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Monday’s Euro-file: Valenciana, Het Volk highlight big week

February is winding down after what’s been exciting start to the European racing season with only a few surprises. Some familiar names have already made a mark in the 2003 season, with Jaan Kirsipuu (AG2R) winning three races already, Rabobank’s Oscar Freire two and Saeco’s Danilo Di Luca taking Giro dello Liguria and Quick Step’s Paolo Bettini the Tour Mediterranean. Two-time U.S. champion Fred Rodriguez started off his season for Sidermec on a good note after taking the second stage of the Tour of Rhodes in Greece last Tuesday. His win is the first by a North American in Europe this year.

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By Andrew Hood

February is winding down after what’s been exciting start to the European racing season with only a few surprises. Some familiar names have already made a mark in the 2003 season, with Jaan Kirsipuu (AG2R) winning three races already, Rabobank’s Oscar Freire two and Saeco’s Danilo Di Luca taking Giro dello Liguria and Quick Step’s Paolo Bettini the Tour Mediterranean. Two-time U.S. champion Fred Rodriguez started off his season for Sidermec on a good note after taking the second stage of the Tour of Rhodes in Greece last Tuesday. His win is the first by a North American in Europe this year. Meanwhile, fresh faces such as Sylvain Chavanel (Brioches la Boulangere) and Filippo Pozzato (Fassa Bortolo) delivered wins at Haut Var and Laigueglia, respectively.

After three overlapping stage races last week, the Vuelta Ciclista Communidad Valenciana highlights the Euro-racing scene this week (see preview below). Things get more serious this weekend with the debut of the Belgian and Swiss racing calendars.

Omloop Het Volk on Saturday in Belgium will be the season’s first UCI-ranked 1.1 race and the first glimpse of who’s on form for the upcoming spring classics. That’s followed up on Sunday by Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne (UCI 1.2), another important early season one-day race in Belgium. The Swiss season kicks off with the GP Chiasso (UCI 1.3) on Saturday followed by the GP di Lugano on Sunday. The Clasica Almeria (UCI 1.3) in Spain on Sunday could be the season debut for Marco Pantani if things go his way.

61st Valenciana, Feb. 25-March 1
A very mountainous parcours makes the 61st Vuelta Ciclista Communidad Valenciana a tough test this early in the season. Every stage except the flat, opening time trial features difficult climbs, opening the door for climbers and escape artists to chase overall victory.

The Kelme boys are already flying this year and will be keen to win again, with both Francisco Cabello and Javier Pascual Llorente (winner of Ruta del Sol) looking strong. Two-time winner Alex Zulle and 2001 Vuelta a España winner Angel Casero are both penciled in for Coast. Other top names on a preliminary start list who could vie for victory include: Dario Frigo (Fassa Bortolo), David Millar (Cofidis), Angel Vicioso (ONCE), Levi Leipheimer (Rabobank), 1999 winner Alexandre Vinokourov (Telekom), Danilo Di Luca (Saeco, fresh off his victory at Giro della Liguria), 1997 winner Juan Carlos Dominguez (Phonak), Iban Mayo (Euskaltel) and Richard Virenque (Quick Step).

The race opens with a 9.7km time trial in the hometown of 2002 Vuelta a España champion Aitor Gonzalez, who won’t be starting as he awaits news from the UCI on his contract dispute. Stage 2 heads over the steep mountains near the Sierra de Aitana to Vila Joiosa, a posh beach resort down the road from Benidorm. The pain continues in stage 3 with two, Category 1 climbs while the category-one summit finish at Alto de Campello in stage 4 will almost certainly decide the winner. Even the finale into Valencia features two, category-two climbs early in the stage, so this is no easy vuelta.

Stages:
Stage 1, Feb. 25: San Vincent del Raspeig-San Vicent del Raspeig, 9.7km, individual time trial.
Stage 2, Feb. 26: Castalla to Vila Joiosa, 159km, three climbs, including two up the Category 1 Alto de Tudons.
Stage 3, Feb. 27: Onda to Port de Sagunt, 157km, three climbs, including the Cat. 1 Alto de Eslida at 56km and the Cat. 1 Alto de Garbi at 123km.
Stage 4, Feb. 28: Sagunt to Alto de Campello, 158km, finishing with Cat. 1 climb.
Stage 5, March 1: Valencia-Valencia, 165km, two Cat. 2 climbs early in the stage, flat finish.Past 10 winners:
2002 – Alex Zülle (Swi)
2001 – Fabien Jeker (Swi)
2000 – Abraham Olano (Sp)
1999 – Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz)
1998 – Pascal Chanteur (F)
1997 – Juan Carlos Dominguez (Sp)
1996 – Laurent Jalabert (F)
1995 – Alex Zülle (Swi)
1994 – Viatcheslav Ekimov (Rus)
1993 – Julian Gorospe (Sp)

Simoni readies for Giro
Former Giro d’Italia champion Gilberto Simoni is eyeing victory in this year’s Giro to make up for his controversial expulsion from last year’s race. Simoni, 31, said he wants to reclaim his Giro crown he won in 2001.

He appeared in Trentino on Sunday with former Italian stars Francisco Moser and Maurizio Fondriest to talk about the upcoming Giro, AFP reported over the weekend.

The 14th stage of the 2003 Giro (May 10 to June 1), will ride from Marostica in the Trentino region over 162km towards the summit finish of the Alpe di Pampeago, which sits at over 2000 meters. One journalist derided the relative shortness of the stage and described it as “fit for amateurs.”

But Simoni, who hails from the Trentino region, said it was simply one stage of many on the road to reclaiming the pink jersey won last year by compatriot Paolo Savoldelli, now of the Telekom team and who will not be defending his crown.

“It’s true, we can’t compare this stage to the big 250km stages of the Tour de France, but there are some difficult stretches on that stage in particular,” said Simoni, who came second on the climb to Pampeago in 1999 behind controversial compatriot Marco Pantani. “In general I’m not really in favor of shorter stages. Of course, withthem it’s usually the fastest riders who win. … But you have to remember that it’s just one stage of many and that the real test comes at the end of the race when you see the exact endurance characteristics of the rider.”

Simoni said he will prepare for the Giro by racing in Paris-Nice (March 9-16), Giro de Trentino (April 24-27) and the Tour of Romandie (April 29-May 4). Last year, Simoni was forced out of the Giro while leading the race after he tested positive for cocaine, later cleared after tests revealed traces of the drug were found in sweets from Peru that Simoni claims he ate. That didn’t stop the Societe du Tour de France from rescinding the team’s invitation to race in the 2002 Tour de France.

Haribo was Kirsipuu’s 100th career win
Sunday’s win in the Classic Haribo was also the 100th career victory for Estonian Jaan Kirsipuu. The 33-year-old turned pro in 1993 and has already won three races in the 2003 season. Highlights of Kirsipuu’s career include three Tour de France stage-wins (1999, Montaigu-Challans; 2001, Commercy-Strasbourg; 2002, Soissons-Rouen) and a run in the yellow jersey in 1999. He’s also won such races as Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne (2002), Tour de l’Oise (1999), Tour de Vendee (1997,2000), GP de Denain (2001), GP de Cholet-Pays de Loire (1997, 1998, 1999) and three times the Classic Haribo (2000, 2002, 2003). His win Sunday was the second stop of the French Cup series and puts him in a tie with Sylvain Chavanel, winner of the Tour du Haut Var on Saturday.