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. For the second year in a row, the Czech Cycling Tour offers an alternative to the traditional build-up events and with a solid field and an exciting course, the race will offer a perfect chance for some of the WorldTour riders to test their form less than two weeks before the start of the grand tour.
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 and recently, the Arctic Race of Norway has also become an important part of the calendar. However, those races have got a new rival. For the second year in a row, the Czech Cycling Tour will be held in the month of August and as it continues its growth in a country where cycling is growing in popularity, it has the potential to firmly establish itself as a great place to prepare for the Vuelta.
It is no surprise that the Czech Republic now has its own top-level stage race. Cycling has always been a big sport in the country but most of their success has come in cyclocross. In recent years, however, great Czech riders have emerged on the road too and Roman Kreuziger, Zdenek Stybar, Leopold König, Jan Barta and Petr Vakoc have firmly put the country close to the top of the cycling hierarchy. Hence, it was only a question of time before a major stage race would be organized and after a slow start, the Czech Cycling Tour is now a 2.1 race on the UCI calendar.
The first edition was held in 2009 as three consecutive criteriums and it got immediate attention as it was covered by national television. One year later, it turned into a real stage race that was met with a great response from riders and fans, with Zdenek Stybar among the participants. Based on the success, the organizers decided to turn it into a UCI race and it was held as a 2.2 event in 2011 when 28 teams lined up for the start.
The race remained at that level for a few years but gradually its growth continued. After a very successful 2014 edition that had its first foreign winner in Martin Mortensen, the race moved into the 2.1 category for the 2015 edition. At the same time, it got its current date and as it was now open to WorldTour teams, it became a solid preparation race for the Vuelta. Backed by Czech businessman, Etixx-QuickStep turned up for the race which they dominated completely, with Petr Vakoc taking the overall win.
This year the race hopes to build on the progress and they have gathered a fine field led by WorldTour teams Lampre-Merida and Cannondale and with pro continental teams CCC, Verva-ActiveJet, Novo Nordisk and Gazprom-Rusvelo also in attendance. They will be joined by a host of strong continental teams and even though there is still room for growth and a much stronger start list, the upward trend continues.
The Czech Republic is by no means flat and the country has plenty of exciting terrain to offer. There may not be any high mountains but the many short climbs make it a solid race for puncheurs. In general, the race follows a pretty fixed format with an opening team time trial, a sprint stage and two harder stages that usually decide the GC.
Last year Etixx-QuickStep dominated the race. After winning the team time trial and splitting the race in the crosswinds in the flat stage, Petr Vakoc took the leader’s jersey after the queen stage which was the only won that the team failed to win. In the end, he won the race ahead of Jan Barta and his teammate Zdenek Stybar in an all-Czech top 3. None of the three local stars will attend this year’s race as their teams have all chosen to skip the race.
As said, there hasn’t been much variation in the race and the organizers have found no reason to change a formula that works. In fact, the race is almost an identical copy of last year’s race. As always, the race will start with a team time trial and this is the only stage that has undergone major changes. The second stage will be one for the sprinters and then it will all be decided in the final two stages. The third stage is the queen stage and clearly the hardest but the tough finishing circuit on the final day also has the potential to do some damage.
The Czech Cycling Tour is one of the few races that always include a team time trial. Every year the opening day is a test of the collective strength which means that the riders have to be on their toes right from the beginning. It will be no different in 2016 but the course has been changed. The traditional 20.4km course in Unicov will be replaced by a route of 17.3km in Frydek-Mistek. The new stage is a bit hiller and consists of an out-and-back run without many technical challenges. The first part is mainly descending so it will be important to save something for the second half where the riders will travel along slightly ascending roads back to the start-finish area.
The course for the time trial is new and hillier but it is still mainly flat. It looks like a great stage for the biggest specialists and engines. Gaps in short team time trials are usually small but there are usually big differences between continental and WorldTour teams. With most of the field being made up of smaller teams, the big teams have a chance to distance their rivals significantly in one of the key stages of the race.
The sprinters only have one chance in the Czech Cycling Tour and that opportunity comes on the second day. The 177km between Olomouc and Unicov are definitely not flat as a flat start leads to a tough middle section with four categorized climbs. However, the final climb comes with 73.4km to go and then the riders will head along flat roads to the finish where they will end the stage by doing three laps of a 10.9km circuit that is completely flat.
The stage is a copy of the one that was used for last year’s race and back then Etixx-QuickStep split the field in the crosswinds. This shows that it could be a more important stage than it seems on paper and the riders will have to be attentive to any potential dangers. However, the most likely outcome is that it will be the only bunch kick of the race.
