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Who'll win the mountainous preparation race for the Vuelta a Espana?

Photo: ASO/B.Bade

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10.08.2016 @ 11:11 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

As the road cycling at the Olympics comes to a close, the attention slowly turns to the Vuelta a Espana and the final series of preparation that are held throughout Europe during the week. One of the most important places to test the form for the Spanish grand tour has traditionally been the mountainous Tour de l’Ain which has gathered an unusually strong field for the 2016 edition.

 

The Vuelta a Espana contenders can usually be divided into two groups. The first group consists of riders that have done the Tour de France. For those riders, the weeks between the two grand tours are all about recovery and apart from a potential start at the Clasica San Sebastian, there is usually no room for any racing in the first part of August. For the rest of the contenders, these weeks are a crucial part of the preparation as it is usually the time to fine-tune the condition by doing a small race after a heavy block of training.

 

Every grand tour is preceded by a number of stage races that serve as the perfect warm-up for the three-week race. The Tour de Romandie, Tour of Turkey and Giro del Trentino are known as the places to prepare for the Giro while the Criterium du Dauphiné, Tour de Suisse, Route du Sud, Ster ZLM Toer and Tour de Slovenie mean that there are a lot of potential options in the build-up for the Tour. It is no different for the Vuelta whose traditional key preparation race has been the Vuelta a Burgos. In recent years, the Tour de Pologne has become the preferred option but there are a number of alternatives to the races in Burgos and Poland.

 

The Eneco Tour has been a key even for a number of years and the Arctic Race of Norway and the Czech Cycling Tour are relatively new additions to a part of the calendar that gets increasingly crowded. However, for years one of the best chances to get ready for three weeks of mountainous races has been the Tour de l’Ain. Held in one of the hilliest parts of France, the short stage race offers the perfect mix of sprint and mountain stages for riders of all different types to test themselves less than two weeks before the start of their big goal and even though the competition has become stronger, the race still seems to be in a good place.

 

The Tour de l’Ain was first held in 1989 where it took over from Prix de l'Amitié which disappeared from the calendar. Until 1992, it was an event for amateur riders and then became open to professional riders as well. In 1999, a new organizer took over and they introduced the mountaintop finish on Le Grand Colombier which was the marquee stage for a number of years. In 2002, the race was finally added to the UCI calendar and since the current system was introduced in 2005, it has been a 2.1 race on the UCI Europe Tour.

 

The race is held in the Ain Department where it is the biggest sporting event. The area is ideal for a versatile stage race as it has a flat part in the west and the Jura Mountains in the east. Hence, the race has traditionally offered an opening prologue, a sprint stage, a lumpy transitional stage and two tough mountain stages. At first it was held over four days but in recent years it has been extended to a five-day race. This year it returns to a four-day format.

 

With the amount of time trialling being limited it has been a great race for climbers and this is reflected in the list of winners which is very prestigious. Since the race was added to the UCI calendar in 2002, it has been won by riders like Andrew Talansky, Romain Bardet, David Moncoutie, Rein Taaramae Haimar Zubeldia, Linus Gerdemann and John Gadret while Wout Poels, Daniel Martin, Leopold König, Chris Horner and Bauke Mollema are among the riders to have finished on the podium. Those great climbers have often benefited from the big mountaintop finish on Le Grand Colombier but that finale hasn’t featured in recent years.

 

The Tour de l’Ain has traditionally been one of the preferred preparation races for the Vuelta but it lost a bit of appeal when the Tour de Pologne was moved to early August. With all WorldTour teams obliged to do the Polish race, many decided to skip the Tour de l’Ain. With the addition of races like the Arctic Race of Norway and the Czech Cycling Tour, the competition has become harder for the traditional races. While the Vuelta a Burgos has become increasingly Spanish, the Tour de l’Ain has turned into a predominantly French affair.

 

Luckily, things have changed a bit for the 2016 edition. The Rio Olympics have caused a reshuffling of the calendar as the Eneco Tour and the Tour de Pologne have both found new slots. This has given more room for the Tour de l’Ain and the Vuelta a Burgos that have both attracted much stronger fields than usual. This year there will be no less than eight WorldTour teams on the start line in France.

 

Last year’s race was won by Alexandre Geniez who did a very good prologue and moved into the leader’s jersey by winning the first of two mountain stages. He defended his position in the final stage and ended the race with ad advantage of five seconds over Florian Vachon and 9 seconds over Pierre Latour. Geniez and Latour will both be back in 2015 but Vachon will skip the race.

