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Will Sagan add a European title to his rainbow jersey?

Photo: Tinkoff / BettiniPhoto

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17.09.2016 @ 20:38 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

In most sports, continental championships play a massive role but for some reason, things have been different in cycling. That is set to change from 2016 as the European Championships will be open for elite riders in the future and with an impressive line-up gathered for the inaugural event, the foundations are laid for a huge success. Three of the last four world champions are ready to battle it out for the coveted star jersey and with an intriguing finale on the famous Cote de Cadoudal in Plumelec, it is hard to imagine a better place to crown the first king of European cycling.

 

In almost every sport, the international federation hosts a World Championships that is one of the pinnacle events on the calendar. Things are no different in cycling where the coveted rainbow jersey is one of the iconic symbols of the sport and it has been worn by the world champion since it was introduced in 1927. Unlike in many other sports, the World Championships may not be the most prestigious race on the calendar – that honour goes to the Tour de France – but it remains one of the most important events of the year.

 

Most sports also have continental championships that are just below the World Championships when it comes to prestige. In that regard, however, cycling is different. In fact, the first European Championships were held in 1995 and the Pan American, Oceania and African Championships are also relatively new events. Only the Asian Championships have a longer history but none of the events have had the prestige that they have in other sports.

 

The European Championships mark themselves out from the list. While the other continental championships have had elite races, the key continent of the sport has only had races for junior and U23 riders. In a calendar loaded with historic races, there has been no room for another prestigious event and so the pro riders have not had the chance to wear the star jersey. The races for the youth categories have been among the most important events on their calendars but there has been no room for elite riders.

 

In recent years, however, the European Cycling Union UEC has tried to change things. They introduced European Mountain Bike Championships in 1989, in 2010 the first track championships were held and last winter the best cyclo-cross riders battled for the an elite jersey for the first time. This year they have made the final big step by organizing the first road championships too.

 

Based on the reception from the riders, it is likely to be a huge success. As soon as the plans were announced and details about the route in Nice started to emerge, many riders made it a big goal of their autumn schedule. The route in Nice was a hilly one and with the Worlds being held on a flat course in Qatar, it was an obvious target for climbers and Ardennes specialists who have little reason to go to Qatar.

 

Unfortunately, the event got off to a rough start when the terrorist attacks in Nice forced the city to withdraw from the project just a few months before the event. Luckily cities in France, England and Italy were all ready to step in as replacements and ultimately UEC opted to move the event to Plumelec. That has had an impact on the course which is no longer as hilly as originally planned. However, the race will still finish on the iconic Cote de Cadoudal which is well-known from the GP de Plumelec and the Tour de France and so it remains a perfect race for punchy Ardennes specialists. The climbers may no longer have much of a chance but for the puncheurs it’s a perfect substitution for the Worlds in a year when the course in Qatar doesn’t suit them.

 

The course change has done little to dampen the excitement and the organizers could probably not have asked for a better reception. Many riders have made it a big target and there has been a solid fight for the selections. Of course it is far from having the same attraction and prestige as the Worlds but for an inaugural edition, the field is promising. It comes at a perfect time of the year where the calendar is loaded with prestigious one-day races and many classics riders are on top of their game, having raced for WorldTour points in Plouay and Canada. However, it still remains to be seen how the event will fit into the calendar next year when the Worlds are back at its usual spot.

 

The time trial kicked things off on Thursday when Jonathan Castroviejo finally managed to claim that elusive international title and now the attention turns to the road race. The organizers proudly announced that the four last world champions would all be in attendance but unfortunately, Michal Kwiatkowski has chosen to skip the race. However, Peter Sagan, Rui Costa and Philippe Gilbert will lead a field that includes almost every single climber or Ardennes specialist that didn’t line up of for the Vuelta, a clear indication of the reception that the inaugural edition of the race has received.

 

The course

The inaugural edition will be held over 17 laps of a 13.7km circuit for an overall distance of 232km. The circuit travels through the lumpy terrain on the southern outskirts of Plumelec and is far from flat. After one flat kilometre, the riders will descend out of the city and then tackle a small climb. After around 6km, they will head west along flat roads and then turn around to head back north towards the city. Passing through the city of Cadoudal, the road is gradually descending until the riders get to the bottom of the famous Cote de Cadoudal which averages 6.2% over 1.7km. The climb follows a straight road until the riders take two turns near the top, the final sharp right-hand corner coming just 220m from the line.

 

The circuit is almost identical to the big circuit that is used for the GP de Plumelec which was won by Samuel Dumoulin in May.

