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 base 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 Quebec is the easier of the two as the climbs on the 12.6km circuit are gentler than the ones used for the Montreal race. On the other hand, the finish is tougher in Quebec as the final 1.5km are all uphill. With Thomas Voeckler, Philippe Gilbert, Simon Gerrans, Robert Gesink and Rigoberto Uran being the previous winners, it is evident that the race suits the puncheurs and the Ardennes specialists.
In 2014, the course was modified as the circuit was made a bit longer by adding a long, flat section. This meant that fewer laps and so fewer climbs had to be tackled, making the race much easier. Last year the old circuit was back though and it will be the same in 2016.
Last year it was the usual aggressive race but it looked like we were heading for an uphill sprint when nobody had gone clear on the final climb. However, Rigoberto Uran made a well-timed attack to get a small advantage and as no team could organize a chase, the Colombian held his chasers off to take the first big one-day win of his career. Michael Matthews beat Alexander Kristoff in the sprint for second. Uran will be back to defend his title and Matthews will try to go one better than he did 12 months ago but Kristoff has decided not to cross the Atlantic in 2016.
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.
In the first years, the race took place over 16 laps on a 12.6km circuit but in 2014 a noticeable change was made. As said, the circuit was extended from 12.6km to 18.1km by adding a long, flat section at the midpoint and the number of laps was reduced from 18 to 11. Last year the race is back to its traditional format, meaning that there was more climbing, and it will be the same in 2016.
With 16 laps of a 12.6km circuit, the race has a total length of 201.6km and this makes it a tough race but far shorter than the battle for the rainbow jersey. The circuit has three small climbs and the long gradual drag to the finish line on Grande-Allée Ouest.
The race starts at 91m above sea level on the outskirts of the Parc des Champs-de Bataille in Quebec. The first kilometre is slightly ascending as the riders take two sharp left-hand turns to enter the park. Then the roads are slightly descending when the peloton takes a sharp right-hand turn that leads them onto a rolling road that traverses the park. At the 3.5km mark, the riders leave the park as they take a left-hand turn to get back onto the Grande-Allee Ouest and just after the 4km mark, they make another left-hand turn to get onto a descent with a few hairpin turns that take them back to sea level.
From there, the riders roll alongside the park on completely flat roads for four kilometres. Just before the 9km mark, they make a couple of turns that lead them onto the day's first climb Cote de la Montagne (375m, 10%) and up to 42m of altitude in just 375m. The ascent is followed by an immediate descent and at the 10km mark, the riders are almost back at sea level. While the riders tackle two left-hand turns, they head up the Cote de la Potasse (420m, 9%) that sits at 47m of altitude. An almost unnoticeable descent leads to the bottom of the short Montee de la Fabrique (190m, 7%) whose top is at 47m of altitude. This section is fairly technical with several corners. 100m of flat roads lead to the long gradual incline to the finish in 91m of altitude. Two sharp corners will bring the riders onto the finishing straight which is around 900m long and all uphill. The final kilometre has an average gradient of 4%.
The only really steep climb is the Cote de la Montagne but it is rather short and it is the accumulated fatigue more than the climbing itself that makes the difference. Unlike in the Montreal race, the strongest sprinters may have a chance to make a result on this course but the gradual incline to the finish clearly favours the Ardennes specialists and the puncheurs.
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. With several fast finishers in contention for this kind of uphill sprint, many teams have a genuine interest in making the race hard. The teams of the favourites try to keep things under control and the fierce pace makes it a gradual elimination race.
In the first two editions of the race, small groups got clear on the penultimate passage of the climb and were left to fight it out in a hectic finale. In 2012 a bigger 40-rider group remained in contention when they entered the final kilometres. This makes the races very hard to control as few riders have any support riders left in the hectic finales and so one of the numerous attacks on the final lap are likely to be successful. That's what happened in 2013 when Simon Gerrans and Greg Van Avermaet benefited from Sagan's lack of teammates and that's what happened in 2010 when Voeckler made a well-timed attack to deny Edvald Boasson Hagen the win. In 2011, Gilbert managed to control the final 10-rider group before unleashing his immense power on the final uphill straight to the line. In 2013 a small group escaped on the final climbs and all subsequent attacks were neutralized before the group sprinted for the win, with Robert Gesink taking a surprise win. In 2014, the easier course meant that it was a relatively big group that sprinted for the win and last year Uran attacked out of a rather big group that had gathered after the final climb.
