As the road cycling at the Olympics comes to a close, the attention slowly turns to the Vuelta a Espana and the final series of preparation races that are held throughout Europe during the week. One of them is the Arctic Race of Norway which has blossomed as part of the general cycling boom in Norway and with ASO as a key part of the organization has established itself as a key event in the August schedule with a formidable field that gets stronger and stronger from year to year.
The Vuelta a Espana contenders can usually be divided into two groups. The first group consists of riders that have done the Tour de France. For those riders, the weeks between the two grand tours are all about recovery and apart from a potential start at the Clasica San Sebastian, there is usually no room for any racing in the first part of August. For the rest of the contenders, these weeks are a crucial part of the preparation as it is usually the time to fine-tune the condition by doing a small race after a heavy block of training.
Every grand tour is preceded by a number of stage races that serve as the perfect warm-up for the three-week race. The Tour de Romandie, Tour of Turkey and Giro del Trentino are known as the places to prepare for the Giro while the Criterium du Dauphiné, Tour de Suisse, Route du Sud, Ster ZLM Toer and Tour de Slovenie mean that there are a lot of potential options in the build-up for the Tour. It is no different for the Vuelta whose traditional key preparation race has been the Vuelta a Burgos. In recent years, the Tour de Pologne has become the preferred option but there are a number of alternatives to the races in Burgos and Poland.
The Eneco Tour and the Tour de l’Ain has been key events for a number of years but in recent year, they have all had tough competition from the new Arctic Race of Norway. Several years ago, Tour de France organizers ASO spoke about their desire to host a bike race further north than any other race as part of their ever-growing portfolio of cycling events. With the big cycling boom in Norway, the interest from the local authorities was evident and the two parties came together to organize the inaugural edition of the Arctic Race of Norway in 2013. Local hero Thor Hushovd won the race which was a huge success and since then it has established itself as a treasured event on the August calendar.
The Arctic Race of Norway is one of several Norwegian races that have been created in the last few years. The country has always had a number of one-day races and several continental teams but with Thor Hushovd’s success, cycling has gained a huge popularity in the country and this has initiated a real cycling boom. He has passed on the baton to Edvald Boasson Hagen, Alexander Kristoff and Lars Petter Nordhaug and recently Sondre Holst Enger has also emerged as one of the future top stars. The public interest has reached new heights and cycling is now one of the most popular sports in the country. As a result, the race calendar has been expanded considerably. The Tour of Norway was the first top level race to be created and soon after both the Arctic Race of Norway and the Tour des Fjords have been added. Hence, the Scandinavian country is now one of the select few to have three world class stages races on the schedule.
What really distinguishes the Arctic Race of Norway from the other two races is the engagement of ASO. The level of professionalism of the Tour de France organizers is huge and this has made the race extremely popular right from the beginning. After the first edition which was dominated by the local heroes and geared towards sprinters, the field has become stronger and stronger and more international. At the same, the course has been made hillier and it has been more geared towards puncheurs and climbers.
This year the level of the race has reached new heights. No less than 11 of the 18 WorldTour teams will be in attendance and many of the best classics riders and sprinters have been attracted by a race that offers them a lot of opportunities. They will be joined by seven pro continental teams but there is also left room for the many Norwegian continental teams that have traditionally done very well in these races and for whom this race is one of the three big highlights.
The second main characteristic of the race is its geography. Never before has a race been hosted so close to the North Pole and this year two of the four stages will take place north of the Polar Circle. The terrain and nature in the area is absolutely stunning and one of the main purposes of the race is to promote the area as a tourist destination. Many riders have also been very fond of doing the race to visit a completely unique part of the world.
As said, the race has changed its nature after the first edition which was for strong sprinters. The last two editions have still had its fair share of sprint stages but the race has also included a big summit finish. This has made it impossible for the sprinters to go for victory and the races have been won by Steven Kruijswijk and Rein Taaramae respectively. The rest of the stages are still suited to fast guys but as there aren’t many flat roads in this part of Norway, it’s not the obvious race for a pure sprinter. Instead, it has been a happy hunting ground for strong guys like local hero Alexander Kristoff.
Last year Taaramae won the race after a dramatic final stage. Ben Hermans had won the queen stage and seemed to be on track for an overall victory until a puncture took him out of contention in the final stage. Taaramae went on the attack and secured victory ahead of Silvan Dillier and his teammate Ilnur Zakarin.
