Kim Kirchen will lead the T-Mobile Team in the 78th edition of the two-day Critérium International (2.HC) in the French Ardennes this weekend.
Kirchen returns to competition after a two and a half-week break - back pain forced him to climb off his bike and into the team car during stage three of Paris-Nice. The Luxembourger has been back in intensive training in the last few days, however, and hopes to rediscover the good form that saw him place second behind Paolo Bettini at the GP di Lugano in late February.
Joining Kirchen in north-east France is Linus Gerdemann, who has some form after racing his first Milan-Sanremo last weekend. The young German was in the lead group until the Poggio, where a pedal slip caused him to lose touch. He recovered to cross the line in the first chasing group and now feels he has the legs to mix it in the Ardennes.
After recovering from a cold, Andreas Klöden was expected to return to competition at Critérium International - until he dislocated his shoulder in a crash on Tuesday. Following surgery Wednesday, the 2004 Tour runner-up will now spend a lengthy time on the sidelines and will miss all races in March and April. Jörg Ludewig is, however, fit to ride in France. Ludewig hit the tarmac at Wednesday's Dwars Door Vlaanderen, but only suffered light injuries to his knee.
"In Andreas' absence we've had to rethink our selection, as we have rosters at a few other races as well," said sports director Brian Holm. "But I'm convinced that we are starting this race with a solid troop of riders."
Eddy Mazzoleni, Thomas Ziegler, Bernhard Kohl, Bas Giling and neo-pro Frantisek Rabon round out the eight-man roster.
The Criterium International has been based in Charleville-Mézières in the French Ardennes since 2001. Since then the race format has remained the same and the parcours has changed very little. The race gets underway on Saturday with a long, predominantly flat first stage covering 187km from Sedan to Charleville-Mézières.
The second and final day - Sunday - decides the winner. A tough 101 km morning stage over lumpy parcours through the Ardennes is followed by 8.3 km individual time trial on flat terrain in and around Charleville-Mezieres.
"Sunday morning's second stage is very tough. The riders will have to do a lot of climbing over the short 100 kms," added Holm, who believes that the GC won't be decided until after the afternoon time trial. "That was also the case last year when Bobby Julich come out on top."
Julich (CSC) is one of the favourites again this year, but he can expect to be pushed all the way by a strong field that includes the likes of Denis Menchov (Rabobank), Paris-Nice and Tour of California winner Floyd Landis (Phonak) and Jörg Jaksche, who placed second at last week's Tirreno-Adriatico (Liberty Seguros).
Stage 1 - March 25: Sedan - Charleville-Mezieres, 192 km
Stage 2 - March 26: Les Vieilles Forges (Les Mazures) - Montherme, 101 km
Stage 3 - March 26: Charleville-Mezieres - Charleville-Mezieres, ITT, 8,3 km
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