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By Andrew Hood
Saturday’s World Cup opener Milan-San Remo promises to be one of the most competitive in years. A baker’s dozen of cycling’s biggest Classics riders are roaring into the traditional kick off to the European racing season.
Topping the list of favorites is Mario Cipollini, hot off his impressive victory in the final stage of Tirreno-Adriatico on Wednesday. The 35-year-old Tuscan has new colors (check that zebra-striped kit), a new bike (Specialized) and a new lease on life (Acqua e Sapone). Cipo is desperate for a victory at Milan-San Remo.
Erik Zabel has owned Milan-San Remo, winning four out of the past five years. The hard-working German has the magic touch, but won’t have the services of lead-out man Gian Matteo Fagnini, who broke his collarbone in the opening stage at Tirreno. American Bobby Julich has been called in to shore up Telekom’s defenses. With Paris-Nice winner Vinoukorov on his flanks, Zabel will be well-protected.
Erik Dekker, hot off his overall victory at Tirreno, will start with the white leader’s jersey he won after taking the overall World Cup title last year. The late-blooming Dekker is on a tear and promises to be a factor.
Mapei comes loaded with the double-whammy of world champion Oscar Freire, third overall at Tirreno, and Paolo Bettini, the winner of three races already this season. Bettini is sure to attack on Poggio with Freire fast on his wheel.
The wildcard team could be none other than the U.S. Postal Service. Lance Armstrong makes his return to the Classics, this time paying back the favor to longtime teammate and friend George Hincapie. Save for appearances at Amstel Gold (second in 1999 and 2001), Armstrong has skipped the Spring Classics in favor of a more focused Tour de France preparation. This year, Armstrong is back, with scheduled starts at Milan-San Remo, Tour of Flanders, Ghent-Wevelgem and Amstel Gold.
Hincapie, who missed Tirreno after getting the flu, says he wants to be in top form for Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, but a win at Milan-San Remo would be a first for an American.
Throw in Danilo Di Luca, Michele Bartoli, Oscar Carmenzind and Robbie McEwen, Milan-San Remo promises to be an open and exciting race. The best place to be, if you can’t be at the top of Poggio, is in front of your TV set.