By Andrew Hood
Ivan Basso’s emphatic victory in this weekend’s Criterium International left no doubt that the Italian is right on target for more important goals later in the season.
With the win, Basso joins a growing list of contenders fighting for bragging rights with impressive early season victories. For Basso, his real challenges come in May’s Giro d’Italia and July’s Tour de France, but his win at Criterium International gives clear notice to his rivals that he’ll be ready.
“I know that I’m in good shape and it’s very important for my preparation before the Giro and the Tour de France,” Basso said. “I believe that I’m not quite ready enough to win the Giro, but it’s important to have won today.”
The win is important in more ways than one. With the huge void left behind by the retirement of seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, riders seem keen to demonstrate their ambitions.
We’ve already seen Floyd Landis (Phonak) roar out of the gate with back-to-back wins at Tour of California and Paris-Nice, victories that were just as important for Landis as they were for Phonak looking to prove to the peloton its up to the task of defending their leader.
Other riders sure to be seen come July have been picking up important results, with Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner) and George Hincapie (Discovery Channel) grabbing wins at California and Yaroslav Popovych (Discovery Channel) taking home a nice win at the time trial at Vuelta a Castilla y León last week.
Two other big names threw their hat into the ring with take-notice efforts over the weekend.
Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Fonditel) wrapped up honors at Settimana Ciclistica in Italy while Alexandre Vinokourov (Liberty Seguros) won the final stage and the overall at the Castilla y León in Spain
“This race was a good test for me,” Vinokourov said. “I’ve tested myself in the high mountains, on passes as high as 2000 meters, so I believe that I am in a good way looking to the Tour.”
Spanish riders such as Iban Mayo (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Alejandro Valverde (Illes Balears), Carlos Sastre (CSC) and Francisco Mancebo (Ag2r) have been relatively quiet, in part because most of them will also aim for the Vuelta a España later this season.
That’s likely to change as Mayo is expected to make a run at the Vuelta a Pais Vasco early next month to herald his return to form after a forgettable 2005 campaign while Valverde will try to ramp up for Ardennes classics.
One name glaringly absent is Jan Ullrich, the only rider who is expected to line up in Strasbourg who’s previously won the Tour. The T-Mobile rider isn’t scheduled to begin racing until the Circuit de la Sarthe April 4-7.
All this early season posturing also makes for some interesting mind games for the months to come, especially since many of the bigger names have already announced they won’t even try to make a major impact in warm-up races before July’s Tour.
Big stars lining up for Pais Vasco
An impressive lineup of heavy-hitters squares off for the 46th Vuelta al Pais Vasco (April 3-8) in the six-stage race across Spain’s Basque region. Organizers bagged its favored split-stage status on its final day to meet ProTour criteria and have expanded the five-day format by one day. Defending champion Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas) headlines the peloton that includes 20 ProTour teams plus Spanish teams Kaiku and Relax-Gam. Di Luca is likely to be make some important tests of form ahead of his season’s major goal – the Giro d’Italia – but the defending ProTour champion admitted he’s coming slower out of the gate this season. Also lining up for Liquigas will be Stefano Garzelli and Dario Cioni. Rabobank comes with a stacked team that includes Tour King of the Mountains Michael Rasmussen, Michael Boogerd, Erik Dekker and Vuelta a España champ Denis Menchov. Other riders to watch include Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner), Koldo Gil (Saunier Duval), Alberto Contador (Liberty Seguros), Alejandro Valverde (Illes Balears), Francisco Mancebo (Ag2r) and Iban Mayo and Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel-Euskadi).
Among the American contingent include Bobby Julich (CSC), who won a stage here in 2004, Chris Horner (Davitamon-Lotto), Pat McCarty (Phonak) and Jason McCartney (Discovery Channel).
There’s never a dull day in the bumpy Basque Country and this year’s race is likely to cause more suffering than usual in what’s always one of the most difficult races of the season. The fun starts right off the bat with the 130km first stage starting and ending in Irun, featuring five rated climbs, including the Cat. 1 Alto de Erlaiz and the Cat. 1 Alto de Jaizkibel – the emblematic climb of the Clásica San Sebastián – coming 12km from the finish in Irún. Fun turns into pain in the 155km second stage from Irún to Segura in a stage that features no less than 12 rated climbs, including the Cat. 1 Alto de Aztiria with 31km to go with two more steep Cat. 2 climbs in the offering before the finish. The 170km third stage from Segura to Lerín hits long Cat. 2 and Cat. 1 climbs early, but ends with a string of four Cat. 3 climbs with a rising finish that looks like the Mur de Huy in the profile, short but very steep with one section at 15 percent. Perhaps the 172km fourth stage from Lerín to Vitoria is the only stage that might serve up a mass gallop, but first the peloton will have to withstand a Cat. 1 midway through the stage followed by three Cat. 3s with the final hump coming 13km from the finish. The 178km run from Vitoria to Zalla is another bumpy day, with a Cat. 1 coming in the first 65km followed by five Cat. 3 climbs before a 13km run into the finish. The race will likely be decided in the final 24km time trial starting and finishing in Zalla. It’s the only day without rated climbs, but there’s hardly a flat road in Pais Vasco, so it’s sure to be a strong-man’s course and features three un-categorized climbs along the way.
This year’s should be especially interesting as the Basque terrorist group, ETA, recently announced a permanent cease-fire that could bring peace to the troubled region of Spain.
French climbing sensation David Moncoutié (Cofidis) hurt his left knee after crashing hard in the morning stage at this weekend’s Criterium International.
The injury will force him to miss next week’s Vuelta a Pais Vasco and likely the Ardennes classics as well. Team officials said he was expected to race Flèche Wallone or Paris-Camembert as well as Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but that seems unlikely now.