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12.09.2015 @ 21:00 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

This weekend the preparation for the world championships reaches its climax with the two Canadian WorldTour races Grand Cycliste de Quebec and Grand Prix Cycliste de Montreal. Held on hilly courses over distances of more than 200km, the races and their circuit format offer the perfect opportunity to test the condition a few weeks prior to the battle for the rainbow jersey. With a tricky course in Richmond on the same side of the Atltantic being the scene for the World Championships, this is again true for this year's 5th edition of the races and they have attracted a star-studded line-up of classics specialists that are eager to gauge themselves against some of their biggest rivals for the battle in the USA.

 

For a number of years, it almost appeared as being a certainty that the first North American race on the WorldTour would be the ever-growing and ambitious Tour of California. With UCI eager to globalize the sport and expand the pinnacle calendar to cover races on most continents, it would just be a question of time before the American stage race would put North America on the biggest scene.

 

However, the Californian race never got the honour of becoming the first event on the continent to join the exclusive club of WorldTour races. Canadian race promoter Serge Arsenault who has a long history of organizing bike races, planned to put Canada in the cycling spotlight by organizing two WorldTour one-day races and in 2009 quickly reached an agreement with the UCI that awarded his races in Quebec and Montreal 5-year licenses as WorldTour events. Despite several European races' year-long request to get onto the biggest calendar, Arsenault's brand-new project got immediate recognition, UCI being eager to spread their WorldTour calendar to a third continent as fast as possible.

 

The inaugural events were held in 2010 and didn't get overly much attention. For many teams, the long travel to North America was a hard burden at a time when most riders are on their knees and just looking forward to an off-season rest.

 

That has since changed and the races now have an important, well-deserved and well-timed place on the calendar. Being well-organized one-day races with a distance of more than 200km, their circuit race formats have turned them into the best possible preparation for the World Championships for the riders that aren't racing the Vuelta a Espana. Having been set up as "mini World Championships", the contenders for the Worlds couldn't have wished a better block of racing two weeks prior to the big event and in recent editions, the organizers have attracted a star-studded line-up that surpasses the one seen at many European WorldTour races.

 

The main disadvantage is of course the long travel to North America. However, With the Tour of Utah and the USA Pro Challenge being held in the USA in August and the newer Tour of Alberta taking place on Canadian soil one week prior to the one-day events, it is now possible to build a solid block of racing consisting entirely of North American races and riders can now make prolonged stays on the other side of the Atlantic to prepare for the world championships. In 2013, riders like Chris Froome, Richie Porte and Peter Sagan did that when they have combined high-altitude racing in Colorado with Worlds-like racing in Quebec and Montreal to prepare for the major autumn objective. However, it seems that the prospect of doing the entire American and Canadian racing schedule no longer has the same appeal.

 

The one-day races have remained popular though and it's hard to find a genuine Worlds contender that is not riding either the Vuelta or in Canada even though the Tour of Britain seems to gradually establish itself as a third path. Held on hilly circuits in the cities of Quebec and Montreal, they are ones for the riders that excel in the Ardennes classics. This year they may be a bit harder than the Worlds circuit but the races still offer one big advantage. They are held on the same side of Atlantic compared to the battle for the rainbow jersey and so many will take the opportunity to travel early and get acclimatized while also doing some quality racing.

 

The races fit perfectly into the anatomy of the second half of the season which is loaded with one-day races. It all kicks off with the Vattenfall Cyclassics and from there the racing just gets tougher and tougher. While the Hamburg race is one for the sprinters, the GP de Plouay suits both classics specialists and fast riders. The Canadian WorldTour races are even tougher and here the sprinters have a very hard time. Instead, the races are for the puncheurs and Ardennes specialists and in Montreal, the climbers may even have a chance to shine.

 

On paper, the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montreal is the harder of the two as the major climb is much more difficult than the ones found two days earlier in Quebec. On the other hand, the major difficulty is located in the first part of the course while the final 10km are all easier and it requires enormous strength to make a solo attack stick all the way to the line. However, the sprinters have nothing to say on this course which is one for the climbers and the Ardennes specialists and a winners list that contains Robert Gesink, Rui Costa, Lars-Petter Nordhaug, Peter Sagan and Simon Gerrans speaks volumes about the kind of riders that excel in this race. A decent sprint is a big advantage in this race but as it may turn into a race of attrition, climbers may fancy their chances on this course.