The riders have traditionally faced the queen stage on the penultimate day and it will be the same in 2016. The riders will cover 187.4km from Mohelnice to Sternberk and they will be brutal. After a relatively flat 30km, the riders will hit the first of four early climbs that come in quick succession, with the final summit coming with 80.1km to go. From there, they will descend to the difficult 10.5km finishing circuit which they will cover thrice. It includes the short, steep climb of Ecce Homo whose top comes just 5.7km from the finish and from there it is a downhill run to the line.
Compared to last year the stage has undergone a few modifications that make it a bit shorter and slightly easier. Back then, Leopold König rode to a solo win, putting 31 seconds into a 7-rider chase group with some of the best climbers. One year earlier, Jan Hirt took a solo win on a similar stage that had the same finishing circuit and this shows that the climbs are hard enough to make a difference. It’s not a stage for pure climbers but the Ardennes specialists should come to the fore in the stage that is very likely to give a big indication of who’s going to win the race.
Nothing will be decided until the final day as there is another tough stage in store for the fourth day. The short 157.1km stage will bring the riders from Olomouc to Dolany and is mainly a circuit race. After a flat start, the riders will again tackle the Ecce Homo climb that featured in the finale of the previous stage and then there’s another small climb on the menu before they will descend to the finishing city. Here they will end the race by doing nine laps of 9km finishing circuit that has a short climb (2.9km, 4.0%) and a downhill run to the final 3km which are flat.
The stage is again an almost identical copy of the final stage of last year’s race. Back then, a five-rider group made it to the finish to sprint for the win and it was Zdenek Stybar who came out on top. A 28-rider first peloton arrived just 16 seconds later. This shows that it’s a stage where attacks can pay off and it is possible to change things right until the end. However, it could also be a good day for a breakaway if the GC isn’t took close while the strong sprinters will hope for a reduced bunch sprint on a day that has lots of possible outcomes.
As the course for this year’s Czech Cycling Tour is almost identical to the one that was used last year, we know what to expect from the race. The two key stages will be the team time trial and the queen stage. The opening stage will make it very hard for the riders from the smaller teams to win the race as they will probably lose too much time in the collective race against then clock. Then it will be left to the best climbers from the strongest teams to fight it out in stage 3.
History shows that it is possible to take a solo win in the queen stage so it is very likely that the strongest rider will win the race if he is not too far back after the TTT. However, the final circuit is not overly difficult and the time gaps are usually not too big. A small group will probably arrive there after the hard opening part but the long distance from final long climbs to the circuit means that it will be hard to make a move early in the stage. Hence, they will probably battle it out on the final climbs which are pretty short and more suited to the puncheurs than real climbers. The Ardennes specialists should excel in this stage that can both be decided by a solo move or in a sprint from a small group. The final stage offers another opportunity for a puncheur to make a difference but the time gains here will be small.
Last year the second stage turned out to be the most important as Etixx-QuickStep split the field in the crosswinds. However, Friday is forecasted to be a relatively calm day and in general there won’t be much win during the week. Hence, the stage is unlikely to play an important role and it should all come down to stages 1 and 3 and the bonus seconds, with stage 4 offering a small chance to create small differences.
Last year Etixx-QuickStep both had the best team and the strongest riders. This made it a pretty one-sided affair and there was never really any doubt that the Belgian team was going to win. This year is much more interesting and open as the strongest rider is very likely to be Diego Ulissi. However, the CCC team seems to be much stronger than Lampre-Merida and they have as much as four potential winners of the race. This means that Ulissi is likely to be at a disadvantage after the team time trial and he needs to try to gain back that time in the queen stage. This should set the scene for a very interesting fight.
Despite Lampre-Merida arriving with more of a sprint team, we will put Diego Ulissi on top of our list of favourites. The Italian seems to be back in form after his great Giro d’Italia. He suffered in the Polish cold at the Tour de Pologne and he again failed to deliver in a major classic in San Sebastian. However, he was in a class of his own in Circuito de Getxo one day later and this proves that his condition is pretty good.
Ulissi is not a pure climber but he is tailor-made for the relatively short climbs in this race. The circuit in stage 3 suits him very well and with the form he showed in Spain, we doubt that anyone will be able to follow his explosive accelerations. The climb comes close enough to the finish for him to maintain any advantage so it takes a strong CCC team to bring him back. As he is also very fast, Ulissi can pick up bonus seconds in intermediate sprints and by going for the victory in the final two stages and so he should be good enough to erase his deficit from the team time trial. Hence, the Italian is our favourite.
