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23.08.2015 @ 15:00 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Most of the high-level German cycling races have disappeared in a cloud of doping suspicion but the big European country still has one event on the finest calendar. The Vattenfall Cyclassics offers the sprinters a rare chance to go for glory in a WorldTour one-day race but don't be fooled by the seemingly flat nature of the course. The Waseberg, a 15% ramp in Western Hamburg, has to be tackled 4 times in the final part and threatens to ruin the race for any sprinter who hasn't turned on his climbing legs. On the other hand, classics specialists are on the outlook for chances to foil the sprinters' plans in what is usually an aggressive and high-speed finale.

 

Germany once had a very rich cycling calendar with numerous week-long stage races and a couple of high-level one-day races. Bayern Rundfahrt, Hessen Rundfahrt, Sachsen Tour, Niedersachsen Rundfahrt and Rheinland-Pfalz Rundfahrt were just some of the races that joined up with the national Deutschland Tour and one-day races like HEW Cyclassics (now Vattenfall Cyclassics), Rund um den Henninger Turm (now Escborn Frankfurt City Loop), Rund um Köln and Rund um die Braunkohle to form a rich and diverse cycling scene.

 

No other country has been more affected by the massive doping suspicion than Germany which is now left with very few events to showcase its many fine cycling talents. The race in Bayern is now the only top-level stage race in the country while the Frankfurt and Köln one-day races are in a constant survival battle. A new race has been established in Berlin but it is a rare occurrence in a country which has had news of cancelled races almost every year.

 

However, one race appears to be largely unaffected by the dramatic turbulence in Germany. Despite its short history, the Vattenfall Cyclassics has established itself firmly on the WorldTour calendar as one of the biggest one-day races in the late summer and combines the elite race with a cyclosportif event which has developed into one of the largest and most popular in Europe. On a big Sunday in August, the race gathers thousands of amateurs who test themselves on the same roads that form the scene of one of the biggest bike races in the world.

 

Held in the Northern city of Hamburg, the race was created in 1996 and set to take place in one of the flattest parts of Germany. At that point, German cycling was at an all-time high with Jan Ullrich winning the Tour de France one year later and Erik Zabel dominating the points competition several years in a row. Ullrich honoured his home-event by taking the win during his Tour-winning season and just one year later, the new event had made the big step onto the calendar of the finest one-day races: the World Cup.

 

It remained part of that series until its demise at the end of the 2004 season and was immediately included on the ProTour from the start of the next season. It has remained part of cycling's top calendar ever since and is an important late-season event for the sprinters.

 

The area around Hamburg is dead-flat and the terrain offers very few opportunities for a selective bike race. What makes the race tougher than most other flat races is the 221.3km distance and the race's landmark climb. The 800m, 15% Waseberg is a short ramp in Western Hamburg that spices up the race finale. As is common in most bike races, the organizers have tried to make the race more selective by gradually adding more passages of the steep slopes and in the last few years, the sprinters will have to survive the climb four times - the last one just 15.5km from the finish - to get a chance to go for glory in the high-speed finale on Mönckebergstrasse in central Hamburg. However, the 2015 edition bucks the trend as the distance has been shortened and one passage of the Waseberg has been removed.

 

The Waseberg and the distance mean that the race is not one for every kind of sprinter. Only the toughest in the business have a chance to win Germany's biggest one-day race and it is no coincidence that no more than 30 riders finished in the same time as the winner in 2011 and 2012. Constant attacks have traditionally been  launched up the Waseberg in what is usually an uncontrollable finale and it requires a dedicated effort from the sprint teams to bring it back together for what is usually a confusing sprint.

 

Many have tried to foil the sprinters but few have had success. Alessandro Ballan was the most recent attacker to prevail in Hamburg in 2007 and before that we have to go all the way back to the 2003 edition when an in-form Jan Ullrich blew the race to pieces on the Waseberg, only for Paolo Bettini take the win from a small breakaway. The seven most recent editions have all finished in sprints with Robbie McEwen, Tyler Farrar (twice), Edvald Boasson Hagen, Arnaud Demare, John Degenkolb and Alexandre Kristoff coming out on top.

