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Cycling Season's Last Lap

What time is it?

You wouldn't believe how many bell videos there are on YouTube. And 90% or so seem to be from Italy. Which is a nice segue...

Because Cycling's last lap is a distinctly Italian affair. Sure, there are races in China ("Hey look, a marketing brochure! With a bike race!") and France (yeah, I suppose), but the real action is found in la bella campagna. Let's take a quick tour of the remaining race schedule and talk about what's important, i.e. whose uncrushed hopes and dreams are on the chopping block.

Tour of Beijing, Wednesday -- Sunday

What's up? Five stages around the Chinese capital, that's what. Including the famed Bird's Nest Stadium -- Tiananmen Square circuit, which I think I walked in 1994, and have the black lung to prove it. Stages 2-4 venture into the countryside for some hilly slopes, with stage three possibly being decisive, or at least having awesome scenery. Ah, who are we kidding, the prologue will decide the race.

Who wins? Tony Martin. Like, not even close. He has to defend his rainbow jersey for the first time tomorrow (today?), and for the last time with HTC adorning it. The fact that he's also maybe the best climber in attendance leaves any other hopefuls looking at Sunday's crit as their "big chance."

Whose hopes and dreams get crushed? The riders' union. Something about this will be deemed a huge success -- this is China, and face comes before facts. So see you in 2012, 2013...

Paris-Bourges, Thursday

What's up? Nice little sprinters' affair, meant to warm up the fastmen for Paris-Tours, one of the most prestigious races on the sprinters' calendar. Like close to 100% of the cycling events using "Paris" in the name, it starts nowhere near Paris, but who cares? The Loire Valley isn't good enough for you?

Who wins? Mark Cavendish's rumored appearance has been scratched, which leaves HTC with just world silver medalist Matt Goss in charge of beating defending winner Anthony Ravard, '07 winner Romain Feillu, and other fastmen like Tom Veelers, Yahueni Hutarovich, Chris Sutton, Matt Hayman, and Robbie McEwen. I like Goss plenty, but Vacansoleil are bringing a pretty beefy setup squad for Feillu. Also, rival teams, don't take your eye off Tommy Voeckler in the last hour, if you know what's good for you.

Whose hopes and dreams get crushed? Hm, I'm not sure who HTC has yet to demoralize already. Maybe the Roubaix-Lille-Metropole team? Their DS is Cyrille Guimard, so he's probably laid down the landscape for them. 

Coppa Sabatini, Thursday

What's up? Ah, now we're talking. The Coppa Sab is a nice little circuit race ending up in Peccioli, near Pisa, Italy. It usually goes to a climber, but it's very much a warmup for the bigger events around the corner, so not everyone shows their cards. The final km is an 8% climb, and we have an on-scene report here from 2009, with some nice pics.

Who wins? Giovanni Visconti. Climbers' race? Check. In Italy? Check. People don't care about it too much? Check. Visconti is my Lock of the Week.

Whose hopes and dreams get crushed? Visconti's, but not for another nine days. 

Giro dell'Emilia, Saturday

Bolognasanlucavonoben_lr_1__mediumWhat's up? Every year I go on and on about how this is my favorite race outside the Spring Classics (sorry San Sebastian), just jaw-dropping beauty, a truly hard finish, and a massive, motivated field. I guess it's a warmup for Lombardia, but with a week in between and the prestige of Emilia, it has more than enough quality to stand on its own. The highlight, apart from Bologna itself, is the conclusion up to the Madonna di San Luca, pictured on the right. That line of arches is known, once a year, as the final km. Pez has some nice pics of the scene.

Who wins? With double-defending champ Robert Gesink sidelined, the race becomes harder to handicap. Giovanni Visconti will get outclassed again, so my short list of guys who can get up the final punchy climb include Michele Scarponi, Vincenzo Nibali, Ivan Basso, J-Rod, Andy Schleck... you getting the picture? We'll have more as the startlist fills out.

Whose hopes and dreams get crushed? There is a pretty substantial list of guys whose careers involved (ahem) long vacations, including Davide Rebellin and Danilo DiLuca, still looking to correct their images. So I'll offer them up for crushing. This will be a cruel reminder of why you thought you needed the sauce before. Here, strong men also cry.

Paris-Tours, Sunday

What's up? The second-most-storied race on the Fall calendar, this is the Sprinters' Classic that isn't always won by sprinters. In fact, there are three short climbs in the final KM that can either set up someone outside the sprinters' field (coughGilbertcough) or at least tire out some of the favorites' legs. This year's edition might actually overshadow its partner in the Autumn Double (Lombardia), for a couple reasons. One, Mark Cavendish is debuting his rainbow stripes there. And two, this was supposed to be the first year with no finish on the famed Avenue de Grammont (French for Geraardsbergen!), only they put the Ave back in, albeit just 800 meters of the wide, flat surface with which the race is synonymous. So there will be much to see.

Who wins? Cav has this one circled on his calendar, and over the years of the variety of distractions thrown his way (usually by Cav himself), the only one to ever throw him off his game was dental surgery. Assuming his teeth are OK, the outcome is obvious.

Whose hopes and dreams get crushed? The attackers, especially the French ones. I'm looking at you, Voeckler and Chavanel. Because it's HTC's swan song, and they are not going to tolerate any interruptions.

GP Beghelli, Sunday

What's up? The other Emilia race of consequence, this is mostly a circuit race featuring the Zappolino climb, a 7% test over some 2km which is featured nine times. But after every climb is a descent and the last 7km are flat, so it usually ends in a bunch.

Who wins? Well, based on past history it's either Alessandro Petacchi or Damiano Cunego. No idea til we see a startlist.

Whose hopes and dreams get crushed? Too soon to say. A lot of Italians, that's for sure.

Giro del Piemonte, Thursday 10/13

What's up? Last tuneup for the Lombardia warriors. There are three major climbs, and a final circuit which ends with 1km at 6.5% (9% max) and a last km of flat. So whether the climbers stay away from the desperate chase is the eternal question.

Who wins? Very hard to predict. Wait, Gilbert is riding? OK, Gilbert.

Whose hopes and dreams get crushed? Practically everyone. Let's throw OPL management in there this time. Don't get used to this sight.

Giro di Lombardia, Saturday 10/15

What's up? Last Monument of the year. The Race of the Falling Leaves. The Philippe Gilbert/Damiano Cunego Invitational.

Who wins? You have to ask? Do they still not have wifi in your cave?

Whose hopes and dreams get crushed? Nobody's. It's time to call it a season.