 

Last year Orica-GreenEDGE completely dominated the race as they had several riders in the small group that survived the final climbs. That made it impossible for anyone to escape their stranglehold and finally they have Simon Gerrans the perfect lead-out. The Australian became the first rider to make the double in Canada as he easily beat Rui Costa and Tony Gallopin into the minor podium positions. Gerrans is trying to build some form in the Vuelta after a disastrous year so he won’t defend his title. However, Costa and Gallopin will both be back in an attempt to improve on last year’s result.

 

The course

It’s very rare for a WorldTour race to be held entirely as a circuit race and that is what makes the Canadian WorldTour races special. Among the biggest races, only the GP Ouest France-Plouay has a similar format but it is exactly this nature that makes them attractive for the Worlds contenders. Furthermore, their hilly nature makes them comparable to a typical Worlds course and this adds further value to the races.

 

While the course in Quebec has been changed twice, the course in Montreal has always been the same and it will be the same circuit that has been used for the first four editions of the race, meaning that the riders now know what to expect. The 12.1km course will be repeated 17 times to add up to a 205.7km race which makes it a tough race but far shorter than the battle for the rainbow jersey. The course has two climbs and a short 500m ramp to the finish on Avenue du Parc.

 

The race starts at 79m above sea level on the Avendue du Parc near the University of Montreal and the circuit mostly consists of a lap around the large area that hosts that institution. From the start, the riders head down a small 200m descent before taking a left-hand turn onto the circuit's major challenge, the Cote Camilien-Houde. The 1.8km climb has two hairpin bends and a right-hand corner near the top and takes the riders up to 211m of altitude at an average gradient of 8%.

 

The climb is immediately followed by a long, gradual descent that follows slightly winding roads and leads to the 5km mark. A flat kilometre with three sharp turns brings the peloton to the bottom of the course's second challenge, Cote de la Plytechnique (780m, 6%), that takes it back up to 158m of altitude, has its top at the 6.5km mark and has a 200m section with an 11% gradient. A short, sharp descent with some technical corners leads to a flat 8th kilometre. The 9th kilometre is slightly downhill and has two sharp corners but from there the roads are mostly straight and either flat or slightly downhill.

 

At the 10.6km mark, the riders make a sweeping right-hand turn onto Avenue du Parc and 500m further up the road, they start a small 500m descent. At the end, they make a U-turn to head 580m back up the same road to reach the finish line, the finishing straight having a 4% gradient.

 

The Cote Camilien-Houde is a really tough climb that rules out any chance for the sprinters and puts the climbers and the Ardennes specialists to the fore. The climb is tough enough to make a difference but due to its early location, it is difficult for the pure climbers to keep it going all the way to the line as the final 10km are mostly downhill. The Cote de la Polytechnique offers a launch pad for an attack but from its top 5.6km of mainly descending or flat roads remain. A versatile climber with a fast sprint has a good chance to shine on this course.

 

The racing is usually extremely aggressive and the race very difficult to control. It usually takes some time for the early break to be established and from there, the race follows the traditional scenario with an organized chase where the stronger teams gradually increase the pressure.

 

However, attacks have a good chance of being successful in this race and so new offensives are often launched from afar. The final 3-4 laps are usually a festival of attacks where groups are being formed, reeled in and new established. The teams of the favourites try to keep things under control and the fierce pace makes it a gradual elimination race. Compared to Quebec, the selection will be much bigger and towards the end of the race, the peloton should be smaller.

 

In the first edition of the race, Robert Gesink did the trick when he attacked the final time up the climb and rode solo all the way to the finish. In what has been the most selective edition of the race so far, he was chased by a small 5-rider group that had gone clear on the climb while a larger 22-rider group followed a little further behind. The least selective editions were in 2014 and 2011 when Rui Costa had escaped solo on the main climb but a rather big group came back together for the finale. Costa, Stefan Denifl and Pierrick Fedrigo slipped clear and decided the race. Last year it was big group of more than 30 riders that sprinted for the win. The 2012 edition followed a similar pattern, with the decisive group being smaller. In 2013, a highly competitive field with many climbers made it harder and as the dust had settled, only 11 riders remained in contention from where Peter Sagan launched his race-winning attack.