 

Originally, the race was held just one week after the end of the Tour de France and so attracted many of the in-form Tour sprinters. In recent years, the race has been rescheduled to the weekend of the Vuelta start, with the Clasica San Sebastian taking over its former slot and benefiting from the in-form Tour climbers. Surprisingly, it seems that the new slot has boosted the start list. In the past, the sprinters were often too tired after three weeks of survival. Nowadays they have had several weeks of rest and this means that the start list includes almost every sprinter that is not at the Vuelta. The competition from the Spanish grand tour is limited as its mountainous course means that only a select few fast finishers have travelled to Spain for the grand tour.

 

Now Vattenfall Cyclassics kicks off an important series of European autumn classics that suit the same kind of riders and also include the hillier GP Plouay and the Brussels Cycling Classic (formerly Paris-Bruxelles). Combined with the Eneco Tour which often fields many of the same riders, those races give sprinters and classics specialists many opportunities to go for all-important points in the late summer and early autumn and as the Vuelta offers very few sprint finishes, most of them focus on this block of racing in Northern Europe. With this year’s Worlds course suiting this kind of riders, this block has only become even more important in 2015.

 

Last year Alexander Kristoff confirmed his status as the leading classics sprinter by adding the Vattenfall Cyclassics to his victory in Milan-Sanremo a few weeks earlier. Fresh off a successful Tour de France that had seen him take two stage wins in the final part of the race, he was one of the first 10 riders to crest the summit of Waseberg with 15km to go but found himself up against Marcel Kittel and Mark Cavendish who had also both made the selection. More riders joined them before the sprint and here the Norwegian beat Giacomo Nizzolo and Simon Gerrans while Kittel and Cavendish had to settle for minor positions. Kristoff will be back to defend his title while Nizzolo, Kittel and Cavendish will also give it another go. However, Gerrans will be absent as he is trying to save a poor season in the Vuelta.

 

The course

With very few topographical challenges in the area around Hamburg, it is no wonder that the Vattenfall Cyclassics is a race for sprinters. As the race is set to finish in the city centre which is dead-flat, it is even harder for the organizers to put together a tougher race that can produce a selection. Luckily, the short, steep Waseberg is located not too far from the finish line and the ascent has become the race’s landmark climb. As said, the organizers have tried to toughen up the course by adding more passages of the feared climb but so far the change hasn't been enough to prevent a sprint finish. However, it has had a clear effect on the toughness of the race as we have seen some rather small groups arriving at the finish for the sprint in most of the recent editions.

 

After a few years where the organizers tried to change things a bit to find their best formula for the race, they now seem to have found the ideal course which has not been changed for a couple of years. The last three years have had almost identical courses but this year the organizers have introduced a novelty. Instead of the traditional start in Hamburg, the riders will take off from Köln which means that the distance has been shortened from 247.2km to 221.3km. Hence, the flat opening part of the race has been changed and the finale has been modified too as one passage of the Waseberg will be skipped, meaning that the riders will just have to do the climb thrice.

 

The 221.3km race kicks off in Köln which is located much further north. Traditionally the race has kicked off with a big, flat loop in the area just south of Hamburg before they have headed to the western outskirts to do the Waseberg several times. This year the opening part will consist of a long southerly run from Köln to Hamburg. However, the terrain is equally flat so it won’t change the racing much. This is usually the scene for the creation of an early breakaway. As soon as the day's escape has been created, the race settles into a steady rhythm with the group getting a rather large gap and the sprint teams keeping everything under control. The main purpose of this early section is to build up the distance and accumulate fatigue in the riders' legs. If it’s windy, the race can be nervous but otherwise, it will pan out as a traditional sprint race.

 

Traditionally the riders have returned to the centre of Hamburg before doing a lap of a circuit on the western outskirts with the Waseberg. This year the riders will approach the city from the west and hit that well-known circuit when they reach the Elbe river that passes through the city centre. Here they will tackle the Waseberg for the first time with 68.9km to go which is much later than usual and from here they will follow the traditional route back to the finish line which they will cross for the first time with 53.4km to go. We may see an attack be launched at this point but don't expect to see any of the potential race winners make a move this early in the race. It is also likely that a few teams will try to ride tempo up the climb to make the race as hard as possible for the likes of Marcel Kittel.

