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GP Ouest France-Plouay - CDM & ProT
France, August 24-25, 2008
By Ben Atkins
French hero Thomas Voeckler returns to defend his Ouest-France title at the head of a Bouygues Telecom team packed with rouleurs of similar quality. The rider from Martinique is aware that his 2004 Tour heroics are growing long in the memory, and that other French riders like Agritubel's Romain Feillu are appearing to steal his place in his nation's hearts.
He knows, however, that victories in races such as this in France's cycling heartland will keep his place in the sun that bit longer. Riders like former French champion Pierrick Fedrigo, and 2006 Clásica San Sebastian winner Xavier Florencio are at hand though to make sure that the Bouygues Telecom challenge is more than just a one man show.
The race covers 12 laps of the same 19.1km course as last year to make up a total of 229.2km. Despite never looking too challenging on paper though, the race seldom finishes in a bunch sprint; the final drag inside the final few kilometres offering opportunities to the breakaway riders, as happened with Voeckler last year. The sprinters were not too far behind the French echappeur though, and with a strong determined team behind him one of the fast-men could yet do it.
The rest of last year's podium is missing from the start of this year's event though. Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole), last year's second place, was sick during the Tour and missed the Olympic Games as a result. The rest of the team will be eager to impress though, as Directeur Sportif Roger Legeay has yet to find a new sponsor for the team and a good performance may either help to attract one, or more likely help the individual secure a contract with another team next year. Christophe Le Mevel leads the team, but local boy Sebastien Hinault (no relation to the five-time Tour winner Bernard) will be out to impress in his home region.
Also missing is last year's third place Danilo Di Luca as his LPR Brakes-Ballan team has not received one of the two wild cards for the race.
The ailing ProTour continues and we now have two races at once as the Eneco Tour of Benelux runs in parallel. The overall leader Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne) is notable in his absence as he rests after the Olympic Games. In fact none of the top three in the season-long competition are racing in either of the current ProTour races, which perhaps shows the relative importance of the series. The highest ranked rider in either race is Andre Greipel (Team Columbia), who sits in sixth place and is riding the Eneco Tour; the highest ranked rider to start here in Plouay is 11th-placed Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel-Euskadi).
With such a rolling, winding course a sprint finish is something of a rarity here, and for that reason most of the teams are packed with escape artists and baroudeurs rather than fast-finishers. Looking to buck the trend and see a bunch gallop for the line are the aforementioned Feillu, Sebastien Chavanel (Française des Jeux), Columbia's Gerald Ciolek and Allan Davis (Mitsubishi-Jartazi). The latter name will be joining the Belgian Quick Step team at the start of next month and so will be looking to impress his new employers.
The majority of the rest of the field consists of a who's who of the leading members of the French peloton and a number of the sport's best breakaway specialists. The Cofidis team leads the way on both counts and includes Tour de France stage winner Sylvain Chavanel as well as Stephane Auge and Belgian classics specialist Nick Nuyens.
The sole member of the Olympic road race podium present will be Italian silver medallist Davide Rebellin. He leads a strong Gerolsteiner team, which includes German champion Fabian Wegmann. Team CSC's Alexandr Kolobnev and Andy Schleck were both members of the decisive breakaway in the Beijing race. Despite being the more fancied sprinter in the group though, Kolobnev came away empty handed with a morale sapping fourth place, and Schleck was fifth. They will both be looking to build on that form this weekend though and look towards the next big target on the horizon: the UCI Road World Championships in Varese next month, where the Russian will hope to go one better than his silver medal of last year.
Alessandro Ballan leads a strong Lampre team that also features names such as Paolo Tiralongo and Massimiliano Mori. Former ProTour leader Damiano Cunego is on the reserve list, but if he does take the start he will be looking to rebuild his form after a disastrous Tour de France and prepare himself for the World Championships. If Ballan looks to escape you wouldn't bet against him being joined by fellow classics specialist Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank). The Spaniard may well be there to look after the interests of Dutch sensation Robert Gesink though, as the youngster prepares for his first tilt at a Grand Tour in the Vuelta a España that starts next week in Spain.
More Italian class is brought to the race by team Liquigas, mostly in the form of blonde bombshells Franco Pelizotti and Filippo Pozzato. Pelizotti was a very active member of the Italian team in Beijing, putting in constant attacks for the benefit of captain Paolo Bettini (who only features on the Quick Step reserve list), which ultimately worked to the advantage of Rebellin. He should be on top form after that performance, but Pozzato will be fresh - having stayed at home - and so either one could feature.
To read the Women's World Cup preview, click here.