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Friday, 23 March, 2001, 14:22 GMT
Cycling's World Cup

Key: Click for detailed description.
WORLD CUP SERIES
2. Tour of Flanders (Brugge-Ninove)
10. Tour of Lombardy (Varese-Bergamo)

Cycling's World Cup features Europe's top one-day races - the Classics of world cycling.

The series is similar to the Formula One world championship, with the leading riders awarded a descending number of points towards the overall prize.

But do not expect a rider to win six races in a row, Schumacher-style, or for a season when only two or three riders take wins.

Each race means the eventual winner has to be an all-rounder, capable of riding to gain a position where he can win and then able to sprint consistently for points.

The favourites include German defending champion Erik Zabel plus at least two Italians - double former winner Michele Bartoli and world number one Francesco Casagrande.

Belgium's Johan Museeuw and Frank Vandenbroucke may also be in the pack if they can overcome recent problems, as will former Soviet rider Andre Tchmil.

The 1999 World Cup winner is now 38 and Belgian, but the balance of power in world cycling is shifting - to the east and also to the young.

Latvian world champion Romans Vainsteins and Lithuanian Raimondas Rumsas, winner of the Tour of Lombardy last year, are just two of the names who could spring a surprise.

They are in their mid-20s, mere babes in a sport where many do not reach their peak until they turn 30, such is the experience required to make the grade at this level.


24 March: Milan-San Remo, Italy

The first major meeting of the cycling year often features the best field of any race outside the Tour de France and the World Championships.

In the past two years the winner of the Primavera has gone on to win the World Cup itself, so it can really help to get a good start.

  Milano-Sanremo
Where? From one of Italy's main cities to the coastal town of San Remo, a stone's throw from France and Monaco
How long? 287km - 7km cut this year due to avalanches
Last year: Erik Zabel sprinted to a third win in four years - he was second in the one he lost
Look out for: Zabel (Ger, Telekom), 1999 winner Andre Tchmil (Bel, Lotto), former world champion Oscar Freire (Spa, Mapei) and in-form home favourite Michele Bartoli (Ita, Mapei)

The key point for the photographers in this race first run in 1907 is a spectacular curved section of the Mediterranean coastal road.

For the riders it is the climb of the Poggio, 4km before the finish of almost 300km of racing, which stretch most legs to breaking point.

It is not a long climb, just steep, and the descent into San Remo allows any sprinters slightly distanced just enough time to get back into the lead bunch.

That usually provides for an elite bunch sprint along the famous finish in the Italian town.


8 April: Tour of Flanders, Belgium

After the heat of a Mediterranean opener, the circuit heads north for the wet and windy Spring classics, leaving behind those riders intererested in their suntans.

Flanders is one of the major events in Belgian sport, with a list of former winners that reads like a who's who of cycling.

  Ronde von Vlaanderen
Where? From Brugge (Bruges) along the north sea coast and then inland to Ninove, which is just to the east of Brussels
How long? Approx 270km
Last year: A dramatic motorbike crash wiped out some of the favourites and then Andre Tchmil held off an unusually large chase group to seal a win
Look out for: Tchmil (Bel, Lotto), 1999 winner Peter van Petegem (Bel, Mercury), Stefen Wesemann (Ger, Telekom) and the hero of most of the fans Johan Museeuw (Bel, Domo)

The race begins near the coast at Brugge, as the natives refer to the town the English and French call Bruges.

It then heads inland for some legendary hills, including the Bosberg and the Kappelmuur, complete with beery spectators at the many bars along the road.

These are not Tour-style mountains but anyone who tells you northern Belgium is flat has never been here.

Only the best can get up these staggeringly steep farm tracks, and even then many have been known to simply stop and fall into ditches with the effort.

If a rider does make it, then it's a mad chase into the finish at Ninove and a place alongside the greats of Belgian sport for the winner.


15 April: Paris-Roubaix, France

As if Flanders isn't bizarre enough this is the strangest race in world cycling. It is no exaggeration to say that it is one of the most incredible events in world sport.

Fortunately it is a century since someone thought of having a bike race along miles of cobbled farm track. Because if someone had the idea now it would never be allowed.

