At last, the 2011 season begins today and tomorrow in Argentina and Australia with Tour de San Luis and the Santos Tour Down Under kicking-off under sunny skies.Â But while these events pale in comparison to the rest of the calendar, theyâ€™re a welcome sight for fans tired of debating team kit, sponsorship identities, and the proper use of the Caps Lock key.
Hereâ€™s a run-down of what we can expect:
1. The 2.1 Tour de San Luis rose in popularity last year after a few major teamsâ€”most notably Liquigas with Vincenzo Nibaliâ€”used the 7-day event as a warm-weather training camp.Â Nibali won last yearâ€™s overall title and while he wonâ€™t be returning this year, 2010 Giro dâ€™Italia-winner Ivan Basso makes the trip in his stead.
Androni Giocattoli returns to Argentina as well, with 2010 stage-winner Jackson Rodriguez and overall runner-up Jose Serpa leading the squadâ€™s 6-man roster.Â South Americaâ€™s always been an important market for Androni, look for the team to do its best to dominate the event.
Three other squads warrant mention: Movistar brings several talented riders including Pablo Lastras and Xavier Tondo, while United Healthcareâ€™s Scott Zwizanski could take an early-season win in the Stage 4 individual time trial.Â Last but not least, one can never forget the Colombians, a nation that produced winners in last yearâ€™s editions of the Baby Giro and the Tour de lâ€™Avenirâ€”look for at least one of the squadâ€™s riders to make an early splash in Argentina.
As for predictions, Jackson, Serpa and their Androni squad should be motivated to take the win. Lastras is one to watch as well, as is Zwizanskiâ€”if he can win the time trial and limit his losses in the mountains.Â January races are always a crap-shoot, but I feel confident at least two of these three are good choices for the podium, with Serpa the best bet for the overall victory in a race soon to be forgotten by all but the one who wins it.
2. On the other hand, Australiaâ€™s Santos Tour Down Under, the first stop on the UCIâ€™s World Tour, is a much more prestigious eventâ€”especially if you happen to be a field sprinter.Â And moreso than in yearâ€™s past, this yearâ€™s 6-day race features some interesting sub-plots.
First of all, the 2011 Tour Down Under will be our first chance to see Mark Cavendish and Andre Greipel renew their rivalryâ€”but for the first time as opponents.Â For Greipel, the Tour Down Under is essentially a home race for him; the Germanâ€™s won the event twice and has seven stage wins and two points titles to his name.Â He comes to the race with more or less his entire Omega Pharma-Lotto lead-out train including Jurgen Van de Walle, Adam Hansen, Olivier Kaisen, Jurgen Roelandts, and Marcel Sieberg.
HTC-High Road wants to make a point though, bringing Cavendish, Mark Renshaw, Matthew Goss, and Bernhard Eisel to the event.Â Throw-in Danny Pate, Bert Grabsch, and Hayden Roulston, and you have all the makings of a squad that could win just about every stage of the event.Â In fact, theyâ€™re already off to winning start, with Goss and Renshaw finishing 1-2 in Sundayâ€™s Cancer Council Classic (thankfully minus the â€œweâ€™re manlier than youâ€ skinsuits used by Team Sky last year).
The Cavendish/Greipel rivalry will most likely be the focal point of the raceâ€”if not the seasonâ€”with Cavendish eager to prove that heâ€™s the undisputed fastest man alive and Greipel hoping to show the world that he was being held-back at HTC.Â Expect fireworksâ€”and no small amount of trash talking.
That said, there are several other sprinters with teams eager to prove that thereâ€™s room on the podium for more than just two.Â Team Radio Shack, in addition to bringing Lance Armstrong to contest his last race internationally (at least until he says otherwise), has Robbie McEwen and Robbie Hunter on their roster.Â Together, these two wily veterans just might find their way to a stage win, especially if Hunter is content working for someone elseâ€”and not mysteriously finding he has a little bit left to sprint for himself after leading-out his faster teammate.
Team Garmin-Cervelo brings an even bigger fish in Tyler Farrar, the man most likely to join Greipel and Cavendish as the fastest men in the world this season.Â With Brett Lancaster and Julian Dean leading him out, Farrar has more than enough firepower to contend.Â Garmin also boasts the new Australian Road Race Champion in Jack Bobridge.Â Bobridge is one to watch on Stage 5 to Willunga, the only stage that might not end in a field sprint.
Other sprinters to keep an eye on include Rabobankâ€™s Graeme Brown, a 3-time stage-winner; Team Skyâ€™s Greg Henderson; Astanaâ€™s Allan Davis; and Quick Stepâ€™s new recruits Francesco Chicchi and Gerald Ciolek. BMC brings Alessandro Ballan and Alexander Kristoff; Saxo Bank Juan JosÃ© Haedo and Baden Cooke; and Movistar Jose Joaquin Rodriguez Gil.Â All in all, the field sprints will closely resemble those we can expect to see at this yearâ€™s Tour de France, minus only one or two important names.
As far as GC men possibly able to dethrone the sprinters for the overall title, well, thatâ€™s a tall order considering the amount of time bonuses available at the end of each stage.Â Skyâ€™s Michael Rogers, Team Leopard-Trekâ€™sâ€”oopsâ€”LEOPARD TREKâ€™s Stuart Oâ€™Grady, and Saxo Bankâ€™s Richie Porte are riders to consider.Â Itâ€™s too bad thereâ€™s no ITT, otherwise the race would certainly produce more of an all-round winner.
In terms of predictions, I see HTC getting the better of Omega Pharma-Lotto, with Matthew Goss taking the win.Â Cavendish and Greipel will swap some stages, with perhaps Farrar sneaking in for a win, but Goss is the more complete riderâ€”and one more adapted to the heat and humidity the riders are sure to encounter.
And with that, we have our first race previews of the 2011 season.
Share your comments, picks, and predictions below.