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 weather in Canada is not always pleasant and many will remember the horrendous conditions for last year’s race in Montreal. However, things won’t be too bad in 2016. Friday will get off to a rainy start but by the time the race starts, it should be dry. The sun should gradually come out and the temperature will reach a maximum of 24 degrees.
It will be a bit windy, with a moderate wind blowing from a westerly direction. This means that the riders will mainly have a headwind in the first part and a tailwind in the second part of the circuit. I the final 3km it will mainly be a headwind, most notably on the climbs and the finishing straight.
Just as the riders had started to understand the nature of the GP de Quebec, the organizers made a key change to the course and that had a significant impact on the racing. The 2014 race was by far the least selective and it was always evident that it was going to come down to an uphill sprint. Now we are back at the traditional format and this means that we should again have a more selective race.
The results of the previous editions have clearly indicated that this is a race for punchy Ardennes specialists. In some editions, the selection has been made on the penultimate lap but it has mostly come down to the final climbs on the final lap where the best climbers have been able to make a difference before sprinting it out on the uphill finishing straight where the puncheurs have been able to shine.
Quebec is the easiest of the two races. In Montreal, the main climb is so long that it’s more a race for climbers and true Ardennes specialists but in Quebec, the short hills make it more comparable to a Flemish classic. A lot more riders can survive these short, steep ascents and much will depend on how hard the race will be made in the first laps. It will be the accumulated fatigue more than the relatively short climbs that will make the difference.
Thomas Voeckler managed to make an impressive solo move in the inaugural edition but otherwise we have always had a sprint from a smaller group. In 2014 and 2015 it was a bigger group that sprinted for the win while the best climbers have been able to escape in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
In the first years, it seemed that it was easier to make a difference. As the line-up has become stronger, the race has been more controlled and nowadays it seems that the uphill sprint from a 30-40 rider group is the most likely outcome. That was also on the cards last year until Uran made his surprise move in the finale. However, the race has usually been too hard even for the strong sprinters. A rider like Kristoff has been trying a few times and it was only last year that he managed to make it to the finish with the best. For riders that excel on the cobbles, the race is usually too hard while sprinters who can do well in the Ardennes like Peter Sagan, Bryan Coquard and Michael Matthews, are suited to this race.
As it is the case whenever he is at the start of a race, Peter Sagan will be the centre of attention and much will depend on his approach to the race. Does the world champion want a spring from a bigger group or does he want to go on the attack in the finale? Very often he has hampered his chances in a sprint by trying to follow the moves, only to be caught in the finale. This year, however, Tinkoff have a formidable team with the likes of Roman Kreuziger, Rafal Majka, Michael Valgren and an in-form Oscar Gatto and so they have the firepower to control things for a sprint finish.
If Tinkoff want a sprint, they will have an ally in Orica-BikeExchange. The Australians want to win the race with Michael Matthews and will be fully focused on a sprint. They also have one of the strongest teams here and if those two teams combine forces, we will get a sprint.
Other teams want a hard race. BMC and Etixx-QuickStep have Greg Van Avermaet and Julian Alaphilippe who can go on the attack but both are also fast enough to mix it up in a sprint. However, they know that it will be hard to beat the likes of Sagan and Matthews so they will probably try to blow the race to pieces.
Nonetheless, we believe that it will be a sprint. Two of the strongest teams are likely to want that outcome and history shows that it become more and more likely that we will get a sprint finish. Furthermore, the presence of Sagan makes it even more likely. He will probably follow the attacks and as no one wants to go to the finish with him, his groups are usually caught. Furthermore, it will be a headwind on all climbs and on the finishing straight and that will make it much harder to make a difference or make a ‘Rigoberto Uran’ move in the finale.
