By Andrew Hood
American Kirk O’Bee (Navigators Insurance) finished second to Bo Hamburger (Acqua e Sapone) in a 100km kermesse that replaced stage two of the Giro della Liguria on Saturday.
After traffic problems forced race organizers to cancel the Friday and Saturday stages of the three-day race, they decided to call off the entire event. But late Friday evening, they got the green light to hold Sunday’s road race and quickly put together today’s criterium, a 40-lap race on a 2.5km, four-corner circuit.
Within two laps, a group of nine separated from the rest of the field. It contained O’Bee, Hamburger, former U23 world champion Yaroslav Popovich (Landbokredit–Colnago), Luis Perez-Rodriguez (Cofidis), Robert Forster (Gerolsteiner), Eddy Mazzoleno (L.P.R.), Stefano Boggia (I.C.E.T.), Pieter Mertens (Vlaanderen T-Interim) and Mariano Piccoli (Lampre).
The nine gained up to 30 seconds over the next eight laps as several disorganized chase attempts were made. Then, with 10 laps to go, Lotto-Domo, Alessio and Tenax went to the front of the bunch and the gap began coming down.
With two laps remaining, the chase seemed to stall, and it appeared that the leaders would fight it out for the win. Hamburger rocketed through the final turn alone, with 250 meters to go and a lead of five bike lengths, fighting a head wind all the way to the line. O’Bee coming out of the group to take second with Mazzoleno third.
Big names tackling Ruta del Sol
A host of top names, including Australian Robbie McEwen (Lotto-Domo) and former two-time world champion Oscar Freire (Rabobank), will light up the Ruta del Sol next week in southern Spain.
The challenging five-day race officially known as the Tour of Andalusia starts Sunday but won’t have national TV coverage as race organizers refused to pay a hefty bill demanded by national Spanish television. Instead, regional TV will cover the race and organizers say they’re saving a bundle.
McEwen, the 2002 winner of the Tour de France green jersey, will use it as preparation for the first World Cup classic of the season, the Milan-San Remo on March 20 – as will former Milan-San Remo winner Erik Zabel of Germany.
Freire, Spain’s former two-time world champion, will be joined by Rabobank team-mate Erik Dekker, while Johan Museeuw will be using it as preparation for his career swansong in April.
Final victory in the race, which ends Thursday in Almeria, could be an all-Spanish affair given the number of hard climbs. Spanish riders Manuel Beltran (US Postal) or Rafael Casero (Saunier Duval) will be looking to set the pace alongside Oscar Sevilla (Phonak) and Kelme’s Angel Casero.
Defending champion Javier Pascual (Kelme) won’t be back because he failed an EPO test during the Tour de France and is currently serving a racing ban.
The opening stage into Sevilla is ideal for the sprinters while the second stage between Arcos de la Frontera and Benalmádena hits the Puerto del Higuerón in the closing kilometers and could cut the bunch. Stage three is the etapa reina and finishes atop the Alto de la Virgen de la Sierra. Stage four between Lucena and Jaen is a rolling up and down stage while the last day traverses La Zubia to Almería, hitting the Puerto de Enix.
Teams for Ruta del Sol: Illes Balears, Comunidad Valenciana-Kelme, Baqué, Saunier Duval, Relax, Euskaltel, Paternina, T-Mobile, Lotto, Rabobank, Phonak and U.S. Postal Service.
Posties get into gear
Five-time defending Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong and his U.S. Postal Service teammates open the 2004 racing season next week.
The team will race the Ruta del Sol in Spain, starting Sunday and running through Thursday, and Portugal’s Tour of Algarve, set to begin on Wednesday and conclude Feb. 22.
“The first race is mainly for the spring classics team, with the addition of local rider (Manuel) Beltran,” said U.S. Postal Service sport director Johan Bruyneel. “Beltran will be excited to race in front of his home crowd, while George (Hincapie), Eki (Viatcheslav Ekimov) and Max (van Heeswijk) will be testing their form against rivals they will compete against in the month of April.”
Also taking part in the Ruta will be Antonio Cruz, Benoit Joachim and Dave Zabriskie, along with new team member Stijn Devolder.
”The other group for Algarve is comprised with some of the slower starters, guys whose objectives are a bit later in the season,” said Bruyneel. “Although, (Victor Hugo) Peña and (Floyd) Landis might surprise with a good place in the general classification. Algarve is also Lance’s first race and I feel like he’s ready to race. (New team member Jose) Azevedo will also be motivated in his new team colors in his home country, so I certainly expect him to have a few good stages.”
Michael Barry and newcomers Patrick McCarty, Benjamin Noval and Daniel Rincon will join Armstrong, Azevedo, Landis and Peña in Portugal.
No Giro for Verbrugghe
Rik Verbrugghe (Lotto-Domo) is hoping to forget an injury-riddled 2003 season with a strong Tour de France and Olympic Games. Verbrugghe told the Belgian daily Le Deniere Heure that he’s skipping the Giro d’Italia to be in top shape for the Tour. With the Tour starting in Belgium this year, Verbrugghe, like most of the Benelux riders, wants to shine on the home roads.
Young rider dies in sleep
A 21-year-old Belgian rider Johan Sermon died overnight Thursday while sleeping, according to a report by the Belgian wires Saturday. Officials are saying Sermon died of natural causes.