By Andrew Hood
Four-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong makes his season debut in the five-stage Tour of Murcia in southern Spain on Wednesday. Armstrong’s been training in his European home-base in Girona since February and his presence at the Murcia tour will certainly bring a lot of media attention to the otherwise modest early-season race.
Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service team will be looking to put last year’s winner Victor Hugo Pena back in the top spot of what’s a much more difficult, mountainous race than the 2002 edition. Hugo finished second overall at the Tour d’Algarve in Portugal in February and will have a strong team to support him. Also expected to make their respective season’s debuts are Jose Luis Rubiera and Roberto Heras. They will be joined by George Hincapie, who crashed at Het Volk and who will be a late addition to the lineup (see story below).
Armstrong likely won’t be in the hunt for the win so early in the season, but could challenge for the individual time trial on the final stage. After Murcia, Armstrong will stay in Spain to race at Setmana Catalana on March 24-28 as he continues his preparations for the 2003 Tour de France.
Favorites for the race include the Spanish teams, namely Kelme, already the winner of two stage-races this year. Dario Frigo and Fassa Bortolo won’t be around to continue their winning ways from Tour of Valencia last week, perhaps opening the door for another Italian.
Like Ruta del Sol and Valenciana, the Tour of Murcia features some very difficult climbing stages during its five stages. Here is a look at this year’s race:Stage1 — March 5, Murcia to Ceuti, 162km, there’s one Cat. 3 climb about a third through the stage, ideal for sprinters.
Stage 2 — March 6, Alguazas to Cresta del Gallo, 153km, a Cat. 3 early is a warm-up for this category-one summit finish atop the mountain towering above Murcia.
Stage 3 — March 7, Caravaca-Caravaca, 160km, two climbs early, downhill all the way to the finish.
Stage 4 — March 8, Cartegena to Alto de la Santa, 162km, two passages over the Alto Callado Bermejo, then a Cat. 3 finish.
Stage 5 — March 9, Murcia, ITT, 12.9km, some tight corners, otherwise flat.Last 10 winners
2002 — Victor Hugo Pena
2001 – Aitor Gonzalez
2000 – David Canda
1999 – Marco Pantani
1998 – Alberto Elli
1997 – Juan Carlos Dominguez
1996 – Melchor Mauri
1995 – Andriano Baffi
1994: Melchor Mauri
1993: Carlos Galarreta
Hincapie, Moreau to skip Paris-Nice
George Hincapie (U.S. Postal) and Christophe Moreau (Credit Agricole) will be skipping Paris-Nice, the season’s first HC-rated race of the season, L’Equipe reported Tuesday. The “race to the sun,” Paris-Nice starts Sunday in d’Issy-les-Moulineaux near Paris and ends in Nice on March 16.
Hincapie was involved in a crash at Het Volk on Saturday and required six stitches on his chin. Instead of racing in Paris-Nice, Hincapie will join Lance Armstrong on Wednesday in the Vuelta a Murcia in Spain and continue his preparations in Spain for the World Cup opener at Milan-San Remo later this month.
Moreau has been sick with a virus since Etoile de Besseges in early February and said he feels simply too tired for such a hard race. Instead, the Credit Agricole leader will race the GP de Lillers on March 9 and the GP Erik Breukink in Holland on March 16. Sprinter Jaan Kirsipuu (AG2R) has also decided to skip the race, saying there are few chances for sprinters in this year’s edition.
