By Jean-François Quénet in Istanbul, Turkey
Astana's Gregory Rast won the opening stage at the 44th Presidential Tour of Turkey, after outsprinting Italian Francesco Ginanni (Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni) in a spectacular opener. However Rast isn't leading the Tour, with the 76.2 km Grand Prix of Istanbul not actually part of the UCI sanctioned Tour of Turkey. The race proper starts today with a 132.7 km stage from Izmir to Kusadasi.
Astana directeur sportif Alain Gallopin noted that separating today's criterium from the stage race was a good call by race organisers. "Otherwise, the overall classification would have been decided today," he said.
Indeed it was very hard terrain leading the riders from the ancient hippodrome where chariot races used to be held during the Byzantine empire down to the Bosphorus Strait and back up towards the famous Blue Mosque in the area of Sultanahmet. Saltanahmet is the most visited in the historical city of Istanbul, a few blocks away from the Grand Bazar.
Cobblestones, uphill and downhill made the race a real spectacle, with the riders also keen to put on a show as they went full-gas from the gun. The Serramenti PVC-Diquigiovanni team showed their motivation early but Astana was prompt to imitate them with Rast taking the initiative after only 10 kilometres.
"When I came here, I didn't know what to expect," the Swiss rider explained. "When I saw the course this morning, I realized it was good for me. The uphill cobblestones made it look like the Tour of Flanders where I finished 13th last week. I understood that I had to catch the attackers from the first lap. As I became a part of the front group, I only had to stay focused and observe my adversaries. I didn't know them really."
The Astana team isn't exactly racing against their usual opponents at the Tour of Turkey. "But people like us here, so we're happy to produce a good show for them," Rast commented. "I was impressed by the very big crowd here today. I don't do this job only for training but mostly for racing and winning as much as possible. Today I've won a nice race."
Gustavo Cesar Veloso from Karpin-Galicia who had finished third in Le Tour de Langkawi in February was Rast's biggest worry. "I reacted very quickly when he attacked with five laps to go," said the former Swiss champion and winner of the 2007 Tour of Luxemburg. "In the final sprint, I didn't have any difficulty for winning. It's great to win."
There should be more to come from Astana during the seven-day Tour of Turkey. "We came with a strong team," Rast added. "Andreas Klöden will like the climbs here. But we have two or three cards to play."
A few bunch sprints are expected too, although today's criterium was a little too dangerous for Alessandro Petacchi who withdrew early after seeing a spectacular crash on the fourth lap. But the Italian fast man from Milram will be determined to win a few stages on the Turkish coast later this week.