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Tales from the peloton, March 31, 2006
The sweet smell of April
Last year's champions on course for more glory in 2006 classics
It's that time of the year again - when the snow melts, the sun begins to breathe life into Europe and the world's best classics riders do battle on the cobbles and hills of Belgium and Holland. It must be April. Cyclingnews' Les Clarke takes a look at the racing in store for April; where to look, who to look for and what to expect.
April's hectic schedule sees nine ProTour races take place in 30 days, with several women's world cup rounds and North America's most prestigious stage race thrown in to make it just a little busier. Every weekend of the month hosts a Pro Tour race, with Ronde van Vlaanderen on the first weekend (April 2), Paris - Roubaix the next (April 9) followed by Amstel Gold Race (April 16) and Liège - Bastogne - Liège (April 23). The final day of the month is saved for the conclusion of the Tour of Romandie (April 25-30), an important pre-Giro d'Italia form guide in Switzerland.
The festival of classics isn't limited to weekends during April, however; Gent Wevelgem (April 5), Vuelta a Pais Vasco (April 3-7) and La Flèche Wallonne (April 19) are the mid-week offerings for fans during the month, making it one for the purists that just can't get enough racing during the 'normal' months. And what makes April less than ordinary is the type of racing on offer - tough, long courses punctuated with cobbled sections that severely test both rider and equipment - check Cyclingnews for all the latest in classics technology during our coverage.
In 2005 Tom Boonen showed the world that he was the man able to handle these races the best, winning the double of Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix, to go with his win in E3 Prijs Vlaanderen the previous month. It was the start of an amazing year for the young Belgian, who went on to win two stages of the Tour de France and the world championships road race. He comes into this year's editions of Flanders and Roubaix with the tag of overwhelming favourite after last year's triumphs and a run of form in 2006 that has seen him win stages at Paris-Nice and the Tour of Qatar in convincing fashion.
Chasing the rainbow stripes in both these races will be CSC's Fabian Cancellara and Rabobank's Juan Antonio Flecha - both have changed teams after Fassa Bortolo's exit from pro racing, and both are in teams keen to perform well in the classics. Last year's runner up at Roubaix, George Hincapie (Discovery Channel) will be back and doing his utmost to finally take a win in either of these races after going close so many times. Many say that 2006 is his classics 'make or break' year, when he has to finally show he's capable of taking out one of the big ones. He'll be motivated to halt the domination of Boonen on home turf and has the team to do it, too.
Liquigas' Magnus Backstedt, who won the 2004 edition of Paris-Roubaix, will miss all of April with a knee injury and so the team will look towards Danilo Di Luca to deliver the green team's slice of classics success; but as a smaller rider chances are he'll have to wait until later in the month for the races that suit him - those he did so well in this time last year. And just as Flanders and Roubaix are like brother and sister, Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège are like cousins; although each takes place in a different country, they are classics of the hillier variety suited to riders such as Di Luca, Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) and Oscar Freire (Rabobank).
Rebellin had a great time at these races in 2004 before a lacklustre 2005 saw him slip down in most observer's reckonings, and the Spaniard Freire is in great form, stating in recent days that he's skipping the cobbled classics to give himself a better chance of performing well in the hillier races. With riders such as Cadel Evans (Davitamon-Lotto) and 2005 L-B-L winner Alexandre Vinokourov (Liberty Seguros) in the mix, it'll be superb competition. Di Luca said after his win at Amstel Gold that Liege-Bastogne-Liege is his favourite race, and after a very strong year in 2005 the Italian must surely go into both these races as favourite, much in the mould of Boonen in the races earlier in the month.
The midweek races of Gent-Wevelgem and La Flèche Wallonne are still huge in Belgium, and just because they don't take place on a weekend doesn't mean fans don't get worked up about them! Both are sought-after victories and their parcours reflects the weekend races they come between - Gent-Wevelgem makes more use of cobbled sections while Flèche Wallonne tests riders with tough climbs such as the Mur de Huy. In 2005 Danilo Di Luca confirmed his status as a 'comeback champion' with a win in La Flèche to go with his Amstel Gold victory. In 2006 he'll be able to prove again that he's a force over the punchy climbs of southern Belgium against the likes of Vinokourov, Evans, Freire and Rebellin.
In Gent-Wevelgem, Tom Boonen will go in as favourite again, and although he'll also be the punters' number one pick for Paris-Roubaix just four days later, the Belgian superstar has never been afraid to give it his all, no matter the race. He could make it a triple crown in April this year if he's able to win Flanders, Wevelgem and Roubaix, a prospect to salivate over. Last year's runner up amidst some controversy, Juan Antonio Flecha, will be making an all-out effort to compensate for his disappointing finish to last year's race, and with a Rabobank squad capable of working together to get him to the line first, he may be very hard to beat.
There are three rounds of the women's world cup thrown into the mix for April, with editions of Ronde van Vlaanderen and La Flèche Wallonne to be run as well as the Tour de Berne in Switzerland (April 23) to make it a busy month for the ladies. The big addition to the women's world cup field will be the T-Mobile squad, now based in Germany like their male counterparts. Their gun sprinter, Ina Teutenberg, will be out to continue her great run of form when she takes the series leaders' jersey into the opening round this weekend, and after moving from Equipe Nurnberger, Judith Arndt will surely make a big impact for the ladies in magenta.
With a new team and added motivation, Nobili's Australian rider Olivia Gollan told Cyclingnews earlier this year that she's looking to La Flèche Wallonne as a race where she can perform well; she'll be part of the 'Australia Armada', which includes last year's world cup champion Oenone Wood and Australian road race champion Kate Bates. Both Wood and Bates will be riding in the colours of Equipe Nurnberger, and their partnership is a plus for the German crew. Coming up against them will be another Aussie, Rochelle Gilmore and Univega's Nicole Cooke, who is slowly making her way back from injury - look out for the young Welsh woman to throw in some strong performances during the month.
Meanwhile, the North American calendar's big highlight is the Tour de Georgia, which takes place during April. Expected to be even bigger in 2006, America's premier race has grown in stature since its inception in 2003, with Lance Armstrong a popular winner in 2004 and Tom Danielson showing his stage racer qualities with victory last year. The lineup for this year's race hasn't been finalised yet, but one thing's for certain - every American rider lining up down south wants to win, and this fact makes the race special for American riders and popular with the locals.
Finally, to round out the month there's the Tour de Romandie, another Pro Tour race that attracts riders such as Botero, Cunego, McGee and Garzelli, all looking to test their form in Switzerland before the Giro d'Italia begins in May. It's normally a hotly-contested affair, with shorter stage race specialists such as McGee looking to take a big win and those with their eyes on the prize in Milan in late May seeking a week of fine-tuning. Just two minutes separated the top six places in last year's race, an indication that there's plenty of competition throughout the week. many Italian fans will be watching Damiano Cunego, the Lampre rider going through 2005 without many wins save for a stage at last year's Tour de Romandie - chances are in 2006 he'll want to prove himself in the Giro and so Romandie will be vital to his preparations.
April is definitely the month to be a cycling fan; so much action from so many quality races and only 30 days to fit it all in. Those 30 days begin this weekend, so stay tuned to Cyclingnews for all the latest reports, results and news during the month.