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Will Arthur Vichot continue his run of success on the hills in France?

Photo: Sirotti




26.02.2016 @ 23:59 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

While most of the cycling world will have its eyes firmly on the cobbles in Belgium, another group of riders will be preparing themselves for the upcoming stage races and the Ardennes classics in a pair of French one-day races. The Classic Sud-Ardeche and the Drome Classic offer the riders a perfect chance to test themselves on hilly courses that make them very similar to the later one-day races and provide some of the key contenders with a chance to gauge their form ahead of Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico.


For some of the best riders in the world, the coming weekend is the first really important time on their 2016 race calendar as they aim for their first big classics win in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. For stage race riders and Ardennes specialists, it is important to continue their preparation for their goals and the Belgian cobbles are certainly not the perfect way to get ready for races like Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico.


However, France offers an alternative path as the country plays host to two hard, hilly one-day races. On Saturday, the 15th edition of the Classic Sud-Ardeche is held on a tough course with several climbs and gives the riders the chance to get some hard racing just one week before the start of the Race to the Sun. One day later, the new Drome Classic will offer a slightly easier course, meaning that riders can now do two days of solid preparation for their bigger goals.


In the past, Classic Sud-Ardeche was a stand-alone event that was an important event for the French teams but very often it failed to attract many foreign stars. With the addition of the Drome Classic, however, it has become much more international and in 2014 teams like BMC, Belkin, Omega Pharma-Quick Step and Trek mixed it up with the local heroes. Last year those four teams were joined by Orica-GreenEDGE to form an even stronger line-up. This year there will even be six foreign WorldTour teams in attendance as Giant-Alpecin and IAM will join the field while LottoNL-Jumbo have decided to skip the events which will be hotly contested.


Both races take place in Massif Central which is famously known for its tough terrain and so it is no wonder that they are really tough affairs similar to an Ardennes classic. While the Classic Sud-Ardeche has often come down to a sprint from a small group as the distance from the final climb to the finish was a bit longer, the Drome Classic has usually more selective, with both edition being won by lone riders. This year things have changed as Saturday’s race has become significantly harder and now seems to be the toughest challenge of the weekend.


Last year Eduardo Sepulveda and Julien Loubet rode away from a 13-rider group in the finale before the Argentinean claimed his first pro win in the two-rider sprint. Fabio Felline won the sprint for third.


The course

The Classic Sud-Ardeche has traditionally been held in the area around the city of Ruoms but has never had a fixed format. The course has varied a bit from year to year but this year it has undergone a major overhaul.


The 182.7km race has been moved to the Valence suburb of Guilherand-Granges which will host both the start and the finish. From there, the riders will head up a small climb and they will descend to the main circuit which will be the scene of most of the race. It is 24.2km contains the climbs of Col des Ayes, Col de Rotisson (a double climb which averages 2.4% over 12km and has a steepest kilometre of 5.4%) and Col de la Corniche (0.7km, 4.5%), with a long descent between the second and third climb. The riders will first tackle a small circuit that only includes the latter climb and then do three laps of the full circuit before they head back to the finish via the small Cote de Chemin du Toulaud. They will cross the line for the first time after 93.3km of racing then head back to the circuit for another three laps before they go back to the finish via the Cote de Chemin du Toulaud. The top of the final two climbs come with 8.4km and 4.8km to go and from there it is a downhill run to the finish




The weather

Saturday will be a cloudy day with only a bit of sunshine early in the afternoon. The maximum temperature will be 10 degrees and there’s a 15% chance of rain in the finale. There will only be a light wind from a northerly direction which means that it will be a cross-tailwind on the first two climbs and the descent and a headwind on the final two climb. It will be a crosswind sprint.


The favourites

Last year’s race was very selective as only 13 riders were in contention in the finale but we can’t base too much on the 2015 outcome. This year’ course is a new one and includes significantly more climbing as there will barely be any flat roads. On the other hand, none of the climbs are very steep and they are more of long, gradual uphill drags than something suited to real climbers.


Nonetheless, the huge amount of climbing will take its toll and the race will probably be pretty selective. A 12km climb will always do some damage even if the gradient is not very tough and it will be a gradual elimination process. Furthermore, this terrain is an invitation to aggressive racing and as it has always been the case in this race, the favourites have to be on their toes at least in the final two laps as the right attack can be made at any point in the finale.


