This weekend the preparation for the World Championships reaches a new level with the two Canadian WorldTour races Grand Cycliste de Quebec and Grand Prix Cycliste de Montreal. Held on hilly courses over distances of more than 200km, the races and their circuit format offer the perfect opportunity to test the condition a few weeks prior to the battle for the rainbow jersey. Howe, with the flat course in Qatar not very similar to the hilly circuits in Canada, the 7th edition of the races may be more about WorldTour points and prestigious one-day wins and as usual, they have attracted a star-studded line-up of classics specialists that are eager to test themselves on some of the most exciting courses on the WorldTour calendar.
For a number of years, it almost appeared as being a certainty that the first North American race on the WorldTour would be the ever-growing and ambitious Tour of California. With UCI eager to globalize the sport and expand the pinnacle calendar to cover races on most continents, it would just be a question of time before the American stage race would put North America on the biggest scene.
However, the Californian race never got the honour of becoming the first event on the continent to join the exclusive club of WorldTour races. Canadian race promoter Serge Arsenault who has a long history of organizing bike races, planned to put Canada in the cycling spotlight by organizing two WorldTour one-day races and in 2009 quickly reached an agreement with the UCI that awarded his races in Quebec and Montreal 5-year licenses as WorldTour events. Despite several European races' year-long request to get onto the biggest calendar, Arsenault's brand-new project got immediate recognition, UCI being eager to spread their WorldTour calendar to a third continent as fast as possible.
The inaugural events were held in 2010 and didn't get overly much attention. For many teams, the long travel to North America was a hard burden at a time when most riders are on their knees and just looking forward to an off-season rest.
That has since changed and the races now have an important, well-deserved and well-timed place on the calendar. Being well-organized one-day races with a distance of more than 200km, their circuit race formats have turned them into the best possible preparation for the World Championships for the riders that aren't racing the Vuelta a Espana. Having been set up as ‘mini World Championships’, the contenders for the Worlds couldn’t have wished a better block of racing two weeks prior to the big event and in recent editions, the organizers have attracted a star-studded line-up that surpasses the one seen at many European WorldTour races.
The main disadvantage is of course the long travel to North America. However, with the Tour of Utah being held in the USA in August and the newer Tour of Alberta taking place on Canadian soil one week prior to the one-day events, it is now possible to build a solid block of racing consisting entirely of North American races and riders can now make prolonged stays on the other side of the Atlantic to prepare for the world championships even though the cancellation of the USA Pro Challenge has made that approach less favourable. In 2013, riders like Chris Froome, Richie Porte and Peter Sagan did that when they have combined high-altitude racing in Colorado with Worlds-like racing in Quebec and Montreal to prepare for the major autumn objective. However, it seems that the prospect of doing the entire American and Canadian racing schedule no longer has the same appeal.
The one-day races have remained popular though and in recent years it has been hard to find a genuine Worlds contender that was not riding either the Vuelta or in Canada even though the Tour of Britain seems to gradually establish itself as a third path. However, things are slightly different in 2016. Held on hilly circuits in the cities of Quebec and Montreal, they are ones for the riders that excel in the Ardennes classics and that makes them less comparable to the Worlds course than it has been the case in recent years. The big sprinters who are the favourites for the rainbow jersey, have little incentive to travel to Canada as they have no chance on the tough courses. Instead, most of them have opted for the Tour of Britain and this will give a different feel to the Canadian classics. This year their importance will be based more on their WorldTour points than from their status as Worlds preparation. Nonetheless, they have again attracted a formidable line-up that includes almost every single classics specialist or climber that is not at the Vuelta.
The races fit perfectly into the anatomy of the second half of the season which is loaded with one-day races. It all kicks off with the Vattenfall Cyclassics and from there the racing just gets tougher and tougher. While the Hamburg race is one for the sprinters, the GP de Plouay suits both classics specialists and fast riders. The Canadian WorldTour races are even tougher and here the sprinters have a very hard time. Instead, the races are for the puncheurs and Ardennes specialists and in Montreal, the climbers may even have a chance to shine.