  

In this kind of aggressive and uncontrollable final, power, tactical ingenuity, team support and luck are all of importance.  You need to be strong to get to the finale but the strongest rider doesn't always win the race.

 

 

 

The weather

Most of the week is set to be sunny in Montreal but unfortunately things are set to change by the time we get to Sunday’s race. The final day of the week is forecasted to get off to a cloudy and dry start but by the time we get to the finale of the race, there is a 50% chance of rain. It won’t be cold though as the maximum temperature will be 22 degrees.

 

There will be a moderate wind from a southeasterly direction which means that the riders will have a tailwind and then a cross-headwind on the first climb. Then it will be a tailwind and a cross-tailwind before the riders turn into a cross-headwind for the second climb. From there it will mainly be a headwind until the riders turn into a cross-tailwind for the 580m uphill finishing straight.

 

The favourites

The GP de Montreal will be held on the same course that has been used for the first five editions of the race and so the riders now know what to expect from the race. At a first glance, the race may look like the perfect opportunity for a punchy climber with a fast sprint. Strong climbing legs are needed to survive the many climbs and with a mostly flat second part of the stage, a sprint finish from a small group seems to be a realistic outcome.

 

However, history has shown that it is very hard to set up a sprint in this race. In fact, only last year’s race came down to a sprint from a bigger group. Robert Gesink and Peter Sagan have both managed to take solo wins by attacking on the climbs on the final lap while a few riders managed to get clear after the selection had been made on the climbs in 2011 and 2012.

 

A lot of riders want it to come down to a sprint finish from a select group but the past editions have shown that the course is very difficult to control. The climbs cannot be underestimated and usually whittle the group down to 10-15 riders. In such a small group, only a select few are likely to have any teammates at their side and the fast riders could easily be isolated. The long, flat run back to the finish is perfectly suited to attacks and then it all comes down to a combination of timing, legs and luck to make the right move.

 

This year the weather will play a big role. The rainy conditions will make the race harder and the tailwind on the first climb should make it easier to create a bigger selection. However, there will be headwind on the final climb and from there it will be a headwind almost all the way to the finish. This will make it much harder for a single rider to make a solo move or from a smaller group to escape from the select group that is likely to have been formed after the final passage of the main climb.

 

Gesink's and Sagan’s solo performances are likely to be the exception and the other editions are probably more indicative of what we can expect, especially as most of the favourites in this year’s race are pretty fast. A few riders may go clear on the climb but some kind of regrouping is likely to take place on the descent. With domestique resources being limited, the final kilometres will be very difficult to control and the stage could be decided by a late attack as in a typical breakaway stage in a grand tour. Any rider with a fast finish will need teammates or luck to bring it back together for a small group sprint on the uphill finishing straight but with the headwind we are likely to get a sprint. The main question is how many riders will still be left in contention.

 

To sum it up, the first requirements for a contender in this race are very good climbing skills as the Camilien-Houde is so hard that only Ardennes contenders and climbers will have a chance. That whittles the list of contenders significantly down and they can be split into two groups. One group is made up of riders who hope to win a sprint for a select group while the second group is made up of riders who will benefit from the lack of domestiques to go on the attack. As luck plays a crucial role for riders that have made the selection, the outcome may be a bit harder to predict in Montreal than in Quebec where an uphill sprint is more likely.

 

Last year Orica-GreenEDGE managed to control the race firmly and much will again depend on the Australian team. Like last year they have a formidable team at their disposal and they seem to have the firepower to make a similar performance. However, things are a little bit different this time. Last year they had full confidence in Simon Gerrans but this year their fast finisher is Michael Matthews. His condition is a lot more uncertain and even though he is a good climber, he is not as strong as Gerrans. Hence, the Australians may have a different approach and be more willing to join the moves.

