Last week, I previewed the major events and their potential outcomes through the first four months of this upcoming professional road-racing season. Theres even more to look forward to as the summer approaches and the years first Grand Tour hits the roads of la bella Italia.
With the spring classics and a few shorter stage races behind them, the UCI WorldTour peloton heads to Italy in May for whats shaping up to be one of the most competitive editions of the Giro dItalia in recent history. Not so long ago, the candidates for victory in the opening Grand Tour were almost entirely Italian. The home country had a string of 11 consecutive wins from 1997 to 2007, and that hegemony has been broken only three times since then: Spains Alberto Contador won in 2008, Russias Denis Menchov in 2009, and, last year, Canadas Ryder Hesjedal topped the first non-Italian podium in 24 years ahead of Spains Joaquim Rodriguez and Belgiums Thomas De Gendt.
Of these five foreigners, only Garmin-Sharps Hesjedal is certain of returning to the 96th Giro dItalia (May 4-26). The Katusha Team of Rodriguez and Menchov did not get a wild-card invitation this week, while De Gendt is focusing on the Tour de France. As for Contador, he looks more likely to ride the Tour and Vuelta a Espaa rather then the Giro and Tour.
But there are some heavy-hitters among the non-Italians who will be challenging Hesjedal: British Tour de France champion Brad Wiggins of Team Sky, Spanish star Samuel Sanchez of Euskaltel-Euskadi, Dutch all-rounder Robert Gesink of Blanco-Giant, and Venezuelan climber Jos Rujano of Vacansoleil-ISD. On the Italian front, former Giro winners Ivan Basso of Cannondale and Michele Scarponi of Lampre-ISD will be joined by twice podium finisher Vincenzo Nibali of Team Astana in fighting for national pride.
Assuming that Wiggins comes to the race in his best form and with a strong back-up team (which already includes American climber Joe Dombrowski, winner of last years under-23 Giro), the Olympic time trial champion should gain several minutes over the climbing specialists in the Giros 55.5-kilometer stage 8 time trial. Those potential gains should be sufficient for Wiggins to remain ahead of climbing specialists Scarponi, Rujano, Nibali, Gesink and Basso, but the margins are likely to be much tighter with the more solid time trialists, Hesjedal and Sanchez. In any case, this years Giro wont be decided until the final four days, which include an uphill time trial of 19.4 kilometers, followed by mountaintop stage finishes at Val Martello (after climbing the legendary Gavia and Stelvio passes in a stage of only 138 kilometers!) and Tre Cime di Lavaredo (the day before the finish in Brescia).
Gesinks Giro participation means he wont be defending his title at the Amgen Tour of California (May 12-19), whose full course details have yet to be revealed. There are expected to be some challenging climbs on the early stages to Greater Palm Springs, Santa Clarita and Avila beach, but the race is most likely to be decided on the second weekend, in a Friday time trial at San Jose, a mountaintop finish on Mount Diablo, and a final stage to Santa Rosa. Former winners Chris Horner of RadioShack-Trek and Levi Leipheimer (whos suspended until March and has yet to name his 2013 team) are again expected to be among the top contenders, along with the younger generation headed by BMC Racings Tejay Van Garderen and Garmin-Sharps Andrew Talansky.
The top Americans will move on to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where the USA Cycling pro road championships are being held for the first time (May 25-27) after seven years in Greenville, South Carolina. Sponsored by Volkswagen, the pro men and womens time trials will be based at the auto makers newest factory, while the road races will use a challenging circuit that includes multiple ascents of the citys Lookout Mountain, a 3-mile climb with a 6-percent average grade.
With the Tour de France starting the final weekend of June, most of the Tours main contenders will be honing their form at the Critrium du Dauphin (June 2-9) in France or the Tour de Suisse (June 8-16) in Switzerland. Those riding both the Giro and Tour, including Wiggins, Hesjedal and Gesink, will likely skip the June stage races and focus on recovery and altitude training. Most of the other potential candidates for Tour victoryincluding Saxo Bank-Tinkoffs Contador, Katusha Teams Rodriguez, BMCs Cadel Evans, RadioShack-Treks Andy Schleck, Team Skys Chris Froome, Lotto-Belisols Jurgen Van den Broeck and Movistars Alejandro Valverdewill likely choose the Dauphin as preparation for the Tour. But Schleck, whose bad spinal injury was the result of a nasty crash in last years Dauphin, will likely go back to racing his more favored Swiss tour.
