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By VeloNews Interactive wire services, Copyright AFP2002
The race is on to find the winner of the cycling seasons first major stage race when the Paris-Nice (March 10-17) kicks off Sunday.
Italian Dario Frigo, who would later go on to become embroiled in the nastier aspects of last year’s drug-tainted Giro d’Italia, won Paris-Nice last year coming in ahead of Raimondas Rumsas of Lithuania and Belgian Peter Van Petegem.
Frigo was sacked by his Fassa Bartolo team when he was leading the Giro last June while he was discovered to be in possession of a host of banned substances.
Like Frigo, the Paris-Nice was almost doomed this year when race director and former Tour de France winner Laurent Fignon ran into financial difficulties earlier in the season.
In stepped Aumary Sports Organisation (AMO), the company which runs the Tour de France and a number of other stage races, and the Paris-Nice – the most important early season race as far as International Cycling Union (UCI) rankings is concerned – was saved.
Estonian veteran Jaan Kirsipuu of AG2R won the Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne last Sunday and will be looking for a repeat performance when it comes to the sprints over the seven – hopefully sunny – days of racing.
However his Russian teammate Alexandre Botcharov is the teams best hope for a good placing in the overall standings when the race finishes next Thursday.
“Even if the design of the course is favorable to sprinters, there are a lot of opportunities to get ahead at the start of the race,” said AG2R manager Vincent Lavenu.
“In the overall standings I expect Alexandre (Botcharov) to do well. He’s in solid shape and has finished second on a few occasions of late and he was the only rider to keep up with Laurent Jalabert in the Tour de Haut Var.”
With some of the peloton’s bigger names absent from the Paris-Nice, some lesser-known teams can grab the early season limelight.
Paris-based team BigMat Auber, who failed to do well on a wildcard entry to last years Tour de France, have a new team leader for the race in Spaniard Felix Garcia-Casas – with designs on the overall standings his goal.
“It’s Felix who will be spearheading our bid for a good placing in the overall standings,” said team manager Stephane Javalet, who will also be looking to other Spaniard Aitor Kintana and French duo Sebastien Talabardon and Xavier Jan to provide support.
Fassa Bartolo, the Italian team who took the race plaudits last time round and who began the season as the UCI’s number one ranked team, will look to young Ivan Basso to spearhead their bid to hold on to the race honors. Basso, who rode a great Tour de France last year before he fell off his bike during a slippery descent and broke his collarbone, will be supported by Ukraine’s former world time trial champion, veteran Sergei Gonchar, and Italian Alessandro Petacchi.
Crédit Agricole, which dominated the opening week of last year’s Tour de France thanks to Australian Stuart O’Grady and German Jens Voigt, will be without O’Grady and new recruit Florent Brard, who is not yet fully fit.
Voigt, often considered the iron man of the peloton, will be assured in the knowledge he has Norwegian powerhouse Thor Hushovd in support. Both are tipped for honors on the first days prologue. Copyright AFP2002