With a sprint finish on the cards, we will put our money on Peter Sagan. 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 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. 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 Michael Matthews who showed how well the course suits him when he sprinted to second last year. The Australian is not as fast as Sagan in a flat sprint but in an uphill sprint he is much more competitive and he has beaten the world champion in similar finales in the past. An in-form Matthews was strong enough to follow Gilbert on the Cauberg in the 2015 Amstel Gold Race and he has won much harder stages in both the Giro and the Vuelta so the climbs in Quebec should really be nothing. He is trong enough to go with the attack but the team will be focused on a sprint. He felt bad at the RideLondon Classic but his good sprint in Plouay shows that he is back on form. He has beaten Sagan in similar finales in the past, most notably at in Switzerland last year, and he has one big advantage: his train. Michael Albasini and Daryl Impey are great lead-out men in a finale like this and if they can bring Matthews to the perfect position, je won’t be easy to beat.
Julian Alaphilippe 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 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. He is a better climber than his main rivals so he would have preferred the race to be harder but he definitely has a chance in a tough finish like this as he can both attack and wait for the sprint. Many young riders benefit from their first grand tour so we may see an even stronger Alaphilippe in this race.
Greg Van Avermaet has been close to victory in this race on numerous occasions but so far the win has eluded him. However, it’s a race that suits him well as 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. 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.
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. In the Duaphiné he won a tough uphill sprint and if he has the same level here, he can come out on top in Quebec too.
Lampre-Merida have two strong cards to play. If it comes down to an uphill sprint, Diego Ulissi will be their man. 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 this race should be a good one for him. 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 should be good. It won’t be easy to beat the sprinters in an uphill sprint but he has proved that he is capable of delivering a surprise.
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. This race has often been a bit too easy for him and it won’t be easy for him to make a difference but this year he is better than he has ever been. He won’t win a sprint but if anyone can make a ‘Uran’ move, it must be an in-form Costa.
During the last two years, Bryan Coquard has established himself as one of the best uphill sprinters in the world. Just a few weeks ago, he was agonizingly close to beating Kittel in a tough finale in the Tour. Furthermore, he has improved his climbing a lot and this year he was even fourth in the Amstel Gold Race. There is no longer any doubt that he can be competitive in Quebec which is a race that suits him really well. He is one of the select few that can beat Sagan, Matthews, Alaphilippe and Van Avermaet in an uphill sprint. However, he has been far from his best form since the Tour and even though his third place in Fourmies indicates that he is getting better, we doubt that he has the form to win.
Lotto Soudal have two cards to play but for this race, 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 and pretty fast in a sprint. He won’t win a sprint from a bigger group but he can attack in the finale.
Ramunas Navardauskas has done well in this race in the past. He is not a pure sprinter but he has a fast kick at the end of a hard race as he proved when he finished third at the Worlds last year. He was up there in Bretagne so he seems to be in solid form after the Tour de France and his third place in 2014 shows that he has the skills to challenge the very best in this kind of uphill sprint.
Movistar have Jesus Herrada who has had the best year of his career. He has always had a solid uphill kick but he took it to a whole new level when he won a stage at the Dauphiné. If he can produce a similar sprint, he may actually be competitive against the faster guys in this race. He had to leave the Tour de France due to illness but he seems to be back on track. It remains to be seen whether he has the form to go for the win but on paper it’s a race that suits him well.
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 With his fast sprint, it’s not impossible to win the race if he can join the right group in the finale.
Finally, we will point to Bauke Mollema. 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 but it may be a bit too easy for him, with Montreal suiting him better. However, 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.
***** Peter Sagan
**** Michael Matthews, Julian Alaphilippe
*** Greg Van Avermaet, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Diego Ulissi, Rui Costa
** Bryan Coquard, Tiesj Benoot, Ramunas Navardauskas, Jesus Herrada, Gianni Moscon, Bauke Mollema
* Adam Yates, Tom-Jelte Slagter, Tim Wellens, Rigoberto Uran, Ilnur Zakarin, Jarlinson Pantano, Alexis Vuillermoz, Wilco Kelderman, Petr Vakoc, Matteo Trentin, Oliver Naesen
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