A clash of generations is threatening to usurp an anticipated Italian win at the Hamburg one-day Cyclassics Pro Tour race this Sunday.
But for reasons perhaps better explained by the Italians, the likelihood of up-and-coming German sprinter Gerald Ciolek claiming victory ahead of ageing compatriot Erik Zabel appears an outside bet.
From all 11 previous editions Italian riders have won five times, and always made it on to the podium of a race which, thanks to its mainly flat profile, is favoured by the sprinters and late breakaway specialists.
If a bunch sprint is on the cards at the end of the 229.1km race, however, the home fans will be hoping to see Ciolek and Zabel going toe-to-toe.
Ciolek, Germany's under-23 world road race champion, has been hailed as the heir to former sprint king Zabel, who remains hugely popular in his native Germany despite recently admitting to a brief encounter with the banned blood booster EPO (erythropoietin) in the 1990s.
And so far Ciolek, the blond-haired T-Mobile sprinter, has been fulfilling his precocious talent having twice beaten Milram's veteran to stage wins in this week's Tour of Germany.
Victories have been getting rarer for Zabel, and while the 2001 winner of the race claimed a stage win this week in the Tour of Germany to take his career victory tally to 199, the German sprinter is considered an outside bet.
Filippo Pozzato, meanwhile, is among a strong contingent of Italians who have just as good, if not a better chance of dominating. The Liquigas rider claimed victory here in 2005, came third last year and this week proclaimed he is not aiming to settle for second best.
"I'm in great form at the moment," said Pozzato, following his victory in the one-day Matteotti Trophy race this week.
As well as Pozzatto, the Italian tifosi (fans) will be hoping Paolo Bettini, who has also been racing at the Tour of Germany, has a stab at ending his victory drought. The world and Olympic champion, who claimed victory here in 2003, has the perfect profile for a course whose only difficulty is the smallish Waseberg climb.
It will be raced over three times, the last time being 16km from the finish line, giving ideas to the likes of riders who can climb fast and hold off their chasers in the remaining kilometres.
Another Italian with victory on his mind is Davide Rebellin, whose German team Gerolsteiner will be watching closely ahead of an imminent decision about their future in the sport following the fallout from numerous doping scandals. Rebellin and Bettini's chances could be determined by how they decide to race Saturday's final stage of the Tour of Germany, and how they recuperate in between times.
The same goes for Ciolek and Zabel, although the 37-year-old -- who will soon have to hand back one of his six consecutive Tour de France green jerseys due to his doping admission -- will be hoping he can get over his Spanish bogey man.
The Cyclassics is almost always decided in the final kilometre.
And last year Oscar Freire triumphed after outmanoeuvring Zabel at the finish, a move which the German also succumbed to at the hands of the Spaniard on one very notable occasion at Milan-San Remo in 2004.
© AFP 2007