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. Things kick off with Thursday’s time trial and even though it hasn’t attracted the same formidable field as Sunday’s road race, the scene is set for an intriguing battle for the coveted star jersey.
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 first race in the event is the time trial and for some reason it hasn’t attracted the strong field that will be found in the road race. There will be no Tom Dumoulin, Tony Martin, Chris Froome or Fabian Cancellara at the start but that doesn’t mean that the field will be poor. Several riders that were among the best in the time trial in the Vuelta will travel to France for the battle for the coveted jersey, most notably runner-up Jonathan Castroviejo, third-placed Tobias Ludvigsson, fourth-placed Yves Lampaert and fifth-placed Victor Campenaerts. They will be joined by specialists like Nelson Oliveira, Primoz Roglic, Bob Jungels and Sylvain Chavanel, meaning that most of the European TT elite will be gathered in Plumelec for a huge battle in the weekend.
The inaugural time trial championships will be held on a 45.5km course that will bring the riders from Josselin to Plumelec. After the start, the riders will tackle as small climb when they leave the starting city and from there, they will follow lumpy roads without too many technical challenges for most of the day. The first time check comes at the 16.6km mark and then the terrain gets slightly easier until the riders will hit another small climb just after the second time check at the 34.6km. Having reached Plumelec, they will descend out of the city before turning around and head back towards the finish. In the end, they will go up the famous Cote de Cadoudal which averages 6.2% over 1.7km.
The biggest names may be absent but it is still a rather strong field that has been gathered for the inaugural edition of the European time trial championships. Furthermore, most of them have shown good condition and this sets the scene for an intriguing and pretty open battle.
The riders will be tested on a very diverse course that has a bit of everything. There are relatively flat and straight sections but the Breton terrain is very lumpy. This makes it a testing affair and the inclusion of the Cote de Cadoudal means that solid climbing legs will be important. Many will remember how hard the team time trial at last year’s Tour was. It was held on a pretty similar course and ended on the same climb where many teams blew to pieces.
Another important factor is the rain. There is a 25% risk throughout the entire race and it will have a big impact if some riders have to do the race in wet conditions. The risk is likely to be lowest towards the end of the race which could favour the later starters. On the other hand, the southerly wind will pick up a bit and as it will mainly be a headwind, this will be an advantage for the early starters. This turns the race into a bit of a lottery and the weather could play a big role in determining the outcome.
The field has a pretty exciting mix of riders coming from the Vuelta and riders who have barely done any racing and specifically prepared for this race. It will be interesting to see which approach works best. There is little doubt that the Vuelta riders have great form but the race comes just four days after the finish in Madrid and this may be a bit too little to recover. Furthermore, three weeks of racing in the mountains is probably not the best preparation for a relatively short effort like a time trial.
Nonetheless, our favourite is one of the Vuelta riders. On paper, Jonathan Castroviejo is the best time triallist in this race. The Spaniard was very strong in 2013 but in 2014 he suddenly lost the edge in the TTs. That returned towards the end of the year and in 2015 he took a massive step up. He did some excellent time trials on almost every kind of course and he memorably missed out on a Worlds medal by seconds. This year he had similar bad luck at the Olympics as he was just seconds shy of the bronze medal at the Olympics.
Castroviejo crashed hard in Algarve and only returned to racing in June. He is a lot fresher than many other riders and he confirmed his form with his second place in the Vuelta time trial. He loves this kind of hilly TT where he can benefit from his good climbing skills Due to his very aerodynamic position, he should benefit from the headwind. The main question is whether he has recovered enough but he is clearly our favourite to take the win.
Bob Jungels finds himself in a different position. The Luxembourger hasn’t done much racing since his memorable Giro d’Italia and when he last raced at the Tour de l’Ain, he was far from his best. However, he is likely to have prepared specifically for this race and this makes him a strong contender. In the past, he mainly excelled in shorter time trials but at the Giro he proved that he is now also competitive over the longer distances. The hilly profile suits him excellently so if he has timed his form right, he will be very strong here.
