The â€œsecond halfâ€ of the season gets underway this weekend, with Pro Tour races in Spain and Poland. For some, the weekend is the last bit of racing before a well-deserved post-Tour break; for others, it begins the final build-up to the Vuelta a Espana and the autumn classics.
Saturdayâ€™s Clasica San Sebastian will see several Tour de France stars attempting to close the month with a victory in Spainâ€™s more important single-day race. A race traditionally won and lost in the final hour (the last of two trips over the Jaizkibel and Arkale come with 38 and 2.7-kilometers to go, respectively), look for the winner to be a rider who can climb, descend, and handle himself in a small group sprint.
The defending champion and Tour de France stage winner, Luis Leon Sanchezâ€”now riding for Rabobank, tops the start list. Sanchez is a rider perfectly built for a race like la Clasica as he can climb with the best on the Jaizkibel, open gaps on the climbâ€™s speedy descent, and handle himself tactically in the finale, traits he used last year to win the event. Riding with Rabobank, Sanchez also comes to the race supported by a strong team including 2009 Clasica-winner Carlos Barredo and 3-timre World Champion Oscar Freire.
Coincidentally, Sanchezâ€™s toughest challenger shares a surname and the color orange, as Euskaltelâ€™s Samuel Sanchez takes the line hoping to win his Basque team its first Clasica. After a top-10 finish, a stage win, and the polka dot jersey at the Tour de France, thereâ€™s little reason to doubt the Spaniardâ€™s chances.
As for Movistarâ€™s Jose Joaquin Rojas, the Spanish Champion also enjoyed a solid Tour de France, challenging for the green jersey despite failing to win a stage. La Clasica would be a terrific win for the young sprinterâ€”if he can make it over the Jaizkibel with the lead group. And donâ€™t forget Katushaâ€™s Joaquin Rodriguez. He won two stages at the Dauphine in June, but took July off to prepare for the rest of the summer.
Belgiumâ€™s eyes will be watching Philippe Gilbert, a man who canâ€™t seem to help himself from lighting-up every race he enters. At some point, Philâ€™s going to need a rest, but one would be foolish to discount the Omega Pharma-Lotto riderâ€™s chances in a race with a short climb less than 3-kilometers from the line. A San Sebastian victory would add yet another win to what has already been a dream season for the new King of Belgium. And while youâ€™re at it, keep your eyes on Gilbertâ€™s teammate and Tour stage-winner, Jelle Vanendert, a rider who showed he knows how to handle himself in one-day classics this past April.
Belgiumâ€™s other important team will be relying on a Frenchman Saturday, as French Champion Sylvain Chavanel hopes Spain will treat him better than France did this past July. Fully-healed from his first week crashes at the Tour, Chavanel rode an aggressive third week, but came up empty in the end. His aggressive style makes him well-suited to a race like la Clasicaâ€”especially if other more-favored riders spend too much time marking one another. Vacansoleilâ€™s Thomas De Gendt is someone to watch as well; the Belgian displayed some incredible form during that last weekend of the Tour and is certainly unafraid to ride aggressively. The same can be said of BMCâ€™s Greg Van Avermaet, the most successful non-Tour rider of the month.
As for Garmin-CervÃ©lo, Thor Hushovdâ€™s a trendy pick following his two Tour stage winsâ€”the logic being, if he can make it over the Aubisque he can make it over the Jaizkibel. That said, I think Ryder Hesjedalâ€™s a better pick for Saturday. At HTC-HighRoad, Peter Velits warrants a mention, while Skyâ€™s Rigoberto Uran should bounce back after a rough final week of the Tour. As for Leoprd Trek, while the Schlecks are indeed racing, I expect a busy week of post-Tour events will leave them too flat to contend Saturday.
Last but not least, thereâ€™s the curious case of Lampreâ€™s Damiano Cunego, a rider who just canâ€™t seem to find an identity right now. After finishing second in the Tour de Suisse and seventh at the Tour de France, the Little Prince might have forgotten that heâ€™s better-suited to races such as San Sebastianâ€”or is he? Perhaps Saturday will give us our answer.
In the end, as tempting as it is to pick Gilbert, I see a Spaniard making it four wins in a row for the host nation, with Samuel Sanchez getting Euskaltel its first win in the teamâ€™s â€œhomeâ€ race. Cunego will take second, and Movistarâ€™s Rui Costa will finish third.
Heading northâ€”and eastâ€”the Tour of Poland starts Sunday, with a challenging parcours and seven days of racing that has atracted a talented list of men looking to build form for the rest of the season. A race usually dominated by sprinters but won by an all-rounder, this yearâ€™s event features the last two winners in Garmin-Cerveloâ€™s Dan Martin and BMCâ€™s Alessandro Ballan. Of the two, Martinâ€™s the best bet for a repeat, as the â€œnew and improvedâ€ course features some serious climbing in the latter half of the week.
Sprinters to watch include Garmin-Cerveloâ€™s Heinrich Haussler, Quick-Stepâ€™s Tom Boonen (making his first post-Tour start), Katushaâ€™s Filippo Pozzato (remember him?), Saxo Bankâ€™s Juan Jose and Lucas Haedo, HTC-HighRoadâ€™s John Degenkolb, Omega Pharma-Lottoâ€™s Adam Blythe, and Vacansoleilâ€™s Romain Feillu. Look for these men to rule the day on Stages 1, 2, 3, and 7.
As for men capable of winning the race overall, Martinâ€™s biggest challenges should come from Liquigasâ€™ Vincenzo Nibali and Peter Sagan (perhaps the raceâ€™s truest all-rounder), Lampreâ€™s Michele Scarponi, Katushaâ€™s Danilo DiLuca, HTC-HighRoadâ€™s Konstantin Sioutsou, Radio Shackâ€™s Tiago Machado and Matt Busche, and Movstarâ€™s Vasil Kiriyenka.
And donâ€™t rule out the raceâ€™s home talent, as several teams bring Polish riders hoping to impress their home fans. Saxo Bankâ€™s Jaroslva Marycz and Rafael Majka, Radio Shackâ€™s Michael Kwiatkowski, Lampreâ€™s Przemzslaw Niemiec, and Vacansoleilâ€™s Michal Golas are the best bets for a stage upset, with Majka an outside bet for a high overall finish (he finished third in the Best Young Rider competition in Mayâ€™s Tour of California).
In the end, while Garmin and Dan Martin might have the strongest team, Peter Sagan has the single best domestique in Vincenzo Nibali. Sagan showed in the Tour of California and Tour de Suisse that heâ€™s able to handle himself when the road goes upâ€”I expect him to win at least two stages and the overall in Poland.
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