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By Andrew Hood
It’s a busy week in Europe with stage races in Spain, Italy and France, the third stop of the women’s World Cup slated for this weekend in Spain and the kickoff of the northern classics season in Belgium. Here’s a look at the highlights.
Armstrong headlines strong Catalana field
Lance Armstrong starts his second race of the season Monday with the 40th Setmana Catalana as the four-time Tour de France champion continues his preparation for his assault on the 2003 Tour. The five-day race is Armstrong’s “hometown” race as the course plies the roads of Spain’s Cataluyna region near Armstrong’s European home-base in Girona.
Armstrong made his season debut at Tour of Murcia in early March, where he just missed winning the individual time trial. There’s no race against the clock in Catalana, but a tough summit finish at Pal in stage four.
“I don’t know how Armstrong will race in the Setmana, but it’s obvious he’s in strong condition as we saw in the Tour of Murcia when he almost won the final time trial,” said Johan Bruyneel, U.S. Postal’s sport director. “His objective is the Tour and his training program hasn’t changed.”
The field includes other riders honing their form for the grand tours, with Gilberto Simoni (Saeco), Aitor Gonzalez and Dario Frigo (Fassa Bortolo) with eyes to the Giro d’Italia and Armstrong, ONCE’s Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano, Rabobank’s Levi Leipheimer and Team Coast’s Angel Casero looking ahead to the Tour.
With defending champion Juan Miguel Mercado (iBanesto.com) struggling with back problems, others are likely to vie for final victory. Kelme’s Javier Pascual Llorente has been Spain’s strong man, already bagging victories at the Ruta del Sol and Tour of Murcia. U.S. Postal’s Victor Hugo Peña is also strong while Frigo won Tour of Valenciana and pulled out sick while leading Paris-Nice. Euskaltel’s Iban Mayo and Haimar Zubeldia will be fighting hard for the overall to make an impression on Tour de France organizers with hopes of snagging a wild-card bid.
Check back at VeloNews.com for daily race updates throughout the week.
40th Setmana Catalana (UCI 2.1)
Stage 1 March 24, Lloret de Mar circuit, 147km
Stage 2 March 25, Lloret de Mar to Empuriabrava, 159km
Stage 3 March 26, Castello d’Empuries to Parets del Valles, 175km
Stage 4 March 27, Parets to Alto de Pal, 144km
Stage 5 March 28, Baga to Vic, 169km
Pantani back this week
Marco Pantani – clipped ears and all – is expected to mark his return to racing Wednesday for the Settimana Ciclistica Internazionale Coppi e Bartali (March 26-30).
The five-day stage race will be the troubled Pantani’s comeback after he served a six-month suspension after authorities found a syringe laced with insulin his hotel room during the San Remo raids of the 2001 Giro d’Italia.
The case dragged out for months after Pantani was dealt an eight-month suspension, which he contested. It was later overturned by Italian authorities, but the UCI appealed the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which rejected the Italian decision but also reduced the ban to six months and cleared Pantani to return to racing in a ruling last week.
It’s quite unlikely Pantani’s Mercatone Uno team will be invited to the Tour de France this year, so Pantani’s top goal is to be ready for the Giro d’Italia in May. Meanwhile, the Coppi e Bartoli attracts a solid, predominantly Italian field, with Francesco Casagrande (Lampre) winning there last year.
Women’s round three in Spain
The 2003 women’s World Cup continues Sunday with the third round in northern Spain. Last year’s inaugural event in Valladolid got good reviews from the field, but this year’s course has been moved to north of Burgos.
The 108km race is held over seven laps on a 15.5km circuit in Villarcayo. The course is largely flat interrupted by a short, 1km climb in the middle of each circuit with ramps as steep as 8 percent. German Regina Schleicher won last year’s race and looks strong after finishing second in Saturday’s Primavera Rosa behind winner Zoulfia Zabirova. Australian Sara Carrigan finished 13th in Italy to retain the overall World Cup lead.
UCI releases world rankings on Monday
1. Paolo Bettini (Italy) 2300.00 points
2. Erik Zabel (Germany) 2273.00
3. Lance Armstrong (U.S.) 2105.00
4. Dario Frigo (Italy) 1763.00
5. Davide Rebellin (Italy) 1689.00
6. Mario Cipollini (Italy) 1661.20
7. Aitor Gonzalez Jimenez (Spain) 1594.00
8. Robbie McEwen (Australia) 1545.00
9. Roberto Heras Hernandez (Spain) 1455.75
10. Francesco Casagrande (Italy) 1447.00
11. Joseba Beloki Dorronsoro (Spain) 1298.00
12. Michele Bartoli (Italy) 1265.00
13. Michael Boogerd (Netherlands) 1203.60
14. Johan Museeuw (Belgium) 1155.50
15. Santiago Botero Echeverry (Colombia) 1131.40
16. Baden Cooke (Australia) 1068.00
17. Danilo Di Luca (Italy) 1066.00
18. Laurent Brochard (France) 1037.00
19. Mikel Uranga Zarrabeitia (Spain) 1015.25
20. Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano Aranzabal (Spain) 1003.00
Classics season gears up
There’s a short break between Saturday’s Milan-San Remo and the World Cup’s second stop at Tour of Flanders on April 6, but the Belgian classics season begins in earnest this week. The racing kicks off Wednesday with the Travers a Flanders (UCI 1.2) followed by the GP E3 Harelbeke (UCI 1.1) on Saturday and the Fleche Brabanconne (UCI 1.2) on Sunday. Three Days of Flanders kicks off next week April 1-3 in the final tune-up before Tour of Flanders next weekend.
Motivated Hamilton heads to Criterium International
Criterium International is so-called “mini Tour de France” because it’s tailored for an all-rounder with one flat stage, one climbing stage and one time trial over two days of racing. For the third year running, CI will be held in French Ardennes. Saturday’s 187km stage from Charleville to Merzieres favors the sprinters, while nine climbs break up the 98.5km morning sector from Les Mazures to Montherme of Sunday’s double-stage finale. The winner is usually decided in the afternoon time trial, this year 8.3km from Charleville to Mezieres.
Last year, Euskaltel’s Alberto Martinez pipped Lance Armstrong by less than a second. Team CSC’s Tyler Hamilton, coming off a strong Paris-Nice where he won the KOM jersey, will be among the favorites. The official start list has not been released, but here’s a list of the top riders fielded by the teams taking on this year’s race:AG2R Prévoyance
Felix Garcia Casas
Brioches la Boulangère
(lineup not yet determined)
Cofidis Crédit par téléphone
José Alberto Martinez
Kelme Cosat Blanca
Marlux Wincor Nixdorf
Phonak Hearing System
AlexandreVinokourov, winner of Paris-Nice 2003