CAVENDISH GOES DUTCH FOR A STAGE WIN OR TWO

Mark Cavendish and Roger Hammond are in the High Road team for the Ster Elektrotoer, a five-day stage race in Holland that starts today with a six-kilometre time trial in Schijndel. The stage is scheduled to finish at 6.45pm (UK time).

Barloworld include Welsh rider Geraint Thomas in their line-up, meaning he faces a dash back to Wales on Saturday night if he?s to take his place in the Wales team for Sunday?s GP of Wales. It has been confirmed that Thomas intends to travel back from Holland in time to ride the GP of Wales, but he has had to pull out of Friday’s Abergavenny crit. Look out for cyclingweekly.co.uk?s GP of Wales preview later in the week.

Tomorrow?s stage finishes on top of the Cauberg, the hill in Valkenburg that hosts the finish of the Amstel Gold Race classic.

There should be a couple of stages that suit Cavendish?s sprint, and a good finish in today?s prologue should be possible.

The race will be tinged with controversy because it is Tom Boonen?s first race for Quick Step since it was announced he?d tested positive for cocaine in an out-of-competition dope test in May.

COOKE STARTS GRAND BOUCLE DEFENCE TODAY



Nicole Cooke will make a one-off guest appearance for a Swift Racing-Halfords combined team at the Grande Boucle, which starts in Ghent today.

The Welsh rider, pictured in the green jersey she wore at the Tour de l’Aude recently, has won the event for the past two years and was keen to defend her title.

However, Julian Winn, team manager of Halfords Bikehut, decided not to enter a full team in the event because he felt the route and the long transfers were not ideal for the rest of the riders at this stage of the season.

Instead, Cooke was given permission to ride for Swift Racing in an event that clearly suits her.

Cooke?s team-mates will be Britain?s Helen Wyman, Ine Beyen of Belgium, Toni Bradshaw of New Zealand, Dorte Rasmussen of Denmark and Deby Van de Berg of Holland.

The third British rider in the 78-strong field is Emma Silversides of Lotto-Belisol.

Cooke will be the hot favourite in a race that is not bursting with star names. Diana Ziluite of Lithuania leads the Safi Pasta-Zara-Manhattan team and will be a threat but there is no Arndt, no Bastianelli, no Australian squad. The competition is nowhere near as strong as at the Tour de l?Aude in May.

Priska Doppman of Switzerland was a team-mate of Cooke?s on the Raleigh Lifeforce team last year and won three stages and took second overall at the Grande Boucle. She could be dangerous now she?s an opponent.

Of the rest, there?s another Swiss Karin Thurig, another of Cooke?s old team-mates. Like Doppmann she lines up for the Lifeforce team this year.

Last year only four riders got within five minutes of Cooke overall ? Doppmann and Thurig were second and fourth. Emma Pooley, who?s not racing this time, was third. Maribel Moreno of Spain, fifth last year, returns and could make the podium.

The race offers a very varied menu, starting in Ghent and hitting a stretch or two of cobbles and a couple of climbs familiar to followers of the spring Classics ? Steenbeekdries, used in the Tour of Flanders, and Kluisberg

Wednesday sees the racing split into two stages, the first starting at Wallers in Paris-Roubaix country before heading back into Belgium. Fortunately, the riders will be spared the Forest of Arenberg. The afternoon?s stage takes them due south, to Fourmies.

Thursday?s stage to Drancy is pretty flat, with only one categorised climb.

Then there?s a very long 40-kilometre time trial on very challenging terrain between two lakes, one at Domaine-de-Chalain, the other at Clairvaix-les-Lacs. When you consider the women?s time trial at the World Championships is very rarely longer than 25 kilometres, this is a brute and the time gaps could be huge.

The weekend stages are hard too. Saturday sees a lumpy drag up to Villard-de-Lans with a second-category climb to finish.

Sunday?s final stage is viciously hard, with the Col d?Izoard, Col de Montgenevre and Sestrieres, a mythical stage but one that could see more big time gaps. The race ends there, in Italy, the third country in less than a week.

Read the full story of how Cooke came to be racing for Swift here: Cooke to guest for Swift Racing at Grande Boucle

GRANDE BOUCLE 2008

June 17-22

Tuesday Stage 1: Ghent ? Wattrelos, 73km

Wednesday Stage 2a: Wallers ? La Louvière, 59km

Stage 2b: La Louvière ? Fourmies, 90km

Thursday Stage 3: Montdidier ? Drancy, 108km

Friday Stage 4: Domaine-de-Chalain ? Clairvaux-les-Lacs time trial, 40km

Saturday Stage 5: Lac d?Aigubelette ? Villard-de-Lans, 102km

Sunday Stage 6: Guillestre ? Sestrieres, 84km

KINESIS IN SERBIA

The Kinesis team are racing at the Tour of Serbia, which started yesterday and runs until Sunday. Matt Higgins (55th), Tom Last (65th), Matt Cronshaw (75th), Richard Cartland (98th) and James Sampson (101st) all finished in the main peloton, which was a minute behind a leading group of 17.

In that leading group was another Brit, Matthew Green, riding for Cyclingnews-Jako.

The Tour of Serbia is a tough race and will be the ideal tune-up for the ambitious Kinesis team, who will aim to create a stir at the National Championships a week on Sunday.

SPRAGG 11th IN FRENCH RACE

James Spragg, who is racing for the French first division amateur club Castelsarrasin, was 11th in the Tour du Tarn et Garonne in the south of France on Sunday. Spragg will be returning to Britain to ride

HUNT CONTINUES TOUR BUILD-UP



Jeremy Hunt is named in the Crédit Agricole team for the Route du Sud, a stage race that takes place in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

Hunt (pictured winning a stage of the Tour of Langkawi earlier this season) is looking likely to win a place in the Tour de France as chief lead-out man for Thor Hushovd. At 34 it would be only Hunt?s second grand tour appearance in 12-and-a-half years as a professional. He started the 2002 Vuelta a Espana for the French Big Mat team but pulled out on stage seven as the race hit the mountains.

The Route du Sud starts on Thursday (June 19) with a stage from Lusignan to Boulogne-sur-Gesse. Friday?s stage is an uphill time trial to Cambasque. The toughest stage is on Saturday, finishing at the top of Superbagneres. The race ends on Sunday in Castres.

Daniel Martin, the Irishman who rides for Slipstream, but who is a former British national junior champion, is also in the field following his eighth place at the GP Internacional stage race in Portugal.

PLACES IN OTLEY RACE

There are still places for elite, first and second-category riders to line up alongside Bradley Wiggins and Jeremy Hunt in the Otley crit (June 26). Read the full story for details

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