By Andrew Hood
There are a few races around Europe this weekend, but it is Saturday’s Milan-San Remo that will be the center of attention.
The race is celebrating its 100th edition this year and the Italians are expected to pull out all the stops.
The presence of Lance Armstrong in his first European race since his comeback will only heighten the media attention and anticipation for the 100th edition of the Italian spring classic.
Ongoing through Tuesday
44th Tirreno-Adriatico (Ita, HIS)
Italy’s second most-important stage race wraps up Tuesday with the sprinter’s delight into San Benedetto del Tronto. The week was highlighted by a huge victory by Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Slipstream), who shot past the left shoulder of Mark Cavendish (Columbia-Highroad) in the third stage. Michele Scarponi (Diquigiovanni) carries the leader’s jersey into the final stage.
Wednesday, March 18
64th Nokere-Koerse (Bel, 1.1)
The mid-week race gives the Belgians not headed to Milan-San Remo something to shoot for. The 192.9km course from Oudenaarde to Nokere typically ends in a sprint, but Belgium’s unpredictable spring weather can always be a factor.
Last year’s winner Wouter Weylandt (Quick Step), already victorious this year at Le Samyn and a stage at Three Days of West Flanders, is expected back to defend his title.
The race draws a relatively light field, with only four ProTour teams, but it’s a great opportunity for the smaller, second-tier teams to ride for a win. That’s one of the big problems smaller teams face in Europe —many of the bigger races are all but off-limits, with the ProTours hogging up 18 of the 20 or so invitations.
Saturday, March 21
100th Milan-San Remo (Ita, HIS)
Break out the thesaurus to describe Milan-San Remo. The Italians refer to it as la classica di primavera (the spring classic), or simply as la classicissima.
Considered one of cycling’s five one-day monuments (Flanders, Roubaix, Liège and Lombardia being the others), Milan-San Remo is also the longest on the season.
Despite being dubbed the sprinter’s classic, breakaways do manage to stay clear, most recently in 2006, when Filippo Pozzato won after attacking with Alessandro Ballan over the Poggio.
Organizers added the Poggio climb in 1960 and the Cipressa in 1982 to slow down the pack. Organizers are toying with the idea of adding the longer and steeper Pompeiana climb, just past the Cipressa. But this year, the course is exactly the same as in 2008, with the return of the feared Le Manie climb at 204km.
The list of pre-race favorites is long, but don’t expect to see a repeat from Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank). Last year, he attacked with one kilometer to go to fend off the pack and score a dramatic win, but the Swiss rider is admittedly off-form, though he expects to race simply to get the kilometers in his legs.
Two-time winner Oscar Freire (Rabobank) is still recovering from his crash at the Amgen Tour of California and will miss the race. Filippo Pozzato (Katusha), a winner in 2006, and Alessandro Petacchi (LPR), both looked strong at the Tirreno-Adriatico race.
In fact, Pozzato and Petacchi are the only former champions lining up Saturday in Milano with real chances to win, so a new winner is highly likely.
Two riders will attract special attention. The media will focus on Lance Armstrong (Astana), who lines up in Europe for the first time since his comeback. The pack will be watching Mark Cavendish (Columbia-Highroad), to see if the puckish sprinter can get over the late climbs to arrive in the bunch.
Check VeloNews.com all this week for more Milan-San Remo pre-race coverage.
Sunday, March 22
32nd Cholet-Pays de Loire (Fra, 1.1)
Any race on the same weekend as Milan-San Remo doesn’t get much love.
This 205km race around the chateaux country also favors the sprinters. Early start lists include Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne), who is skipping most of the spring classics this year to focus on the Tour (assuming the Italians don’t get to him first). Theo Bos, the former world sprint champion, continues his transition from the velodrome to the bunch sprints with the Rabobank continental team. Here’s a sign of how tough the job market is for European pros: Defending champion Janek Tombak is starting with the lowly Cycling Club Bourgas team.
3rd Ronde van het Groene Hart (Ned, 1.1)
This relatively new race sees Gert Steegmans and Danilo Napolitano as the big draws, with four ProTour teams among the field. The 203.4km race from Zoetemeer to Woerden is another race to make a name of up-and-comers. BMC also lines up as part of its growing European presence. Weylandt won the inaugural edition in 2007 while Tomas Vaitkus (Astana) won last year.