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Criterium International: Big Names Come to France

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For the first time this year, a number of the big names of Grand Tour Cycling are coming out to play, maybe even to win. While the cobble studs are honing their form on the Kwaremont, the likes of Kloden, Vino, Valverde, Chavanel, Cunego, Julich, Schleck, Voigt and so on will be just over the French border, tantalizing us with previews of summer.

First, though, a word about language. I've already griped about having to translate Dwars Door Vlaanderen ("straight across Flanders") only to discover that DS Little Bear draws straighter lines than that. Well, my attempts at Flemish are being mocked again this weekend by Brabantse Pijl -- which I'd preview if I had more time, which I don't -- a race that means "Brabant arrow". Now, Jakob Piil and Juan Flecha also bear names that mean arrow, and their workmanlike nature and top-level talent dovetail nicely with this straight, sturdy imagery. But does the race go straight across Brabant? Nope.

I raise this because if I were holding a race called Criterium International, it would be on a 2-3km circuit that goes in and out of Luxembourg. And if I were hosting a race consisting of a long flat stage, a time trial, and a climbfest, I might call it "stage race international." Ah, language. I suspect there exists somewhere an explanation of how, back in the days of wooden frames and gears that you couldn't shift without a wrench, the word "criterium" indicated a series of races around a defined region. Like the Criterium du Dauphine Libere.

Anyway, here's your Crit-Int map, start list, and honor roll. Interestingly, Jens Voigt and Bobby Julich are both twice winners, one in the nineties and one recently, or one for each phase of their careers. Julich first won in 1998, the year he finished third in Le Tour, underlining what a strong season he had. Both are back and ready to contest... for the same team. Ivan Basso is the defending champ, though he's yet to show any interest in winning races in 2007been in Spain all week and isn't coming to France any sooner than absolutely necessary.

The parcours starts with a long, bumpy ride to Charleville-Meziers, where the sprinters on hand will likely duke it out. Haedo? Fedrigo? Casar? Schumacher? Nazon? As you can see, not too many classic sprinters on hand. That's because Sunday is a two-stage grind: the morning's 100km hump over nine (!) categorised climbs, followed by a flat, 8.3km time trial to sort out the morning's climbers once and for all.

I'll go with Jens Voigt as my winner. Valverde is probably a smarter choice, but I suspect Jens will be more motivated for victory, will shadow the climbers Sunday morning, and will eek out a win in the ITT over Valverde. Kloden is another smart choice, after winning Tirreno-Adriatico and showing some interest in early-season races, but why would you choose Kloden over Jens in anything less than a grand tour? Delayed coverage on Versus; check Eurosport or for live alternatives. Cycling.TV will be preoccupied all weekend with the Cobbles, thankfully.