 

 

In the past, the riders have done another full lap of the circuit but this has now been skipped, meaning that they will have had an extra passage of the Waseberg. Now they will tackle the final 53.4km of last year’s course which are unchanged.

 

They riders will do the small city loop to head back along the Elbe to a small circuit that includes the Waseberg. T Itis 12.6km long and mostly flat but includes the climb as a cruel challenge. The race will now be in its finale and the pace kept extremely high as there will be a fierce battle for positions during the run-in to the climb for the penultimate time. The riders will do two laps on the circuit and pass the climb with 28.3km and 15.5km remaining.

 

This is where the race really kicks into life. Usually, the early break has been reeled in or is now within shouting distance and it is now time for the classics riders to make their marks. They may attack on the Waseberg itself but very often the best time to launch a move comes just after the top when everybody is on their limit.

 

Usually, a small group forms after each passage of the climb and it now takes a little time for the sprint teams to get reorganized. It requires a determined effort from the them to keep the breaks under control while the sprinters themselves have to dig deep to not get dropped on the climb.

 

Having finished the 2nd lap on the circuit, the riders speed along flat roads on the shores of the river back to the centre. This is often the scene of a hectic pursuit where the peloton desperately tries to reel in the late attackers. However, the roads are completely flat and not very technical, clearly favouring the peloton over the escapees who also have to try to figure out how to beat their companions.

 

The final turn is located 2km from the finish and from there it's a flat run down a big road to the line on the famous Mönckebergstrasse. The usual sprint is not your typical bunch sprint as domestique resources are limited at the end of a long, hard race. Anarchy rules and luck and positioning are crucial as no team can expect to give their sprinter a perfect lead-out. Many riders have seen their dreams vanish when they were boxed in and it is not always the fastest sprinter that wins the Vattenfall Cyclassics.

 

 

The weather

Held in Northern Germany, the race can be marked by wind and rain but sometimes the riders have had very unusual conditions for the race. Three years ago the race was done under extremely hot conditions which turned it into a real race of attrition. Due to the relatively easy course, the weather plays a huge role in determining the toughness of the race.

 

It is currently great summer weather in Northern Europe and it will be no different on Sunday which is forecasted to be a sunny day. The temperature in Hamburg will reach a maximum of 24 degrees and there is no chance that a shower will make the finale wet.

 

There will be a moderate wind from an easterly direction which means that the riders will mainly have a crosswind or a cross-tailwind during their long run from Köln to Kiel. In the finale , there will be a tailwind on the way from the city centre to the Waseberg while there will be a headwind on the climb and during the run back to the finish. The Mönckebergstrasse has a number of sweeping bends in the finale but it will mainly be a headwind sprint.

 

The favourites

In theory, the Waseberg offers the perfect launch pad for a late attack and in a race of 220km with two late passages of such a steep ascent, it may be a bit of a surprise that the sprinters have dominated things as much as they have. The inclusion of more passages of the climb has whittled down the size of the peloton but it hasn’t prevented the sprinters from ruling in Hamburg.

 

However, the race’s reputation as a sprint race has made the bunch sprint a self-fulfilling prophecy. No teams go to this race without a sprinter on their roster and everybody is prepared for a sprint finish. Several teams go into the race with the only plan being a bunch sprint. A lot of teams plan to go on the attack but as they have a sprinter as a back-up, they are keen to lend a hand to the chase if they miss the breaks in the finale. That means that several teams are usually willing to do the work and this makes it virtually impossible to avoid the bunch sprint. Furthermore, they only know whether their sprinter has made the selection when they have crested the summit and at that point it is too late to change things.

 

This year it is unlikely to be any different and a number of aspects mean that we may see an even bigger bunch sprinting for the win. First of all there’s the shorter distance. At a first glance, a reduction of 20km doesn’t mean much but in such a long race, it can make a massive difference. Secondly, there’s one less passage of the Waseberg and even though the first encounter with the climb traditionally came with more than 100km to go, it will inevitably make the race easier.

 

More importantly, the weather usually has to be pretty horrific to change the scenario. This year it will be a sunny day with little change that the wind will do some damage as it will mainly be a head- or a tailwind in the finale. Much to the frustration of the attackers, there will be a headwind on both the climb and the run back to the finish, meaning that it will be much harder to make a difference.

