Hereâ€™s a preview of this weekendâ€™s events:
1. At the Tour of Oman, weâ€™ll get another chance to see if Robert Gesink can protect a leaderâ€™s jersey in an ITT during tomorrowâ€™s 18.5-kilomter time trial in Al Jissah.Â The Dutch climber from Rabobank won todayâ€™s Queen Stage atop Jabal al Akhdhar (â€œGreen Mountainâ€), finishing alone 47-seconds ahead of Team Skyâ€™s Edvald Boasson Hagen and 51-seconds clear Quick Stepâ€™s Dries Devenyns.Â Giovanni Visconti and Christian Vande Velde finished 53-seconds back.
Gesink now holds a 45-second lead over Boasson Hagenâ€”a far superior time trialistâ€”heading into tomorrowâ€™s race against the clock.Â Thus, Gesink finds himself in a situation to last yearâ€™s Tour de Suisse, when after winning the Queen Stage to La Punt, he lost the race leadâ€”and a spot on the podiumâ€”in the raceâ€™s final ITT.Â Saturday will be an indicator of just how much time the Dutchmanâ€™s spent improving his skillsâ€”something heâ€™ll need to do if he wants to have a realistic shot at this yearâ€™s Tour podium.
In the end, I see Boasson Hagen taking the overall winâ€”but on Sunday, not Saturdayâ€”thanks to time bonuses earned in the final stage.Â Look for Theo Bosâ€™ ability to keep the Norwegian out of the points to be a major difference-maker.
2. Todayâ€™s Stage 3 at the Volta ao Algarve ended with some uphill fireworks as well.Â (If you havenâ€™t seen the results yet, take a minute and check them outâ€”it was probably the most exciting day of racing weâ€™ve seen thus far this season.)Â The 180-kilometer stage ended atop the 2nd Category Alto do MalhÃ£o, with Skyâ€™s Steve Cummings winning the sprint from a select 5-man group containing Tejay Van Garderen, Alberto Contador, Rein Taarame, and Tony Martin.
With Sundayâ€™s 17.2-kilomoter time trail looming, the top-15 riders on GC are separated by a mere 44 seconds.Â At this point, itâ€™s anyoneâ€™s guess as to who will take the win, but Contador and Martinâ€”at 10 and 12-seconds backâ€”are the most likely candidates.Â My moneyâ€™s on Tony Martinâ€”heâ€™s a much better time trialist than Contador.Â Who would have thought that a 5-day Portuguese stage race in February would produce such excitement?
3. In France, the two-day Tour du Haut Var starts Saturday in La Croix Valmer.Â Haut Var runs more like two one-day races than a stage race, and as such often suits aggressive riders who perform well on long, undulating courses.
Of the teams making the trip this year, Garmin-Cervelo looks to be the strongest with defending champion Christophe Le Mevel leading a squad that includes Med Tour fourth-place finisher Andrew Talansky as well as Daniel Martin and Peter Stetina.Â Rinaldo Nocentini returns at the head of Ag2r; the Italian won Stage 1 last year before crashing violently a week later, breaking his leg and ending the first half of his season.Â Heâ€™s supported by Mont Faron-animator Jean-Christophe Peraud.
Cofidisâ€™ David Moncoutie won the Med Tour and the stage atop Mont Faronâ€”he comes to Haut Var in good form, but is more likely to ride for last yearâ€™s third-place finisher, Julien El Fares.Â FDJ also brings a talented roster including Pierrick Fedrigo, Remi Pauriol, Thibaut Pinot, and Jeremy Roy. Spain is be represented by Movistar and Euskaltel. Movistar has David Arroyo and Vasil Kiriyenka, while Igor Anton lines-up for Euskaltel alongside Gorka Izagirre and Mikel Nieve.Â Saxo Bank brings Richie Porte, along with Chris Anker Sorensen.
The rest of the line-up features an assortment of domestic and international Continental squads, most of whom will be happy to place a rider in the break of the day.Â As far as a winnerâ€™s concerned, I see Pierrick Fedrigo finding a way to add the race to his palmares, with Nocentini, El Fares, and perhaps Le Mevel lining-up behind him.Â An interesting note: former winner Thomas Voeckler is absent for Europcar.
4. Saturday brings Italyâ€™s Trofeo Laigueglia. The event has been won the last two years by Androni Giocattoliâ€™s Francesco Giananni, thereâ€™s little reason to doubt his chances for a third title. The strongest team in the race has to be Lampre, with Damiano Cunego, Diego Ulissi, Francesco Gavazzi, and Alessandro Petacchi taking the line. That said, Liquigas brings Peter Sagan, a rider perfectly suited for a race such as Laigueglia.Â If Katushaâ€™s Danilo Di Luca canâ€™t manage to escape by the finish (perhaps accompanied by Lampreâ€™s Diego Ulissi), look for Sagan to take the win over Ginanni, Lampreâ€™s Gavazzi, and FDJâ€™s Geoffrey Soupe.
5. And last but not least, Sunday brings the first day of the 2011 Ruta del Sol, a 5-day race with a rather interesting list of participants.Â Team Skyâ€™s not bringing 2010-winner Michael Rogers, perhaps leaving the door open for last-yearâ€™s runner-up Jurgen Van den Broeck to take his first win of the season.
Of the Spanish teams taking part, Movistarâ€”with 2010 stage-winner Francisco Ventoso and talented GC-rider Benat Intxuastiâ€”brings a strong roster, as does Euskaltel with Samuel Sanchez and Romain Sicard.Â And donâ€™t discount Geox-TMC with Colombian Fabio Duarte and Rafael Valls. Leopard-Trek brings both Schlecks to the race, but Jens Voigt might be the teamâ€™s best hope for a high placingâ€”he finished fourth last year.Â Rabobank has Oscar Freire for stage wins (he took 2 last year), and Bauke Mollema for the overall (he finished fifth on GC in 2010). Interestingly, Vacansoleilâ€™s Stijn Devolder has chosen the Ruta as his final prep for next Saturdayâ€™s Omloop, but Johnny Hoogerlandâ€™s a better bet for a win. And last but never least, Radio Shack comes prepared to contend for the overall and stage wins with Robbie Hunter, Levi Leipheimer, and Janez Brajkovic.
In the end, this event is usually a bit of crap-shoot.Â Sundayâ€™s Prologue suits Voigt, Leipheimer, and Brajkovicâ€”especially since itâ€™s shaped pretty much like a half-pipe with a long uphill drag to the line.Â But anything can happen over the course of the race, especially with several Spanish squads eager to take the seasonâ€™s first important home race.Â Iâ€™ll pick Voigt to give Leopard-Trek its first stage race.
What about youâ€”who are your picks for the weekend?