This weekendâ€™s racing begins Saturday, with the 93rd edition of Italyâ€™s Giro dellâ€™Emilia, a prestigious semi-classic in and around Bologna.Â A difficult race with an impressive list of winners, Emilia attracts riders hoping to test their form for next Saturdayâ€™s Monument, the Tour of Lombardy.
Last yearâ€™s winner, Robert Gesink, returns backed by a strong Rabobank squad including Paul Martens and Bauke Mollema.Â Martens is one to watch should Gesink give him the go-ahead to ride for himself.
Several home favorites take the start, some of whom come â€œfreshâ€ from their unsuccessful bid to bring home a rainbow jersey for the tifosi: Liquigasâ€™ Vincenzo Nibali, Lampreâ€™s Francesco Gavazzi, and ISDâ€™s Giovanni Visconti. Other Italian favorites include Quick Stepâ€™s Dario Cataldo, Colnagoâ€™s Domenico Pozzovivo, and Androni Giocattoliâ€™s trio of Michele Scarponi, Leonardo Bertagnolli, and Alessandro Bertoliniâ€”the latter two also finished well in Sabatini. Ricardo Ricco and Marco Mancato went 1-2 for Vacansoleil at the Coppa Sabatini and could easily take one of the squadâ€™s biggest wins of the season Saturday.Â Cerveloâ€™s Davide Appollonio is also rider to keep an eye on in what will be one of the teamâ€™s final races of its two-year campaign.Â Last but not least, one should never discount the chances of AG2Râ€™s Rinaldo Noentini in a race of this sortâ€”he would certainly love to end the season in a fashion similar to how he started it (with wins in the Tour du Med & Haut Var).
Highlights of the foreign contingent wonâ€™t surprise you.Â Katushaâ€™s Alexander Kolobnev is still seeking his first major win, while HTCâ€™s Peter Velits would love a semi-classic to go with his podium finish at the Vuelta. Â Omega Pharma-Lottoâ€™s Jan Bakelants, Staf Scheirlinckx, and Jurgen Van Goolen could thrive in the absence of Philippe Gilbertâ€”Scheirlinckx and Van Goolen both had top-10 rides in Sabatini. Â Garminâ€™s Daniel Martin won Tre Valle Varesini this summer; with Tom Danielson at his side, he could take a more impressive in Emilia.
Lastly, Saxo Bank brings Andy Schleck, Richie Porte, and Jakob Fuglsang.Â While itâ€™s hard to expect much from Schleck at this point, Porte and Fuglsang are two riders capable of competing for the win.
And my prediction?
Ricco takes his second win of the week over Nibali and Kolobnev.Â Fans wonâ€™t be pleased, but the Italianâ€™s clearly in-form at the moment.
On Sunday, the majority of the Emilia start list heads to Monteveglio for the GP Beghelli.Â A race known to favor sprinters, look for some teams to swap their climbers for their speedstersâ€”Colnago is bringing-in Manuel Belletti and Sacha Modolo, for example.Â Last year, Camiooroâ€™s Francisco Ventoso took the win, but heâ€™s absent this year, leaving the door open for another rider from one of the local squads to emerge victorious.Â I see Gavazzi, Visconti, and one of the Androni boys coming to the fore, with Visconti taking another win as Italian Champion.
But the real action Sunday is in France at the 104th edition of Paris-Tours.Â Paris-Tours has recently become our first chance to see the new World Champion in his rainbow jerseyâ€”but not this year as the ASO left the Cervelo TestTeam off the list of invitees.Â As a result, weâ€™ll have to wait until next week to see Thor Hushovd wering stripesâ€”itâ€™s a shame too, as he would have been a favorite to win Sunday.
In Thorâ€™s absence, the weight of being the top favorite status fallsâ€”once againâ€”on Philippe Gilbert, the two-time defending champion.Â Gilbert is out for vengeance following yet another fruitless World Championship and looks set to complete his hat trick.Â Should he prove unable to escape, look for Greg Van Avermaet (5th in Melbourne) and the young Brit Adam Blythe (two stages and the overall at Franco-Belge) to contend for the victory.Â Van Avermaetâ€™s a particularly interesting candidateâ€”heâ€™s in form and knows how to handle himself in a sprint.
Belgiumâ€™s other big-budget squadâ€”Quick Stepâ€”brings Tom Boonen, Sylvain Chavanel, and Wouter Weylandt.Â Boonenâ€™s admittedly using this race to test his fitness following a wasted summer thanks to crashes in California and Switzerland.Â Weylandt won the final stage of Franco-Belge, while Chavanelâ€™s an aggressive rider with a crowd-pleasing style resembling former Paris-Tour winners Jacky Durand and Richard Virenque.
As for Katusha, they bring Filippo Pozzato and Robbie McEwen.Â For Pozzato a win would ease the pain following his lackluster 4th-place finish at Worlds, while for McEwen, this could be the last time he lines-up (who knows if his new team will even be invited next year).
Liquigas has Daniele Bennati, Francisco Chicchi, and Peter Sagan chomping at the bit.Â Saganâ€™s disappeared after a fantastic spring, while Bennati’s a bit inconsistent.Â The real wild card for Liquigas might be Daniele Oss, a rider from whom we can expect much next spring.
Rabobank has Oscar Freire and Nick Nuyens on their roster.Â Itâ€™s hard to believe considering his other major wins, but Freireâ€™s never won Paris-Tours.Â A win Sunday would provide a satisfying bookend to his victory in Milan-San Remo.Â On the other hand, Team Milramâ€”in one of its final races everâ€”brings Gerald Ciolek and Niki Terpstra to fight for a win that would certainly be a case of too little, too late.Â And donâ€™t forget Vacansoleil.Â Bjorn Leukemans and Borut Borzic will contendâ€”Borzic took third last year.
Other candidates include AG2Râ€™s Lloyd Mondory, Caisse dâ€™Epargneâ€™s Jose Joaquin Rojas, Garminâ€™s Johan Van Summeren, HTCâ€™s Bernhard Eisel, Team Skyâ€™s Juan Antonio Flecha, BMCâ€™s Alessandro Ballan, Radio Shackâ€™s Geert Steegmans, and Cofidisâ€™ Jens Keukelaire.
But of them all, I think one man will emerge to take the victory: Saxo Bankâ€™s Matti Breschel.
What about you? Share your picks and comments below.