 

Finally, almost all the big sprinters are in the race and Katusha, Giant-Alpecin, Etixx-QuickStep, Lotto Soudal and FDJ will all be going all out for a sprint finish. Only a select few teams like BMC have a real desire to blow the race apart but they will have a hard time against the big sprint teams.

 

The fact that Marcel Kittel lines up in this year’s race may change the dynamics slightly. Everybody wants to drop the big German before they get to the finish in Hamburg and this means that teams like Katusha, Orica-GreenEDGE, Lotto Soudal and FDJ will maybe try to make things hard. With the nice weather conditions, it won’t be easy but they may try to apply some pressure earlier on.

 

On paper, Kittel is the fastest rider in the race but the sprint in Vattenfall Cyclassics is not your usual bunch kick. Coming at the end of almost 220km, it has traditionally been more suited to classics riders. This year the easier course should tip the balance more towards the pure sprinters though and the race could come down to a traditional bunch sprint.

 

Last year it was Marcel Kittel who went into this race after having dominated the Tour de France. This year it was André Greipel who crushed the opposition in the French race which he left with four stage wins. For many years, he has been the best German sprinter but for some reason he has never won his big home race. He has finished on the podium thrice and in 2012 and 2013 he was runner-up. He has taken lots of victories in his long career but apart from two wins in the Brussels Cycling Classic, he has taken no big classics win.

 

Last year Greipel went into the race on the back of a bad build-up as he had been forced to abandon the Eneco Tour with illness. This year the situation is completely different. The Dutch/Belgian race was a big success for him as he came away with a stage win and the points jersey. However, it was his performance in the final classics stages that really caught the attention. In the mini Amstel Gold Race he looked like the strongest rider in the entire race when he made the important attack on the penultimate climb that allowed his team leader Tim Wellens to gain important seconds after Greipel had been setting the pace for most of the final part to keep the peloton at bay.

 

That performance made up for some slightly disappointing sprints. In the first sprint, he was unable to keep up with his teammates and so found himself out of position. Hence, he had to start his sprint from too far out and was easily passed by Elia Viviani. In the third stage, he was again poorly positioned and was never really in the mix. He managed to win stage 2 but on that day the lead-out was so impressive that Greipel barely had to sprint.

 

It is no wonder that Greipel no longer has the outstanding speed that he had in the Tour. He missed one week of training due to a knee injury but he clearly used the stage race to get back into the racing rhythm. He seemed to get stronger and stronger and he now seems to go into his home classics in great condition.

 

With those climbing legs, Greipel would definitely have hoped for a harder race. Now he could find himself up against a fresh Kittel in the finale and so we will finally get a chance to see who the fastest sprinter in Germany – and in the world - is. However, Greipel has a very important weapon in his arsenal: his lead-out train. The Lotto Soudal train has been the best for a couple of years. They haven’t had the chance to show it in the Tour as Greg Henderson has crashed out early two years in a row but in the Eneco Tour they again proved that they have the power to completely dominate the sprint.

 

In this race, Greipel has the full train of Sieberg-Roelandts-Henderson at his disposal and he can also rely on Jens Debusschere who strengthened the team significantly in the Eneco Tour. It remains to be seen if they will all be there in the finale but there is little doubt that the in-form Sieberg and Debusschere will make the selection. Roelandts has had some health issues and Henderson is coming back from injury but with a relatively easy race, there is a big chance that Greipel will have the full train at his disposal. If that’s the case he is very likely to be delivered on the front and if that’s the case, Kittel is probably the only rider with the speed to come around.

 

We are very curious to see how Marcel Kittel will do in this race. Last year he tried it for the first time since 2012. Many had expected it to be too hard for him but he impressed as he was among the first 30 riders at the top of the Waseberg in the finale but in the end he could only manage sixth in the sprint.

 

This year Kittel goes into the race with a much different build-up. With a virus taking its toll, he has barely done any racing in 2015 and he seemed to have lost the motivation when he wasn’t selected for the Tour. However, he bounced back with a solid ride when he made his comeback in the Tour de Pologne where he proved to be the fastest rider. He won stage 1 and only bad luck prevented him from winning stage 2.

