Just when you were thinking you couldn't stand another single crossrace ever again, conveniently the real racing season is just around the corner. While the men have been riding a big bunch of warmup races the only major race for the women so far has been the Tour of Qatar where the new GreenEdge team got off to a flying start, winning the race with Judith Arndt. Now the season is about to kick off for real and so is the FSA DS competition, our Podiumcafe fantasy league.
Two races are on the menu this week. In New Zealand the stageracers get their feet wet and on Saturday a deep talented startfield start out from Gent to take on the Nokereberg, Kluisberg, Còte de Trieu, Paterberg, Edelareberg, Wolvenberg and the Molenberg before returning to Gent. In short, it's time for the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and with that the season is well and truly under way.
Follow me for a quick look at the first races and get a few pointers on how to get a head start in FSA DS competition. You have one more day to get a team in and why not, it takes about five minutes and it's tons of fun. Go here to sign up.
The Tour of New Zealand is a five stage race that boasts a field that isn't very large but what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality. GreenEdge is the only major UCI team riding and they are bringing last years winner Arndt and talented aussie timetrialer/stageracer Shara Gillow so they should be a strong presence. The main competition comes from the national teams of Italy and the USA. The system of combined national teams is quite common in women's racing where many of the teams may not have the resources to send teams to distant races. The national feds on the other hand can put together teams in order to get their top riders and developing talent to races where they can gather important UCI points and, in the case of talents, race-experience.
So, while there are no other top UCI teams to compete with, GE will have their hands full holding off veteran Kristin Armstrong , who is once again aiming for an olympic spot, and Evelyn Stevens of Team USA. Stevens who normally races for Specialized-lululemon is another strong TTer with steadily improving climbing who should be a threat for the overall win. The Italians are bringing former Wold Champ Tatiana Guderzo, who might not find the course climby enough, talented allrounder Elena Berlato and Monia Bacaille who on paper looks like the fastest sprinter in the race.
Behind these three teams who are likely to dominate the race there is the aussie teams Jayco -AIS, VIS -Jayco and the NZ national team that bring some talented riders but perhaps not quite on the same level. Those teams did manage to put some girls in the top 10 last year and they might again. The safe bet though for those putting their final touches on their FSA DS teams is that the big names like Arndt and Stevens scoop up a decent amount of points in the end.
The race starts off with a TT and then has 4 hilly but not overly demanding stages around Palmerston North.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
If the Tour of New Zealand lacks depth the same can not be said for the Omloop. The race has clearly taken a step up in status this year. Last year quite a few of the top teams and riders skipped this early season race but in 2012 the starters list looks as stacked as any of the World Cup races. Vos & Van Vleuten are sitting this one out and the winner from the previous two editions Emma Johansson, is still doubtful as she is returning from her bad crash that resulted in double collarbone fractures. She is on the preliminary startlist and apparently she has been recovering well so we'll see, normally she has strong early season form.
Other interesting names to look out for on Saturday is Grace Verbeke who starts her first classic for her new Kleo Ladies team, Ludivine Henrion will be looking for a result for Lotto, Noemi Cantele will also be hoping to put the new BePink team on the map and GreenEdge has Loes Gunnewijk now free to step out of the shadow of Vos.
An interesting storyline for the season starting in OHN will be the battle of the dutch superteams, Rabobank vs. AA Drink. Rabobank which morphed out of last years Nederland Bloeit have the biggest stars but AA Drink has even greater depth after bringing on the core of the collapsed Garmin team. While Rabo is saving their stars AA are throwing their full lineup in the fire from day one. Kirsten Wild, Lizzie Armitstead, Lucinda Brand and Chantal Blaak are all set to ride and they could really put their mark on the race if they show up in good shape. An educated guess is that first round goes to AA but riders like Sara Düster, Liesbet De Wocht and Iris Slappendel are not to be underestimated, Rabobank has depth as well as top quality (Rabo are also bringing some young french girl who may interest some in the crowd here).
In the shadow of the two big dutch teams Skil-1t4i brings a very competent team as well with new signing from HTC Adrie Visser (a strong rider with a good sprint, as made for races like these), Regina Bruins, Susanne De Goede and Amy Pieters (edit. Pieters is not riding) . Lots of potential on that team to be sure.
The course for the women's race looks very nasty on paper with 7 hellingen and 5 listed cobbles sections. This course is more comparable in toughness to the RvV than the men's version. This is by no means a soft warmup race. This is full-on pain from day one.
The olympic 2012 season is about to kick off and after the Omloop the women's classics season rolls on at the same furious pace as the men's. Some of the years biggest races come quick and fast in the weeks to come. Hopefully we will get to see some racevideo from these races as well.