The European season is coming to an end but with the World Championships coming later than usual, the sprinters are still firing on all cylinders. Traditionally, Sunday’s Paris-Tours will be the final big rendezvous for the fast finishers on the old continent and this year the French classic will serve as the big dress rehearsal for the race in Qatar. As usual, some of the contenders will test their legs in the classic warm-up race, Thursday’s Paris-Bourges, where a bunch sprint traditionally indicates who’s on form for Sunday’s big race.
Since the UCI restructured the calendar and changed the dates of Il Lombardia and Paris-Tours, the latter race has traditionally brought the curtain down on the European season. During the following week, some of the Belgian riders have often been in action at the Nationale Sluitingsprijs and the time triallists have given it a go in Chrono des Nations but the French classic has been the final big event of the year. That has given the old French race a special position and the late date has created some exciting racing and unexpected outcomes that would have been unthinkable on a similarly flat course earlier in the year.
In 2016, the new dates for the World Championships mean that everything has been thrown up in the air and this year Paris-Tours is no longer a final chance to pick up a major result for the few sprinters that still have a bit of form left. With the Worlds being held on a flat course in Qatar, almost every single fast finisher is close to 100% of his condition and in the last few weeks they have all tested their legs in the many Belgian, Italian and French one-day races to make sure that everything is on track for the big battle in Qatar.
This has given Paris-Tours a new role. In 2016, the French classic will be the big dress rehearsal for the race in Qatar and many of the favorites will be at the start in France on Sunday. That also has an impact on Paris-Bourges which has always been the preparation race for the biggest French sprint race. Held just a few days earlier on a very similar course, the race to Bourges has traditionally given the key indication of who’s on form for the big classic. As a smaller race, it never has the same formidable line-up but especially for the French sprinters, it has often been the place to boost the confidence for one of their most important late-season goals.
Paris-Bourges may be the little brother but like Paris-Tours it is a very old race. It was first held in 1913 as an amateur race but got to a rocky start. Probably due to World War I, the second and third editions were only held in 1927 and 1922 respectively and after three four consecutive races in the 20s, it again disappeared from the calendar. However, it returned in 1947 after World War II and it became a professional race in 1949. Unfortunately, it disappeared again after 1947 but since 1971 it has been held every year. It some established itself as a major autumn race, with Bernad Hinault, Joop Zoetemelk, Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle and Phil Anderson all finishing on the podium in the 1970s and 1980s. The list of winners in the 1980s and 1990s includes Stephen Roche, Sean Kelly, Laurent Jalabert and Andnei Tchmil but like Paris-Tours, it has lost a bit of its status in recent years. Nonetheless, it is one of the few opportunities for riders to keep the legs going before Paris Tours and as riders like André Greipel, Nacer Bouhanni, Arnaud Demare, John Degenkolb, Giacomo Nizzolo and Sam Bennett have all been on the podium in the last few years. From 1993 to 2008, it was part of the Coupe de France calendar.
With the Worlds being held less than two weeks after the race in Bourges, it has of course been boosted significantly for 2016. This year all sprinters are close to peak condition and as there aren’t many races at this time of the year, they are all looking for opportunities to do some race kilometres. Paris-Tours will acr as a big dress rehearsal for Qatar but riders like Mark Cavendish, Nacer Bouhanni, Sam Bennett and Alexande Porsev who are all set to lead their respective nations at the Worlds will be at the start.
Like Paris-Tours, Paris-Bourges is held in a flat part of France and so it is geared towards sprinters. However, just like the bigger classic, it often produces surprise outcomes. At this time of the year, riders are tired and the races are less controlled. That has made it possible for aggressive riders to deny the sprinters like Florian Vachon did in 2012 and Mathew Hayman did in 2011. At the same time, the wind can play a huge role and even when it has been decided in a sprint, the races have sometimes been pretty selective.
Last year the race ended in a straightforward where Sam Bennett beat Nacer Bouhanni and Giacomo Nizzolo to establish himself as a leading contender for Paris-Tours.
Like many other old races, Paris-Bourges no longer travels between the two cities that make up the name. Nowadays, the race distances are much shorter and that makes it impossible to link the two cities. Instead, the 66th edition of the race will start in Gien – which is why the official name is now Paris-Gien-Bourges – and end in Bourges after 193.7km of racing. From there the riders will travel south along mainly flat roads. At the midpoint, the terrain gets a bit hillier as the rider will tackle the Cote de Jars, Graveron and Cote de la Chapelotte climbs at the 101.8km, 127.5km and 153.2km marks respectively. The final 40km are almost completely flat and lead to a uncomplicated finish where only a few sweeping bends will challenge te riders in the finale.