 

However, a very small climb in stage 3 was enough to take him out of contention for that sprint and this indicates that he is still not climbing at his best. The Vattenfall Cyclassics is a lot harder than the sprint stages in Poland so he could find himself in difficulty on the finale. On the other hand, his condition has definitely improved since then and the conditions are there for an easy race. Giant-Alpecin are going all in for a sprint with Kittel and this indicates that he is riding well.

 

We still believe that Kittel is the fastest sprinter in the world and he will be hugely motivated to prove so. With Ramon Sinkeldam, Bert De Backer, Nikias Arndt and Roy Curvers at his side, he has a solid lead-out train. However, he is missing key riders Koen De Kort and Tom Veelers and this combination hasn’t worked much together. This could make things difficult for Kittel who is also likely to be fatigued in the finale. Nonetheless, the train should still be one of the strongest and with an easy race on the cards, the fastest rider is always going to be a big threat.

 

Mark Cavendish had a hugely frustrating Tour de France. He managed to win a single stage but the race proved that Greipel was a lot faster than the Brit. He is now aiming for revenge in Hamburg which is a big one-day race that is still missing from his palmares. In fact he has only done the race once and came away with fifth in his debut twelve months ago.

 

Back then it marked his comeback after his Tour de France crash but this time he should find himself in a much better position. Since the Tour he has done the RideLondon Classic and had a successful return to the track and now it is time to aim big in the German one-day race.

 

Cavendish may no longer have the speed of Greipel and Kittel but he has a very strong team to support him. Tom Boonen, Fabio Sabatini, Mark Renshaw and a returning Tony Martin will be on hand for the lead-out and there is a chance that it will be enough to go up against the Lotto Soudal train. The easy course should do nothing to challenge an in-form Cavendish who has often proved that he has a solid sprint at the end of a long race. If Etixx-QuickStep can nail the lead-out it could be revenge time for Cavendish.

 

Last year Alexander Kristoff was unstoppable at this time of the year and after he excellent Tour he was the natural favourite for this race. He lived up to expectations in the final sprint and this year he is again one of the big candidates. However, the Norwegian is not as strong as he was 12 months ago. He missed his usual speed in the Tour de France which he left empty-handed and even though he won a sprint in the Arctic Race of Norway he was firmly beaten by Sam Bennett in stage 2.

 

Furthermore, the easier course doesn’t suit Kristoff. He is better than everyone else at sprinting at the end of races of attrition but this year it could come down to a traditional bunch sprint which will make things much harder. On the other hand, he can rely on Marco Haller and Jacopo Guarnieri to lead him out and if one adds Alexander Porsev and Rudiger Selig to the equation, there is much firepower in the Katusha team. They dominated the lead-outs in the Tour and if they can again deliver Kristoff on the front, it won’t be impossible to defend the title.

 

Elia Viviani goes into the race with lots of confidence. He beat Greipel in the sprint on stage 1 of the Eneco Tour and was the fastest in the final sprint too. It has always been evident that the Italian has an impressive top speed but he usually loses a bit of power towards the end of stage races. Hence, it is a bit of a surprise that he has not had more success in one-day races but he definitely has the speed to win this kind of race. With Andrew Fenn, Bernhard Eisel and Ben Swift for the lead-out, Sky have proved that they can position their sprinter in the hectic finales and Viviani should benefit from the easier race. He is unlikely to start his sprint from the best position but if he is not too far back, he has the speed to win.

 

Arnaud Demare is a former winner of this race which is one of his big goals in the second part of the season. Last year he had bad luck to puncture out of the lead group and this ended a complicated build-up that saw him come out of the Tour very fatigued. This year he starts the race in a much better situation as he was riding strongly in France and got very close to a stage win in the Eneco Tour. In the final stage of that race, he rode very strongly on the cobbles so the condition and the speed is evidently there. However, he doesn’t have the best lead-out at his disposal and is again likely to have to start his sprint from too far back or never get a gap to go full gas. He will hope for a selective race which is unlikely due to the good conditions.

 

Sam Bennett goes into the race as a very strong outsider. The Irishman had to abandon the Tour with illness and didn’t expect much from his comeback race in Norway. However, he beat Kristoff in stage 2 and was third in the very hard uphill sprint on stage 1. Furthermore, he rode a very aggressive race in the very hard final stage and proved that he is much more than a pure sprinter. With this kind of form, he should be relatively fresh at the end of this big classic and he has proved that he has the speed to beat the world elite. The Bora-Argon 18 lead-out is solid but they will have a hard time against the best teams in this race. Bennett won’t be able to start the sprint from the front but if he can get into a good position, a surprise could be in store.

