By Andrew Hood
This week’s European cycling menu consists primarily of events that are already under way.
The Tour of Portugal and the Tour de l’Ain and the Route de France Féminine, both in France, kicked off last week and wrap up later this week.
Then this weekend, the Vattenfall Cyclassics in Hamburg brings big-time cycling back to Germany.
21st Tour de l’Ain (Fra, 2.1)
The four-day French race started Sunday, with Mickael Buffaz (Cofidis) jumping out of a three-man breakaway to claim the stage victory and the leader’s jersey. The main pack blew in just 37 seconds back, so nothing’s decided yet.
The big news is the return to competition by Alexander Vinokourov, who served a two-year doping ban for illegal blood transfusions dating back to the 2007 Tour de France.
Vinokourov finished 81st Sunday, safely tucked in the main pack, but his return to the elite ranks has stirred up plenty of fuss, particularly over the future of the Kazakh-backed Astana team.
The squad is busting up into pieces, with star riders Lance Armstrong and team manager Johan Bruyneel leaving to form Team RadioShack in 2010 and Tour winner Alberto Contador looking to escape the remaining year of his contract.
Vinokourov is racing this week with a six-man Kazakh national team, but he’s expected to return to Astana, perhaps even this season to race the Vuelta a España later this month.
Curiously, Astana is also racing Tour de l’Ain, something rival teams won’t want to see in more important races such as the Vuelta.
Beyond the Vinokourov sideshow, the Ain tour also marks the return of Chris Horner to European racing after being left off Astana for the 2009 Tour. BMC Racing is also back in action with an all-Swiss lineup, and Tejay Van Garderen (Rabobank) stretches his legs before the Tour de l’Avenir in September.
4th Route de France Féminine
The fourth edition of the French stage race got out of the start house Sunday with a 4.4km prologue from Fontaines to Chaix, with Diana Ziliute (Safi) taking a one-second victory over Svetlana Bubnenkova (Fenixs).
American Alison Starnes (U.S. National Team) slotted into fifth at 10 seconds back. Defending champion Luise Keller (Columbia-HTC) was 28 seconds off the pace.
The race continues through Friday, with Tuesday’s 15km individual time trial and a hilly course leaving a lot to be decided.
71st Tour of Portugal (2.HC)
One of Europe’s oldest stage races is well under way, having started last Wednesday and continuing through Sunday.
National riders dominated the opening days of the race, with Candido Barbosa (Palmeiras-Tavira) winning the opening prologue and stage 2, with Manuel Cardosa (Liberty Seguros) winning a bunch sprint in stage 1. German rider Patrik Sinkewitz (PSK-Whirlpool) soloed to a victory in stage 3 as the lone foreign rider to take honors so far.
Sunday’s Cat. 1 summit finish helped settle things on GC, with Joao Cabreira (Loule-Louletano) winning the stage and Nuno Ribeiro (Liberty Seguros) — yes, two more Portuguese riders — slotting into the overall leader’s jersey.
Stage hunters and sprinters will have their chances in the coming days before the next major hurdle in Stage 9 with the “special category” summit finish atop the Alto da Torre. The final day’s 30km individual time trial will settle the podium spots.
14th Vattenfall Cyclassics (Ger, ProTour)
Sunday, August 16
The ProTour series clicks back into gear this weekend with the long-running one-day race in Hamburg. All the ProTour teams will be there, of course, with invites to Skil-Shimano and Vorarlberg-Corratec.
It’s not confirmed yet if defending champion Robbie McEwen, who missed the Tour de France with injuries, will be back to defend his title with Katusha. McEwen (who beat compatriots Mark Renshaw and Allan Davis last year) has been hitting the criterium circuit and looks to be ready to race.
Despite a string of some fairly steep hills, the pack usually roars into Hamburg for a bunch sprint. The race used to draw huge crowds during the heyday of German cycling in the 1990s and into the 2000s, so it will be interesting to measure the depth of support from fans despite an almost universal boycott of cycling by most German media.
Other former winners include Oscar Freire, Alessandro Ballan and Filippo Pozzato. Somewhat surprisingly, Freire isn’t on Rabobank’s preliminary start list despite his intention to race the Vuelta a España later this month to prepare for the worlds.
Other early names expected to start include former winner Stuart O’Grady with a strong Saxo Bank team that also includes Matti Breschel and Fabian Cancellara. Greg Van Avermaet and Philippe Gilbert will line up for Silence-Lotto.
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