Lots of racing this weekendâ€”letâ€™s take a quick look:
1. In France the Etoile de Besseges wraps-up with two stages this weekend, the most difficult of which is Saturdayâ€™s Stage 4.Â The stage starts and finishes in the town of Ales and tackles three categorized climbs on the dayâ€”although the last is not too close to the finish.Â Vacansoleilâ€™s Johnny Hoogerland took a narrow lead after finishing second in todayâ€™s stage; look for him to have little trouble defending it through to the end.Â For some reason or another, Vacansoleil really wants this race. (Hey guys, youâ€™ve already been invited to the Tour.)
2. Saturday also features the 16th edition of Italyâ€™s GP della Costa Etruschi.Â No startlists have been made available (you can find one here), but I see that Lampreâ€™s Alessandro Petacchi has been scratched from the start list in Qatar, likely to attend an event heâ€™s won the last seven years in a row (he’s not riding Etruschi either).Â Assuming theyâ€™re at the start (they will be), look for the usual list of Italian sprinters to challenge Ale Jet for the winâ€”Gavazzi, Modolo, Ferrari, and Giananni immediately come to mind.
3. In Spain, the five-race Challenge Mallorca begins Sunday with several teams bringing large squads to the traditional Spanish season-opener.Â Riders can pick and choose which they days ride, making the event a popular destination for those still easing their way into the season.Â Notable participants include Radio Shack, Movistar, Omega Pharma-Lotto (with Gilbert and Greipel), Leopard Trek (the Schlecks), Rabobank (Freireâ€™s always good for a win or two), Quick Step, Euskaltel, HTC-High Road, Katusha, and Garmin-Cervelo.
Geox-TMC is also slated to rideâ€”it will be interesting to see how they fare.Â At this point, just making to the race with kits, cars, and bikes will be a victory.Â Mallorca also marks Philippe Gilbertâ€™s first chance to race in 2011â€”his team was surprisingly left uninvited to the Tours of Qatar and Oman.
4. And speaking of Qatar, the six-day event begins Sunday with a 2-kilometer prologue.Â With the exception of Gilbert and one or two others, most of the sportâ€™s spring classics protagonists will be racing here including Quick Stepâ€™s Tom Boonen, Leopard Trekâ€™s Fabian Cancellara, Katushaâ€™s Filippo Pozzato, Skyâ€™s Juan Antonio Flecha, and Garminâ€™s Heinrich Haussler and Thor Hushovd.
As most days will likely end in a sprint, look for the winner of Sundayâ€™s Prologue to take the overall honorsâ€”unless one of the raceâ€™s sprinters can ride well enough to keep himself in contention with time bonuses.Â Cancellaraâ€™s the obvious choice, but keep you eyes on Lars Boom.Â He can win a prologue and heâ€™s just the kind of rider to slip into a breakawayâ€”as Wouter Mol did last year to take the win for Vacansoleil.Â I also have a hunch that Quick Step will win a stageâ€”with Chicchi.
Itâ€™s too bad that weâ€™ll miss our first chance to see Taylor Phinney line-up for BMC.Â The Americanâ€™s knee problems have returned, unfortunately just in time for a race that suited him well.
Who are you looking forward to seeing make his debut this weekend?Â What are your picks and predictions?
Share your comments below.