After the sprint race in 2013, the race has usually had one big summit finish and three stages that have mostly been geared towards sprinters. However, last year’s edition was a bit harder as a tough circuit in Narvik on the final day meant that the race was split in two, with two days for the fast guys and two days for the GC riders. This year the race is back to a traditional format as it seems that the race will come down to the big summit finish on the third day. The other three stages are all lumpy but should be suited to the strong sprinters and classics riders that will head to Norway in rich numbers.
So far every edition of the race has kicked off with a sprint stage and the fast guys are again expected to come to the fore on the first day of the 2016 race. However, a tough climb in the finale means that only the strongest of the fastmen will be able to survive and get the chance to go for the first leader’s jersey in the race.
The opening stage will bring the riders over 180.5km from Fauske to Rognan. The first part is flat and leads to the first sprint in Bodø at the 61km mark. Then the riders will tackle a category 2 climb (2km, 4.3%) before another flat section leads to another category 2 ascent (2km, 7.6%) at the 117.5km mark. In the finale, the terrain gets significantly hillier, with two intermediate sprints coming in quick succession at the top of small climbs. However, the big challenge is the category 1 climb of Ljøsenhammeren which averages 3.5% over 8.7km. The top comes with just 18.5km to go and is followed by a descent and 10 flat kilometres leading to the finish in Rognan.
The finale is everything but easy, especially in a race with small 6-rider teams and it won’t be easy to control things. However, the final climb never gets very steep and strong guys like Giacomo Nizzolo Alexander Kristoff and John Degenkolb should usually be able to overcome challenges like this. Their teams will have to work hard to control things but with the GC still completely up for grabs, it should come down to a reduced bunch sprint.
There is a bit chance that many of the sprinters were left behind before they got the chance to sprint on stage 1 so they will hope to get their revenge of the second stage. The course will bring the riders over 198.5km from Mo I Rana to Sandnessjøen and is far from easy. After a flat start, the riders will tackle the category 1 climb of Korgfjellet which will be used in the finale of the third stage too. It averages 6.4km over 8.9km, with the top coming at the 44.5km mark. From there the riders will descend back to flat terrain until they get to the finish line for the first time with 28km to go. Having contested the final intermediate sprint here, the riders will end the race by doing two laps of a 14km circuit. It includes the category 2 climb of Kleivskaret (0.5km, 10%) which comes 10.5km from the finish. From there, the road continues uphill for a few kilometres before a descent leads to the final 4km which are slightly ascending. The fial kilometre averages 1.7%.
The small climb on the circuit is steep but it is perfectly suited to strong classics riders like Kristoff, Degenkolb and Nizzolo. This is one of the big chances for the sprinters and the leader’s jersey is still up for grabs. Hence, the sprint teams should control things firmly and we can expect a bunch sprint in Sandnessjøen at the end of the stage. However, the wind is a constant presence in this area and could potentially split the race to pieces.
After two days of biding their time, the GC riders will be ready to go for the victory in the queen stage. The riders will travel 160km from Nesna to a summit finish on Korgfjellet which they already tackled in the first part of stage 2. Almost right from the start, the riders will climb the category 2 climb of Sjonfjellet (4.1km, 6.6%) and then they will tackle another two category 2 climb, Bustnes (2.7km, 4.8%) and Langfjell (3.4km, 5.6%) at the 43.5km and 88km marks respectively. The second half of the stage is largely flat but it all comes to an exciting conclusion on the final category 1 climb. The average gradient of the 8.9km climb is 6.4% and it’s a pretty regular ascent. The climb eases off a bit in the middle section where it averages 5.5% over three kilometres but then it gets steeper again as the final 2900m average 7%.
This is the big day for the GC riders and where the race will be decided. The final climb is definitely hard enough to do some solid damage and it will make sure that the race will be won by a good climber. As it never gets really steep and even eases off a bit at the midpoint, a strong puncheur like Philippe Gilbert may have a chance but on paper it looks like a day that will be won by a real climber. The time gaps will be small though and so bonus seconds in the final stage could make it exciting all the way to the end.