The CCC team have four potential leaders but for this kind of course, Davide Rebellin is their best card. For the first time, the veteran is finally showing signs of slowing down and he has clearly not been at his former level this year. Hence, we doubt that he will be good enough to follow Ulissi but with a strong team at his side, Rebellin may be able to get back. Furthermore, CCC will probably be better in the team time trial and this should give the Italian veteran a solid advantage before the harder stages. If CCC can work together, they could be strong enough to control Ulissi and put him under pressure and this could open the door for Rebellin to win the race.
Cannondale are here with a team without any of their leaders and this should open the door for Patrick Bevin to lead the race. The Kiwi got his WorldTour career off to a great start at the Tour Down Under and at Paris-Nice but since then he has been set back by injuries. Now he seems to have found some form. He was a great third in the tough fourth stage in Burgos and he did well in the queen stage which should usually be too hard for him. The shorter climbs in the queen stage here suit him much better and while Cannondale don’t have the best team for the climbs, they have a solid team for the TTT. If they can do a good ride here, Bevin is definitely in contention as he is even faster than Ulissi and so has lots of chances to pick up bonus seconds.
Victor de la Parte is the second best card for CCC. He is a better climber than Rebellin and even though he would have preferred real mountains, he should still be one of the best in this terrain. He is probably the one of the CCC riders with the best chance to follow Ulissi and this could open the door for him to win the race. If CCC can get the expected advantage in the TTT, the former Tour of Austria winner can win the race just by being the only CCC rider to stay with Ulissi. He suffered in the cold conditions in the Tour de Pologne but his ride in the final time trial shows that his form is pretty good.
The 2016 season has been a bit of a breakthrough for Pawel Cieslik. The Pole showed his class in both the Tour de Pologne and the Tour de Suisse where he climbed with the best WorldTour riders. This race is not ideal for him as the climbs are probably a bit too short and explosive and Verva don’t have the best team for the TTT. However, Cieslik could turn out to be the best climber and if he can win the queen stage, he may win the overall too.
Jan Hirt and Felixx Grosschartner are the two other CCC cards. Hirt is probably the best climber in the team but he needs real mountains to really excel. Grossschartner is better suited to this terrain but he is not at De La Parte’s, Rebellin’s and Hirt’s level. However, both can definitely win the race. If CCC can win the team time trial, they are likely to have strength in numbers in the queen stage and then they can attack in turns. If that happens, any of their four captains can make the race-winning move.
Ulissi is clearly the Lampre-Merida leader but Simone Petilli is another option. The Italian youngster is a hugely talented climber but he has been very inconsistent in his debut season. He showed decent form in San Sebastian and in this race he should be one of the best on the climbs. However, he will probably have to work for Ulissi.
Jordi Simon is another card in the Verva team. He is better suited to shorter climbs than Cieslik and he is also faster. However, he is not climbing as well as his Polish teammate so he is an unlikely winner of the race. However, his fast sprint means that he could very well be the best Verva rider.
Adria Mobil is always one of the best continental teams and they are here with both Radoslav Rogina and Jure Golcer. Golcer was the strongest of the pair in June but at the moment Rogina is the in-form rider. The veteran should be one of the best here but his team will lose too much time in the team time trial for him to win the race.
The same goes for Markus Eibegger who has been one of the best continental riders this year. He was one of the strongest on the shorter climbs in the Tour of Austria so he should be one of the best in the queen stage. Unfortunately, Felbermayr will lose too much time in the queen stage for him to win the race.
Jan Tratnik has been really great all year and most recently he finished on the podium in the Rad am Ring. He is not a real climber so the queen stage could be on the limit for him. However, he is strong in Ardennes-like terrain and he has a pretty fast sprint. Unfortunately, the team time trial will make it impossible for him to win the race.
Finally, we will point to Klein Constantia which is the feeder team for Etixx-QuickStep. They are loaded with huge talents who can do well here but we will especially point to local rider Frantisek Sisr and Jhonatan Narvaez who have proved that they have the climbing skills to potentially mix it up with the best here.
***** Diego Ulissi
**** Davide Rebellin, Patrick Bevin
*** Victor de la Parte, Pawel Cieslink, Jan Hirt
** Felix Grossschartner, Simone Petilli, Jordi Simon, Radoslav Rogina, Markus Eibegger, Jan Tratnik, Frantisek Sisr, Jhonatan Narvaez
* Olivier Pardini, Karel Hnik, Jure Golcer, Antoine Warnier, Artem Nych, Giovanni Carboni, Stephan Rabitsch, Jasper Ockeloen, Clemens Fankhauser, Jarno Gmelich Meijling
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