While many riders are preparing for the World Championships, the Coupe de France is reaching its climax as the next few weeks will decide who’s going to win the prestigious race series. After the recent GP de Fourmies and Tour du Doubs, more points will be up for grabs in Sunday’s GP d’Isbergues which usually gives the sprinters a chance to go for glory and pick up valuable points in the battle for the overall win in the biggest series of races in France.
This weekend all cycling fans have their eyes on the European Championships but there’s another important event in France as the local riders are in the midst of one of the most important times of the season. For the French teams, the Coupe de France race series is a huge goal and these weeks are where it will all be decided.
Most of the races in the series are held in the spring where especially the month of April is loaded with French one-day races that offer points for the prestigious classification. However, the second busiest month is September where the decisive rounds are held.
After the summer break, things going got again at La Polynormande in late July and after a one-month break, the series now reaches its climax. Two weekends ago the biggest race on the calendar, GP de Fourmies, was held and last week the Tour du Doubs gave the climbers a rare chance to shine. This weekend the GP d’Isbergues will be the penultimate race in the series and finally the Tour de Vendee which will be held on October 2 will decide everything.
Like many other Coupe de France races, Grand Prix d’Isbergues is a relatively new old race that was first held in 1945 in Pont-a-Balque. The event had its first official edition in 1947 and since then it has been held every year. It soon established itself as a big event on the French calendar and this is reflected in the list of winners which includes some of cycling’s biggest names. Jan Janssen, Joop Zootemelk, Sean Kelly, Adri van der Poel, Phil Anderson, Jacky Durand and Peter Van Petegem are some of the legends that have come out on top in a race that has one of the most international list of winners in France. Especially, the Belgians have been a dominant force in a race where the local riders have had a hard time. It has been a 1.1 race on the UCI calendar since 1995 and was added to the Coupe de France calendar when the series was created in 1992.
Grand Prix d’Isbergues is held in one of the flattest parts of France and even though the organizers have tried to include the climbs in the area, the race has traditionally suited the sprinters. In fact the last four editions have all been won by the sprinters, with John Degenkolb (2012), Arnaud Demare (2013, 2014) and Nacer Bouhanni (2015) adding to the race to their glorious palmares. In that sense, the race comes at a perfect time in the calendar and it is always held in the same week as the Kampioenschap van Vlaanderen and Primus Classic Impanis-Van Petegem which also suit the fast finishers. Many teams do the entire block of three races from Friday to Sunday, giving the sprinters several chances to benefit from good late-season form in a period of several similar one-day races in France and Belgium that culminates at Paris-Tours in October. At the same time, it has often acted as a final test for the French sprinters ahead of the World Championships.
This year the field is less strong than usual. The late date for the World Championships has prompted the organizers of the Eneco Tour to change their dates. That race now starts one day after the race in Isbergues and this has led many of the best sprinters to the decision to skip the race.
Last year Bouhanni took his first win in the race by beating Michal Kolar and Shane Archbold.
The 70th edition of the race will be held on a 204.3km course that starts a finishes in Isbergues. Already after 6.9km of racing, the riders will cross the finish line for the first time and then they will tackle one lap of a big circuit on the southwestern outskirts of the city. It includes nine climbs, with the first coming at the 49.5km mark. However, most of the ascents come in the second half, with the final three challenges being located after 128.4km, 141.5km and 156.5km of racing respectively. Just 13.3km after the final climb, the riders will cross the line for the first time and then they will end the race by doing five laps of a flat 6.9km circuit in Isbergues.
It’s the same course that was used for last year’s edition of the race.
The last four editions of the race have been decided in bunch sprints and it is usually only possible to deny the sprinters if the weather is really bad. Sunday will get off to a rainy start but it should be dry by the time we get to the start of the race. Gradually, the sun will come out and there will be a moderate win from a northerly direction. This means that the riders will mainly have a headwind in the finale and this will make it even harder for attackers to make a difference.
Bryan Coquard goes into the race as the top sprinter and he will be backed by the strongest teams. Wallonie also want to sprint as Baptiste Planckaert wants to score as many points as possible in a race that overall leader Samuel Dumoulin will skip due to the World Championships. Today Fortuneo-Vital Concept showed that they have full confidence in Dan McLay and FDJ may want a sprint finish too. That makes it hard to imagine that this race won’t be decided in a bunch sprint.
If it comes down to a sprint, Bryan Coquard will be the overwhelming favourite. The Frenchman has been far from his best form after the Tour de France but he showed signs of improvement when he sprinted to third in Fourmies which is a relatively hard race. He also showed growing form in Canada even though the courses turned out to be too hard for him but he was left frustrated in today’s GP Impanis where he failed to mix it up in the bunch sprint.