 

This race has always been one of the biggest goals for Giacomo Nizzolo who came very close in 2014 when he finished second behind Kristoff. He will be eager to do better this time, especially after he was left frustrated in both the Eneco Tour and the Tour de Pologne. Both races proved that he is sprinting well but he missed the last bit to win the race. In this race, he misses the van Poppel brothers and Stuyven for the lead-out and will have to rely on Fabio Felline, Marco Coledan and Eugenio Alafaci. We doubt that Coledan will be there in the end so he will come up short against the best trains. He is usually very good at positioning himself but it is probably not enough to beat all the top sprinters in this race.

 

IAM go into the race with several fast finishers but Sondre Holst Enger is probably still too young to win such a big race while Heinrich Haussler is no longer fast enough. Instead, their best card is Jonas Van Genechten who has been riding very strongly since he took his first win at the Tour de Wallonie. He proved his speed in the first stage of the Eneco Tour but in general he missed out due to poor positioning. On paper, he has a great lead-out and if he can get into the right position he should be able to do well.

 

Moreno Hofland was hugely frustrated after the Eneco Tour as he was never in contention in the sprints. However, he showed in the Limburg stage that he is in great condition. Hence, he will regret the nice weather conditions and the easier course as he could really have benefited from a harder race. He doesn’t have the speed or the lead-out to win a full-on bunch sprint with all the best riders so he will hope for some selection. If that’s the case, he will be able to benefit from his good condition.

 

Edvald Boasson Hagen is a former winner of this race and his recent performances in Denmark and Norway prove that he is in great condition. However, he is no longer as fast as he once was and the time when he can win this kind of big bunch sprint is probably over. Gerald Ciolek has proved to be a valuable lead-out man and on paper he should be able to benefit from a strong train. However, a win is probably only possible if the race becomes much harder than things suggest.

 

Lampe-Merida can count on Davide Cimolai and Niccolo Bonifazio. The latter has shown great condition recently, especially in the Tour de Pologne where he did some very good sprints. He was fifth in Milan-Sanremo and climbing really well in the Arctic Race of Norway so he has proved that he can handle a hard race. He is unlikely to get that and even though he is fast, he needs a lot of luck to win a pure bunch sprint.

 

Juan Jose Lobato looms as an outsider. The Spaniard had a terrible Tour de Pologne and Eneco Tour where he was never in contention in the sprints and decided to work for teammate Jose Joaquin Rojas. In this race he will be the protected sprinter but as usual he will probably never get a real chance to sprint. He positions himself extremely poorly and doesn’t have a lead-out train. There is no doubt that he has an impressive speed but to win this race he needs a smaller field of a lot of luck.

 

With a headwind, it will be almost impossible to prevent a sprint finish but look out for Greg Van Avermaet, Philippe Gilbert, Simon Geschke, Julian Alaphilippe, Ben Hermans, Simon Yates, Jesus Herrada, Ruben Fernandez, Lars Boom, Andriy Grivko, Sep Vanmarcke, Tom-Jelte Slagter, Dylan van Baarle and Fabio Felline to animate things in the finale.

 

***** André Greipel

**** Marcel Kittel, Mark Cavendish

*** Alexander Kristoff, Elia Viviani, Arnaud Demare, Sam Bennett

** Giacomo Nizzolo, Jonas Van Genechten, Andrea Guardini, Moreno Hofland, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Niccolo Bonifazio, Juan Jose Lobato

* Tom Boonen, Heinrich Haussler, Magnus Cort, Borut Bozic, Matti Breschel, Ramon Sinkeldam, Nikias Arndt, Davide Cimolai, Samuel Dumoulin, Leigh Howard, Jens Debusschere, Ben Swift, Silvan Dillier, Michael Carbel, Sondre Holst Enger, Sebastien Turgot, Rick Zabel, Enrique Sanz, Greg Van Avermaet, Philippe Gilbert, Simon Geschke, Julian Alaphilippe, Jesus Herrada, Simon Yates, Lars Boom, Sep Vanmarcke, Fabio Felline

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