Paris-Bourges is a typical sprint race but as said, it is not as straightforward as the flat course suggests. Like in Paris-Tours, the combination of wind, hills and fatigue can make the race harder than expected. The finale is flatter than it is in Tours and so it is harder to deny the sprinters here but pretty often it has been a rather small field that has arrived at the finish.
With the race acting as a warm-up race for Qatar, many riders are hoping for windy conditions and a solid chance to test themselves in the echelons. They will be pleased as the 2016 edition could be one of the selective ones. Thursday is forecasted to be sunny with a maximum temperature of 16 degrees but there will be a rather strong wind from a northeasterly direction. This means that the riders will have a cross-tailwind in the final 50-60km and in general they will have a crosswind for most of the day. This is likely to blow the race to pieces and in a race with many small teams, we expect a pretty small field to arrive at the finish.
The question is whether we will have a race like we had in the Tour de l’Eurometropole where a very small group decided the race. If that’s the case, a late attack could very well pay off as it almost did for Wynants, Naesen and Lampaert in Belgium. Otherwise, it will be a bigger group and we will get a reduced bunch sprint.
The windy conditions mean that there will be no room for the early break and we expect a gradual elimination race where only the strongest are left in the end. Katusha, Cofidis, Dimension Data, Bora-Argon 18 and Direct Energie have the best teams and they can all take the initiative to split the field. However, they also all have great sprinters and will probably try to set up a reduced bunch sprint. A late attack cannot be ruled out but we expect a sprint finish from a depleted peloton.
That scenario suits Nacer Bouhanni excellently. The Frenchman has proved to be in great form for the World Championships, most recently with his win at the Tour de Vendee, where he as in a class of his own in the uphill sprint. After his hotel altercation, he had a hard time when he returned to racing in August but slowly he has built his form and now he seems to be close to his peak. Already at the EuroEyes Cyclassics, he was sprinting very well and now he seems to have added the strength that will make him competitive over longer distances and in harder races. In the Eneco Tour, he was sprinting very well and even though he failed to win a stage, he and Peter Sagan were the only riders to consistently be up there in the bunch sprints.
Bouhanni is more than a pure sprinter and even though he is more suited to small climbs than windy conditions, he has often proved that he can ride well in echelons, most notably at the Vuelta. He is back by one of the strongest teams and most importantly he has the best lead. The combination Soupe-Laporte-Bouhanni has not always done everything perfectly this year but in Vendeee they really nailed the lead-out. The trio seem to be on great form and should all make it in the windy conditions. On paper, Mark Cavendish is faster than Bouhanni but he is not far behind. With the Manxman suffering from illness, we doubt that he will be at his best at the end of what could be a hard race and so we will put our money on Bouhanni.
On paper, Mark Cavendish is of course the fastest rider in the race but the Manxman has had a terrible preparation. He climbed really well at the Giro della Toscana which indicated that he was on form for Qatar but since then everything has gone wrong. He was set back by a stomach infection at the GP Beghelli which he had to abandon and since then he had six days off the bike. He has lost a lot of weight and also had to skip the Münsterland Giro for which he had already booked a flight. He only confirmed his participation in this race at last minute and at the moment, he is planning things from day to day.
If this had been an easy race, Cavendish would probably still have been the favourite but he is likely to suffer in the tough condition. We are not sure that he will be there in the end or that he will be fresh enough to beat an in-form Bouhanni. On the other hand, he is probably the only rider with the speed to do so and so he remains one of the favourites. Kristian Sbaragli will be the back-up plan but even though the Italian is in outstanding form, he is not fast enough to win this kind of sprint.
Katusha go into the race with one of the best teams and will be led by Alexander Porsev who will be the Russian captain at the World Championships. The Russian returned to his best in the Giro where he was one of the most consistent sprinters which was a nice confirmation of the potential he proved a few years ago. He showed good form in Tour des Fjords where he worked for Kristoff and he did a very good work for Kristoff in the Eneco Tour after sprinting to a top 10 in the GP Impanis. Most recently, he initially made the selection in the hard Tour de l’Eurometropole so his form is good.With Marco Haller and Jacopo Guarnieri, he is supported by a big part of Kristoff’s lead-out train and they should all up there at the end of what could be a selective race. If Guarnieri can do what one his textbook lead-outs, Porsev can definitely win this race.