Last year a tough course turned everything around on the final stage but that is less likely to happen in 2016. The final stage is relatively flat and should suit the sprinters. It will bring the riders over 193km from a spectacular start on the Polar Circle in Rana Kommune to a finish in the big city of Bodø. The first part is mainly descending but then the riders will face the category 1 climb of Ljøsenhammeren (10.7km, 4.9%) that they already tackled in the finale of the first stage, albeit from a different side. Then the category 2 climbs of Enge (3.1km, 3.2%) and Kvikstadheia (3.2km, 8.5%) follow in quick succession but the final 77km are relatively flat. The riders will cross the finish line for the first time with 28.5km to go and then the rest of the stage consists of three laps of a 9.5km circuit. It includes the small climb of Kleivaveien and there will be an intermediate sprint at the top on every lap. The riders will reach the top for the final time with 6.5km to go and then a slightly downhill section leads to the flat finale.
There are lots of sprinters in this race and this stage is probably the easiest of the entire race. Hence, it is likely to be firmly controlled and unless the wind creates some chaos, we should have another bunch sprint. However, the GC could still be close and with three intermediate sprints inside the final 30km, it could very well be that there will be a fierce battle for bonus seconds and the overall victory right until the end of the race.
The days when a sprinter can win the Arctic Race of Norway are certainly gone. Three of the stages are likely to be for the fast guys but as the GC will almost exclusively come down to the queen stage, they will have no chance in the battle for the overall win. Korgfjellet may not be the hardest climb in the world but it is definitely tough enough to rule out the likes of Kristoff, Degenkolb and Nizzolo and instead the climbers and puncheurs should come to the fore.
The final stage should be for the sprinters but there could be a bit of a selection on the first stage. The second stage has a short climb on the circuit but with so many strong sprinters here, it is hard to imagine that a late attack will pay off, especially as the GC riders all want to save energy for the queen stage. Of course it will be very difficult for six-rider teams to control the race in this kind of terrain but with so many fast riders at the start, many teams want bunch sprint finishes. Hence, the gaps are likely to be created in the queen stage and potentially by the wind which will be a constant danger. If the GC is close on the final day, bonus seconds could come into play, especially as there are three intermediate sprints in the finale where the early break can easily be brought back.
Korgfjellet is potentially so hard that the best riders should be able to ride away but very much will depend on the wind. If it’s a headwind, the puncheurs will probably be able to hang on and use their fast sprint to win the stage and the overall. If it’s a tailwind, it will be a day for the climbers. In general, the wind will play a huge role as the only other big splits are likely to be created by the crosswinds.
At the time of writing, the weather forecast predicts quite a bit of rain during the race, with a bit of sunshine in between the showers. Importantly, there won’t be much wind so we doubt that it will play much of a role. Equally important is the fact that it will be direct tailwind on Korgfjellet and this should make it possible for the best climbers to win the race.
This turns defending champion Rein Taaramae into the obvious favourite. On paper, the Etsonian is the best climber here and he is also in pretty good condition. Last year he was flying at this time, arriving in Norway on the back a hugely impressive overall win in Burgos. This year he has had a different preparation as he hasn’t done the Tour. Instead, he has building form for the Vuelta where he is likely to be the Katusha captain. Taaramae is one of the most inconsistent riders in the world but when he is good, he is absolutely excellent. That was the case in Burgos last year and it was the case again in the final part of the Giro where he won the final mountain stage before going on to take a dominant overall victory in the Tour de Slovenie.
On paper, Taaramae is the best climber here and with a tailwind on Korgfjellet, we doubt that anyone will be able to match him. He has Alexander Kristoff to help take away bonus seconds from some of his faster rivals in the flat stages and he is backed by a strong team for the flat parts. Sven Erik Bystrøm will be a key lieutenant and then he has to finish it off himself. He rode pretty well in Rio where he was part of the key breakaway until the final climb. In the end, he was unable to keep up with the best but the performance showed that his form is not too bad. At least, it should be sufficient to win this race.
The big dark horse is Philippe Gilbert. If it had been a headwind on Korgfjellet, he would probably have been the favourite but with a tailwind, it will be hard for him to keep up with the better climbers. Korgfjellet is a bit too long to suit him perfectly. On the other hand, he has won the Tour of Beijing overall and in that race he proved that he can be competitive on a very similar climb. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to be in great form. He rode pretty poorly in Poland and Rio and he no longer seems to have the condition he had in June. He is probably not good enough to win this race. On the other hand, the field is not loaded with climbers so if Taaramae is not at his best, he could still turn out to be the best. His sprint is a very impressive weapon as he can go for bonus seconds in both a reduced sprint on stage 1 and in the intermediate sprints.
