After a one-month break, the Coupe de France is ready for its next round in arguably the biggest race. The Grand Prix de Fourmies is one of the few events on the calendar of the French series that attracts foreign WorldTour teams and has traditionally been regarded as the revenge match after Saturday’s Brussels Cycling Classic. Mostly the sprinters have shined in Fourmies but a lumpy finishing circuit has shown that surprises are always possible in the autumn classic.
The Coupe de France is hugely prestigious in France and a big goal for all the French teams. However, most of the series is made up of 1.1 races that don’t attract any foreign WorldTour teams. A few of them break the trend slightly, most notably GP de Denain and GP la Marseillaise, but there is little doubt that the biggest event in the series is the Grand Prix de Fourmies.
It is hard to say why the race has a higher status but it is reflected in its position in the UCI hierarchy. Unlike the other races in the French series, it has been a 1.HC event for years and even though the Tour de Vendee has belonged to the same category in the past and the race in Denain now has a similar position, the race in Fourmies stands out. When it comes to prestige in France, it is just below the big WorldTour classics and Paris-Tours and this is reflected in the line-up which is much stronger than most of the French one-day races.
The race was first held on June 10 in 1928 and since then it has only been cancelled during World War II and in 1966. Foreign riders played a role right from the beginning as it soon became an important event on the calendar and it has had big foreign winners like Barry Hoban, Eddy Merckx and Didi Thurau. It was briefly held as a stage race over two days in the 60s and 70s but for most of the time, it has been a one-day race for professional riders. In recent years, it has become increasingly international and since 1992, only four editions have been won by French riders. It has been a 2.HC race since the current system was introduced in 2005 and it has been on the Coupe de France calendar since 2000. It was applying for WorldTour status for 2017 but missed out on one of the coveted spots.
The GP de Fourmies is held in lumpy part of France and this has turned it into an unpredictable affair. Usually, it has been decided in a bunch sprint, with recent winner including the likes of Baden Cooke, Robbie McEwen, Romain Feillu, Nacer Bouhanni and Jonas Van Genechten. However, the terrain is far from flat and this has opened the door for attackers to surprise the fast finishers. The final circuit is suited to puncheurs and this has allowed riders like Philippe Gilbert, Peter Velits, Fabio Felline and Giocanni Visconti to deny the sprinters.
The race is held in the same weekend as the Brussels Cycling Classic and those two races form a solid racing block for the strong sprinters who have lots of opportunities at this time of the year. They follow naturally after the EuroEyes Cyclassics and the Bretagne Classic and this year they carry extra importance due to the nature of the World Championships. There is a big overlap between the fields even though different teams are invited to the two races. Often the race in Fourmies is regarded as a revenge match after the race in Brussels but the course is harder and much more suited to attackers than the race in Belgium which is usually for sprinters.
Last year Fabio Felline showed how to deny the sprinters. The Italian was the lone survivor of a small group that escaped in the finale and held off Tom Boonen and Nacer Bouhanni by the tiniest of margins. As he is currently riding the Vuelta, he won’t defend his title.
The 84th edition of the race will be held on the same 205km course that has been used for several years. The riders will both start and finish in the city of Fourmies and will do a number of different circuits. First they will tackle a small circuit on the southern outskirts that includes a single climb. Then they will head into the hilly terrain north of Fourmies where they will tackle a total of three climbs. One of them, the key climb that also features on the final circuit will be tackled once while the other two feature on circuit that will be covered thrice.
After the third lap, the riders will return to Fourmies and the race ends with five laps of the well-known circuit. It is 11km long and includes a small climb just after the passage of the line. Then the riders will stay on a plateau until a descent leads to the final kilometre which is flat. There aren’t any sharp turns in the final 3km.
Unlike Saturday’s race in Brussels which is almost destined to end in a bunch sprint, things have always been more open in Fourmies. The lumpy circuit is very hard to control and last year’s race was a great example of how a breakaway can make it to the finish. Most of the time, it comes down to a sprint but in this race there are no guarantees.
This year the riders will have really bad weather as Sunday is forecasted to be wet and windy and this could lead to a more selective race than usual. This opens the door more for attackers to try to make the difference. On the other hand, there are a lot of teams that are here for the sprint. Etixx-QuickStep, Cofidis, Direct Energie and FDJ all have one goal: that the race is decided in a bunch kick. This means that the most likely outcome is a battle between the fast guys. However, the bad weather means that the race will be much harder and we will definitely not have a full peloton in the end.
If it comes down to a sprint, Marcel Kittel will be the man to beat. . The German has been back to his best all year and proved that he is again the fastest sprinter in the world. He dominated the first sprints in the Giro d’Italia and even though the Tour wasn’t as successful as hoped, it was more due to chaotic lead-outs than a lack of speed.
Kittel has only done one race since the Tour. In the EuroEyes Cyclassics, he showed that he is back on form as he made it over the Waseberg with the best. Unfortunately, he punctured in the finale and didn’t have time to get back to do the sprint. However, he must be in great form as the next few weeks will determine whether he or Greipel will lead Germany at Worlds and this race is his first chance to prove himself.
This race is a hard one which is not ideal for Kittel. However, the race in Hamburg is harder and with the Worlds coming up, he should be strong enough to handle this. The fast power sprint suits him really well and on paper, Etixx have the best lead-out here. Petr Vakoc, Julian Alaphilippe,Tom Boonen and Matteo Trentin form a very powerful block, especially after a hard race, and even though they have to take the responsibility, they should be fresh enough to dominate the sprint. Kittel is the fastest sprinter here and he must be the big favourite to win the race.
