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102nd Paris-Tours - HC

France, October 12, 2008

One more time: sprinters' season ends in Tours

By Hedwig Kröner

Germany's Erik Zabel (Team Milram) – winner in 1994, 2003 and 2005 – faces his last race as a professional
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
(Click for larger image)

The 102nd Paris-Tours will be taking place this Sunday, October 12, in Northern France. Being its last highlight, the "Sprinters' Classic" marks the end of the top sprinters' annual race programme, counting 252 pancake-flat kilometres from Saint-Arnoult-en-Yvelines to Tours.

There will be more 'adieux' said than usual on Tours' Avenue de Grammont this year. Three-time winner Erik Zabel (1994, 2003 and 2005) will end his professional career at the race this weekend. At 38 years of age, the German still has what it takes to compete with the best sprinters in the world, and will be making a final charge at the finish line in Tours with his Team Milram.

La Française des Jeux rider Christophe Mengin is also lining up for the very last time at the event, as well as French team Crédit Agricole, which will fold at the end of the year after 10 years of existence in the peloton.

The road cycling show must still go on, and so it will for many favourites currently on the start list of Paris-Tours. In the absence of the defending champion Alessandro Petacchi – race organiser ASO did not invite Petacchi's LPR Brakes team as it was not part of the biological passport programme – the men to beat are the above-mentioned Erik Zabel, as well as fast finish specialists Robbie McEwen (Silence-Lotto), Tom Boonen (Quick Step), Oscar Freire (Rabobank), Daniele Bennati (Lampre) and Robert Förster (Gerolsteiner).

Australia's McEwen has particular reasons for a strong showing in Tours; he will leave his Belgian team and ride for the new Russian outfit Katusha next year. He has demonstrated many times in the past that he doesn't need a lead-out train to win in bunch sprints, as he masters to art of slipstreaming on the back wheel of his rivals and surging at the very last moment perfectly - just like Spain's Oscar 'The Cat' Freire.

Oscar Freire is out for Worlds redemption
Photo ©: Unipublic
(Click for larger image)

The Rabobank rider left the World Championships in Varese, Italy, in frustration and will be out for redemption on the Avenue de Grammont in Tours. Similarly to what happened to his Belgian rival Tom Boonen, team tactics at the Worlds weren't clear enough and left both favourites hungry for victory.

The dead-straight finishing Avenue de Grammont might therefore be seen as a 'revanche' game for Boonen and Freire against such strong punchers as the newly-crowned World champion Alessandro Ballan (Lampre), Olympic Champion Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel), Philippe Gilbert (Française des Jeux), Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas), Nick Nuyens (Cofidis), Stijn Devolder (Quick Step) and Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom).

Even though Paris-Tours seems a perfect bunch sprint event, breakaways duped the field numerous times in the past. In recent years, escapes by Frédéric Guesdon (2006), Erik Dekker (2004), Jakob Piil (2002), Richard Virenque (2001) and Andrea Tafi (2000) have succeeded. The big sprinters' teams should therefore watch out for attacks by likely - or unlikely - pretenders.

Italian Ballan obviously is on great form and will be able to show off his rainbow jersey in France for the very first time. The same goes for Spain's Sánchez, who has kept his fitness since Beijing. Belgium's Gilbert tried to foil the bunch's plans before; last year, he was part of a three-man assault, including Pozzato, in the last kilometres before a Milram-led peloton caught him on the finishing straight.