By Ben Atkins
French hero Thomas Voeckler returns to defend his Ouest-France title at the head of a Bouygues Telecom team packed with rouleurs of similar quality. The rider from the Alsace is aware that his 2004 Tour heroics are growing long in the memory, and that other French riders like Agritubel's Romain Feillu are appearing to steal his place in his nation's hearts.
He knows, however, that victories in races such as this in France's cycling heartland will keep his place in the sun that bit longer. Riders like former French champion Pierrick Fédrigo, and 2006 Clásica San Sebastian winner Xavier Florencio are at hand though to make sure that the Bouygues Telecom challenge is more than just a one man show.
The race covers 12 laps of the same 19.1km course as last year to make up a total of 229.2km. Despite never looking too challenging on paper, the race seldom finishes in a bunch sprint; the final drag inside the final few kilometres offers opportunities to the breakaway riders, as happened with Voeckler last year. The sprinters were not too far behind the French echappeur though, and with a strong determined team behind him one of the fast-men could yet do it.
The rest of last year's podium is missing from the start of this year's event, though. Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole), last year's second place, was sick during the Tour and missed the Olympic Games as a result. The rest of the team will be eager to impress, as Directeur Sportif Roger Legeay has yet to find a new sponsor for the team. A good performance may either help to attract one, or more likely help the individual secure a contract with another team next year. Christophe Le Mevel leads the team, but local boy Sébastien Hinault (no relation to the five-time Tour winner Bernard) will be out to impress in his home region.
Also missing is last year's third place Danilo Di Luca as his LPR Brakes-Ballan team has not received one of the two wild cards for the race.
The ailing ProTour continues and we now have two races at once as the Eneco Tour of Benelux runs in parallel. The overall leader Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne) is notable in his absence as he rests after the Olympic Games. In fact none of the top three in the season-long competition are racing in either of the current ProTour races, which perhaps shows the relative importance of the series. The highest ranked rider in either race is Andre Greipel (Team Columbia), who sits in sixth place and is riding the Eneco Tour; the highest ranked rider to start here in Plouay is 11th-placed Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel-Euskadi).
With such a rolling, winding course a sprint finish is something of a rarity here, and for that reason most of the teams are packed with escape artists and baroudeurs rather than fast-finishers. Looking to buck the trend and see a bunch gallop for the line are the aforementioned Feillu, Sébastien Chavanel (Française des Jeux), Columbia's Gerald Ciolek and Allan Davis (Mitsubishi-Jartazi). The latter name will be joining the Belgian Quick Step team at the start of next month and so will be looking to impress his new employers.