His biggest rival will be Nacer Bouhanni. It has been a difficult season for the Frenchman as he missed the Tour de France after he injured his hand in a hotel altercation. His return to racing was difficult but now he seems to have found his best sprinting legs. The Frenchman was the fastest in the sprint at EuroEyes Cyclassics but was relegated due to irregular sprinting. He bounced back with two stage wins in the Tour du Poitou-Charentes which had a very strong field of sprinters and looked on form for the Bretagne Classic. Surprisingly, he was dropped in that race and he doesn’t seem to have his best climbing legs. However, he is usually a much better climber than Kittel and he should be fresher than the German at the end of a hard race. Unlike in Brussels, he doesn’t have his best train here and this will make things more difficult but as the second fastest rider in the race, he is still the biggest threat to the big German. Furthermore, it’s a chance to prove himself against Demare and Coquard in the battle for leadership at the Worlds
On paper, this is a great race for Bryan Coquard as he is a much better climber than the other sprinters. This year has been a bit of a breakthrough for him and he has had lots of success throughout the entire season. Unfortunately, he seems to be out of form. After the Tour, he has been riding in both Limousin and Poitou-Charentes but he was nowhere to be seen in the sprints. However, he was better in Bretagne Classic where he only failed to be positioned for the sprint. Positioning has always been his weakness but he has improved a lot. He has Adrien Petit for the lead-out and at the end of a hard race he definitely has the speed to beat the best.
Arnaud Demare has been climbing excellently in recent weeks but he has been sprinting terribly. He hasn’t really got much out of his great form and most recently he failed to finish in Bretagne. He failed to shine in Poitou-Charentes and he was out of position in the sprint in Hamburg. However, Demare’s good form should make a difference at the end of a hard race like this and he can rely on a good lead-out with the likes of Marc Sarreau and Mickael Delage. His big problem has always been positioning but in a smaller field at the end of a hard race things will be easier. If he is not too far back at the start of the sprint, he can win this rac.
Lampre-Merida are here with Sacha Modolo. The Italian is usually not fast enough to beat the likes of Kittel, Bouhanni and Coquard but in this race he has a big advantage. Lampre-Merida are here with an excellent lead-out train of Roberto Ferrari, Davide Cimolai and Marko Kump and this should make a big difference. Modolo has some confidence after his win in the Czech Republic and he should find the hard course to his liking finish to his liking. He would have preferred a more technical finale but if Lampre-Merida can nail the lead-out, he has a chance.
Baptiste Planckaert is fighting hard for the win in the Coupe de France so he will be very motivated here. He has been up there in almost every race in the series and this one should suit him well too. Obviously, the field is stronger than in the other races but he is suited to a sprint at the end of a hard race. He is very consistent due to his great positioning and he will be very good if the race becomes hard and selective.
If the race becomes too hard for Kittel, Etixx-QuickStep still have a strong card to play. Tom Boonen has been absolutely flying since he signed his contract extension and he will be ready to take over. He won a sprint in Wallonia and was superior in the sprint at RideLondon Classic. This course should suit him well as he climbs reasonably. Furthermore, he excels in sprints after hard races and he is definitely in great form and sprinting better than he has done for a long time. Most notably, he will have an in-form Matteo Trentin for the lead-out and this could very well make the difference in this tough finale.
To avoid having to control the race, Etixx-QuickStep may decide to follow the moves with Julian Alaphilippe who returns to competition after the Olympics. His form is uncertain but as he was flying in Rio, he is probably not too bad. He is one of the best puncheurs and so will be able to follow everyone on the final climb. Among the attackers, he is one of the fastest in a sprint too.
The team may also play the Matteo Trentin card. The Italian has been riding really well since he returned to competition in Wallonia and he has even been in the top 10 in both of the WorldTour races in Hamburg and Bretagne. He probably has to do the lead-out for Kittel or Boonen but it may be wise for the team to ask him to join the moves. He is very strong in this terrain and no one is going to beat him in a sprint.
The in-form rider at the moment is Rui Costa. The Portuguese was flying in Rio where he dropped Froome on the final climb and he was the best on the final climbs in the races in Hamburg and Plouay. There is little doubt that he will try to attack in the finale and with his current form he may be strong enough to finish it off.
Another in-form attacker is Dimitri Claeys. The Wanty rider soloed to victory in GP Jef Scerens and was one of the best in Druivenkoers Overijse. He should find the lumpy finishing circuit to his liking and should be able to follow the moves. He won a reduced bunch sprint in Wallonia so he has the speed to finish it off from a small breakaway.
Sylvain Chavanel has come out well from the Tour. He was climbing excellently at the Arctic Race and crushed the opposition in the Poitou-Charentes TT. In this race, the main goal is to support Coquard but he may be given the freedom to try a late attack. He is pretty fast in a sprint and is strong on this kind of circuit.
Finally, we will point to Romain Feillu and Manuel Belletti. The Frenchman has had some difficult years but he has been riding really well in recent weeks as he did some great sprints in Poitou-Charentes and Limousin. He likes this kind of reduced bunch sprint. It’s the same for Belletti and just like Feillu, he has proved to be in good form.
Note: There are usually many last-minute changes to the start list after the Brussels Cycling Classic. Hence, some of the riders on the list may not be present.
***** Marcel Kittel
**** Nacer Bouhanni, Bryan Coquard
*** Arnaud Demare, Sacha Modolo, Baptiste Planckaert
** Tom Boonen, Julian Alaphilippe, Matteo Trentin, Rui Costa, Dimitri Claeys Sylvain Chavanel, Rudy Barbier, Romain Feillu
* Rudy Barbier, Samuel Dumoulin, Filippo Pozzato, Xandro Meurisse, Phil Bauhaus, Sam Bennett, Paul Voss, Petr Vakoc, Yauheni Hutarovich, Andrea Guardini, Roman Maikin, Raymond Kreder, Eduard Grosu, Jakub Mareczko
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