The complete details of the two June races wont be released until March, but Dauphin organizer ASO, which also puts on the Tour, is expected to choose a course that again includes a short prologue and a longer, midweek time trial, along with a couple of rolling stages for the sprinters and three stages in the French Alps. The final day is said to finish on the climb to Risoul, where the Tour de lAvenir (an ASO race for under-23s) finished in 2010 with a victory for Colombian Nairo Quintana (now with Movistar) over American Talansky (now with Garmin)who could both play a role in the 2013 Dauphin.
As for the Tour de Suisse, the organizers have announced the stage towns, not the courses, but we can speculate that therell be a hilly prologue; an opening road stage finishing up the mountain road to Crans-Montana; a few stages for sprinters and breakaways, and a hefty final weekend. This will include a stage over the Albula Pass into the Engadine Valley, followed by another challenging road stage in the Swiss Alps, and completed by a formidable time trial that has a flat opening half but ends with the toughest climb of the week: a 10-kilometer ascent climbing more than 4,000 feet at an average 12-percent grade to the Flumserberg ski resort. That will be a great test for a Schleck or a Gesink less than two weeks before the start of the Tour.
Forecasting the outcome of the Tour de France is always a hazardous exercise, and with the 100th edition of the worlds biggest bike race still 24 weeks away, all we can say is that it should be more competitive than most of the previous 99 Tours. Because this years course is far more challenging than recent years, were unlikely to see a repeat of the Team Sky domination of 2012, and more likely to witness a race-long battle that will not reveal a winner until the last mountain summit is reached 24 hours before the July 21 finale on the Champs-lyses.
Expect Wiggins to try to defend his title, even though this years shorter time trials and stiffer climbs wont make it easy for him. Team Sky will have dual leaders, and whether Wiggins or teammate Chris Froome gets the ultimate support will depend on what happens on the first mountaintop finish, at Ax-3 Domains in the Pyrnes, on stage 8. Dont expect Froome, the more dynamic climber, to wait around should Wiggins show any sign of weakness, because those other podium contendersContador, Evans, Gesink, Hesjedal, Rodriguez, Schleck, Valverde and Van den Broeckwill all be eager to bury the defending champion.
In recent years, crashes have been a huge factor in eliminating top contenders before the mountains are reached, but that shouldnt happen this year. Thats because two of the opening three road stages on the hilly island of Corsica should quickly sift out the weaker elements, while the stage 4 team time trial in Nice will further establish the GC hierarchyprobably with solid time gains for the likes of BMC, Garmin, Katusha, Movistar, RadioShack and Skydespite the stages relatively short 25-kilometer distance. And that early sort-out will reduce the pelotons nervousness on the three rolling stages that cross the South of France before the two Pyrenean stages on the Tours second weekend.
The middle week of the race, sandwiched between the two rest days, features four stages for sprinters and breakaways, and two crucial rendezvous for the overall contenders: a flat 33-kilometer time trial in Normandy on July 9, and a grueling mountaintop finish on Mont Ventoux at the end of the Tours longest stage of 242 kilometers on July 14. The TT offers Wiggins, Froome and Evans their best chance of gaining (or making up) time on their opponents, while the enormously long Ventoux climb (probably under a blazing sun) will more likely narrow down the list of contenders rather than offer a Tour-winning strike for a Contador or Schleck.
All of the Tours four past winners (along with challengers such as Hesjedal, Rodriguez and Valverde) will have a chance to vie for the yellow jersey over this years final week. The second individual time trial, an extremely tough 32-kilometer test that makes a double ascent (and descent) of an alpine hillside, is more favorable to Froome, Evans and Contador than Wiggins. And the climbers will be in their element for the next three days in the Alps: the much-awaited stage that climbs the iconic LAlpe dHuez and then loops back to climb it again 35 kilometers later; a long, classic mountain stage over the Glandon, Madeleine and Croix-Fry passes to Le Grand Bornand; and a loop out of Annecy that crosses the scenic Mont Revard before closing out the climbing at a stage finish atop the Montagne du Semnoz (10.7 kilometers long at an average 8.5-percent grade).
We could be counting seconds on top of that French mountain to know the final outcome of the years most coveted race, and then celebrating the end of a good (hopefully) clean contest at twilight time in Paris. There will still be a third Grand Tour, some great classics and the world championships in the final three months of 2013which Ill look at next week in the final part of this season guide.