 

The course

As said, the race has traditionally had a prologue, a sprint stage, a lumpy stage and two mountain stages. This year the course follows the well-known formula but as the race has been shortened by one stage, there will be no prologue. Instead, it will all start with a flat stage for the fast guys before the lumpy stage 2 will provide the first selection. The race will be decided in the final two stages which both have a significant amount of climbing. The only uphill finish comes in stage 3 while the final stage includes the landmark climb of Le Grand Colombier. However, there will be no mountaintop finish on the climb which was usually the case a few years ago. This has changed the race a bit as it has become less suited to pure climbers and more for versatile riders that also have a fast sprint.

 

 

Stage 1

As said, the first road stage has usually been for the sprinters and it will be no different in 2016. On the first day, the riders will cover 149.6km between La Plaine Tonique and Saint-Vulbas and they are almost completely flat. There is an early categort 4 climb after 18.9km of racing but from there, the only real challenge is the wind. The stage ends with one lap of a flat 23km circuit that has a downhill finish.

 

This is the best opportunity for the sprinters in this year’s race and even though the lack of flat stages means that the number of fast finishers is pretty low, they can’t allow themselves to miss out. With no prologue, the yellow jersey will even be up for grabs and this will be another incentive for the fastest riders to try to control things and get the traditional sprint finish in Saint-Vulbas where Nacer Bouhanni won bunch kicks in both last year’s race and this year’s Criterium du Dauphiné.

 

 

Stage 2

The stages in the Tour de l’Ain have a nice progression as they become increasingly harder. After the flat opener, there will be more need for the climbing legs on the second stage which will bring the riders over 173.2km from Saint-Didier-sur-Chalaronne to Montreal-la Cluse. As the race starts in the flat part of the department, the first half is largely flat but then the terrain gradually becomes harder. The Category 4 Cotr de Matafelon-Granges serves as a warm-up before the riders hit the category 3 Cote de Cessiat for the first time, with the top coming at the 131.8km mark. From there the riders will head to the finish before they take on one lap of a 27.9km circuit. It includes the 3.8km climb of Cote de Cessiat again. The top comes with 17km to go and then a short descent leads to the final 12km which are very slightly downhill.

 

The Cote de Cessiat is not the hardest climb and it comes too far from the finish for the GC riders to make a move. However, it will definitely provide a first selection and many of the sprinters are likely to be left behind. We may see some attacks but as the GC riders want to keep their powder dry for the key stages, we are likely to get a reduced bunch sprint. The finale was last used in 2012 but back then it came at the end of a much harder stage. Daniel Navarro rode to a solo win but with the first part of this stage being a lot easier, we should see a more controlled stage that should suit a fast finisher who can overcome a small climb in the end.

 

 

Stage 3

After two days of survival, the GC riders hope to make their first mark in stage 3 which has the only uphill finish of the race. The 141.4km route between Nantua and Lelex Monts-Jura may be short but it offers climbs throughout the entire day. Already after 9.1km of racing, the riders will hit then4.9km category 3 climb of Cote de Samognat and then they will tackle the category 2 climbs of Cote de Viry (4.2km), Cote de Plagne (4.8km) and Cote de Giron (8.7km). The top of the latter climb comes with 56.6km to go and then it is time for the key challenge, the category 1 climb of Col de Menthieres (9.3km, 7%). The final 21km consist of a descent and the final 12km of gradual climbing to the finish at Lelex Monts-Jura.

 

The stage is an identical copy of last year’s stage. In 2015, Pierre Latour and Fabrice Jeandesboz went clear on the Col de Menthieres and they just managed to keep an 8-rider group at bay on the final climb, with Latour winning the sprint and Vachon taking third in the same time as the winner. A total of 25 riders finished within 1.30 of the stage winner. Col de Menthieres is a hard climb where the best climbers can make a difference but the final climb is much better suited to a bigger group. Hence, a solo win is unlikely but a few of the best climbers can make it to the finish together if they work well together. The most likely outcome is a sprint from a group of 3-15 riders.

 

 

Stage 4

The Tour de l’Ain always has a big mountain stage on the final day and so nothing is decided until the end. Very often it has been a big summit finish on Le Grand Colombier but that won’t be the case in 2016. The landmark climb features prominently on the course but it comes a bit earlier than it has done in past years and so the stage will be less selective.

 

At just 132.2km, the stage between Lagnieu and Belley is very short but that doesn’t mean that it will be an easy one. After 15.3km of flat racing, the riders will hit the bottom of the category 2 Cote de Corlier (7.6km) and then they will tackle the category 2 Col de la Rochette (5.3km). A long descent then leads to the bottom of the mighty Col du Grand Colombier which averages 7.32% over 12.3km and is very steep in the final 5km. However, the top comes with 42.7km to go and after the descent, there are 30.2km to the finish in Belley.

