Hereâ€™s a preview of some of this weekendâ€™s events:
1. In Belgium, Radio Shackâ€™s Jesse Sergent heads into the weekend as the leader of the Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen after a dominating team performance in todayâ€™s Prologue. The Shack finished 1,2,3, and 5 over the 7-kilometer circuit, an impressive ride by the teamâ€™s C-squad.
So Sergent goes into Saturdayâ€™s Stage 1 wearing the leaderâ€™s â€œfritesâ€ jersey (assuming the organization hasnâ€™t changed its jerseys from 2010). His closest non-Shack competitor is Team Spidertechâ€™s Svein Tuft in fourth-place, 20 seconds behind the New Zealander.
Saturdayâ€™s stage is generally flat, a day suited to sprinters such as Saurâ€™s Jimmy Casper, Lottoâ€™s Adam Blythe, Quick-Stepâ€™s Francesco Chicchi, and last-yearâ€™s winner, Cofidisâ€™ Jens Keukelaire.
Sunday brings the Flemish Ardennes and a hillier parcours, one that will test the sprinterâ€™s legsâ€”and Radio Shackâ€™s ability to control the race. Casper and Keukelaire have both won the overall title and know what to expect; but two other former winnersâ€”Landbouwkedietâ€™s Bobbie Traksel and An Postâ€™s Niko Eeckhoutâ€”might be better options for the stage win. The two best bets to break Radio Shackâ€™s grip on GC are Leopard Trekâ€™s Robert Wagner and HTCâ€™s John Degenkolbâ€”they both can sprint, handle the climbs, and are within shouting distance of Sergent after todayâ€™s short ITT.
2. Meanwhile, the newly-shortened Vuelta de Murcia started today with Rabobank rookie Michael Matthews taking his second win of the season over Skyâ€™s Russell Downing and Davide Appolonio. Condensed from five days to three due to budgetary constraints, Murciaâ€™s looking to ASOâ€™s Criterium International as the model for success: a flat stage, a difficult day in the hills, and a short time trial to wrap things up.
Geox-TMC brings the strongest squad to Murcia with Denis Menchov, Carlos Sastre, and Fabio Duarte. Menchov is the best candidate to earn the teamâ€™s first GC victory of the season, but Duarteâ€™s an up-and-comer worth keeping an eye on. Saxo Banksâ€™ Alberto Contador is another candidate for the win; heâ€™s skipping Paris-Nice this year, perhaps to avoid any controversy with the ASO while his fate is being determined. Last but not least, Euskaltelâ€™s Igor Anton deserves mention as wellâ€”heâ€™ll give Menchov and Contador a run for their money.
3. But this weekendâ€™s best action begins tomorrow in Italy, with the fifth running of the Montepaschi Strade Biancheâ€”known affectionately as â€œlâ€™Eroicaâ€. Eroicaâ€™s jagged profile covers 190 kilometers of Tuscan roads around Siena, almost 58 of which are paved with white gravelâ€”the famous Tuscan strade bianche. Several teams of classics stars take the line in Gaiole in Chianti tomorrow morning, many of whom will head to directly to Tirreno-Adriatico next week.
Italian favorites include Androni-Giocattoliâ€™s Emanuele Sellaâ€”fresh from his win in Thursdayâ€™s Giro del Friuliâ€”along with Francesco Ginanni and Roberto Ferrari. BMC brings an in-form Alessandro Ballan with George Hincapie, Cadel Evans (a proven Lâ€™Eroica contender), and Greg Van Avermaetâ€”Ballanâ€™s the likely captain of the team, especially considering the form he displayed in last weekâ€™s Giro di Sardegna.Â Farnese Vini puts itâ€™s hopes in Giovanni Viscontiâ€”the winner of last weekendâ€™s GP Insubria-Lugana and a favorite for the overall at Tirrreno-Adriatico. Lampreâ€™s Damiano Cunego was a last minute additionâ€”the Sardegna stage winner is no doubt looking for his first big win of 2011. But my top pick for the win this year is Liquigasâ€™ Daniel Ossâ€”a rider perfectly suited to the demands of lâ€™Eroica and another whoâ€™s shown impressive form over the past ten days.
Along with BMC, two more American teams come to lâ€™Eroica looking to take the win. HTC-High Road brings Michael Albasini, Bernhard Eisel, and Marco Pinotti, but Peter Velits might be the best of them. Mark Cavendish is taking the start as well, perhaps an early attempt to turn himself into a classics contender. As for Garmin-CervÃ©lo, Ryder Hesjedal comes to the race as one of the most consistent riders in lâ€™Eroicaâ€™s history. The Canadian has made the strade bianche a special stop on his programâ€”he heads directly to Paris after the race to take the start Sunday in Paris-Nice. Hesjedal lines-up beside Tyler Farrar, an interesting candidate (with Cavendish) should a large group remain intact all the way to the line.
And last but not least, two of the seasonâ€™s biggest favorites for the cobbled classics are making the trip as well: Omega Pharma-Lottoâ€™s Philippe Gilbert and Leopard Trekâ€™s Fabian Cancellara. Gilbertâ€™s an intriguing option. He underwhelmed at last weekâ€™s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and would like to rebound with a good performance here. As for Cancellara, he has the bulk of Leopardâ€™s classics squad backing him and seemed to be coming along quite nicely at the Tour of Oman. And with Andy Schleckâ€”a top finisher in the past at lâ€™Eroicaâ€”competing as well, thereâ€™s more than one option for Leopard.
In the end, I see the race coming down to Ballan and Oss, with the Liquigas rider getting his first major win as a professional. Team Type 1â€™s Jure Kocjan will win the sprint for third. You heard it here first!
Share your weekend picks belowâ€”look for a special Paris-Nice preview tomorrow.
And donâ€™t forget to join us for live coverage and commentary during tomorrowâ€™s lâ€™Eroica. Assuming we can find a live stream, weâ€™ll be here moderating a live forum.