On paper, the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montreal is the harder of the two as the major climb is much more difficult than the ones found two days earlier in Quebec. On the other hand, the major difficulty is located in the first part of the course while the final 10km are all easier and it requires enormous strength to make a solo attack stick all the way to the line. However, the sprinters have nothing to say on this course which is one for the climbers and the Ardennes specialists and a winners list that contains Robert Gesink, Rui Costa, Lars-Petter Nordhaug, Peter Sagan, Simon Gerrans and Tim Wellens speaks volumes about the kind of riders that excel in this race. A decent sprint is a big advantage in this race but as it may turn into a race of attrition, climbers can fancy their chances on this course.
Last year the race was held in very bad weather that made it impossible to produce live images from the race. That turned it into a race of attrition where only the strongest survived. Adam Yates and Tim Wellens attacked on the hardest climb and decided the race in two-up sprint where the Belgian came out on top. Rui Costa was the fastest in a small chase group and so finished on the podium for the third time in his career. Wellens will be back to defend his title and Yates and Costa will both be back to try to improve on their performance from last year.
It’s very rare for a WorldTour race to be held entirely as a circuit race and that is what makes the Canadian WorldTour races special. Even the GP Ouest France-Plouay no longer has a similar format and it is exactly this nature that has made them attractive for the Worlds contenders. Furthermore, their hilly nature makes them comparable to many Worlds courses and this adds further value to the races.
While the course in Quebec has been changed twice, the course in Montreal has always been the same and it will be the same circuit that has been used for the first six editions of the race, meaning that the riders now know what to expect. The 12.1km course will be repeated 17 times to add up to a 205.7km race which makes it a tough race but far shorter than the battle for the rainbow jersey. The course has two climbs and a short 500m ramp to the finish on Avenue du Parc.
The race starts at 79m above sea level on the Avendue du Parc near the University of Montreal and the circuit mostly consists of a lap around the large area that hosts that institution. From the start, the riders head down a small 200m descent before taking a left-hand turn onto the circuit's major challenge, the Cote Camilien-Houde. The 1.8km climb has two hairpin bends and a right-hand corner near the top and takes the riders up to 211m of altitude at an average gradient of 8%.
The climb is immediately followed by a long, gradual descent that follows slightly winding roads and leads to the 5km mark. A flat kilometre with three sharp turns brings the peloton to the bottom of the course's second challenge, Cote de la Plytechnique (780m, 6%), that takes it back up to 158m of altitude, has its top at the 6.5km mark and has a 200m section with an 11% gradient. A short, sharp descent with some technical corners leads to a flat 8th kilometre. The 9th kilometre is slightly downhill and has two sharp corners but from there the roads are mostly straight and either flat or slightly downhill.
At the 10.6km mark, the riders make a sweeping right-hand turn onto Avenue du Parc and 500m further up the road, they start a small 500m descent. At the end, they make a U-turn to head 580m back up the same road to reach the finish line, the finishing straight having a 4% gradient.
The Cote Camilien-Houde is a really tough climb that rules out any chance for the sprinters and puts the climbers and the Ardennes specialists to the fore. The climb is tough enough to make a difference but due to its early location, it is difficult for the pure climbers to keep it going all the way to the line as the final 10km are mostly downhill. The Cote de la Polytechnique offers a launch pad for an attack but from its top 5.6km of mainly descending or flat roads remain. A versatile climber with a fast sprint has a good chance to shine on this course.
The racing is usually extremely aggressive and the race very difficult to control. It usually takes some time for the early break to be established and from there, the race follows the traditional scenario with an organized chase where the stronger teams gradually increase the pressure.
However, attacks have a good chance of being successful in this race and so new offensives are often launched from afar. The final 3-4 laps are usually a festival of attacks where groups are being formed, reeled in and new established. The teams of the favourites try to keep things under control and the fierce pace makes it a gradual elimination race. Compared to Quebec, the selection will be much bigger and towards the end of the race, the peloton should be smaller.
