The 2010 road season is beginning to pick-up, which means it’s time once again for Pavé’s Weekend Preview Series. In most places, it’s still winter, so it’s no surprise that February races take place in Europe’s warmest regions. Let’s take a tour!
We’ll start in Southern Italy, where the season kicked-off last weekend with the 4-day Giro di Reggio-Calabria and continues Saturday with the GP Etruschi. The race usually ends in a sprint, and several men take the start with aspirations for a bunch win. The favorite has to be Alessandro Petacchi, the winner of 2 stages at Calabria. Along with Petacchi, Lampre signed Danilo Hondo this past off-season, and so far the lead-out combination seems to be working. Damiano Cunego also takes the line for the boys in pink, although it would be quite a surprise to see him take a win this early in the year—though stranger things have happened. Other possible winners? ISD’s Oscar Gatto had some good results in Calabria, as did Colnago’s Mattia Gavazzi. Acqua & Sapone brings Luca Paolini, a man who knows how to win a race from a break and in a sprint. Androni Giocattoli will start Alberto Loddo and Rubens Bertogliati, two men with the speed to take the win. Just for fun, let’s include two men with speedy surnames: De Rosa’s Roberto Ferrari and Ceramica Flaminia’s Alessandro Maserati. And finally, it’s worth mentioning that Carmiooro’s Emanuele Sella and Miche’s Michael Rasmussen, two men starting the long road back to respectability, are racing as well.
From Italy to we head to the South of France, and the final two stages of the Etoile des Besseges, a 5-day race that started Wednesday. So far it’s been a sprint-fest, with Vacansoleil’s Borut Borzic taking two wins and the leader’s jersey. With relatively short stages and flat profiles, it’s anyone’s guess as to each day’s winner this weekend. But I wouldn’t bet against Vacansoleil taking another win or two. They’re hoping for an invitation to the Tour; a few more winning performances on French soil might just do the trick!
Now onto Spain and the traditional Spanish openers on the island of Mallorca. Mallorca’s an attractive option to many riders; it offers five days of one-day racing, meaning riders can start and stop as they please. Teams often bring large contingents, mixing and matching their start lists according to the terrain and their riders’ fitness levels. This year’s team line-ups closely resemble many of the rosters from January’s Tour Down Under; Mallorca’s a smart way for the riders to re-acclimate without over-committing. For example, Caisse d’Epargne brings Alejandro Valverde and Luis Leon Sanchez, fresh from their successful Aussie endeavors. Look for Valverde to make a quick exit though, as he’s slated (right now) to start the Tour du Med on Tuesday. TDU winner Andre Greipel takes the line too, obviously hoping to continue his January success on another continent. He’s joined by Tony Martin, Michael Albasini, and the usual complement of HTC riders capable of taking wins—Monfort, Pinotti, and Siutsou to name a few.
Katusha brings an interesting roster to the race, highlighted by Kim Kirchen, Alexander Kolobnev, and Joaquin Rodriguez. Omega Pharma is bringing Mario Aerts (remember him?), Jan Bakelants, and Jurgen Van Den Broeck, although it’s unlikely the latter will show us anything until at least May. Quick Step split its team between Mallorca and Qatar this week. Stijn Devolder and Sylvain Chavanel scored the trip to Spain, likely due to the slightly more varied terrain it offers. Rabobank brings Oscar Freire and Lars Boom, look for Oscar to start his penultimate season with at least one win here. Rabo’s compatriots from Skil-Shimano will be hoping Kenny Van Hummel can begin their season with a win or two. Milram’s Linus Gerdemann is on the list, but Robert Forster’s probably a safer bet for a win for the German team. Saxo Bank brings the Schleck brothers for some sunny base mileage, as well as Jens Voigt. And finally, I can’t help but mention my early pick for Best Name in the Sport, Footon Servetto’s Johnny Walker!
Italy, Spain, France—that’s it, right? Nope. We’re forgetting what’s quickly becoming the early season’s hottest warm-up race: the Tour of Qatar. The race begins on Sunday with a short TTT, where Team Sky will certainly hope to out-Garmin everyone—including Garmin. After that, 5 days of field sprints are in store—no doubt a welcome sight for Tom Boonen, a man seeking a bit of redemption following a less-than-stellar fall campaign. He won’t have Mark Cavendish to contend with, but that doesn’t mean Tommeke’s got an easy ride to victory. Several more than capable sprinters fill the start list: Cervelo’s Haussler; HTC’s Eisel; Saxo Bank’s Breschel, Cooke, and Haedo; Omega Pharma’s Van Avermaet; Garmin’s Farrar; Katusha’s Napolitano; BMC’s Burghardt; Saur’s Casper, Milram’s Ciolek, Liquigas’ Bennati and Chichi; and Vacansoleil’s Roman Feillu.
Seriously speaking, aside from the absence of Petacchi, Borzic, Cavendish, Hushovd, and Freire, this has to be one of the finest groups of sprinters ever assembled! But it doesn’t stop there as several other stars are fleeing Europe’s cold winter for the warmth of the Persian Gulf (never thought I’d type that!). The list read’s like a list of favorites for the Tour of Flanders: in addition to Boonen and Haussler we have Cancellara, Gilbert, Boassen Hagen, Flecha, Maaskant, Pozzato, Ballan, Kuschynski, and Quinziato. Throw-in Bradley Wiggins and Taylor Phinney, and you’ve got all the makings of something special.
Well, you would if it weren’t being held in a desert.
The true racing here will likely occur only within the final 10km each day; but with such a star-studded field, it should quite a spectacle. The only thing the riders need to worry about is the threat of crashes—with so many riders and so few hills to create some separation, there’s always the risk for big pile-ups. Here’s hoping everyone makes it through unscathed.
So there you have it—our first Weekend Preview of 2010. As you can see, there are a lot of favorites to choose from—share your picks and predictions below. And if you have a minute and like what you read, recommend us to a friend or follow us on Twitter. We’ve got a big season planned!