 

The stage is very similar to a stage of the 2013 edition where Wout Poels and Romain Bardet arrived together to sprint it out for the win, with the Dutchman coming out on top. This is a clear indication that it is possible for the best climbers to make a decisive difference on Le Grand Colombier, especially in a race with small 6-rider teams. However, it requires good cooperation to stay away in the flat final part which clearly favours a small group. Hence, the outcome of this stage is pretty open. A solo ride from the top of the final climb is unlikely but the stage could be decided by a very small group of elite climbers or a bigger group sprinting for the win. There’s also a chance that a few riders can attack in the flat final section which won’t be easy to control as most of the leaders will probably be isolated. With such an open stage to finish things off, tactics, good climbing legs and sprinting skills can all be decisive in the final battle for the win at the Tour de l’Ain.

 

 

The favourites

The Tour de l’Ain has always been a very open race without any clear favourite. In the years when the race had the big mountaintop finish on Le Grand Colombier, it was much easier for the best climbers to make a difference and the strongest rider usually won the race. In recent years, however, the course has been a lot more unpredictable and it will be no different in 2016.

 

The first stage will be for the sprinters and the second stage is unlikely to play a role in the GC either. It should all be decided in the final two stages where everything will depend on whether the best climbers can make the difference on the Col de Menthieres and Le Grand Colombier and maintain their advantage all the way to the finish. If not, team tactics could very play a big role as it is very hard for six-rider teams to control this kind of race. If a small group gathers in the end, an outsider can make a well-timed attack to take a surprise win and this opens the door for a lot of riders to take the overall victory. Both stages could also come down to sprints from small groups and so a puncheur with a fast finish has a chance to win the race by virtue of bonus seconds as there will be 10, 6 and 4 seconds on offer every day.

 

None of the best climbers in the world are at the start and this just makes the race even more unpredictable. You need to be a good climber to be in contention in both of the final stages and make it over the two key climbs sufficiently close to the best to make it back and this narrows the list down significantly. However, the field is loaded with solid climbers who can all handle this kind of terrain and there is no Valverde-like climber who is both one of the fastest and one of the strongest on the ascents. Tactics and luck could very well determine the outcome of this race.

 

The strongest team in the race is probably Ag2r who line up with three very good climbers, Pierre Latour Jean-Christophe Peraud and Hubert Dupont. Their best card is Latour who is both an excellent climbers and has a decent punch for the uphill sprint in stage 3 and the flat sprint in stage 4. Latour has long been regarded as one of the most talented climbers and really confirmed his potential in 2015 when he finished third in the Route du Sud behind Contador and Quintana, took fifth in Vuelta a Burgos and won a stage and finished third in this race.

 

This year he has taken another step up. He was a beautiful runner-up behind Pinot in Criterium International but his big breakthrough came at the Tour de Suisse where he briefly wore the leader’s jersey until illness took him out of the race. Now he is preparing for his grand tour debut at the Vuelta and this is his final test. He wasn’t great in San Sebastian but his form can’t be too bad so close to the start of his season highlight and we expect him to be much better here. On paper, he is one of the best climbers and among the strongest riders he is one of the fastest. This makes him well suited to this race. There are faster riders than him but if Ag2r can create a selective race, he could very well be the fastest among the survivors. Furthermore, the team can exploit team tactics as they seem to be the strongest. This gives Latour several options and so he is our favourite.

 

Bob Jungels had a breakthrough ride at the Giro d’Italia and now he is back in action. He was already aiming for victory at the Tour de Pologne but a crash took him out of contention. He rode surprisingly poorly in San Sebastien and this makes his form a bit uncertain but on paper this is a race that suits him well. He may not be strong enough to follow the very best on the long climbs but he is a master in limiting his losses and he is a great descender and rouleur which should allow him to get back. As he is also fast in a sprint, it’s a race that suits him pretty well.

 

IAM go into the race with Dries Devenyns as their leader. The Belgian has had his best season ever as he has won both the Belgium Tour and the Tour de Wallonie overall. He was clearly the strongest rider in the latter race and his recent top 10 in Clasica San Sebastian confirms his excellent condition. However, he is more of a classics rider than a real climber so the long climbs in this race could be too hard for him. On the other hand, he climbed better than expected in San Sebastian so he could be up there in this race too. As he is reasonably fast in a sprint, especially an uphill sprint, the race should suit him well and a third big stage race win could very well be on the cards.