In the first edition of the race, Robert Gesink did the trick when he attacked the final time up the climb and rode solo all the way to the finish. In what has been the most selective edition of the race so far, he was chased by a small 5-rider group that had gone clear on the climb while a larger 22-rider group followed a little further behind. The least selective editions were in 2014 when a big group of more than 30 riders sprinted for the win, and 2011 when Rui Costa had escaped solo on the main climb but a rather big group came back together for the finale. Costa, Stefan Denifl and Pierrick Fedrigo slipped clear and decided the race. The 2012 edition followed a similar pattern, with the decisive group being smaller. In 2013, a highly competitive field with many climbers made it harder and as the dust had settled, only 11 riders remained in contention from where Peter Sagan launched his race-winning attack. Last year the weather made it very hard and that made it impossible for two small groups to be formed in the finale.
In this kind of aggressive and uncontrollable final, power, tactical ingenuity, team support and luck are all of importance. You need to be strong to get to the finale but the strongest rider doesn't always win the race.
The bad weather in last year’s race made many describe it as the hardest race they had ever done. This year conditions will be better even though Sunday can hardly be described as a summer day. After a rainy morning, the risk of showers will gradually disappear and the sun should come out for the finale. The maximum temperature will be 22 degrees.
It will be a windy day, with a strong wind blowing from a westerly direction. This means that the riders will have headwind on the main climb and a tailwind on the second climb and the run-in to the finish. It will be a crosswind in the final kilometre.
The GP de Montreal will be held on the same course that has been used for the first six editions of the race and so the riders now know what to expect from the race. At a first glance, the race may look like the perfect opportunity for a punchy climber with a fast sprint. Strong climbing legs are needed to survive the many climbs and with a mostly flat second part of the stage, a sprint finish from a small group seems to be a realistic outcome.
However, history has shown that it is very hard to set up a sprint in this race. In fact, only the 2014 edition came down to a sprint from a bigger group. Robert Gesink and Peter Sagan have both managed to take solo wins by attacking on the climbs on the final lap while a few riders managed to get clear after the selection had been made on the climbs in 2011 and 2012. Last year Yates and Wellens rode away on the hardest climb on the final lap.
A lot of riders want it to come down to a sprint finish from a select group but the past editions have shown that the course is very difficult to control. The climbs cannot be underestimated and usually whittle the group down to 10-15 riders. In such a small group, only a select few are likely to have any teammates at their side and the fast riders could easily be isolated. The long, flat run back to the finish is perfectly suited to attacks and then it all comes down to a combination of timing, legs and luck to make the right move.
Last year the weather played a big role and made it more selective than usual. This year the weather will probably play the opposite role. There will be a pretty strong headwind on the hardest climb, unlike last year when it was a tailwind. That makes it much harder for anyone to make a difference and means that we could have a bigger group than usual deep into the finale.
Gesink's and Sagan’s solo performances are likely to be the exception and the other editions are probably more indicative of what we can expect. A few riders may go clear on the climb but some kind of regrouping is likely to take place on the descent. This year Sagan is back for the first time since 2013 and as usual much of the race will evolve around him. Does he want a sprint finish or will he ride aggressively like he did three years ago?
The climbs in Montreal are harder than they are in Quebec and this makes the terrain less favourable for Sagan. However, he is still one of the very best in this terrain and he could easily turn out to be the strongest. That suggests that he should go on the attack to get rid of some of the faster guys. On the other hand, he is backed by a much stronger team than he was in 2013. Roman Kreuziger and Rafal Majka should both be able to make the selection on this kind of heavy course and this makes it possible for Sagan to control things for a sprint finish. There is no real reason to risk anything and it would be wiser for him to use his strong team, especially with the headwind. We expect Tinkoff to control things pretty firmly and so it is likely that we will get a sprint from a bigger group. The main question is how many riders will still be left in contention.
This means that Sagan is the obvious favourite. His form may be a bit uncertain as he has been focused on the Olympics and his mountain bike. A one-hour effort is different from a 200km race and so it is not ideal preparation for this race. However, Sagan has been back on the road for two weeks and he is always on form. Unfortunately, he fell ill and had to abandon Bretagne Classic which has hampered his build-up to the race and so he hasn’t finished a race since the Tour. However, he was in great form in Rio and that should carry into this race.