  L'enfer du Nord
Where? From Compiegne, a town just to the north of Paris, to Roubaix, a suburb of Lille within sight of the Belgian border
How long? Some 270km, of which
Last year: Johan Museeuw rode the field off his wheel and took an emotianal win, pointing to the knee which was rebuilt following an accident in the 1999 race
Look out for: Museeuw (Bel, Domo) seeks another comeback - from a life-threatening motorbike crash this time. Former winners Andrea Tafi and Franco Ballerini (both Ita, Mapei) are among those seeking to stop him, as are George Hincapie (US, US Postal), Peter van Petegem (Bel, Mercury) and Tristan Hoffman (Ned, CSC)

The only British comparison is with the Grand National, and in France the 'Hell of the North' holds a similar grip to events at Aintree.

There are two types of race:

  • The most common where riders choke on clouds of dust, change punctured wheels at regular intervals and try to avoid having their wrists vibrated away by the hard rutted tracks. Riders get to Roubaix velodrome caked in grit from head to toe.
  • The really classic editions, where the rain turns the tracks into muddy streams and riders resemble something that has crawled from a swamp when they reach their destination. This is the real hell, but global warming has left such conditions less frequent than they once were.

In the end, it does not matter whether the route is wet or dry, the winner more than deserves his trophy - a piece of cobble stone the size of a large loaf of bread.

Last year was one of the most emotional yet, as Johan Museuw triumphed two years on from he suffered a life-threating gangrenous knee in the race. To repeat, Roubaix winners deserve the spoils of victory.


22 April: Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Belgium

So how do you follow Roubaix? Well one week later comes a race which simply offers the riders no respite from climbing and descending.

  La Doyenne
Where? South from the main centre of French-speaking Belgium to the smaller town of Bastogne - and then back again
How long? Approx 265km of hills
Last year: Paolo Bettini emerged from the shadow of long-time team captain Michele Bartoli to take a deserved victory
Look out for: Bettini and Bartoli (both Ita, Mapei), Frank Vandenbroucke (Bel, Lampre) if his mind's on the job, Axel Merckx (Bel, Domo), Francesco Casagrande (Ita, Fassa Bortolo), Davide Rebellin (Ita, Liquigas), Davide Etxebarria (Spa, Euskaltel), Romans Vainsteins (Lat, Fassa Bortolo)

Anyone familiar with the Spa Grand Prix motor racing circuit knows how this part of the world looks.

The Ardennes undulates like few other regions of Europe. The highs are not Alpine-like but the race is of over 250km, or 180 miles, and saps the strength like few others.

It almost makes it worse still that the riders go due south from Liege to Bastogne, and then have to go all the way back again - by a different route.

The final action is then played out over some seriously steep inclines, with a select group all that will be left of some 200 riders who started.

The race is part of a double with the previous Wednesday's non-World Cup Fleche Wallonne race, a similar event which once came the day before - in the days when the organisers were really cruel.


28 April: Amstel Gold Race, Netherlands

The final race of the Spring Classics, and already the halfway point in the World Cup series.

After the drama of Roubaix and the Belgian rounds, the Dutch event is sadly overshadowed, but is often as dramatic as its more famous cousins to the west.

  Amstel Gold
Where? A winding course around Maastricht, the most southerly of the major Netherlands cities
How long? Approx 260km
Last year: Erik Zabel secured a massive half-time lead in the World Cup series with his second win in the year
Look out for: Zabel (Ger, Telekom) has a chance again if it is a sprint while the contenders from the week before at Liege will be back for more

The venue is not flat northern Holland, but up and down the sides of the steep valleys in the south.

Maastricht is the start and finish point, just across the border from the previous week's events at Liege.

A similar race can be expected, although the action is compressed into a route which constantly doubles back on itself.

But there are still almost 30 climbs, including one reintroduced monster which has a one in five (20%) gradient in places.

The World Cup then takes a break for the major tours of the summer and anyone who leads at this point will fancy their chances of defenging the series leader's jersey.


11 August: San Sebastian Classic, Spain

A fortnight after the end of the Tour de France, the peloton regroups in the Basque country for another tough day in the saddle.

Perhaps it is a good job that riders have been toughened by the giant climbs of the Alps and Pyrenees because San Sebastian contains the highest-category climbs in the World Cup.

  Clasica San Sebastian
Where? Out from the Basque seaside town into the foothills of the Pyrenees and back to the coast
How long? Some 230km, but the climbs make up for the comparatively short length
Last year: Erik Dekker followed up three stage wins in the Tour de France with victory here - a sprint after a thrilling tactical battle on the run into the town
Look out for: Dekker (Ned, Rabobank) and any other rider with form from the Tour will have a chance - Francesco Casagrande (Ita, Fassa Bortolo) has won here twice

After 200 of the 230km riders must scale the first-category Alto de Jaizkabel. 455 metres above sea level, and then descend like demons all the way to the finish by the beach.