 

Furthermore, the line-up is a bit stronger. Apart from a few Vuelta riders, all the best climbers and Ardennes specialists are at the start and most of them will try to make the race hard. With tough weather, we expect it to be a relatively selective edition and we are unlikely to have a big group like last year. With the headwind making a sprint win likely, the winner will probably be one of the best climbers with a fast sprint.

 

Greg Van Avermaet fits the bill perfectly. The Belgian has never really made things right in this race as fourth place in 2013 is his best result. However, the course obviously suits him well. He is mostly known as a rider for the cobbled classics and the reason for his lack of podium finishes in this race is probably the fact that the harder course in Montreal has been less suited to him than the one in Quebec. However, he has improved his climbing massively and nowadays he is one of the very best in the Ardennes terrain. A rider that can nearly win the Clasica San Sebastian has no reason to fear this race.

 

Furthermore Van Avermaet has turned into one of the very best riders for an uphill sprint and this year he even seems to have upped his level a further notch. The way he won the uphill sprint in the Tour de France was no less than impressive and he took a similar win in Tirreno-Adriatico.

 

After the Tour, he has been his usual consistent self. He would probably have won the Clasica San Sebastian if he hadn’t been run down by a motorbike and he was one of the strongest in the Eneco Tour where he again beat the GC riders in an uphill sprint on the Muur in Geraardsbergen. He was fifth in the bunch sprint in Hamburg and he was the best of the attackers in Plouay where he was caught with just 1km to go.

 

Furthermore, Van Avermaet is backed by a very strong team. He will share captaincy duties with former winner Philippe Gilbert but Van Avermaet has clearly been the strongest recently. However, Gilbert’s support could be crucial after the final climb as he can help cover moves from the select group that is likely to have escaped. Meanwhile,  Van Avermaet can wait for the sprint and at the moment, it will be very hard for anyone to beat the most consistent classics rider in the peloton.

 

2015 has been a tough year for Tom-Jelte Slagter who has been far from his best condition all year. However, now his legs have finally started to come around and the way he rode in Alberta where he won two stages, suggests that he is close to the level he had in the 2014 Paris-Nice. Back then he won two stages and was unbeatable in the uphill sprints. In fact, he would probably have won the race if he had not had bad luck in the hardest stage.

 

Slagter will go into this race with lots of confidence after his recent showing and he is clearly strong enough to make the selection. In fact, the harder course should only make it even better for him than the race in Quebec which could come down to a sprint from a bigger group. He will be very confident in his chances in this kind of uphill sprint so if he can keep it together in the finale, he will be one of the favourites.

 

Trek go into this race with a two-pronged attack. Fabio Felline and Bauke Mollema have both shown impressive condition. While the course in Quebec is clearly better for Felline, the route in Montreal should put the two riders more on an equal footing. The Italian is enjoying a breakthrough season and has already taken one WorldTour win in Pais Vasco. Most recently he won the GP de Fourmies with a late attack and that result comes at the end of a long period with strong showings. He was in the top 10 in the Eneco Tour where he proved that he can follow the best in the Ardennes terrain and he rode aggressively in both Hamburg and Plouay. His performance in the Eneco Tour proves that he should be able to stay with the best even on this harder course even though he has never really shined in the Ardennes. If he makes the selection, he will have Mollema to cover the moves and then be ready to use his lethal sprint in the uphill drag to the line which suits him down to the ground.

 

Etixx-QuickStep also have a two-pronged attack with Michal Kwiatkowski and Julian Alaphilippe. 2015 has been a bad year for the world champion who has not been at his best. As opposed to this, Alaphilippe has enjoyed a breakthrough and he even skipped the Vuelta to do these races as his team feel that he has a chance to win. He doesn’t seem to have the condition he had in the spring but he has still been one of the strongest on the climbs in the Eneco Tour and Plouay where he was part of a late move. That should make him strong enough to make the selection in this race. If Kwiatkowski is back to his best, the pair will have to decide on a preferred sprinter but if he can get an in-form world champion as a lead-out man, he will be a contender in the uphill sprint.