Another in-form rider coming from the Vuelta is Tobias Ludvigsson. He once showed great promise as a time triallist until he suddenly disappeared a bit into anonymity. However, he has returned to his best in 2016 and he has done some very good time trials, most notably in the Giro where he was fourth in the opening stage and in the Vuelta where he was third behind Froome and Castroviejo. More importantly, the Swede is in the form of his life. He has been climbing excellently in the hardest stages and that kind of freshness is crucial at this point of the season. With his big power and solid climbing skills, he should find the course to his liking. It is time for Ludvigsson to take a big TT win.
In the early part of his career, Fabio Felline never excelled in TTs until everything changed in 2015. Suddenly, he emerged as a time triallist and he was in the top 10 in almost every TT he did. Most recently, he did a great time trial on a flat course in Poland and in the Vuelta where he finished in the top 10. The flat course in Spain didn’t suit him ideally and this one is much, much better for the versatile Italian. Morwoer, he ended the race in great form as he was third in the final mountain stage. On this kind of course, Felline will be a strong contender.
This year Sylvain Chavanel has been time trialling pretty poorly and we were about to write him off as a contender. However, he suddenly returned with a bang when he crushed the excellent field in the TT at the Tour du Poitou-Charentes. It came on the back of a great ride in the mountains at the Arctic Race and so Chavanel seems to be riding better than he has done for a long time. The problem is the distance as he prefers time trials of around 20km and he has never really done well in long time trials at the highest level.
Primoz Roglic was known as a pure climber but apparently he had a hidden TT potential which only came out at the Giro. He surprised the entire cycling world by taking second in the opening TT and then came out on top in the long time trial a few days later. In the Tour de Pologne, he proved that his result was no fluke as he finished third in the time trial and at the Olympics he rode to a top 10 result. There is no longer any doubt that he belongs to the best in the world and the hilly course suits him. The question is his form as he hasn’t raced since Rio but he is reportedly feeling good.
Luis Leon Sanchez is the second Spanish card. He rode excellently in the first part of the Vuelta but he seemed to get tired at the end. He did a slightly disappointing TT and it remains to be seen whether he still has the freshness. He has never really done very well in time trials outside stage races but there is little doubt that he is in good condition. On this kind of course, Sanchez should be competitive.
Yves Lampaert has always been a strong time triallist but he has mainly done well in shorter TTs. This year he has emerged as a contender in long time trials too. He was second at Nationals and recently finished fourth in the Vuelta. This shows that he has the form but this course may be a bit too hilly for the strong Belgian.
The rider who beat him at the Belgian championships, was Victor Campenaerts. However, the positions were reversed last week in Spain and the two Belgians are very equally matched. At the moment, Lampaert maybe has the best form but Campenaerts is the better climber and so should be more suited to this race. The main question is whether he is still fresh after his first grand tour.
Nelson Oliveira was a great TT talent at the U23 level before he disappeared into anonymity on the pro scene. However, things started to change at the 2014 Worlds and since then he has progressed constantly. He probably did the TT of his life at the Tour de France where he was third behind Dumoulin and Froome in the first individual test and he backed it up with a great TT at the Olympics. However, he has not been at his best since Rio. He did a poor TT in Poitou-Charentes and he seemed to be tired in the Canadian races. We doubt that he has the form to win even though he is one of the best riders here.
Finally, we will point to Anton Vorobyev and Matthias Brändle. Both are among the biggest specialists and they have prepared specifically for this race. There is little doubt that they will be among the strongest on the flats but the final climb will probably cost them a bit too much time. Vorobyev has proved that he can handle these races though and probably has the best chance. Brändle has mainly done well in shorter TTs but in the Giro he showed signs of improvement in long TTs too, even on a hilly course. Hence, he can’t be ruled out either.
***** Jonathan Castroviejo
**** Bob Jungels, Tobias Ludvigsson
*** Fabio Felline, Sylvain Chavanel, Primoz Roglic, Luis Leon Sanchez
** Yves Lampaert, Victor Campenaerts, Nelson Oliveira, Anton Vorobyev, Matthias Brändle
* Anthony Roux, Moreno Moser, Andriy Grivko, Stefan Küng, Nicolas Roche, Ryan Mullen
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