Sagan has set his sights on the WorldTour win and so he will be fully motivated and fully supported by one of the best teams in the race. He is one of the strongest in this kind of terrain and he has proved that this race is not too hard for him. In fact, he has been climbing at a very high level all year and he hasn’t been at this level since he last won the race in 2013. In this kind of uphill sprint, he is maybe the fastest riders in the world. He is excellent when it comes to positioning and he is a better climber than the other sprinters in the race, meaning that he should be fresher at the finish – in fact he may be the only real sprinter to survive. Furthermore, he has probably been sprinting better than ever in 2015 as he has even been close to the really fast guys in the big bunch sprints. The finish of this race is not too different from the finale of stage 2 of the Tour which he won in dominant fashion. At the moment, Sagan is simply the best uphill sprinter after a hilly race and with a strong team to support him, he is our favourite to win the race.
His biggest rival will be Julian Alaphilippe who made his debut in this race in 2015 but as he suffered from mononucleosis, he failed to be competitive. This year he will be eager to get his revenge and there is no reason that he can’t win. The Frenchman has an unlimited potential and has already proved that he is one of the best one-day riders in the world, most recently at the Olympics where he finished fourth after having dropped Chris Froome on the hardest climb. His performance at the Tour was impressive and he just continues to surprise in every terrain.
Alaphilippe made his return to racing in Fourmies last week so his form is uncertain. However, he is always riding well and we expect him to be competitive right from the start. He is a better climber than Sagan and the harder course in Motreal suits him better than the race in Quebec. He is very likely to be one of the best on the climbs and so he can win the race by going on the attack. At the same time, he is very fast in an uphill sprint like this as he has proved on numerous occasions. In stage 2 of the Tour, he was second behind Sagan and he did a memorably fast sprint in the Dauphiné. Many young riders benefit from their first grand tour so we may see an even stronger Alaphilippe in this race.
Greg Van Avermaet is perfectly suited to this race but he has never got it right. He can be competitive in both a sprint and by going on the attack. Usually, riders like Sagan and Matthews are faster than him but in the last two years he has beaten Sagan in uphill sprints at the Tour, Tirreno-Adriatico and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. This will give him the confidence that he can do so again here. The question is whether it’s best to wait for a sprint or go on the attack but his newfound confidence means that he may opt for the latter. On the other hand, his climbing has reached new heights and he could very well make it into a move on the climb. It’s his second race since the Olympics but in Bretagne, he and Rui Costa were the best on the final climb so he is back on form. A confident Van Avermaet may be able to beat the faster guys here.
Orica-BikeExchange have a two-pronged attack with Michael Matthews and Adam Yates. While the Brit will go on the attack, the Australian will try to survive and make it to the finish with the best to do the sprint. While the race in Quebec suits him down to the ground, this race is maybe a bit too hard for him. However, on his best days, he climbs extremely well and it is no coincidence that he is a perennial favourite at the Amstel Gold Race and has been on the attack in the mountains at the Tour de France. The headwind will make it easier to survive and if he does, he will have Albasini and Impey to do an excellent lead-out. He felt bad at the RideLondon Classic but his good sprint in Plouay shows that he is back on form. He is the rider with the best chance to beat Sagan in a sprint – the question is whether he will make the selection.
Last year Adam Yates was close to victory in this race and with his second place here and win the Clasica San Sebastian, he has proved that he is one of the best one-day riders in the world. In the Tour de France, he obviously reached a whole new level and he will be keen to blow the race to pieces with his stinging attacks on the climbs. He is one of the very best in this terrain but the question is what kind of form he has. He was clearly tired in Rio but now he has a month to recover and like last year he may be back on form at this time of the season. The headwind won’t make it easy but he is one of the select few who can make the difference on the climbs.
The in-form climber is Rui Costa. The former world champion didn’t find his best form in the Tour de France but since then he has been flying. His performance in Rio was impressive and he was the best on the climbs in both Plouay and Hamburg. He is a past winner of this race and as a former world champion, he has proved that he has the nose to win tough one-day races like this. We have little doubt that he will be on e of the best on the climbs and if a small group makes it, he will be there. He is also pretty fast in this kind of uphill sprint but obviously he won’t win a sprint from a bigger group.
Bauke Mollema is another obvious candidate. The Trek rider is having the best season of his career. His ride at the Tour was remarkable and he proved that he has reached a new level as a one-day rider when he won in San Sebastian. He has done well in this race in the past and this is the race in Canada that suits him the best. His time trial win in Alberta shows that his form is good and if he can make it into a small group in the finale, he has the sprint to finish it off in an uphill finish like this.