Sky go into the race with three potential leaders. On paper, Lars Petter Nordhaug and Sebastian Henao are probably their best cards but none of them have shown great form. Instead, we will point to neo-pro Gianni Moscon as their best option. The Italian has really had an impressive pro season and he has been up there in all terrains. He played a key role in Paris-Roubaix, he was fifth at his National Championships and he rode for GC in Slovenia and Coppi e Bartali. He can do almost everything and this is a race that suits him well.
Moscon has just come back from a long break so no one knows how he is going but there is every chance that such a huge talent has really digested his first pro races well. He could very well be better than ever in this race. He is fast in a sprint so he can pick up bonus seconds and Korgfjellet is not the hardest climb for a puncheur like him. If he has added another level to his already high standards, Moscon has the abilities to win this race.
Sky also have Lars Petter Nordhaug who almost won this race two years ago. However, the Norwegian is more of an Ardennes specialist than a real climber and he has never really excelled on the long ascents. Korgfjellet is not the hardest climb but it is probably a bit too long for him. On the other hand, his level is really high when he is riding well and he will be motivated for his home race. Unfortunately, he didn’t show good form in Rio.
Sebastian Henao will be the third card. On paper, he is probably the only rider who can match Taaramae on a climb like this. Unfortunately, he has always been very inconsistent and he rode poorly in Burgos. It is hard to imagine how things should have turned around in such a short amount of time. On the other hand, he now has one race in his legs after a long break and on paper he is definitely a potential winner here.
FDJ are mainly here for Arnaud Demare but they also have Odd Christian Eiking for the GC. The talented Norwegian has mostly been riding for his teammates but when he rode as a leader of the national team at the Tour of Norway, he was one of the best climbers in the race. This is a race that suits him really well as he is fast and punchy and a good climber. Unfortunately, his form wasn’t great in Wallonia so he may not be at his best.
BMC have more cards to play. Loic Vliegen is one of the greatest talents for the Ardennes classics and he will be keen to show himself in a race that suits him. He rode well in Burgos but that race was a bit too hard for him. This race is much better as the Korgfjellet is not that hard and he may able to handle that kind of climb better than Gilbert. Furthermore, he is pretty fast so if he turns out to be stronger than his leader, he may be able to pick up bonus seconds in some of the intermediate sprints. Unlike many other contenders, he has proved that his form is good. Amael Moinard is the third option for the team and he is more of a pure climber. He could very well turn out to be their best rider but it is hard to imagine that he will be able to win the race.
Tinkoff are mainly here for GC with numerous fast riders but they also have a real climber in Yury Trofimov. He has had a very bad year but he showed signs of improvement in Burgos. If he can finally return to his 2015 level, he should be one of the best here.
Bora-Argon 18 have Paul Voss and Dominik Nerz. On paper, Korgfjellet is too long for Voss but he has really come out of the Tour in great form and he has been climbing very well this year. He won the Rad um Ring after an impressive solo ride and he may be good enough to follow the best and then use his fast finish. Nerz is more of a real climber but he hasn’t shown much form for the last two years. On the other hand, he is preparing for the Vuelta so he may be better now.
Wanty-Groupe Gobert are led by an in-form Marco Marcato. He is pretty similar to Gilbert so Korgfjellet is probably a bit too hard for him. However, it becomes less selective, his fast sprint will make him a contender.
Topsport’s Floris De Tier is a different rider as he is more of a pure climber. He has been in great form recently and should definitely be one of the best but it is hard to imagine that he will actually win the race.
Stef Clement was climbing really well in the Tour and if he has the same legs here, he will be a very strong contender. However, he has just had a long break and he is mainly using this race to get back into the rhythm.
Finally, we will point to Norwegian talent Andreas Vangstad. He has proved that he can match the best in these big Norwegian races. The Tour of Norway was a bit of a disappointment for him so he will be fully motivated to take his revenge on Korgfjellet and set himself up for a potential spot on the podium.
***** Rein Taaramae
**** Philippe Gilbert, Gianni Moscon
*** Lars Petter Nordhaug, Odd Christian Eiking, Sebastian Henao, Loic Vliegen
** Amael Moinard, Yury Trofimov, Paul Voss, Floris De Tier, Marco Marcato, Stef Clement, Dominik Nerz, Andreas Vangstad
* Jonathan Hivert, Karol Domagalski, Sven Erik Bystrøm, August Jensen, Bjørn Tore Hoem, Oscar Gatto, Jay McCarthy, Alexander Kamp
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