The winner is strong, brave and tactically astute - the bunch sometimes regroups on the descent before a fascinating tactical battle and sprint.


19 August: HEW-Cyclassics-Cup, Germany

It is hard to be too complimentary about the German round of the series, particularly if you are a British cycling fan.

The race around Hamburg replaced the British round - held in the north-east and Kent, and most memorably around the Pennines - inn 1999.

The reasons were not down to the course, which was excellent in all three English venues.

  HEW-Cyclassics-Cup
Where? An out-and-back course from the major northern German city of Hamburg
Last year: Italy's Gabriele Missaglia outsrpinted world number one Francesco Casagrande to take the prize.
Look out for: Last year's winners - but this is one of the hardest classics to predict since the winner is usually a surprise

But the sport's popularity in Germany has rocketed to the extent that riders like Jan Ullrich beat names like Schumacher and Graf in end-of-year polls.

The most notable feature of the race around Hamburg's flat coastal plain is arguably a giant bridge.

It is not even Germany's top race - but the UCI governing body will not use the prestigious Henninger Turm since it always happens on 1 May and the World Cup is a weekend-only event.

As for the winner, well that can never be predicted - and few can remember the men who triumphed in the past either.


26 August: Championship of Zürich, Switzerland

Another round which sometimes suffers from falling between the major tours of France and Spain.

But the Swiss round is always a more exciting prospect than Germany's event, and last year was one of the highlights of the series.

  Meisterschaft von Zürich
Where? Out and back from the Swiss city, dropping down to the banks of the lake
How long? Around 240km
Last year: Laurent Dufaux beat a high class selection - a top six containting two Tour de France winners, the then World Champion and the world's number one rider
Look out for: Dufaux (Sui, Saeco) for a second home win? A man with form from the Tour, one of the top one-day specialists or even the hosts' former world champion Oskar Camenzind (Sui, Lampre)

The one advantage of August is that the sport's biggest names - the Tour riders - are in good form.

Last year world number Francesco Casagrande dualled with Tour top two Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich before Laurent Dufaux gave the hosts a home win.

The out-and-back route over the hills that gather around the Zurichsee lake should make for some interesting viewing once again.


7 October: Paris-Tours, France

The cycling calendar is so long these days that many riders have ended their seasons by the World Cup's climax.

But the final two races are actually more traditional events than the August races.

  Paris-Tours
Where? From just south of the French capital to the banks of the River Loire
How long? Over 250km of road to wear out late season legs
Last year: Andrea Tafi's win enlivened what had appeared a dull race until the final stages
Look out for: Tafi (Ita, Mapei), Tchmil (Bel, Lotto) and Zabel (Ger, Telekom) are all former winners while sprinter Jaan Kirsipuu (Est, AG2R) has won most French one-day races, except this one

This second French round is a lengthy war of attrition rather than a hilly affair.

The long ride from the capital into the Loire Valley is often followed by the bunch chasing a breakaway in a thrilling chase up the long straight finish.

Last year one of the sport's true characters, Andrea Tafi animated the race and held off the bunch's charge.

In other years the great mass of riders have timned their capture just right and allowed the sprinters to have a royal battle.


20 October: Tour of Lombardy, Italy

Romantically called "the race of the falling leaves" by the Italians, the World Cup returns to where it all began back in March.

The race is the final event of the international season.

  Giro di Lombardia
Where? Varese-Bergamo, in the foothills of the Alps and Dolomites north of Milan
How long? The final 260km of a long season
Last year: Giro d'Italia and HEW-Cyclassics runner-up Francesco Casagrande was second again - this time to young Polish star Raimondas Rumsas - a sick Zabel secured the World Cup despite failing to finish
Look out for: The classy Rumsas (Pol, Fassa Bortolo) might have already taken another classic by October, but if he hasn't then he knows how to win this one, while Nicklas Axelsson (Swe, Mercury) might have won last year had he not punctured

It offerts the new World Champion, crowned the previous weekend, a chance to show off his rainbow jersey.

The massive Italian contingent in the peloton are almost as keen to win this race as they are with Milan-San Remo and the Giro d'Italia itself.

Any rider who has suffered a poor season can recover everything by triumphing here but it is never easy.

The finish is a real tough one to end the season with: a hilly cobbled climb into the historic centre of Bergamo.

And before that, the race is a typical classic, with plenty of inclines to wear out the tired legs of riders planning a break in sunnier climes.

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