Edvald Boasson Hagen has done well in Canada in the past and he should be up there again this time. Last year the Norwegian was flying at this time of the year and if he has carried the same form out of the Tour, he will be very strong in this race. He rode in Bretagne where the race was a bit too easy for him and he should be much more competitive here. In the last 12 months, he has returned to his former level and many will remember that he was very close to following Sagan at the Worlds last year. This race could be a bit too hard for him but if it comes down to a sprint from a bigger group, he definitely has a chance. In the Dauphiné he won a tough uphill sprint and if he has the same level here, he can come out on top in Montreal too.
Lotto Soudal have two cards to play but as defending champion Tim Wellens is not in great form, Tiesj Benoot is the best option. The Belgian has had an injury- and illness-marred year but seemed to be back on track at the Tour de Pologne where he delivered an outstanding climbing performance. However, he was set back by food poisoning which cost him a few races but he surprised himself with a good ride in Bretagne. This has made him confident for this race which is one of his big goals for the autumn. He is very strong in this kind of terrain which he proved with his big attack in the finale last year, and is pretty fast in a sprint. He won’t win a sprint from a bigger group but he can attack in the finale.
Sky have Gianni Moscon. 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 Paris-Roubaix, he showed that he can handle the long races and the hilly course here suits him excellently. Obviously, it’s a different level to follow the best on the climbs in this kind of race but if he can, he has the sprint to beat the climbers on the uphill finishing straight.
Diego Ulissi is really suited to this race but his form is very uncertain. He is a bit of a specialist in an uphill sprint as he has proved at the Tour Down Under and most memorably when he beat much faster guys in a sprint at the 2014 Giro d’Italia. He suffers a bit in the long races but here the distance is manageable Unfortunately, he is a bit inconsistent and he has sent very mixed signals in the second half of the season. However, he was up there in Bretagne so his form can’t be too bad. We doubt that he will be strong enough to go with the best if a small group makes it but he will be good in a sprint from a bigger group.
Ilnur Zakarin is making his return after the big disappointment of missing out on the Olympics. The race is a bit too easy for him and he hasn’t had many results in the one-day races. On the other hand, he hasn’t really done many classics and this year he was probably the best rider in Liege-Bastogne-Liege. He hasn’t race since the Tour de France so his form is uncertain. However, if he is close to 100%, he has proved that he can drop everybody on the climbs and he is also reasonably fast in a sprint.
Last year Rigoberto Uran won in Quebec but this race actually suits him much better as it is a lot harder. He may have had a bad first year with Cannondale but he has actually been climbing reasonably well. He hasn’t raced since the Olympics where he was not at his best but these races should be one of his big goals in the autumn so he shouldn’t be too bad. If he is close to his best, he is strong on short climbs and he is also pretty fast in an uphill sprint.
Finally, we will point to Romain Bardet. The Frenchman may be known as a climber but he is actually a pretty good one-day rider too. He has been in the top 10 in Liege-Bastogne-Liege three years in a row and he should find this hilly course to his liking. Of course he would have preferred it to be much harder but he has a decent punch on short climbs and is definitely one of the best climbers here. His form is uncertain but he has big goals for the rest of the season and this race is one of them so he shouldn’t be too bad. If a small group can make the difference in the end, Bardet should be there and even though it will be hard to beat the faster guys in an uphill dash to the line, it’s not impossible for the Frenchman.
***** Peter Sagan
**** Julian Alaphilippe, Greg Van Avermaet
*** Michael Matthews, Rui Costa, Adam Yates, Bauke Mollema
** Edvald Boasson Hagen, Tiesj Benoot, Gianni Moscon, Diego Ulissi, Ilnur Zakarin, Rigoberto Uran, Romain Bardet
* Michael Albasini, Tom Wellens, Wilco Kelderman, Jakob Fuglsang, Fabio Aru, Diego Rosa, Bryan Coquard, Ramunas Navardasukas, Jesus Herrada, Tom-Jelte Slagter, Jarlinson Pantano, Ion Izagirre Alexis Vuillermoz, Petr Vakoc.
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