With the Tour de France bearing down on us, riders across the world are flying to their home countries for their respective National Championships, hoping to wear their country’s colors when La Grande Boucle begins on July 2nd. Here’s a quick run-down of who the Pavé staff will have their eyes on this weekend.
France – With the possibility that the French are on the verge of a cycling Renaissance, many are watching French teams for the Tour. For this weekend’s National Championships, Thomas Voeckler looks to continue his reign of terror – he’s spent all year relentlessly Merckxing the French countryside. If anybody can challenge him, it might be Anthony Charteau, who displayed some fine form at the Route du Sud (you know – that other Tour prep event) – if he’s not working with or for his trade teammate Voeckler. It could be Sylvain Chavanel, too – though he’s been quiet since an impressive Spring Classics campaign, he’s hard to rule out.
Belgium might have the most interesting National Championships. In addition to some ongoing drama (or at least uncertainty) about the future of its top teams and its star riders, it’s got a host of people capable of taking the National Champ jersey from the shoulders of the mercurial Stijn Devolder, who is unlikely to keep either his road or TT champion’s jersey. Devolder’s won the road race two years in a row, but has been newsworthy this year only for getting dropped. Belgium’s race has a flat parcours – can Tom “Have I Ever Liked Sprinting” Boonen overcome Gert Steegmans’ sprint? If the race finishes in a small group Greg Van Avermaet – who took 2nd in the Tour of Belgium to complement a spring full of top tens in races like Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Milan-San Remo, and the Montepaschi Strade Bianchi – is likely to be there. Mister April, Phillipe Gilbert, is hard to rule out even when a race doesn’t look hard enough to suit his abilities, and Kenny Van Hummel, Bjorn Leukemans and Jens Keukeleire may be gunning for the win, too.
Italy has a host of riders who may take Paolo Bettini’s crown as the next Italian one-day champion. Damiano Cunego looks ready to win this one after a four-second loss of the Tour de Suisse to Levi Leipheimer. It won’t be a cakewalk, though, with an array of challengers including the young Giro stage-winner Diego Ulissi, defending National Champion Giovanni Visconti, and Giro third-placer and one-day threat Vicenzo Nibali. I’d look to winner of Milan-San Remo’s oft overlooked “Gutsiest Move Ever” category, Micheli Scarponi, to challenge, if he weren’t sitting out with Ivan Basso. Either way, expect the Italian championships to be a knock-down, drag-out, slugfest. Pippo Pozzato needs to win to justify his salary – we expect him to disappoint once again.
Spain – Alberto Contador is riding the time trial and road race to check his form prior to the Tour de France after a season with little racing. Samuel Sanchez is a capable challenger in the road race, and those grumbling about Contador’s presence in the race are likely to be rooting for a Sanchez upset.
Holland – Last year, Nikki Terpstra broke a four-year Rabobank stranglehold on the Dutch Nattychamps. He threatens to repeat, but he’ll have to contend with Robert Gesink, Sebastien Langeveld, Lars Boom and Johnny Hoogerland. Stef Clement has already stomped the TT, but on the open road will be hard pressed to double up.
Luxembourg – The Schlecks are riding Lux’s National Championships – perhaps, with the Tour de France starting any day now, they’ll finally show some glimmers of form, and one of them will get to put the stripes on that otherwise desolate Leopard-Trek jersey.
Russia – We’re rooting for Sergei Ivanov to show some form ahead of the Tour – in hopes to see something akin to his win in the 2009 Tour’s Stage 14 (otherwise remembered as the Hincapie, Cavendish, Hushovd Stage de Drama). If he takes it, beleagured Katusha DS Andre Tchmil may just fire off a few Kalashikov rounds in celebration of a long-awaited victory.
Norway – We were going to write about Thor Hushovd and Edvald Boasson Hagen being the two prominent Norweigian competitors, until Boasson Hagen came down with a case of shingles.
Germany – Andre Greipel, Omega Pharma-Lotto’s Cav-hating sprinter, will be going head to head with Tony Martin, HTC’s young time trialing and stage-race prodigy. Look for one of those two to pull on Germany’s champion jersey. Martin will surely be motivated after losing his Time Trial title to Bert Grabsch, and with Martin’s focus on the Tour, it’s likely that he’s firing on many if not all cylinders.
Switzerland – Fabian Cancellara looks out of place in anything but a Swiss champion’s jersey, but Michael Albasini and Martin Elmiger may challenge the Swiss road race. Since Martin Kohler won the Time Trial, Cancellara must not have been in attendance, which suggests that he might not race the road race – therefore it’s anyone’s game.
Great Britain – Brad Wiggins, coming off a victory in the Dauphine and hoping to silence skeptics with a strong 2011 Tour de France, is a safe bet for the championship, but don’t rule out David Millar, who might take Wiggins down a pre-Tour peg or two.
Ireland‘s championship race in 2010 came down to a mano-a-mano duel between Matt Brammeir and Nicholas Roche, with Brammeir taking the win. Even money says it comes down to those two again, though last year’s bronze medalist Dan Martin is in fine form, too.
Who will have your attention this weekend?