Bryan Coquard is motivated to prove national coach Bernard Borreau wrong in his decision not to select him for the Worlds. However, the Direct Energie rider has been riding poorly since the Tour and he is far from his best form. That was evident in Binche-Chimay-Binche where he was nowhere to be seen in a race that suited him well and even though he was third in Vendee, he was not even close to Bouhanni. However, he has proved that he has the speed to match Bouhanni whom be beat several times in Dunkirk earlier this year and he should benefit from a hard race. Adrien Petit seems to be riding really well at the moment and if he can do one of his best lead-outs, Coquard can win if only a reduced bunch is left.
After a difficult Tour de France and Arctic Race, Sam Bennett was absolutely flying earlier this month when he beat Cavendish twice and climbed excellently at the Giro della Toscana. The Irishman had suddenly established himself as a Worlds outsider but like Cavendish, he has had a bad time since then. He has been suffering from bronchitis which forced him to skip the GP Beghelli and Münsterland Giro and so his form is now a bit of an unknown. He is the defending champion and on paper he is suited to a hard race like this. Furthermore, he is backed by one of the best lead-outs in the race. However, with his less than ideal preparation, it will be hard for him to be fully competitive in a tough race.
Dan McLay has had a breakthrough season. He impressed the entire world with his excellent sprint at the GP de Denain and at the Tour de France he showed that he can be competitive at the highest level too. He showed good form in the Tour of Britain and recently finished fourth in Isbergues. He is building form for the Worlds and so should be even better now. In the classics and in Britain he showed that he can be up there in hard races. He usually suffers in the fight for position but in a smaller field, he will have a much better chance.
Wanty-Groupe Gobert have Roy Jans who has shown solid form recently. He was second behind Degenkolb in the Münsterland Giro and finally seems to have returned to his best after his many health issues. With his current form, he should benefit from the windy conditions and if he can sprint like he did in the early months of the season, he should be one of the best.
Romain Feillu is the in-form sprinter at the moment. The Frenchman has been in the top 4 in the last seven sprints he has done, most recently in Vendee. He is a former winner of this race and his form should bring him far in a tough race like this. Unfortunately, he is unlikely to be fast enough to win.
Baptiste Planckaert has had a fantastic season and has been riding strongly since the beginning of the year. However, it seems that he is now getting a bit tired. He did worse than expected in Vendee and in Binche he only drifted backwards when the sprint was launched. He is very consistent but he is usually not fast enough to beat the best in a flat sprint. On the other hand, he is much stronger than most and so he should benefit from the hard race.
Roubaix have Rudy Barbier who has been one of the best continental sprinters this year. In Vendeee, he showed that the form is still good and he is a strong guy who should excel in the tough conditions. However, he prefers uphill sprints and will probably be a bit isolated if he can survive in the windy conditions.
FDJ go into the race with their two young sprinters Marc Sarreau and Lorrenzo Manzin. Both can be given the chance and both have shown good form. Sarreau has worked well for Demare while Manzin finished the Vuelta really well and finally seems to have found the condition that was missing in the spring. When it comes to speed and endurance, they are very similar but they are probably not fast enough to win here.
Samuel Dumoulin deserves a mention. The Frenchman was close to retirement but as he suddenly found the form of his life he decided to continue. He has been absolutely flying since the Tour and impressed hugely with this fourth place at the European Championships. He is not fast enough to win a flat sprint and windy conditions are not what he prefers. On the other hand, his form means that he should make the selection and he is one of the riders that can make a successful late attack.
Other candidates for a late attack in the windy conditions are Scott Thwaites, Matthieu Ladagnous, Daniel Hoelgaard, Marco Haller, Sylvain Chavanel, Adrien Petit, Jonathan Hivert, Vegard Breen, Jerome Baugnies, Dimitri Claeys and Kevin Ista.
UPDATE: Mark Cavendish hasn't recovered from his illness and will skip the race.
***** Nacer Bouhanni
**** Mark Cavendish, Alexander Porsev
*** Bryan Coquard, Sam Bennett, Dan McLay, Roy Jans
** Romain Feillu, Baptiste Planckaert, Rudy Barbier, Marc Sarreau, Lorrenzo Manzin, Samuel Dumoulin, Kristian Sbaragli
* Scott Thwaites, Matthieu Ladagnous, Daniel Hoelgaard, Marco Haller, Sylvain Chavanel, Adrien Petit, Asbjørn Kragh, Jonathan Hivert, Vegard Breen, Jerome Baugnies, Dimitri Claeys, Kevin Ista
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