 

The Amstel Gold Race clearly proved that Michael Matthews has no reason to fear this kind of race and if he had been in the same condition, he would have been our favourite to win the race. However, he has had a complicated preparation for this race as he suffered through the Tour de France with broken ribs and has been in recovery mode for a long time. He had a successful return in the Tour of Alberta where he won a stage but he was unable to follow the best climbers. At the moment, we expect this race to be too hard for him. However, the climbs are shorter than the ones in Alberta and with more racing in his legs, he can definitely not be ruled out. If he makes the selection, he will clearly be the fastest.

 

Lotto Soudal have one of the best teams for this race. While the condition of Tony Gallopin and Tim Wellens is questionable, Tiesj Benoot is clearly flying. The Belgian has firmly established himself as one of the biggest classics talents. He first shone on the cobbles but the Dauphiné and the recent races proved that he can also match the best in the harder terrain. Most recently, he was part of the late move in Plouay. As he has never tested himself in the Ardennes classics, it is an open question whether this course is too hard for him but based on his performance in the Eneco Tour he will definitely have a chance to make the selection and make use of his good sprint.

 

Nowadays, Matti Breschel rarely reaches his best condition in the spring but when we get closer to the Worlds, he is always flying. That seems to be the case in 2015 too. He was very strong in the Tour of Denmark but unfortunately we never got the chance to see what he could do in the Eneco Tour as he crashed out of that race. However, he was already back on top in Plouay where he launched a strong solo attack on the final climb. The Dane has had mixed experiences in the very hard races and he has never really had a go at the Ardennes. However, if he has the condition he had at last year’s Worlds, he will be able to go with the best and he has the sprint to finish it off.

 

Diego Ulissi looms as very strong contender. At his best, the Italian is very hard to beat in this kind of uphill sprint but his form is not at his best. He was good in Poland and looked strong in the Eneco Tour until he had a hunger flat in the queen stage. He went on the attack in Hamburg but was unable to follow the best attacks in Plouay. To win this race, an improvement is needed but as he aims for the Worlds, that is not impossible. If he is there for the sprint, he will be one of the biggest favourites.

 

Tony Gallopin is tailor-made for this race and if he had been in the Tour de France condition, he would have been an obvious favourite. However, he has done very little racing since the Tour and he was not at his best in Plouay. It remains to be seen whether his condition is good enough to go for glory in such a hard race but if he is, he is obviously one of the fastest in this kind of sprint. It is no coincidence that he was third in last year’s race. While it is probably a good idea to ride for Benoot in Quebec, the harder course in Montreal may tip the balance in favour of Gallopin.

 

Matthews is not the only Orica-GreenEDGE card. The Australian team also have lots of confidence in Michael Albasini. The Swiss crashed out of the Tour but seems to be back in good condition. He was active in Hamburg and a leadership role in this race indicates that his form is not too bad. He has won bunch sprints in the past and is tailor-made for these uphill sprints but will only get his chance if it is too hard for Matthews. With this course being harder, there is a bigger chance that he will be allowed to play his own card. The only issue is whether he is already in a sufficient condition to go with the best.

 

Bauke Mollema recently won the Tour of Alberta and proved that he is ready for these races which are big goals for him. He is clearly one of the best on the climbs and he is explosive too. While the course in Quebec is a bit too easy for him, this race suits him a lot better. Furthermore, there is a bigger chance that it will be too hard for his teammate Felline which will give more opportunities to take his own chances. He is fast in an uphill sprint and even though there are faster riders than him, he will have a solid chance if he can get clear with a few riders in the finale.

 

We are very curious to see how Michal Kwiatkowski will do in this race. The world champion has had a disastrous year and only the win in Amstel Gold Race can make up for that. He rode poorly in the Tour aand recently he had a very bad Tour de Pologne. He looked much better when he returned to racing in the weekend but it hard to gauge his condition based on those relatively easy races. On paper, these races suit him down to the ground as he is very fast in an uphill sprint and one of the best on such climbs. However, as he is also set to change teams he may have to ride in support of Alaphilippe.

