And weâ€™re back!
The UCI Pro Tour resumes this weekend with Saturdayâ€™s Clasica San Sebastian and the 7-day Tour de Pologne beginning Sunday.Â Letsâ€™ take a look:
Saturdayâ€™s Clasica San Sebastian is traditionally the first meaningful race after the Tour de France.Â This yearâ€™s event features a new and improved finale, offering two trips over the Jaizkibel and two over the Arkaleâ€”for a total of 22 uphill kilometers in the last 50. Itâ€™s hoped that doubling the difficulty of the final 2 hours will decrease the odds of a surprise winner.Â (Ironically, many of which have been Spanish.)
Last yearâ€™s first two return this year, with Quick Stepâ€™s Carlos Barredo and Liquigasâ€™ Roman Kreuziger both hoping to repeat their performancesâ€”with Kreuziger hoping he can go one better than he did a year ago.Â Barredo will have the support of the French polka dot-wearer, Jerome Pineau, and the Belgian top-20 surprise, Kevin De Weert.Â Unfortunately, heâ€™ll be without French Tour hero Sylvain Chavanelâ€”heâ€™s home nursing an infected toe.Â (Iâ€™m just as baffled as you are.)
Kreuziger will have the support of Vicenzo Nibali; the Giroâ€™s third-place rider is making his first appearance since Juneâ€™s Italian National Championships.
Other contenders include Tour third and fourth-place finishers Denis Menchov and Samuel Sanchezâ€”the latter hopes the bone he broke in a fall on last Thursdayâ€™s stage to the Tourmalet wonâ€™t be too much of a hindrance.Â If he feels good, he might be the top favorite in a race suiting his deadly mix of uphill and downhill speed.Â 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 â€œQueen Stageâ€ victory in the Tour de Suisse.Â Heâ€™s also a better one-day rider than Menchov, something that could work in his favor during Saturdayâ€™s difficult finale.
Astanaâ€™s Alexandre Vinokourov is another rider to watchâ€”his Tour de France proved that the Kazakh is back and better than ever.Â And with Alberto Contadorâ€™s exit all but finalized, Vino might be out to prove Astanaâ€™s not been left for dead by the 3-time Tour champion.
Speaking of departing Tour champions, Andy Schleckâ€™s on the start list for Saturdayâ€™s raceâ€”a bit of a surprise following his second-place finish in Paris.Â Despite two stage wins and the white jersey to go with his place beside Contador on the Tourâ€™s final podium, Andy might be feeling as if he has some unfinished business to attend toâ€”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.Â While all three are capable of taking the winâ€”especially Pozzato should a small peloton hit the lineâ€”the teamâ€™s success will rely largely on its ability to combine each riderâ€™s individual strengths to form a whole thatâ€™s greater than the sum of its parts.Â As we saw in the Ardennes, Katushaâ€™s unafraid to attackâ€”especially Kolobnevâ€”but those attacks have yielded little against teams more willing to gamble on races coming back together.Â If Katusha saves its fireworks for the final hour, working together to place one of its champions in the final move, donâ€™t be surprised to see the Moscow skyline on the top step of the podium.
Another rider hoping to find himself on the podiumâ€™s top step, Philippe Gilbert returns to action following a month spent training for late-summer and autumn goals.Â Despite the time away from racing, Gilbertâ€™s a rider not to be discountedâ€”especially in a race as selective as this one looks to be. The same can be said of Caisse dâ€™Epargneâ€™s Luis Leon Sanchez, another rider talented enough to force selections going both up and downhill.Â A commodity in this seasonâ€™s transfer market, Sanchez could use this race to raise his asking price.
The same goes for Lampreâ€™s Daminao Cunego; he hopes to take the win following several near misses in the Tour.Â 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.Â Hesjedal races well in Spainâ€”he first flashed signs of his Prp/Grand Tour talent with a high finish in last yearâ€™s Clasica and a stage win in the Vuelta.Â 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 hereâ€™s my prediction:
1. Alexandre Vinokourov
2. Joaquin Rodriguez
3. Ryder Hesjedal
As for the Tour of Poland, itâ€™s a race that has tended to favor sprinters and rouleurs more than true GC ridersâ€”Alessandro Ballan, Jens Voigt, and Johan Vansummeren have won the last three editions.Â But this yearâ€™s course has more teeth, with Stages 4 through 7 heading south into the mountainous region bordering Slovakia and the Czech Republic.Â Several tough days are on tap, including a summit finish on Stage 5.Â Alessandro Ballan and his BMC will be hard-pressed to repeat last yearâ€™s winning performanceâ€”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 Devolderâ€”a rider well-suited to one-week stage racesâ€”and Peter Saganâ€”a rider whose talent seems to know no limits.Â This is essentially a home race for Saganâ€”look for him to take a stage or two on his way to a top-3 finish overall.Â Saganâ€™s teammate and hometown hero Sylvester Szmyd should contend as wellâ€”especially on Stage 5â€™s summit finish.Â But in the end, I think Devolder gets his first win as the current Belgian national championâ€”possibly with a little help from his future teammates at Vacansoleil.
So there you have itâ€”our first day back after the Grand Boucle.Â And speaking of, I promise to give my wrap-up of the yearâ€™s biggest eventâ€”look for it sometime next week.
Thanks for readingâ€”share your comments and picks below.