes for Lampre’s Daminao Cunego; he hopes to take the win following several near misses in the Tour. With a bevy of teams hoping to secure his services for 2011, a win would go a long way toward getting the Italian the most buck for his bang.
And last but not least, we have Ryder Hesjedal, the latest Tour GC-surprise from Garmin-Transitions. Hesjedal races well in Spain—he first flashed signs of his Prp/Grand Tour talent with a high finish in last year’s Clasica and a stage win in the Vuelta. Unafraid to attack and a deft bike handler, the Canadian could benefit in the technical finale should other more heralded favorites mark one another too closely.
And here’s my prediction:
1. Alexandre Vinokourov
2. Joaquin Rodriguez
3. Ryder Hesjedal
As for the Tour of Poland, it’s a race that has tended to favor sprinters and rouleurs more than true GC riders—Alessandro Ballan, Jens Voigt, and Johan Vansummeren have won the last three editions. But this year’s course has more teeth, with Stages 4 through 7 heading south into the mountainous region bordering Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Several tough days are on tap, including a summit finish on Stage 5. Alessandro Ballan and his BMC will be hard-pressed to repeat last year’s winning performance—a rider will need to climb to win the overall by the time the race ends in Krakow.
While sprinters like Daniele Bennati, Andre Greipel, Grega Bole, and Danilo Napolitano will look to the first half of the race for stage success, I think the true contenders will be Stijn Devolder—a rider well-suited to one-week stage races—and Peter Sagan—a rider whose talent seems to know no limits. This is essentially a home race for Sagan—look for him to take a stage or two on his way to a top-3 finish overall. Sagan’s teammate and hometown hero Sylvester Szmyd should contend as well—especially on Stage 5’s summit finish. But in the end, I think Devolder gets his first win as the current Belgian national champion—possibly with a little help from his future teammates at Vacansoleil.
So there you have it—our first day back after the Grand Boucle. And speaking of, I promise to give my wrap-up of the year’s biggest event—look for it sometime next week.
Thanks for reading—share your comments and picks below.