|76th Critérium International|
Favourites and Contenders
The 2004 edition of the Critérium International looks to be one of the most open in years, as some of the best riders in the world will be racing in what is affectionately known as 'the mini Tour de France'.
Team CSC, after a remarkable domination of Paris-Nice, have brought all the riders who figured there with them to the Ardennes. Led by Bjarne Rijs, the Danish squad is currently one of the most in-form in professional cycling. Jorg Jaksche, Bobby Julich, Jens Voigt or even Frank Schleck could all do well, though it'll be interesting to see - firstly - if the recent Paris-Nice winner has kept his form... and even then, whether he repays Voigt or Julich for their dilligent chasing in the Race to the Sun, by trying to help one of them to victory. However, we saw in Paris-Nice that he is capable of riding for himself, after sublime performances against the clock and then in the mountains.
It's likely that Jens Voigt, however, will take the role of race leader as he loves this race. The German won the time-trial last year en route to second overall, and also won it in 2002, taking himself to fourth behind Jose Alberto Martinez Trinidad. In fact, the last time Voigt finished out of the top five overall in the Criterium International was 2000! After an excellent display of climbing in Paris-Nice, he will be one of the marked men here.
Laurent Brochard of Ag2r Prevoyance also has had good luck with this race over the years. As well as winning the key second stage last year and then cementing overall victory in the time trial, "Lolo" won overall in 2000. Having won the Etoile des Besseges in February, Brochard - who is actually celebrating his 36th birthday today - looks to be in good form. Teammate Jean-Patrick Nazon could also win the flat, first stage if it comes down to a very predictable bunch sprint.
Phonak Hearing Systems could do well, whatever the terrain. Tyler Hamilton and Alexandre Moos both attacked well in the mountains of Paris-Nice, and both are competent in the time trial. Alexandre Usov recently won a sprint in the Tour of Valencia, and is definitely no slouch in a bunch gallop.
However, most of the media attention will be directed at Lance Armstrong (US Postal Service supported by Berry Floor) and Joseba Beloki, who will finally clash swords after Beloki's Tour de France last July was ended with an abrupt crash on the stage to Gap; Armstrong was forced to take evasive action, and did a 'Bart-Wellens' through a cornfield! Armstrong's early season has been far more satisfactory than his Basque rival's. Whilst the Brioches la Boulangere man has had to delay his season further and further due to tendonitis [I believe he is making his debut in team colours here!], Armstrong won the Tour of Algarve (2.3) time-trial in mid-February, and also finished fifth in a slightly-longer time trial at the Tour of Murcia. It's likely he will put his efforts into the time-trial, but as we saw in 2002 when he lost overall by the narrowest of margins to Martinez Trinidad, you never know...
Indeed, Beloki's teammate and French star Sylvain Chavanel should be noted more as a contender, as "Mimo" has finished well up overall in the past two years - he came fifth last year.
As well as Brochard and Chavanel, David Moncoutié (Cofidis) poses a real victory threat too: the Parisian has finished third overall in 2003 and 2002, and hasn't been out of the top-five overall since 2000! Meanwhile his teammate David Millar will probably turn his attentions more to the final stage time-trial than the overall. Bradley McGee, who beat him by such a narrow margin in last year's Tour prologue, will also be racing though it's likely the time trial will be too uphill for his liking.
Alexandre Vinokourov leads the T-Mobile charge, and after winning three stages in Paris-Nice, he is in great form. Although his time-trialing isn't as good as some of the favourites, he has one of the best accelerations in cycling and could tear the race apart on the second stage - the Kazakh finished third overall in 2000, too.
Juan Carlos Dominguez (Saunier Duval) looks to be the Spanish contender for the Criterium International: he's done well here in the past, with a couple of podium finishes. With an overall impressive victory in the Ruta del Sol, his climbing also looks to be improved.
Outside bets for the overall include Toni Colom and Ivan Gutierrez (Iles Balares-Banesto), both of whom have had promising early seasons so far, and both of who can time-trial well - Gutierrez won the recent Tour of Murcia time trial. But let's not forget 2002 winner Jose Alberto Martinez Trinidad who'll be racing with Relax-Bodysol. Since his victory, the Basque's career has plummeted downhill - could he possibly stop the nosedive here?
Danilo Di Luca is another high-profile name looking to get into form for the Ardennes Classics, and a victory - stage or overall - in this high-profile warm up race surely wouldn't go amiss!
Full team/contenders list at the bottom of the page.
As in recent years, the Criterium International parcours has changed very little. In fact, the last two stages are exactly the same as last year, and the first stage has changed very little. As per usual, there will be a long, predominantly flat first stage on Saturday covering 190km from Rethel to Charleville-Mézières. However, the final climb comes only 12km from the finish, and a breakaway could prevail. Normally though, the first stage is the only chance for the sprinters to shine - look out for Cooke, Hushovd, Usov, Nazon et al.
The second and final day - Sunday - will surely decide the winner. In the morning, there is a 98.5km stage punctured by sharp hills - eight in total. And the finish is on a 4km climb average 5%. Riders, welcome to flavour country.
In the afternoon, there is a tricky time trial which starts uphill and stays like that for 2.5km, before dipping down and bringing on another small climb before a flat run-in. Keep an eye open for Millar, Armstrong, Voigt, Jaksche, Hamilton and Brochard here; all will be looking for a good performance.
Stage 1: Rethel-Charlevilles Mézières (190.5km)
Stage 2: Les Vieilles Forges-Monthermé (98.5km)
Stage 3: Charleville Mézières-Charleville Mézières (8.3km ITT)
Teams And Main Riders
Euskaltel-Euskadi (SPA): G. Gonzalez, J. Silloniz
Saunier Duva (SPA): Dominguez, Canada
Iles Balares-Banesto (SPA): Colom, Gutierrez Palacios
Liberty Seguros (SPA): Nozal, Hruska
Relax-Bodysol (SPA): Martinez Trinidad, Scheneuman
T-Mobile (GER): Vinokourov, Kloden
Gerolsteiner (GER): Totschnig, M. Zberg
Chocolade Jacques (BEL): Zamana, Brard
Lotto-Domo (BEL): Merkx, R. Verbrugghe
Quick Step-Davitamon (BEL): Bodrogi, Virenque, Sinkewitz
Team CSC (DEN): Jaksche, Julich, Voigt
US Postal-Berry Floor (USA): Armstrong, Landis
Ag2r Prevoyance (FRA): Brochard, JP Nazon
Brioches la Boulangere (FRA): Chavanel, Beloki
Cofidis (FRA): Millar, Moncoutié
Crédit Agricole (FRA): Moreau, Hushovd, Halgand
Fdjeux.com (FRA): Cooke, McGee, Casar
RAGT Semences-MG Rover (FRA): Rinero
Saeco (ITA): Di Luca, Petrov
Phonak Hearing Systems (SWI): Hamilton, Usov, Moos
Thanks to www.letour.fr and www.cyclingstartlists.com for information on this race.