The 2007 road racing season kicks off this week in Europe after a long winter full of doping innuendo and infighting between cycling’s major powers.
First up is the French traditional opener Tuesday at the Grand Prix d’Ouverture La Marseillaise followed by the five-day Etoile de Bessège. Seven ProTour teams are among the 18-team field for the 140km La Marseillaise opener, including Ag2r, Bouygues Telecom, Crédit Agricole, Cofidis, FDJeux, T-Mobile and Unibet.com. Etoile start Wednesday in Pézenas and wraps up Sunday in Bessèges with a mix of stages across southern France.
The expansive French calendar continues with the Tour Méditerranéen (February 14-18), which is always a hard-fought affair but one that should be more wide open this year without the dominant presence of Team CSC (racing the Tour of California instead). The solid month wraps up February 25 with the semi-classic Tour du Haut Var.
The Italian calendar opens Saturday with the GP Costa degli Etruschi highlighted by the presence of the reigning world champion Paolo Bettini (Quick Step-Innergetic). That’s followed up by the Trofeo Laigueglia on February 20.
Spain also boasts a solid string of events throughout the month with the five-day Mallorca Challenge beginning Sunday and continuing through February 15. The race is a series of one-day races that riders can start at their leisure, but there’s also an overall classification for riders participating in all events.
Spanish racing continues with the popular Ruta del Sol across sunny Andalucia (February 18-22) and continues with the Volta al Comunitat Valenciana (February 27-March 3), two events that typically draw elite sprinters. Tom Boonen (Quick Step-Innergetic), Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole), Oscar Freire (Rabobank) Alessandro Petacchi (Milram) and Robbie McEwen (Predictor-Lotto) are among the top sprinters penciled in to start at least one of the two stage races.
European highlights of February road race calendar:February 6: Grand Prix d’Ouverture La Marseillaise (Fra)February 7-11: Etoile de Bessèges (Fra)February 10: GP Costa degli Etruschi (Ital)February 11-15: Mallorca Challenge (Spa)February 14-18: Tour Méditerranéen (Fra)February 18-22: Ruta del Sol (Spa)February 20: Trofeo Laigueglia (Ita)February 21-25: Volta ao Algarve (Por)February 25: Tour du Haut Var (Fra)February 27-March 3: Volta al Comunitat Valenciana (Spa)
Sevilla joins Relax, Ullrich next?
Oscar Sevilla – one of nine riders kicked out of the 2006 Tour de France for alleged links to the Operación Puerto doping investigation – will ride for Relax-Gam Fuenlabrada for the 2007 season, the team announced over the weekend.Known as “El Niño,” Sevilla will join two other blemished stars, Francisco Mancebo and Santiago Pérez, on the Spanish continental team. Mancebo was also forced out of the 2006 Tour while Pérez served a two-year racing ban for illegal blood transfusions.
Last year, Sevilla reached a mutual agreement with T-Mobile to terminate his contract without having to go to arbitration or face being fired.
Sevilla’s name was among more than 50 riders allegedly linked to Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes in what Spanish authorities claim ran a large blood-doping ring in Spain. Like all Spanish riders linked to the investigation, Sevilla has not faced any disciplinary action by Spain’s national cycling federation.
Several Spanish media outlets also reported that sources said the team is also close to penning a deal with 1997 Tour champion Jan Ullrich. The German, who was also linked to Fuentes last year, is still wrangling with Swiss cycling authorities (where he holds a racing license) and recently agreed to provide a DNA sample to help clear his name.
Pereiro back in saddle
Tour de France runner-up Oscar Pereiro joined his Caisse d’Epargne-Illes Balears teammates this weekend for the first time this year in a training camp on Spain’s Balearic islands. The team will continue a training camp through February 10 and then select members will compete in the Mallorca Challenge.
Pereiro has endured plenty of drama the past month after a run-in with French anti-doping authorities over asthma medication that was detected in samples taken during last year’s Tour. Pereiro eventually provided required documentation proving his exemption to use Salbutamol, an otherwise banned product.
Pereiro expressed his satisfaction to be back on his bike and preparing for the 2007.
“It’s the same good ambiance from last year. We are a strong unit and the new riders have been well received,” Pereiro said of the weekend’s training. “We are enjoying the camp and we have a lot excitement to get the season started.”Liquigas ready to open season
Thirteen members of Liquigas are putting the finishing touches of their preparation ahead of the GP Costa degli Etruschi. The Italian squad is in the middle of a Tuscany training camp ahead of the 2007 Italian racing calendar debut.
Francesco Chicchi, fresh off racing in the Tour Qatar, will be the team’s top hope for the one-day Italian race in Donoratico.
“Chicchi, who has already raced in Qatar, is the rider which Liquigas counts on for a positive season ‘baptism,’” said team manager Stefano Zanatta. “The team will work for him.”
Other riders training in Tuscany and on the list for Etruschi include Eros Capecchi, Kjell Carlström, Mauro Da Dalto, Francesco Failli, Roman Kreuziger, Vladimir Miholjevic, Matej Mugerli, Andrea Noè, Franco Pellizotti, Roberto Petito, Alessandro Vanotti and Charles Wegelius.
Pantani movie Monday in Italy
Italian viewers will get a peek at a made-for-TV account of the life and death of 1998 Tour de France winner Marco Pantani, set to be broadcast Monday on the Italian TV station RAI.
Called “The Pirate,” the movie recreates the highs and lows of the enigmatic climbing specialist who won the Giro-Tour double in 1998, but was later entangled in a string of doping scandals. Pantani died of an apparent cocaine overdose in 2004.
Italian actor Rolando Ravello plays Pantani and reportedly underwent vigorous training to get into shape for the movie. Scenes were filmed throughout Italy, including in the locations of some of the key moments of Pantani’s racing career as well as his hometown.