The European road season begins this weekend with the traditional season openers in Italy and France: the 2.1 Giro della Provincia di Reggio Calabria and the 1.1 Grand Prix la Marseillaise.
A race traditionally known to favor Italian teams, Calabria began earlier today with Lampreâ€™s Daniele Pietropoli taking the stage win over Fabio Taborre (Acqua & Sapone) and JosÃ© Serpa (Androni-Giacotelli).Â Last year, the Stage 1 winner, Matteo Montaguti, went on the win the overall title of the 3-day event, as the first stage traditionally is the only one to produce any significant time gaps.Â Given the gaps and parcours of the 2011 edition, feel safe penciling in the Lampre rider now.
Pietropoli also rides with arguably the strongest team in the raceâ€”Lampre also has Damiano Cunego, Francesco Gavazzi, and Diego Ulissi in the fold, with Gavazzi a good bet to win one or two of the flatter stages still to come.Â As for the rest of the field, Androni Giocattoli has started the season on a winning note with Serpa and Roberto Ferrari winning stages at the Tour de San Luis in Argentina.Â Ferrari, the faster finisher of the two, could add to his season tally in Calabria.Â That said, Francisco Ginanniâ€™s a talented rider as wellâ€”he and Ferrari could prove to be the eventâ€™s fastest duo.
Liquigas was also in Argentina last week; they bring Daniel Oss, a youngster to watch in this yearâ€™s classics, to Calabria.Â Oss finished tenth in todayâ€™s first stageâ€”heâ€™s another fast finisher who should contend over the next few days.
As for the rest, other riders to watch here include Acqua & Saponeâ€™s Danilo Napolitano, Colnago-CSF Inoxâ€™s Sacha Modolo, and Micheâ€™s Stefan Schumacher (who finished sixth today).Â It also bears mentioning that Calabria will be Kevin Hulsmanâ€™s first race with his new Donckers Koffie-Jelly Belly squadâ€”I wonder how long before Tom Boonen misses his trusted diesel?Â And thatâ€™s itâ€”weâ€™re still weeks away from the seeing the star-studded startlists we so crave as most of the seasonâ€™s biggest protagonists will be making their debuts later in Spain and North Africa.
Moving to France, the traditional French opener, the GP la Marseillaise, takes place Sunday, with a startlist filled with French teams and foreign professional continental squads taking advantage of the warmest invitations they can get at this point in the seasonâ€”with one exception.
Pro Tour team Vacansoleil came close to winning this race last year with Johnny Hoogerland.Â The team returns this weekend hoping to go one better with Hoogerland, Roman Feillu, Bjorn Leukemans, Marco Mancato, and the ever-aggressive Ricardo Ricco on board.Â (If they can quit bickering long enough to try and win, donâ€™t be surprised to see Ricco the one doing it.)Â Without a doubt, they have the strongest roster of any team taking the startâ€”and if the French teams are smart, the burden of making and controlling the race.
Other startlist highlights include last yearâ€™s winner Jonathan Hivert leading Saur-Sojasun in the teamâ€™s first race since being invited to the Tour de France; Eurocarâ€™s debut with Thomas Voeckler; Cofidisâ€™ Samuel Dumoulin, Julain El Fares, and Rein Taarame; and FDJâ€™s Remi Pauriol, Thibaut Pinot, and Benoit Vaugrenard.Â Other men to watch include Landbouwkredietâ€™s Bert Scheirlinckx, Katushaâ€™s Vladimir Gusev, and Team Type 1â€™s European debut as a Professional Continental squad.
As far as predictions go, I see Gavazzi, Ferrari, Oss, and Modolo lighting things up in Italy, while one of Vacansoleilâ€™s captains takes the win in Franceâ€”over a Frenchman.
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