60th Paris-Nice, March 9-16, stages
Prologue — March 9, Issy les Moulineaux , 4.8km
Stage 1 — March 10, Auxerre to Paray le Monial, 191km
Stage 2 — March 11, La Clayette to Saint Etienne, 182.5km
Stage 3 — March 12, Le Puy en Veley to Pont du Gard, 192.5km
Stage 4 — March 13, ITT, Vergeze, 16.5km
Stage 5 — March 14, Aix en Provence to Toulon (Mont Faron), 152.5km
Stage 6 — March 15, Toulon to Cannes, 194.5km
Stage 7 — March 16, Nice-Nice, 160km
Milan-San Remo teams announced
The 25 teams were formally announced by race organizers for the upcoming 94th Milan-San Remo, kick off of the 2003 World Cup series. Among the teams are eight Italian, four French, three Spanish, three Belgian, three German and one each from Denmark, Holland, Switzerland and the United States.The teams:
AG2R PREVOYANCE (FRA)
CERAMICHE PANARIA – FIORDO (ITA)
COFIDIS, LE CREDIT PAR TELEPHONE (FRA)
CREDIT AGRICOLE (FRA)
DE NARDI – COLPACK (ITA)
DOMINA VACANZE – ELITRON (ITA)
FASSA BORTOLO (ITA)
KELME – COSTA BLANCA (ESP)
LANDBOUWKREDIET – COLNAGO (BEL)
LOTTO – DOMO (BEL)
ONCE – EROSKI (ESP)
PHONAK HEARING SYSTEMS (SUI)
QUICK STEP – DAVITAMON (BEL)
SAECO – LONGONI SPORT (ITA)
TEAM CSC (DEN)
TEAM TELEKOM (GER)
U.S. POSTAL SERVICE (USA).
Ljungskog remains atop latest UCI rankings
World champion Susanne Ljungskog remains atop the latest UCI ranking released Sunday. Ljungskog keeps her top spot in the rankings with 699 points, staying solidly ahead of Mirjam Melchors with 653 points. Lyne Bessette is the top-ranked North American in 20th position with 153 points. The next rankings are scheduled to be released March 23 following the second stop of the women’s World Cup race at Primavera Rosa on March 22.UCI women’s rankings, March 2
1. Susanne Ljungskog, 699 points
2. Mirjam Melchors, 653
3. Nicole Brandli, 532
4. Judith Arndt, 577
5. Petra Rossner, 454North Americans in top-100
20. Lyne Bessette, 153
23. Amber Neben, 144
26. Genevieve Jeanson, 137
30. Deidre Demet-Barry, 122
34. Kimberly Bruckner, 106
64. Kristen Armstrong, 48
70. Laura Van Gilder, 44
77. Susan Palmer, 38
100. Kim Anderson, 25.
Bartoli to return at Milan-San Remo
Michele Bartoli will return from injury in time to start Milan-San Remo on March 22. Bartoli broke his hip in a training spill January 7 in Spain, but returned to training in early February. Bartoli told La Gazzetta dello Sport that he’s been training up to 140km a day and will be ready to race Milan-San Remo, largely for the additional training the race will offer for the classics in France and Belgium in April. Bartoli’s career has been plagued with injury, but last year he came back to win Amstel Gold and Lombardi and finish third overall in the 2002 World Cup.
Vodafone could take over Vuelta sponsorship
European mobile phone giant Vodafone could take over the lead sponsorship of the Vuelta a España, the Spanish daily AS reported. Telefonica, Spain’s national telecommunications company, has sponsored the Vuelta since 1999, but wants out of its annual 3.5 million euro commitment. Vuelta race organizers, Unipublic, said they hope to formally announce the new sponsor next week.
Mancebo injured in collision with car(Corrected)
Spanish rider Francisco Mancebo cracked two ribs and suffered cuts to his wrist and knees after crashing head-on into a car while training with Banesto teammate Pablo Lastras near Huelva earlier this week, AS reported Tuesday. Lastras and Mancebo were riding together when a car turned in front of them. Lastras swerved to avoid hitting the car, but Mancebo couldn’t stop in time. He’s expected to be ready in time to start Criterium International (March 29-30) in France.Armstrong writes letter to young cyclist
According to a report in the Diario Vasco, a major newspaper in Spain’s Basque Country, four-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong has written a letter of encouragement to Markel Irizar, a young amateur suffering from testicular cancer.
A promising young rider who won the U23 time trial title in his native Basque Country, Irizar was diagnosed with testicular cancer last November. According to the story, Armstrong heard about the rider’s plight from Dr. Kepa Zelaia, who previously worked with U.S. Postal Service and wrote a note of encouragement to Irizar and offered assistance through the Lance Armstrong Foundation. Despite his busy schedule, Armstrong often finds time to visit with cancer patients, even during the Tour de France.