Riders Stay Busy Ahead Of Tour De France

James ThompsonCorrespondent IJune 22, 2009

The picture associated with this story may not be entirely unexpected, but it really is a surprise. Lance Armstrong (Astana) won his first professional race since his 2009-season comeback began. It was not a ProTour race, though, but a smaller, US domestic race called the Nevada City Classic, in California. 

The race is touted as one of the country's hardest 4-corner criterium races because of the very sharp climb in the middle of the circuit, a circuit that the men circled more than 30 times. 

His main competition came from top domestic rider Ben Jacques-Maynes (Bissel) who came in second, while Armstrong's Astana teammate, Levi Leipheimer, finished third.

Other Tour contenders have been quite busy as well to get ready for the Tour de France, which starts on July 4th.

This past week concluded the Tour of Switzerland. It was used by many as round number two (with the one-week Dauphine-Libere being round one) of the final Tour preparations. 

The nine-stage race took in two time trials and four mountain stages. Although it was a demanding course, none of the mountains were particularly severe. 

Some had noted that time-trial powerhouse Fabian Cancellara (Saxobank) could easily triumph if he maintained contact on the relatively small mountains and was in top form after an early season plagued with injury and sickness. 

That is exactly what he did. Back in his winning form, he demolished the competition on the opening prologue time-trial, an 8-kilometer course.  He was so fast that he beat the nearest challenger, defending champion Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas) by 19 seconds on the very short course.

Cancellara defended his lead very well through the mountains. He conceded the yellow jersey to Tadej Valjavec (AG2R) for a few days but kept him within very close watch, and on the final stage, the 40-kilometer time trial, the Olympic TT champ showed everyone that he's the world's best time-triallist by storming to his second stage win, and won the overall race by nearly two minutes.

Meanwhile, Team Columbia-Highroad showed spectacular form in Switzerland. Members of its team won an amazing six stages with five different riders, showing incredible team depth.  Mark Cavendish won two sprint stages, while teammates Michael Albassini, Kim Kirchen, Tony Martin, and Bernard Eisel all won stages of their own. The team as a whole will be the dominant force for stage wins in the upcoming Tour.

The stage races are now over as riders await the big one. This weekend, however, many countries are holding their elite national championship races. Some already have.  Columbia-Highroad's Italian Marco Pinotti, in fact, won his fourth Italian time-trial championship this past weekend, a new record for the event. 

Those who win either their national road or time-trial championships are granted the right to wear a custom team kit draped in the colours of their country in any design or fashion they see fit for the next 12 months until the next edition. Road champions wear their special jerseys for all road stages, while national TT champions wear their jerseys for all the time trials. 

Alberto Contador's (Astana) decision to race the Spanish time-trial championships as a way to test out his new prototype bike from Trek as well as to polish off his time trialling has many worried, including defending champion Luis-Leon Sanchez (Caisse d'Epargne).  The Spaniard rode strongly in the Dauphine-Libere without hurting himself much, and is widely regarded as the number one rider next month.

On the subject of Astana, Lance Armstrong was quoted last week in saying that he could not sit in front of an interview and say that he had no ambition to win an eighth Tour de France.  Many Americans might tout him as the favourite, but Contador still has to be the number one choice. 

Armstrong said, of course, that the team would support the strongest rider, namely Contador, to the win, but Armstrong will surely have his fire stoked in time for the race.  While an eighth win would be unlikely, no one is counting the American out. 

Liquigas leader Ivan Basso and defending Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre of Cervelo, both are sure that the Texan will be on top form and very aggressive at the Tour.

Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) is quite satisfied with his Tour preparations. In an interview today with CyclingNews, he said that he was very pleased with his form at the Dauphine-Libere, where he placed second overall to Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne) for the second year running. He was confident in his long-tested time-trialling abilities as well as his newly found attacking prowess in the mountains.

The Tour de France will be a spectacular route with some interesting twists in the race.  Tune in next week for a complete preview of the race.