 

Alexandre Geniez is the defending champion but he has had a complicated build-up. The Frenchman never found his best form in the spring and he crashed out of the Giro. He had similarly bad luck in the Clasica San Sebastian so no one knows much about his form. He is preparing for the Vuelta so hopefully he is close to his best but he usually needs a bit of racing to get going. However, he must be motivated to defend his title and on paper he is one of the best climbers in this race.

 

Guillaume Martin is enjoying a breakthrough first pro season. The 2015 U23 Liege-Bastogne-Liege winner proved his class at the Dauphiné and then finished second overall at the Tour of Austria. He is one of the most talented French climbers and this race must be a big goal for him. If he is climbing like he did in Austria, he should be one of the strongest and his decent sprint should make him a solid contender.

 

Sam Oomen is another neo-pro who should be able to do well here. The Dutchman has mostly been working as a domestique but in the Criterium International he proved what he can do in tough stage races as he finished third overall. In this race, he has the chance to lead Giant-Alpecin and it should be a race that suits him well. He has been a bit inconsistent in his climbing and he wasn’t flying in San Sebastian. However, that was also not the case in the build-up to the Criterium International so if he can find the legs he had in Corsica he should be up there.

 

Patrick Konrad has been good in this race before and he arrives on the back on a debut grand tour. That usually has a big effect on young riders so the Austrian could very well be better than ever. He had a tough time in the Tour but with a bit of recovery he should have taken an extra step. He is a good climber with a fast sprint and so he is suited to this race.

 

At the opposite end of the age spectrum, Thomas Voeckler must be eyeing victory in a race that has so far eluded him. He is no longer as strong as he once was but on certain occasions he has proved that he can still match the best. In the Route du Sud, he climbed with the very best in the high mountains and if he has the same legs here, he won’t be easy to drop. He has the right attacking spirit for this kind of race where aggression is likely to pay off, and he has a decent sprint too.

 

Delio Fernandez will lead Delko Marseille and he is a very good candidate. Among the good climbers, he is probably the fastest and he finally seems to have found some form. He was fourth overall in Austria and if he has the same legs here, he won’t be far behind the best. He probably won’t be able to follow the likes of Latour on the steepest gradients but if the race becomes less selective, he will be one of the big favourites.

 

Movistar are here with a young team and this should give Tour de l’Avenir winner Marc Soler a chance to ride for himself. He took a memorable queen stage win at the Route du Sud but unfortunately he hasn’t been at the same level in his recent races.

 

Jean-Christophe Peraud is the second Ag2r card. The veteran is preparing for the Vuelta and he hopes to show his good form here. He should be one of the best climbers but he can’t really sprint. However, he could benefit from team tactics to win the race.

 

Lotto Soudal have four potential winners and especially Louis Vervaeke and Bart De Clercq will have options. On paper it’s a great race for Vervaeke who had a bit of a breakthrough in the spring but unfortunately he has been very disappointing in his last few races. De Clercq is probably one of the best climbers here but he can’t really sprint so he needs some luck to win.

 

Rudy Molard and Guillaume Levarlet are also good candidates as they can both climb and sprint. They have both shown reasonable form but they are also very inconsistent. IAM’s Marcel Wyss is also suited to this race but he hasn’t really been at his best so far in 2016.

 

Enrico Battaglin also deserves a mention. The Italian climbed better than ever at the Giro and if he has found those legs again, he will maybe even be the biggest favourite. However, the Italian is hugely inconsistent and he has shown nothing to indicate that he has the form to win. However, if the race becomes less selective, he could make the selection and then he will undoubtedly be the fastest among the survivors.

 

Finally, the race is also loaded with young talents and it has traditionally been a chance for U23 riders to test themselves in the pro field. Almost every year, a U23 riders makes it into the top 10. Keep an eye on riders like Nans Peters, Leo Vincent, David Gaudu, Matthias Le Turnier, LennartHofstede and Kilian Frankiny.

 

***** Pierre Latour

**** Bob Jungels, Dries Devenyns

*** Alexandre Geniez, Guillaume Martin, Sam Oomen, Patrick Konrad, Thomas Voeckler, Delio Fernandez

** Marc Soler, Jean-Christophe Peraud, Louis Vervaeke, Rudy Molard, Bart De Clercq, Enrico Battaglin, Marcel Wyss, Guillaume Levarlet

* Lilian Calmejane, Xandro Meurisse, Stephane Rossetto, Nans Peters, David Gaudu, Leo Vincent, Matthias Le Turnier, Lennart Hofstede, Kilian Frankiny, Julien Antomarchi, Thomas Degand, Maxime Monfort, Kevin Ledanois, Hubert Dupont, Sander Armee, Jerome Coppel, Brice Feillu

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