The 65th edition of the Tour of Romandie began Tuesday, with Euskaltelâ€™s Jonathan Castroviejo taking the raceâ€™s first leaderâ€™s jersey with a win in the technical 3.5-km Prologue through the streets of Martigny.
For years, Romandie was the final piece of the pre-Giro puzzle for anyone hoping to contend for the maglia rosa in the seasonâ€™s first Grand Tour, but latelyâ€”thanks largely to the Giroâ€™s earlier start dateâ€”more of the Italian raceâ€™s top favorites have chosen to pass on this 6 day event in the French-speaking region of Switzerland in exchange for the shorter, harder Giro del Trentino two weeks before the start of the Italian Grand Tour. The start list for this yearâ€™s event is no different, with only two of the men expected to contend for the overall title at the Giro participating in Romandieâ€”Roman Kreuziger and Denis Menchov. But donâ€™t let that fool youâ€”the race is not lacking in star power.
As far as contenders are concerned, last yearâ€™s â€œwinnerâ€ Simon Spilak takes the start for again Lampre, alongside Damiano Cunego. 2010 DauphinÃ©-winner Janez Brajkovic will also do his best to add another weeklong stage race title to his palmares, while his Radio Shack teammate Sebastien Rosseler targets the raceâ€™s two time trials. HTC-High Road brings Marco Pinotti and Tony Martinâ€”the former to put the finishing touches on his Giro fitness and the latter to begin building for the Tour de France. Both should be considered favorites for the overall win, with Martin the likely winner of Saturdayâ€™s Stage 4 time trial.
For Rabobank, Luis Leon Sanchez is a rider to watch for the overallâ€”heâ€™s ridden a rather anonymous 2011 so far and is due for a win at some point, while Oscar Freire is always a good bet for a stage win or two.Â In fact, with a gentler course profile than in years past, Freire could prove to the fastest on all but the hilliest of the eventâ€™s four road stages. Meanwhile, at Garmin-Cervelo, youngsters Jack Bobridge and Andrew Talansky are the riders to watchâ€”in the ITTâ€™s and overall classification respectively.
Leopard Trek brings Daniele Bennati to fight for stage wins and Linus Gerdemann to try for a high GC finish, while BMC brings Cadel Evans and Taylor Phinney. Evans missed the Ardennes classics with an injury, while Phinneyâ€™s been struggling all season to make his presence felt (he finished second Tuesday though and looks to be back on track). Steve Morabitoâ€™s another BMC rider to watch following an impressive Giro del Trentinoâ€”he always performs well on home soil.
Searching for a dark horse winner? Look no further than Movistarâ€™s Benat Intxausti. The young Basque finished fourth in Pais Vasco and should easily finish inside the top-5 here. The same can be said of Saxo Bankâ€™s Australian Richie Porte, the winner of last yearâ€™s Romandie ITT and a revelation in the Giro dâ€™Italia weeks later.
And speaking of the Giro, 2010-winner Ivan Basso heads to this yearâ€™s Tour of Romandie as part of his preparation for the 2011 Tour de France. While Basso is likely just seeking some high-intensity training miles, his teammate Sylvester Szmyd is a better bet for the overall.
Last but certainly not least, Astana comes to Romandie with a former winner in Roman Kreuziger and a 2011 contender in Alexandre Vinokourov. After finishing fourth in Sundayâ€™s Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Kreuziger is likely looking ahead to the Giro, but Vino could snag the team its first major win of the post-Contador era. And speaking of Contador, Geox-TMCâ€™s Denis Menchov is using Romandie as a final test to determine whether or not heâ€™ll prove able to challenge the Spanish Grand Tour star in Italyâ€”look for him near the top of the results following Saturdayâ€™s time trial.
In the end, I expect weâ€™ll see Cadel Evans, Alexandre Vinokourov, and Simon Spilak battling for the overall title, with Vinokourov emerging victorious by the time the race ends in Geneva this Sunday. From there, all signs point to the Giro and what should be one of the most stunning Grand Tour battles weâ€™ve seen in years.
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