 

 

 

 

The favourites

The organizers can hardly be dissatisfied with the field they have gathered for the inaugural event. The late change of the course which tipped the balance from the climbers to the puncheurs, was likely to prompt riders to change their goals but that hasn’t been the case. Most of the riders that had made the race in Nice a big goal will also be at the start in Plumelec where they will tackle a course that most know well. The fact that it is used for the GP Plumelec every year and that Cote de Cadoudal hosted stage finishes at the 2008 and 2015 Tour de France means that most riders are familiar with the climb and this has made it easier to prepare accordingly.

 

The start list clearly shows that it is a new event and that it has had a different reception in different countries. While countries like Belgium, France and Italy clearly put a lot of emphasis on the race and have gathered very strong line-ups after thorough selection process, things are different for countries like Spain and the Netherlands which also have the full quota of 8 riders at the start. Both countries have solid teams with potential winners but both have left some of their biggest stars at home. Other counties like Great Britain, Denmark and Norway have chosen to skip the race entirely.

 

As it is the case for the world championships, the riders are representing their national teams and that always creates a special dynamic and makes it more difficult to analyze the tactics. Cohesiveness and cooperation are never given things in these races even though it seems that the teams have been more united in recent years.

 

For this race, it is not evident how the teams will approach the ace. As usual, much will be focused on Peter Sagan but as it is always the case for him in major championships, he has a poor team at his side. He may have five teammates but Slovakia can’t control things and much will depend on what tactics the bigger teams have. Do they believe that they can beat Sagan in a sprint? Or do they want to blow the race to pieces?

 

Interestingly, none of the big countries have one clear leader and this means that a sprint finish is far from guaranteed. Italy, Belgium, France and Spain all have numerous cards to play and if a small group with riders from all the main teams escapes in the finale, it is hard to imagine that they will be brought back. This turns the race into a very open affair and it could very well be won by one of the lieutenants. Sagan can close his eyes and hope for a sprint finish but he may also try to follow some of the attacks. The problem is that it’s a waste of energy as no one wants to go to the finish with him.

 

Sunday will be a cloudy day with a temperature of 21 degrees and a light wind from a northerly direction. This means that it will be a headwind in the finale and this favours the peloton in its attempt to bring back late attackers and the most likely outcome is still an uphill sprint. After all, one or more key countries are likely to miss out and when the tactical battle between the escapees start, the peloton will have the upper hand. A sprint finish is the most probably scenario but a late group definitely has a chance.

 

If it comes down to sprint, Peter Sagan will be the man to beat. The Slovakian fell ill in Plouay after he had spent time on his mountain bike and so didn’t have much confidence for the Canadian races. However, those races proved his class as he won in Quebec and finished second behind Van Avermaet in Montreal and if he hadn’t done so much work to bring Rui Costa back, he is likely to have made it two in a row. He was not the best climber in those races but he wasn’t far off the mark and his form is obviously great. As he is building form for the Worlds, he is likely to be even better here.

 

The finale on Cote de Cadoudal is tailor-made for Sagan. The climb is neither too long nor too steep and in this kind of sprint he is simply the best in the world. The challenge will be to control the late attacks and avoid doing too much work but if it comes down to a sprint, Sagan is still our favourite to take the win.

 

His biggest rival in an uphill sprint will be Julian Alaphilippe who was his nearest challenger in an easier uphill sprint on stage 2 at the Tour de France. The steeper climb in Plumelec gives the Frenchman a much better chance and on this kind of climb, it is definitely not impossible that Alaphilippe can come out on top. He has a better team to support him but the question is what kind of form he has. He was good in Canada but he was clearly not at his best. However, he still rode very aggressively in Quebec and was in the select group of climbers that emerged in the finale in Montreal. Now he is likely to be a lot better and unlike Sagan he has more options as he can also go on the attack. The difficult thing will be to handle the tactics right and bet his money on the right strategy.

 

The in-form rider at the moment is Rui Costa. The Portuguese may not have reached his best form in the Tour but since he returned to racing in Hamburg he has been absolutely flying. He was the best rider on the climbs in Hamburg and Plouay and he dropped most of the best climbers in the world with a  fantastic solo attack at the GP Montreal. It took a cohesive effort from Sagan, Van Avermaet, Alaphilippe and Vakoc to bring him back and even though he left the race empty-handed, Costa can console himself with the fact that he seems to be the best rider at the moment. The harder finale means that he is not without a chance in an uphill sprint but the best things will be to go on the attack in the finale. If he can join a group with riders from all the main countries, he is strong enough to stay away and beat all his rivals on the final climb.

