Here’s a preview of some of this weekend’s events:
1. In Belgium, Radio Shack’s Jesse Sergent heads into the weekend as the leader of the Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen after a dominating team performance in today’s Prologue. The Shack finished 1,2,3, and 5 over the 7-kilometer circuit, an impressive ride by the team’s C-squad.
So Sergent goes into Saturday’s Stage 1 wearing the leader’s “frites” jersey (assuming the organization hasn’t changed its jerseys from 2010). His closest non-Shack competitor is Team Spidertech’s Svein Tuft in fourth-place, 20 seconds behind the New Zealander.
Saturday’s stage is generally flat, a day suited to sprinters such as Saur’s Jimmy Casper, Lotto’s Adam Blythe, Quick-Step’s Francesco Chicchi, and last-year’s winner, Cofidis’ Jens Keukelaire.
Sunday brings the Flemish Ardennes and a hillier parcours, one that will test the sprinter’s legs—and Radio Shack’s ability to control the race. Casper and Keukelaire have both won the overall title and know what to expect; but two other former winners—Landbouwkediet’s Bobbie Traksel and An Post’s Niko Eeckhout—might be better options for the stage win. The two best bets to break Radio Shack’s grip on GC are Leopard Trek’s Robert Wagner and HTC’s John Degenkolb—they both can sprint, handle the climbs, and are within shouting distance of Sergent after today’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 Sky’s Russell Downing and Davide Appolonio. Condensed from five days to three due to budgetary constraints, Murcia’s looking to ASO’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 team’s first GC victory of the season, but Duarte’s an up-and-comer worth keeping an eye on. Saxo Banks’ Alberto Contador is another candidate for the win; he’s skipping Paris-Nice this year, perhaps to avoid any controversy with the ASO while his fate is being determined. Last but not least, Euskaltel’s Igor Anton deserves mention as well—he’ll give Menchov and Contador a run for their money.
3. But this weekend’s best action begins tomorrow in Italy, with the fifth running of the Montepaschi Strade Bianche—known affectionately as “l’Eroica”. Eroica’s jagged profile covers 190 kilometers of Tuscan roads around Siena, almost 58 of which are paved with white gravel—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-Giocattoli’s Emanuele Sella—fresh from his win in Thursday’s Giro del Friuli—along with Francesco Ginanni and Roberto Ferrari. BMC brings an in-form Alessandro Ballan with George Hincapie, Cadel Evans (a proven L’Eroica contender), and Greg Van Avermaet—Ballan’s the likely captain of the team, especially considering the form he displayed in last week’s Giro di Sardegna. Farnese Vini puts it’s hopes in Giovanni Visconti—the winner of last weekend’s GP Insubria-Lugana and a favorite for the overall at Tirrreno-Adriatico. Lampre’s Damiano Cunego was a last minute addition—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 Liquigas’ Daniel Oss—a rider perfectly suited to the demands of l’Eroica and another who’s shown impressive form over the past ten days.
Along with BMC, two more American teams come to l’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-Cervélo, Ryder Hesjedal comes to the race as one of the most consistent riders in l’Eroica’s history. The Canadian has made the strade bianche a special stop on his program—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 season’s biggest favorites for the cobbled classics are making the trip as well: Omega Pharma-Lotto’s Philippe Gilbert and Leopard Trek’s Fabian Cancellara. Gilbert’s an intriguing option. He underwhelmed at last week’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and would like to rebound with a good performance here. As for Cancellara, he has the bulk of Leopard’s classics squad backing him and seemed to be coming along quite nicely at the Tour of Oman. And with Andy Schleck—a top finisher in the past at l’Eroica—competing as well, there’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 1’s Jure Kocjan will win the sprint for third. You heard it here first!
Share your weekend picks below—look for a special Paris-Nice preview tomorrow.
And don’t forget to join us for live coverage and commentary during tomorrow’s l’Eroica. Assuming we can find a live stream, we’ll be here moderating a live forum.