By Andrew Hood
Fresh off a podium finish at the Tour of California, defending champion Bobby Julich (CSC) heads an international field for Paris-Nice, March 5-12.
Team CSC will come with a stacked squad that also includes fellow California podium-finisher David Zabriskie, compatriot Christian Vande Velde, Jens Voigt, Frank Schleck, Michael Blaudzun, Andrea Peron and Vuelta a España podium-man Carlos Sastre. Other North Americans on the preliminary start list released Wednesday by race organizers include Floyd Landis (Phonak), fresh off his overall victory in the Tour of California; Chris Horner (Davitamon-Lotto); Charles Dionne (Saunier Duval-Prodir); and Jason McCartney and Tom Danielson (both Discovery Channel).
The first major stage race of the European season starts with a prologue on the outskirts of Paris and ends with a bumpy finale in the hills above Nice along France’s typically sunny Cote d’Azur.
Other contenders are likely to include Alejandro Valverde (Illes Balears), Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner), Brad McGee (FDJeux), Alberto Contador (Liberty Seguros) and French challengers such as Sylvain Chavanel or David Moncoutie (Cofidis) or Sandy Casar (FDJeux).
Several big names absent from the early start list who have competed in recent editions of the “Race to the Sun” include Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner), two-time champion Alexandre Vinokourov (Liberty Seguros) and sprinter Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole).
Several top teams will be looking to score some major results. Cofidis especially wants to win the 4.8km opening prologue in the Parisian suburb of Issy-les-Moulineaux. The French team will line up with Rik Verbrugghe, Bradley Wiggins and Sylvain Chavanel as potential winners while Colombian climbing specialist Ivan Parra will make his debut in Cofidis colors.
T-Mobile sport director Mario Kummer said he expects Patrik Sinkewitz, Kim Kirchen and Linus Gerdemann to be in the tussle for the overall standings.
“We are looking forward to this first big race of the season. At the Tour of California it was obvious that the competition has very strong early season form. CSC, Discovery Channel and Phonak were particularly impressive, but I also expect Gerolsteiner to get some good results in France,” Kummer said on the team’s web page. “We have also set ourselves some high targets for Paris-Nice. For us the race is an indicator of where we stand. I am anxious to see how we get on.”
Serrano denied Murcia start
Spanish rider Ricardo Serrano (Kaiku) was deemed “inapt” to start Wednesday’s first stage of the Tour of Murcia in Spain after surprise blood screenings by UCI staff found inconsistencies.
Routine blood tests regularly monitor blood levels among professional riders. According to a team statement, Serrano was below the allowed 50 percent level of hematocrit and within hemoglobin parameters, but was beyond the allowed comparison limits for hemoglobin and reticulites.
In addition to testing for high levels of hematocrit – which can indicate but not prove the use of the banned blood booster EPO – the UCI has also begun comparing other indicators within the blood system that could indicate possible manipulation.
Serrano will get a two-week forced rest for health reasons and then face another blood screening before being allowed to return to competition. Inconsistent blood tests are not considered doping offenses by UCI regulators.
The news will likely be seen in some quarters as a blow to Kaiku’s efforts to nab one of the wild-card starts for the Vuelta a España later this season.
The Vuelta is still reeling from the disqualification of 2005 winner Roberto Heras, who tested positive for EPO in last year’s penultimate stage, and race organizers are sure to be cautious in which teams receive one of the highly valued “wild card” invitations.
Cipollini wants to direct team
Mario Cipollini, the flamboyant retired cycling superstar, is yearning for a return to the cycling world.
The 2002 world champion hinted during a presentation of the upcoming Giro di Lucca that he´d like to come back as a team manager or sport director.
“Cycling has been everything in my life and I would like to direct a team in the future to promote my ideas about this sport,” Cipollini said. “I believe I have enough experience in this world to do a good job.”