 

Italy have a strong team with numerous cards to play. In an uphill sprint, Diego Ulissi is their best weapon. The Italian is a master in these puncheur finales as he has proved numerous times in the Giro where he has even beaten much faster riders. In Canada, he showed that he is in excellent form. On the hardest climb in Montreal, he set a brutal pace to prepare the attack from teammate Costa and he still had enough left in the tank to stay with the best and sprint to third place. Recently, he finished second at Coppa Agostoni where he claimed that his legs felt excellent on the climbs. He has a chance to win an uphill sprint and he can also go on the attack in the finale.

 

Spain may not have their best team here but they still have a solid card to play. Daniel Moreno is one of the best in this kind of uphill sprint and he arrives at the race on the back of a good Vuelta where he finished in the top 10 overall. Like every other Vuelta rider, he will find himself in uncertainty as he doesn’t know how he has recovered but if he has come out of the race in good form, this is a race that suits him down to the ground.

 

Wout Poels leads a Dutch team that is without their other star climbers so like Sagan he will have to make the right gambles. However, he is not fast enough to win a sprint so he will have to go on the attack. After a bad day on stage 2, he showed that his form is good when he won the queen stage of the Tour of Britain and he is obviously one of the very best climbers here. Even though he is not a puncheur, he has a decent punch in this kind of finale so if he can make it into the right group in the finale, he will be hard to beat.

 

While Ulissi will probably wait for the sprint, Gianni Moscon will be Italy’s man for the attacks. The Italian has always been a big talent but it is the last few weeks that have really revealed it to a broader audience. He won the Arctic Race of Norway and he finished fifth in Poitou-Charentes where he beat far better time triallists in the TT. He almost won the final stage with a big attack on the final climb and was only caught 200m from the line. In Quebec he was caught in the final kilometre and in Montreal he was part of the elite group in the finale. In Paris-Roubaix, he showed that he can handle the long races and the hilly course here suits him excellently as he is strong on short climb and very fast in a sprint.

 

In addition to Alaphilippe, France have Tony Gallopin who showed his great form at the Tour of Britain where he climbed well, did the time trial of his life and finished fourth overall. Last Wednesday, he lived up to our predictions as he won the GP de Wallonie so he has finally found the form that he missed at the Tour de France. He is strong in an uphill sprint but he is unlikely to beat Sagan. Hence, his best option is to go on the attack and he has the right mindset and form to do so.

 

Petr Vakoc has had a breakthrough year with numerous wins in hilly one-day races, most notably at Brabantse Pijl. He seems to have benefited from his first grand tour as he was absolutely flying in Canada where he sprinted to a top 10 in Quebec and was one of the best in Montreal where only a late crash took him out of contention. On Wednesday, he was centimetres from coming around Gallopin to win the GP de Wallonie. His form is excellent and he is suited to this kind of course. The problem is the distance as he has never proved that he can handle such a long race and he is part of a small team that can’t play many tacticl cards.

 

Philippe Gilbert leads the Belgian team and he is of course tailor-made for this finish. However, he has had a very bad year and apart from a strong period in June, he has been far from his best level. He rode poorly at the Vuelta until he left the race with back pain and he hasn’t raced since then. We doubt that he has the form to win. On the other hand, you can never rule Gilbert out as he knows how to prepare for a race like this and is suited to the difficult finale.

 

With uncertainty over Gilbert, Belgium is likely to ride aggressively and they have some cards to play, most notably Jan Bakelants and Ben Hermans who both left the Vuelta in excellent form. A strong ride at the GP de Wallonie underlined Bakelants’ good form and the pair have the right aggressive mindset to do well here. If they can join the right break, they are strong in an uphill sprint.

 

Italy have more cards to play in an uphill sprint. The finale suits Sonny Colbrelli pretty well. The Italian has been climbing better than ever in 2016 and has even finished third in the Amstel Gold Race. After a bout of pneumonia in June, he has returned to form with three wins in France in August and on Thursday he won Coppa Agostoni. The final climb may be a bit too steep for him though.

 

Finally, we will point to Ruben Fernandez. The Spaniard had a breakthrough ride at the Vuelta and was still in good form in the final week. As Spain are set to ride aggressively, he will be free to play his own card so we can expect him to go on the attack in the finale. He has a decent punch on a short climb like this so if he has recovered from the Vuelta and finds himself in the right group, he will be a strong contender.

 

***** Peter Sagan

**** Julian Alaphilippe, Rui Costa

*** Diego Ulissi, Daniel Moreno, Wout Poels, Gianni Moscon

** Tony Gallopin, Petr Vakoc, Sonny Colbrelli, Ben Hermans, Jan Bakelants, Ruben Fernandez

* Daniel Martin, Tiesj Benoot, Egor Silin, Michael Albasini, Luis Leon Sanchez, Moeno Moser, Giovanni Visconti, Fabio Aru, Huub Duijn, Mathias Frank, Sebastien Reichenbach

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