 

Rui Costa has always been very strong in this race which was part of the foundation for his Worlds win in 2013. He is a former winner and was on the podium last year. He had to abandon the Tour and only returned to racing in Plouay so his condition is uncertain. However, he has always gone into these races with limited racing and that has not prevented him from doing well. He is strong on short climbs and fast in an uphill sprint. Of course several riders are faster than him but history shows that this race is more about attrition than explosiveness and this has always served him well.

 

The LottoNL-Jumbo pair of Wilco Kelderman and Robert Gesink deserve a mention. Gesink is a former winner of both the Canadian races and has always been strong here. This year he is back to his best but it remains to be seen how he is doing as he hasn’t been racing since he abandoned the Tour de Pologne. Wilco Kelderman is suited to this course too as he is also fast in an uphill sprint. He was good in the Eneco Tour but hasn’t raced since so it remains to be seen how he is doing. Both riders should have a bigger chance here than in Quebec and if they both make the selection, they can attack in turns.

 

This is one of the few hilly one-day races that Philippe Gilbert hasn’t won, not even in 2011. In the last few races, he has been strong but it has been evident that Van Avermaet is one step ahead. Hence, he will probably have to play a support role but he still has a chance. If a small group escapes in the finale, he could be the one to cover moves and if he escapes with a few riders, his sprint will make him very dangerous on the uphill finishing straight.

 

If the course turns out to be too hard for both Matthews and Albasini, Orica-GreenEDGE will play the cards of the Yates brothers. As Simon wasn’t very strong in Plouay and Adam was riding well in Alberta, the latter is probably their best card. His win in San Sebastian proves that he is able to win these races and this one suits him well too. He has a decent sprint but he won’t win a sprint from a bigger group. However, if he can escape with a few riders in the finale, he can finish it off.

 

Alexander Kristoff is the big name on the Katusha roster but this course is way too hard for him. Instead, the team will focus on their climbers and the name of Ilnur Zakarin stands out. The Russian has been riding very well in recent races and we were actually pretty surprised that he played a support role in Alberta as he seemed to be the strongest rider. He is more of a stage race specialist than a classics rider but he has the skills to do well on this hard course. Furthermore, he is reasonably fast in a sprint.

 

Ag2r have a few cards to play. Jan Bakelants, Romain Bardet and Alexis Vuillermoz are all good enough to make the selection in the finale. Bakelants is always in good condition but it remains to be seen how the two Frenchmen are doing. Bardet has done a bit of racing but Vuillermoz hasn’t raced for a long time. However, it is the latter who has the best chance to win the race as he is the fastest in a sprint even though he would have preferred a much harder uphill finish.

 

Usually, we would say that this course is way too hard for Sep Vanmarcke, especially with the kind of climbers that are at the start. However, he made the selection in last year’s race and now he is in excellent condition as he proved in Poitou-Charentes and Plouay where he was very strong in the finale. We still things that it will be a bit too much for him but with his current condition nothing is impossible.

 

Finally, Tim Wellens deserves a mention. The Belgian was impressive in the Eneco Tour and if he had been in the same kind of condition, he would have been a big contender. However, he didn’t have the same kind of form in Plouay where he was dropped from a break in the finale. Furthermore, there are lots of riders that are faster than him even though he has a decent sprint. On the other hand, aggression often pays off in this race and he possesses that in abundance.

 

***** Greg Van Avermaet

**** Tom Jelte-Slagter, Fabio Felline

*** Julian Alaphilippe, Michael Matthews, Tiesj Benoot, Matti Breschel, Diego Ulissi, Tony Gallopin, Michael Albasini, Bauke Mollema

** Michal Kwiatkowski, Rui Costa, Wilco Kelderman, Robert Gesink, Philippe Gilbert, Adam Yates, Ilnur Zakarin, Alexis Vuillermoz, Sep Vanmarcke, Tim Wellens

* Jan Bakelants, Simon Yates, Michael Woods, Rigoberto Uran, Ion Izagirre, Warren Barguil, Romain Bardet, Jonathan Castroviejo, Marc Soler, Sergey Lagutin, Simon Spilak, Roman Kreuziger, Jakob Fuglsang, Alexey Lutsenko, Tanel Kangert, Simon Geschke, Arthur Vichot, Davide Formolo, Ramunas Navardauskas

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