By Ben Atkins in Gruissan
Sweden's Susanne Ljungskog returns to defend her Tour de l'Aude title from May 16 to 25 with her new Menikini-Selle Italia team. The former two-time World champion won the 2007 edition by virtue of being part of the stage winning break on the race's penultimate day. Previously the race had been dominated by stage wins from the T-Mobile team (now Team High Road) and Marianne Vos (DSB Bank). Ljungskog will be ably supported in the bid to retain her title by 1998 winner Fabiana Luperini, Japanese champion Miho Oki, and strong Aussie duo Nathalie Bates and Rochelle Gilmore – all of whom will be on the lookout for stage wins as well.
The race – one of the three toughest of the season with the Giro d'Italia and the Thüringen-Rundfahrt – will, as usual, consist of stages over a variety of terrains almost entirely inside the Aude department that gives the race its name. The stages can be divided into three distinct phases: the first in the mostly flat coastal region close to Narbonne, the second more mountainous section to the south close to Andorra, and the third in the rolling country around the medieval city of Carcassonne.
The race begins in the seaside resort of Gruissan with a completely flat prologue of 3.9 kilometres. Stages one and three are slightly further inland and mostly flat – with the exception of the category one Col de Sojettes in stage one. In between these is stage two: a 27-kilometre team time trial starting and finishing in another seaside town of Port la Nouvelle.
Stage four will be the queen stage of the race, starting and finishing as it does in the town of Osseja in the Pyrenees Orientales department, not far from Andorra and the Spanish border. In the mid section of the 101-kilometre course the race will climb two hors category and one first category mountain passes. A more intermediate fifth stage will followed by another hilly one: Stage six will take the race back up in a northerly direction crossing three first category climbs as it goes.
The final three stages will be much more rolling in nature, but still take in several second and first category climbs so the race leader will not be able to relax until the very end. It was during the final few stages last year, in fact, that Ljungskog took the yellow jersey from incumbent Judith Arndt who'd held it since the stage two team time trial.
Ljungskog's main challengers this year will be the same as last; Arndt will lead a powerful High Road team, who will look to win the team time trial that they won as T-Mobile last year. Most of the classics riders who have so dominated the first part of the season will be left at home, but the team's strength in depth will come to the fore as American Mara Abbott, Australian Alex Rhodes and German Madeleine Sandig join Luise Keller – the German national champion. Ina Teutenberg returns to support her captain and contest any sprint finishes that may come along.
2004 winner Trixi Worrack – who finished second last year – leads a powerful Equipe Nürnberger Versicherung in a bid to go one better and win her second victory. The team that has been so strong in the recent World Cup races accompanies the former German champion including former World champion Edita Pucinskaite – third in 2002 and capable of victory herself – and former World Cup leader Suzanne De Goede.
Great Britain fans will be looking to see an emergence some form for national champion Nicole Cooke as her build up to the Olympic Games in Beijing continues. She will once again be racing in the red, white and blue colours of her national team rather than the orange and black ones of her trade team so that Emma Pooley can be included. Perhaps a surprise inclusion for team GB is that of World pursuit champion Rebecca Romero. Surely as a short distance specialist, she will be hot favourite for the completely flat 3.9-kilometre prologue, but as a national time trial champion she will also prove useful in the stage two team event. There is further British presence in the form of Team Swift Racing, led as usual by British cyclo-cross champion Helen Wyman and Emma Davies Jones.
Read the complete preview and stay tuned to Cyclingnews for full coverage of the Tour de l'Aude.