Astana team favourite for the Tour of Hainan

The Tour of Hainan celebrates its tenth edition and its status of China's premier bike racing event - the the only H.C category race in China, with Astana leading the WorldTour teams in the race and sprinters such as Sacha Modolo (Lampre-Merida) and Graeme Brown (Drapac) on the start list.

After three overall wins by Astana with Valentin Iglinskiy in 2010 and 2011 and Dmitriy Gruzdev in 2012, the Kazakhstani team is again the big favourite for overall success but face a threat from new comers Trek Factory Racing. In 2013 Belkin took a famous clean sweep with all nine stages and GC won by Moreno Hofland and Theo Bos. Last year Frenchman Julien Antomarchi of Continental team La Pomme-Marseille stormed to victory ahead of WorldTour riders Niccolo Bonifazio (Lampre-Merida) and Andrey Zeits (Astana).

A total of 20 teams from Italy, France, Kazakhstan, the USA, Australia, Poland, Ukraine, Latvia, Malaysia, the UAE and greater China will contest the nine-day event that features five stages suitable for sprinters before the hillier part of the racing. Three category 1 climbs are set to split the bunch on stage 8 -the queen stage of the nine-day race.

The 76km inaugural stage with start and finish in Wanning-Xinglong in front of the HNA Kangle theatre that hosted the team' presentation on the eve of the race could suit Italian fast men Jakub Mareczko (Southeast), Sacha Modolo and Roberto Ferrari (Lampre-Merida), Andrea Palini (Skydive Dubai). They haven't won a race recently and will face on form compatriot Daniele Colli (Nippo-Vini Fantini) who won the Tour of China I. The other sprinters in contention are Graeme Brown and Brenton Jones (Drapac), Ruslan Tleubayev (Astana), Benjamin Giraud (Marseille 13-KTM), Armands Becis (Rietumu-Delfin) and Boris Shpilevskiy (RTS-Santic).

With Zeits and Valerio Agnoli -who is making his return to Asia after taking second overall at Le Tour de Langkawi in Malaysia in March, Astana is the big favourite for overall victory, at least on paper.

"Zeits is a very consistent rider. All year he performs well at the service of the team. I'd love to make him win but if he's in a two-man breakaway, he'd usually ride too much before the sprint. But we need the race to be hard for Astana to win," sport director Dimitri Sedun said, noting the increase of some stage distances at the Tour of Hainan with 237km scheduled for stage 4.

The Tour of Hainan is known for creating surprises. It's also a way to save a disappointing season. In that perspective, former Tour de France climbing sensation Rémy Di Gregorio is a candidate to succeed Antomarchi as a French winner. The European teams -who form the vast majority of the start list, shouldn't again try to say they don't know about Hengxiang's Wang Meiyin. China's best cyclist has had a quiet season until he won stage 5 at the Tour of China II two weeks ago. The 26-year-old from the Shandong province is the only Chinese athlete currently winning international bike races. As a result local fans expect a lot from him again in Hainan.

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