Climbers need apply for overall title
By: Les Clarke
There's a little of everything for everyone at the Tour de l'Ain - an interesting mixture of teams and terrain make for a serving of intrigue in what is also a litmus test for those riders aspiring to make a good impression in front of some big names.
And it's this fact - the combination of top dogs and minnows - that means the likes of Omega Pharma-Lotto, HTC-Columbia and Team RadioShack meet Continental squads such as Bretagne-Schuller, BigMat-Auber 93 and Roubaix Lille Metropole on the roads of France's Ain department.
Defending champion Rein Taaramäe is only listed as a reserve for his Cofidis squad, the Estonian perhaps prefering to continue preparations for an expected Vuelta a España campaign. The 2007 champion, John Gadret, is due to start for AG2R La Mondiale and goes into the event as one of the men to watch for the overall title.
He's sure to be challenged by experienced Spaniard Haimar Zubeldia, who turns team leader after serving as domestique at the grand tours. Team RadioShack is sending a squad capable of protecting him, with experienced José Luis Rubiera slated to start.
There's also a chance that Française Des Jeux's Christophe Le Mevel can make something of his overall chances, whilst the event will see the return of talented Colombian rider Mauricio Soler of Caisse d'Epargne.
Merry-go-round the Ain department
Stage one takes riders on a 140km journey from Lagnieu to Saint Vulbas, north east of Lyon. The col de Fay is the obvious highlight of the day's parcours, rising 675m. With 24km to race after riders have hit its summit, it shouldn't pose too many problems for the sprinters.
The likes of Greg Van Avermaet (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Leigh Howard (HTC-Columbia) and Roman Feillu (Vacansoleil) could feature in this finale, which rewards those sprinters with the ability to play it smart on the climb and save enough for a bunch kick.
Failing a sprint finish in Saint Vulbas, Vacansoleil's enigmatic barouder Lieuwe Westra may be the man to try his luck on an attacking raid at some point before, during or after the col de Fay.
Whilst there's a chance - albeit very slight - of the sprinters being foiled on the first stage, the following day it's a dead flat run from Le Parc des Oiseaux to Trevoux, south of Bourg en Bresse. Don't expect any heroics from the breakaway guys to succeed today - with only a fourth category bump in the road early in the stage there's really nothing stopping a controlled run to the finish for a bunch kick in Trevoux.
Two solid days of climbing...
Stage three takes riders into the Jura mountains, with a 164.5km journey from Montmerle-Sur-Saone to Arbent that includes five categorised climbs, with the col du Berthiand the day's highlight.
It's a day for climbers such as Zubeldia and Gadret to strike, with the likes of countryman Le Mevel and HTC-Columbia's Marco Pinotti also in the mix to counter the diminuitive rider's expected attacks.
Zubeldia will have support in the form of Spanish recruit Markel Irizar and Rubiera, while Gadret will have 2006 Tour de l'Ain winner Cyril Dessel and Hubert Dupont for company from the AG2R La Mondiale ranks.
Look out for Skil-Shimano's Thierry Hupond to cause a stir, the Frenchman having proven himself a useful climber at Paris-Nice a couple of years ago. He's definitely the joker in the pack and could well animate racing on the penultimate stage.
The final stage heads into the Rhône-Alpes and is all about the col du Grand Colombier - the hors categorie climb takes riders up to 1,500m over 18.3km with an average gradient nudging seven percent and should be the battleground for Brajkovic, Gadret and anyone else intent on taking a place high on general classification.
There's the third category côte de Champagne-en-Valromey preceding the big one, which may give an escape some hope that it can hold on to its advantage against the big guns. In reality however, it probably won't stand a chance once it hits the day's main ascent.
While it's a downhill 35km run from the summit of the Grand Colombier to the finish in Belley, the damage on the day's climb might well leave the group splintered and fighting for placings on the long descent to the race's conclusion, close to the Swiss border.
For more about this week's racing see Cycling News HD