Cipollini retired before last year’s Giro d’Italia and has since tried to keep his face in front of the Italian public, including a stint on a “Dancing with the Stars” TV show. He was recently seen at the closing ceremonies of the Torino 2006 Olympic Winter Games as a flag-bearer.
Cipollini didn´t say if he had any serious contacts, but former leadout man Mario Scirea is now one of the sport directors at Liquigas.
Di Luca, Garzelli to start seasons
Liquigas big guns Danilo Di Luca and Stefano Garzelli are back from a pre-season training camp in Mexico and will make their respective season debuts at next week’s Tirreno-Adriatico.
The pair were among a handful of Liquigas riders who trained for three weeks at Toluca, Mexico, high on an 8000-foot plateau west of Mexico City. Di Luca roared out of his Mexico training camp last year to build an early ProTour lead that held through the 2005 season to become the first ProTour champion.
“WeÅfll take great advantage of that hard training in future. In the first races, weÅfre going to find the right tempo,” Di Luca said in a team release. “In the Tirreno-Adriatico some ´Mexicans’ may aim at winning. (Especially) Stefano Garzelli, who is very fast.”
Liquigas for Tirreno-Adriatico:
Danilo Di Luca, Stefano Garzelli, Luca Paolini, Mauro Da Dalto, Marco Milesi, Andrea Noè, Franco Pellizotti, Alessandro Spezialetti, Charles Wegelius, and Stefano Zanini. Team manager: Mario Scirea.
Aragon tour on hold
Spain has lost another one of its traditional week-long spring stage race with the announcement that there won’t be a Tour of Aragon this year.
Earlier this year, Setmana Catalana announced it was pulling the plug on its 2006 race due to financial problems.
Race organizers are facing a $120,000 budget shortfall for this year’s race and have decided to try to regroup for the 2007 season, Todociclismo.com reported.
Teams named for Critérium International
Team CSC will be back to defend its title with Bobby Julich for the 74th edition of Critérium International, set for northeastern France around Charleville-Mézieres on March 25-26.
Team CSC is among 14 ProTour teams among 21 teams to compete in the weekend of racing, which includes a road stage, a climbing stage and an individual time trial.
Race organizers released the list of teams set to compete in the upcoming race.
Team CSC, Gerolsteiner, T-Mobile, AG2R Prevoyance, Bouygues Telecom, Crédit Agricole, Cofidis, Française des Jeux, Phonak, Euskaltel–Euskadi, Caisse d’Epargne-Illes Balears, Liberty Seguros–Würth, Milram and Rabobank.
Landbouwkrediet – Colnago, Unibet.com, Relax–Gam, Comunidad Valenciana, Agritubel, Barloworld and Team Androni Giocattoli.
Who’s racing where
Riders: Tom Boonen, Wilfried Cretskens, Kevin Hulsmans, Nick Nuyens, Matteo Tosatto, Guido Trenti, Jurgen Van De Walle, Cedric Vasseur. Director: Wilfried Peeters, Rik Van Slycke
3 Daagse West Vlaanderen
Riders: Francesco Chicchi, Kevin De Weert, Ad Engels, Filippo Pozzato, Leonardo Scarselli, Hubert Schawb, Geert Verheyen, Wouter Weylandt. Director: Rik Van Slycke
Giro di Lucca
Riders: Serge Baguet, Paolo Bettini, Davide Bramati, Steven De Jongh, Servais Knaven, Ivan Santaromita, Bram Tankink, Kevin Van Impe. Director: Serge Parsani
Riders: José Luis Arrieta, Mikel Astarloza, Cyril Dessel, Renaud Dion, Samuel Dumoulin, Hubert Dupont, Christophe Moreau, Tomas Vaitkus
Simon Gerrans, Julien Loubet, Lloyd Mondory, Carl Naibo, David Navas, Erki Putsep, Christophe Riblon, and Ludovic Turpin
Giro di Lucca
Iñigo Chaurreau, Simon Gerrans, Julien Loubet Lloyd Mondory, Carl Naibo, David Navas, Christophe Riblon and Alexandre Usov