ProTour blasts off at Paris-Nice

Sunday's start to Paris-Nice should be the most enthralling for some time, with Lance Armstrong ridi

Sunday's start to Paris-Nice should be the most enthralling for some time, with Lance Armstrong ridi
PIC BY TDWSPORT.COM Professional cycling will move into a new era on Sunday afternoon when the prologue time trial for Paris-Nice takes place in the Parisian suburb of Issy les Moulineaux. Sunday marks the first day of action is the International Cycling Union's new elite level ProTour circuit, and a series of factors have coincided with this launch to ensure that this will be the most eagerly observed 'race to the sun' for many a year. While the UCI will be focusing on the hopefully successful roll-out of their new elite-level format, the eyes of most fans and the media will be firmly focused on six-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, who is making his 2005 competitive debut in the event. Backed by an extremely strong Discovery Channel line-up, Armstrong should be in good form given that his first objective of this season, the Tour of Flanders, is now less than a month away. The Texan comes to Europe fresh from last weekend's Oscar ceremony in Los Angeles, which he attended with his singer girlfriend Sheryl Crow. Armstrong's rivals, though, will know that such distractions rarely interfere with his racing radar. Although he is unlikely to ride with a first Paris-Nice victory in mind, Armstrong is equally unlikely to pass through next week's event without making a significant impact somewhere. He was one of half a dozen Discovery riders who spent time testing in Allied Aerospace Industries wind tunnel in San Diego in January, and all of them are in the Paris-Nice line-up, including last weekend's Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne winner George Hincapie. Many of the likely contenders for Paris-Nice have been keeping their competitive powder dry for the coming week. Among them is defending champion Jorg Jaksche, who won this race with CSC last year, and now leads a youthful but still very strong Liberty Seguros team. Among those backing Jaksche are Tour Down Under winner Luis Leon Sanchez, who is already collecting no doubt morale-boosting but also unhelpful comparisons with the great Miguel Indurain, and TDU stage winner Alberto Contador. T-Mobile have a very good recent record in this race. Alexandre Vinokourov won it in 2002 and 2003, and took three stage wins last year. He'll be joined by Daniele Nardello and new signing Oscar Sevilla, as well as sprinter Olaf Pollack. "The races that we have contested up until now have served primarily as warm-ups for the ProTour. I have the impression that our team is well prepared," said T-Mobile DS Mario Kummer, echoing the philosophy of many ProTour teams. CSC is another team certain to challenge for overall victory, with Tour of the Mediterranean winner Jens Voigt their best prospect. Procycling columnist Carlos Sastre is set to make his 2005 debut, although the Spaniard's sights are set much further down the line. The Italian Liquigas-Bianchi team are led by the in-from Franco Pellizotti and British-born Dario Cioni, who has spent the past month training at altitude around the Mexican city of Toluca. "I am in the right condition, I have collected enough placings: now I want a victory," said Pellizotti of the coming week's racing. "I expect a lot of well-prepared opponents, starting with the CSC team. I'm thinking about the stage finishing on Mont Faron, but I can't deny I'm also interested in the final ranking." Britain's Charly Wegelius is also in the Liquigas line-up. The other British rider to feature is Olympic pursuit champion Bradley Wiggins, who will fancy his chances in the prologue, which matches his gold medal-winning distance of 4,000 metres. He is part of a Crdit Agricole team that also includes veteran sprinter Jaan Kirsipuu, who will hope to push Quick Step's Tom Boonen close in the bunch finishes. The stages: Prologue: Issy les Moulineaux, 4km individual time trial Stage 1: Etampes-Chabris, 186.5km Stage 2: La Chatre-Thiers, 191km Stage 3: Thiers-La Chambon sur Lignon, 174km Stage 4: La Chambon sur Lignon-Montlimar, 185km Stage 5: Rognes-Toulon (Mont Faron), 172.5km Stage 6: La Crau-Cannes, 184km Stage 7: Nice-Nice, 135km
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