By Andrew Hood
After a relatively quiet week last week, things are cracking across Europe.
There’s stage racing in France, Ireland and Holland, a women’s World Cup and the Trittico Lombardo across northern Italy.
5th Eneco Tour (Ned, ProTour)
Now in its fifth year, the Eneco Tour was born for the ProTour to bring the series to the important Benelux market, one of bike racing’s hotbeds. Bobby Julich won the inaugural edition in 2005 and José Ivan Gutiérrez (Caisse d’Epargne) is the two-time defending champion.
Gutiérrez is back to defend his title against the ProTour teams plus invitees Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator and Vacansoleil.
Riders with a strong time trial usually do well here, so the likes of Bradley Wiggins (Garmin-Slipstream), Andreas Klöden (Astana), Tony Martin (Columbia-HTC) and Jurgen Van Goolen (Saxo Bank) are names to watch for the GC.
Sprinters have a field day, with a week of sprint-friendly stages across the bergs of Belgium and Holland. Vattenfall champ Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Slipstream) is penciled in to start, along with an all-star sprinters cast that includes Tom Boonen (Quick Step), J.J. Haedo and Matt Goss (Saxo Bank), Robert Forster (Milram), Greg Van Avermaet (Silence-Lotto), Graeme Brown (Rabobank), Daniele Bennati (Liquigas) and perhaps even Robbie McEwen, who is recovering from injury and appears on Katusha’s preliminary start list.
The race dips in and out of Holland and Belgium, with a 4.4km opening prologue in Rotterdam. Sprints are typically in the cards until they hit some hillier stages, with the 221km fifth stage from Hasselt to Lbramont the most challenging to control and the most promising for a race-breaking attack.
Things usually aren’t decided until the final day’s time trial, which this uses a fairly technical 13.1km course in Amersfoort.
42nd Tour de Limousin (Fra, 2.1)
French riders usually shine on home roads in and around Limoges in what’s a nice warm-up for this weekend’s big race at Plouay. Sebastian Hinault (no relation to the Badger) will be back to defend his title with Ag2r-La Mondiale.
All the major French teams are present, along with Garmin-Slipstream (Tom Danielson and Will Frischkorn are on the preliminary start list) and Cervélo TestTeam bringing along a strong contingent of North American riders.
The hilly course dips into Correze, Creuse and Haute-Vienne, guaranteeing a dogfight to control the race.
74th GP Stad Zottegen (Bel, 1.1)
This is one of those long-running European races that doesn’t get much attention but keeps hanging around (thankfully). A mix of northern European ProTour and continental teams fills out the peloton. The course is held on two loops in and around — you guessed it — Zottegen.
89th Tre Valle Varesine (Ita, 1.HC)
The Tre Valle Varesine opens the three-race Trittico Lombardo, a trio of races across the Lombardy region of Italy. An unofficial title goes to the rider with the best results in all three races.
63rd Coppa Agostini (Ita, 1.1)
34th Coppa Bernocchi (Ita, 1.1)
18th Trofeo Melinda (Ita, 1.1)
3rd Tour of Ireland (Ire, 2.1)
Lance Armstrong’s presence guarantees a high profile for the third edition of the reborn Tour of Ireland. This wil be the final race of his comeback season; he will also organize a summit to combat cancer.
This year, the format is reduced from five to three days, starting just outside Dublin and ending in Cork with three passages up the short but very steep St. Patrick’s Hill.
In addition to Armstrong, there’s some real star power among the starters. Also expected to race include Mark Cavendish (Columbia-HTC), Stuart O’Grady (Saxo Bank), Philip Deignan (Cervélo TestTeam) and Tony Cruz (BMC).
GP du Ploauy (Fra, World Cup)
The women’s World Cup clicks back into gear for the ninth of 10 stops in this year’s circuit.
The hilly Plouay course provides a stiff challenge and lends to aggressive riding throughout the day.
Emma Johannson is nursing a narrow, three-point lead to Marianne Vos, with 336 to 333 points as it’s coming down to the wire in an exciting duel between these two. Kirsten Wild is a distant third with 173 points, so the World Cup is a two-rider race with two events to go.
73rd GP Ouest France-Plouay (Fra, ProTour)
One of the most important one-day races in the second half of the racing calendar, Plouay draws big crowds to western France.
The men’s race and the women’s World Cup, run on Saturday, are held on the hilly, 19.1km loop called the “Jean Yves Perron” circuit. The final climb, with a steep ramp of nearly 2km slightly more than 2km from the ginish, usually springs the winning moves.
Last year’s winner Pierrick Fedrigo (BBox-Bouygues) will be back to defend his title, with last year’s runner-up and reigning world champion Alessandro Ballan (Lampre-NGC) looking to hone his form ahead of Mendrisio.
Alberto Contador (Astana) is on the preliminary start list, but it’s still not confirmed whether the Tour de France champion will race.