Coquard will be keen to make amends and in this race he will be backed by a strong team. He has Adrien Petit, Yoann Gene and Thomas Boudat for the lead-out and the former has done a great job all year. Coquard has often had a hard time when it comes to positioning but his lead-out has made him improve a lot. In this race, he is both the fastest rider and has the best train and so he is our favourite.
Fortuneo-Vital Concept go into the race with Dan McLay who has had a bit of a breakthrough. His impressive win at the GP Denain became a bit of YouTube hit and underlined just how fast he is. However, his positioning is pretty bad and so he is very inconsistent in the sprints. That was also evident in Friday’s race where he could only manage 12th and in today’s race where he finished outside the top 30. However, his second place in the hard stage 4 of the Tour of Britain shows that his form is excellent and here the weaker field will make it easier to get into position. Fortuneo-Vital Concept did a great job for their sprinter in today’s race and if they can bring him into a decent position, he is fast enough to beat all the riders here.
Kenny Dehaes has returned to his best in 2016 but his form has not been at its best in the autumn. However, he showed progress by sprinting to fourth in Friday’s race and even though he was dropped in today’s race, he is clearly getting better. This race is a bit easier so he should be much fresher at the finish and with Danilo Napolitano, he has one of the best lead-out men. If he can start his sprint from a better position than he did on Friday, he seems to have the speed to win. If Dehaes is not feeling well, Napolitano may get his chance. The Italian has been sprinting very well recently and will definitely be a solid plan B.
Baptiste Planckaert is fighting hard to win the Coupe de France and he has to exploit the fact that overall leader Samuel Dumoulin is not here. The Belgian is enjoying a breakthrough season and his second place at the very hard Tour du Doubs proves that his form is still excellent. He is great at positioning and so is a very consistent sprinter but this race may be a bit too easy for him.
FDJ have Lorrenzo Manzin who has managed to turn a bad season around at the Vuelta where he did some very good sprints in the final week. He was clearly very fresh at the end of the race and this should set him up for a good end of the season. If he has recovered well, he should carry his good form into this race where he has Sebastien Chavanel for the lead-out. He has proved that he can win at this level.
Romain Feillu had a difficult start to the year but in recent months he has been absolutely flying. He was up there in Fourmies where he sprinted to fourth and in almost every single sprint in Poitou Charentes and Limousin, most notably on the harder stages. Unfortunately, this race may be a bit too easy to suit him perfectly.
Rudy Barbier will turn professional with Ag2r next year and he will be keen to end his time with the team on a high. He was sprinting excellently in the 1.1 races at the start of the year but unfortunately he has not been at the same level in the autumn. He showed signs of progress in Fourmies though and if he can again find his best legs, this is a race that suits him well.
Cofidis have Clement Venturini who proved his potential at this level in the spring where he was close to a number of wins, and at the Tour of Austria where he won a stage. However, he hasn’t raced since then and as he is building for the road season h may not have his best form.
ONE have Steele Von Hoff whose win at the Tour of Norway shows that he can still be competitive at this level. Unfortunately, his positioning is so poor that he rarely gets to show his speed. The same goes for Jakub Mareczko who is a pure sprinter with an incredible top speed. However, he has never really been competitive in Northern Europe as the races are usually too hard for him and even this race is likely to be too tough.
We are very curious to see what Kristoffer Halvorsen can do here. The Norwegian delivered a massive surprise when he finished on the podium in Nokere Koerse. Since then he has confirmed his potential in the big Norwegian races and he is currently in great form as he showed when he finished third in the very hard final stage of the Tour des Fjords. Unfortunately, the race is probably too easy for him.
Finally, we will point to Michael Carbel. The Dane has been a strong sprinter at the national level for years but he has had a hard time in the international races. However, he seems to have taken another step which he proved with today’s 9th place. That will have given him confidence for this race where the easier course should suit him well.
If a small group manages to deny the sprinters, look out for in-form riders like Sylvain Chavanel, Kevin Ista, Florian Senechal, Fabian Wegmann, Quentin Jauregui, Vegard Breen and Xandro Meurisse.
***** Bryan Coquard
**** Dan McLay, Kenny Dehaes
*** Baptiste Planckaert, Lorenzo Manzin, Romain Feillu
** Rudy Barbier, Clement Venturini, Steele Von Hoff, Jakub Mareczko, Danilo Napolitano, Kristoffer Halvorsen, Michael Carbel
* Stephane Poulhies, Dylan Page, Benjamin Giraud, Maxime Daniel, Fridtjoff Roeinaas, Justin Jules, Sylvain Chavanel, Kevin Ista, Florian Senechal, Fabian Wegmann, Quentin Jauregui, Vegard Breen, Xandro Meurisse
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