By Andrew Hood
With the season’s first grand tour clicking into gear this weekend, there’s not a lot on the international calendar this week.
Stage races in France and Poland are the main highlights, along with the fifth leg of the women’s World Cup this weekend in Switzerland. Otherwise, all eyes will be on the buildup for the Giro d’Italia, starting Saturday in Venice.
Tuesday to Sunday
55th Four Days of Dunkirk (Fra, 2.HC)
There’s no good reason to change the name of a race just because you add a few days here and there. That’s the case with the Quatre Jours de Dunkerque, held in the Pays de Calais region of northern France.
Originally held over four days, the addition of a time trial and then another road stage has since seen the race expanded to six days.
The race opens Tuesday with the 186.9km first stage around Dunkerque. A string of hilly, but sprint-friendly courses should keep the GC tight until the decisive 18.7km individual time trial at Douai. Saturday’s 195.4km stage to Boeschepe features some hard climbs that should spring some strong attacks.
French teams dominate the start list, with defending champion Stephane Augé back with his Cofidis outfit. In all, 147 riders from 19 teams line up for Tuesday’s start in Dunkirk.
Both Saxo Bank and Columbia-Highroad bring competitive squads, with Jonathan Bellis poised for a breakout performance for Bjarne’s Army while Columbia-Highroad’s André Greipel returns to competition for the first time since crashing out of the Tour Down Under back in January.
It will be interesting to see if Jimmy Casper (Bessons-Sojasun) can continue on his winning ways in the sprints. Laszlo Bodrogi (Katusha) makes his season debut following his recovery from a broken leg suffered at last year’s Tour of Germany.
Wednesday to Friday, May 8-10
44th Szlakiem Grodow Piatsowskich (Pol, 2.1)
This three-day race in southwestern Poland near the Czech border mostly draws Polish and German teams. The hilly course serves up some stiff climbs, so it’s no walk in the park.
Two-time defending champion Tomasz Kiendys is back with his CCC Polsat Polkowice team to try for the three-peat in the 547km stage race.
Mentioned in the start list is Patrik Sinkewitz (PSK-Whirlpool), who returned to racing earlier this following a racing ban for testing positive for testosterone and later admitting he used the ban blood booster EPO.
100th Giro d’Italia (Ita, HIS)
This year’s corsa rosa has all the makings of a classic.
With the season’s most emotional race celebrating its centennial, all the ingredients are there for a fabulous three weeks.
The 2009 Giro serves up a challenging route, a star-studded field and Lance Armstrong’s appearance. But its backdrop of Italy’s gorgeous roads and cities gives the Giro its special flavor.
The race opens Saturday with a team time trial in Venice and drives straight into the mountains in stage four. After a short detour into Austria (its only foreign excursion this year), the Giro rolls from one highlight to another.
At its core, the Giro remains very much an Italian race. All the big Italian teams build for the entire season to peak during May.
With the absence of defending champion Alberto Contador, the fight for the maglia rosa should be a dogfight. Back from his racing ban, Ivan Basso (Liquigas) is the odds on favorite for victory despite not racing in a grand tour since his victory in the 2006 Giro.
Other Italians looking to derail Basso’s comeback hopes include Damiano Cunego (Lampre), who is skipping the Tour de France to focus on the Giro. A veteran trio of former winners that includes Gilberto Simoni (Diquigiovanni), Stefano Garzelli (Acqua e Sapone) and Danilo Di Luca (LPR) will be trying their level best to prove they still have the goods.
There’s a strong foreign contingent as well, with Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre (Cervélo TestTeam) taking aim for the podium. Denis Menchov (Rabobank) and the stacked Astana team with Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer will surely make their presence known.
There’s a healthy representation of North American riders. Including Armstrong, there are no less than 12 riders from Canada and the United States on preliminary start lists.
Garmin-Slipstream brings a loaded squad with its immediate goal of defending its team time trial victory from a year ago. The out-and-back flat course on the Lido island just across the canal from Venice should favor the defending champions, but Garmin will see tough competition from Astana, Liquigas, Columbia-Highroad and Saxo Bank.
There’s also splendid cast of sprinters – Petacchi, Cavendish, Farrar, Boasson Hagen, Davis, Haedo, among others – so there won’t be a dull moment between the mountains and the sprints.
Check back with VeloNews.com all week for Giro preview stories and interviews.
Sunday, May 10
Berner-Rundfahrt/Tour de Berne (Swi, World Cup)
The women’s 10-round World Cup clicks back into gear with the Tour de Berne, the fifth stop on the season-long series.
Defending champion Suzanne Ljungskog will be back to try to repeat her eight-second victory ahead of Judith Arndt last year.
Emma Johansson will have her work cut out to maintain her World Cup lead. The Swede leads with 210 points, with World No. 1 Marianne Vos closing in with 192 points in second. Third place rider Loes Gunnewijk is poised with 104 points.