The start list is a formidable one and is loaded with Ardennes contenders who are strong in this kind of terrain. What is needed to excel here are great climbing skills to survive the huge amount of total elevation gains and a decent punch to try to make a difference on the climbs in the finale. However, the lack of really steep gradients means that there is a solid chance that more riders will arrive together at the finish and this means that sprinting skills are equally important.


One of the in-form riders at the moment is Arthur Vichot. The Frenchman has returned to form after a horrible 2015 season. He was strong already in Etoile de Besseges but it was in Trofeo Laigueglia that he really marked himself out. In that race, he dropped Diego Ulissi on the final climb and last week he went on to win the second stage and the overall at the Tour du Haut Var. In fact, he would even have made it a clean sheet in the French race if he hadn’t let Tom-Jelte Slagter go in the finale of the opening stage. He is tailor-made for this race as he is strong on the climbs and fast in a sprint.


Vichot’s big disadvantage is his team and the fact that most want to get rid of him in the finale. He has to rely on an in-form Alexandre Geniez and young neo-pro Odd Christian Eiking to control things in the finale. Unlike many other teams, FDJ don’t have many cards to play and Vichot may lose out in a tactical battle. However, no one is going to be able to drop the former French champion on the climbs and due to his fast sprint, he is our favourite to in the race.


Etixx-QuickStep go into the race with more cards to play. One of them is Gianluca Brambilla who has been flying since he won a race in Mallorca. He confirmed his good form in Oman and now he goes into a race that suits him really well. He is strong on the climbs and is pretty fast in a sprint and there is no guarantee that he won’t be able to beat Vichot in a head-to-head battle. He will share captaincy duties with Petr Vakoc and with the Czech as a possible lead-out man in the finale, Brambilla stands out as one of the favourites.


Orica-GreenEDGE have one of the best teams for the race, with no less than five potential winners in Michael Albasini, Daryl Impey, Esteban Chaves and the Yates brothers. The former is probably their best card but it remains to be seen how he is going. He has never been really strong at this time of the year and he hasn’t raced since the Tour Down Under. On the other hand, he was at a decent level in Australia and this race suits him down to the ground. If he is there in the finale, no one is going to beat him in a sprint.


Impey offers the team a second sprint option. Unlike Albasini, he is always good at this point of the season which he confirmed with his win in the South African TT Championships and his strong showing in the road race. He is not among the best climbers here but he is probably able to survive these gradients. In case of a sprint finish, he will be one of the fastest


Vakoc also belongs to the group of favourites after his great performance in Provence where only an outstanding ride by Thomas Voeckler prevented him from winning overall. The Czech champion is strong in this terrain and is fast in a sprint. Enrico Gasparotto shares many of those characteristics and will also be a strong contender as he showed growing condition in Oman. However, he is clearly not at his best yet.


Ag2r have a formidable team and will try to blow the race to pieces. Their best cards are Jan Bakelants and Alexis Vuillermoz while Romain Bardet needs a really hard race to win. Bakelants has been in great condition all year but made a tactical mistake by attacking too early in the queen stage in Provence. He has the guts to attack from afar but will also have a small chance in a sprint even though there are faster riders here. Vuillermoz is faster than his teammate but has had some knee problems which have prevented him from reaching his best condition.


Caja Rural have a strong contender in Eduard Prades who is just getting better and better. He won last year’s Coppa Sabatini and even though he is not at the same level yet, he delivered a decent showing in Algarve. The climbing here is less severe and he has the sprint to finish it off. The same can be said about Julien Simon who is strong in this terrain and a fast sprinter. He is in good condition but is no longer as fast as he once was.


Finally, we will point to the Yates brothers. They are destined to stardom in the hilly one-day races and this event suits them well. They are making their season debut here so their condition is a bit of a question mark. Last year they were not great here but now they have another year in their legs. They have the right punchy climbing skills and a decent sprint to finish it off.


***** Arthur Vichot

**** Gianluca Brambilla, Michael Albasini

*** Petr Vakoc, Daryl Impey, Enrico Gasparotto, Jan Bakelants

** Alexis Vuillermoz, Eduard Prades, Julien Simon, Adam Yates, Simon Yates, Pieter Serry

* Julian Arredondo, Romain Bardet, Maxime Bouet, Danilo Wyss, Esteban Chaves, Samuel Sanchez, Mikael Cherel, Thomas Voeckler, Pello Bilbao



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