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Who'll win the first big mountain stage in the Tour de Romandie?

Photo: Sirotti

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TOUR DE ROMANDIE

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27.04.2016 @ 20:07 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Marcel Kittel surprised both himself and many pundits by surviving the climbs in the first road stage and so proved that he is fully ready for the Giro d’Italia but even his best climbing legs will bring him nowhere in stage 2. After a relatively easy day, it is time for the GC battle to start for real in the first of the two summit finishes that will give the climbers a better chance than usual to win the mountainous Swiss race.

 

The course

In the last few years, the only mountain stage has usually come on the penultimate day but as there will be two summit finishes in 2016, the riders will already face the first serious climbing on the third day. With no major climbs in the first part, it is not a big mountain stage but a tough final climb will be enough to create the first important time differences in the overall standings.

 

The stage brings the riders from over 173.9km from Moudon to Morgins on a day with 2804m of climbing. The first part of the stage is made up of a small loop in the hilly terrain north of Moudon before the riders start their southerly journey towards the most mountainous part of the region. It is uphill right from the start as the riders go up a 6.1km uncategorized climb. Then a descent leads to another uncategorized climb but after 40km of racing, the terrain gets significantly flatter. The flat terrain will briefly be interrupted by the category 2 climb to Sorens (4.6km, 7.0%, max. 16%) whose summit comes at the 80km mark but then it’s back into the flatlands for the next part which includes the first intermediate sprint at the 102km mark as the riders are now travelling south.

 

With 60km to go, the riders hit a relatively long descent that brings them to the city of Montreux on the shores of Lac Leman and then another flat section leads to the final intermediate sprint with 22.9km to go. That’s the signal of the start of the climbing hostilities as the riders will leave the valley to head into the mountains, going up the category 2 Les Champs climb (7.1km, 7.0%, max. 10%). The top is located with 15.4km to go and then there are 4.4km of descending before slightly rising roads lead to the bottom of the final category 1 climb (7.3km, 7.1%, max. 9%). The top comes with 2km to go but the final part is still uphill at an average gradient of 2.85%, with the final 700m averaging 4.7%. It’s a mostly straight road but there is a right-hand turn just 200m from the line.

 

Morgins last hosted a stage finish in 2007 when Igor Anton beat Thomas Dekker, Chris Horner and John Gadret in a four-rider sprint. In 2004, Alexandre Moos beat Leonardo Piepoli and Tyler Hamilton when that trio arrived together.

 

 

 

The weather

Snow forced the organizers to shorten today’s stage but hopefully they won’t have to make a similar decision tomorrow. In the afternoon, the weather changed and that signaled the start of two days of sunny conditions. Tomorrow it will be bright sunshine and the maximum temperature in Morgins will be a pleasant 9 degrees.

 

There will be a light wind from a northwesterly direction which means that the riders will mostly have a tailwind or a cross-tailwind. However, they will turn into a cross-headwind just before they hit the final two climbs and that will be the conditions for the final part of the stage.

 

The favourites

It’s no secret that Marcel Kittel can dig very deep and overcome more climbing than most think but few would have expected him to survive the brutal pace set by Movistar in today’s stage. However, the German again confirmed that he is back at his best level after his terrible 2015 season and there is little doubt that his resounding victory in today’s stage reverberated throughout the cycling world, most notably in Turkey where André Greipel is currently preparing for the Giro. With today’s win, Kittel is definitely ready for the Italian grand tour and it won’t be easy for anyone to stop the Etixx-QuickStep sprinter from racking up several triumphs in Italy next month.

 

For now, however, he will have to step into the background and work in his climbing for the Giro as the next three days will be all about the GC battle. The main contenders all had a very easy stage today so they will be ready to go full gas in the first big test in the mountains. With just one big climb at the end – it may officially be two climbs but with just a short descent in between the two KOM sprints, it is more like one ascent – it is no big day in the mountains but it definitely has the potential to do some damage.

 

The climbs in Romandie are never very steep and this means that the time gaps are usually pretty small. With a very important time trial coming up, the climbers have to make the most of their two opportunities and so we don’t expect much conservative riding tomorrow. The strong time triallists want to see where they are after the TT but the climbers can’t allow themselves the opportunity to miss this opportunity.

 

Hence, there will be little room for breakaways. The stage has a tough start with a climb right from the beginning and this will be an invitation for some strong riders to go on the attack. However, there will be better chances later in the week when fatigue has started to set in so we expect the break to be established relatively early. Then it will be up to Movistar to keep things under control just like they did today. Tomorrow they will even have a double incentive to do so as they both want to defend the jersey and win the stage with Nairo Quintana.

 

We expect Movistar to lead the chase all day and they are unlikely to get much help. As they will probably do what is needed to bring the break back, there won’t be any reason for some of the other teams to lend them a hand. However, Sky, FDJ, Tinkoff and Katusha may all show their intentions by coming to the fore and there will be no chance that the break makes it to the finish, especially as there will be important bonus seconds on offer at the finish.

 

This means that we can expect a huge battle between the GC riders on the final two climbs. As said, it is actually more like one big climb so it’s almost like a 14km climb with an average gradient of around 7%. However, it never gets very steep and as there will be a headwind, it’s probably not a stage that will create huge differences. Furthermore, the top comes two kilometres from the finish and even though it’s still uphill in the final part, it could come down to a sprint between the best climbers. That’s what happened when the climb was used in the past and we won’t be surprised if it’s the same scenario in 2016.

 

Movistar want the race to be as hard as possible and they have a strong team of climbers. The same goes for Sky that want to keep the usual high pace to wear out Chris Froome’s rivals. We expect those two teams to whittle the peloton down on the first climb and in the first part of the final ascent before the battle will start closer to the top.

 

We are curious to see how Movistar will approach the stage as they have two conflicting interests. Ion Izagirre wants the race to be decided in the time trials while Quintana needs the race to be hard as he has to decide the race on the climbs. If Izagirre is still hanging on, it could put a dampener on Quintana’s aggression. On the other hand, there will be lots of riders who want to attack so we don’t expect the Colombian to be too restricted in his opportunities.

 

In fact, Quintana is our favourite to win the stage. We were not too confident in his chances at the start of the race but after his great prologue, we are convinced that he is back at the level he had at the Volta a Catalunya. Back then he was very impressive as he managed to beat an in-form Alberto Contador with apparent ease and so indicated that he has stepped up his level a further notch. He fell ill before Pais Vasco and so he wasn’t at his best in that race but he bounced back with a great time trial on the final day where he again proved that he is climbing excellently at the moment.

 

Quintana was the only rider among the late starters in the prologue to finish in the top 20 and he was even fourth at the top of the climb even though there were slippery turns at the start of the course. This proves that he flew up that ascent and he is usually not suited to that kind of explosive effort. This is an indication that he is close to 100% and when he has that kind of condition, he is very hard to beat. As we don’t expect Chris Froome to be in Tour de France condition yet, we don’t think that anyone will be able to follow Quintana. The big problem for the Colombian is his lack of sprinting skills and with a relatively flat finish, he has to arrive solo. Furthermore, the headwind will make things less selective but we still believe that he will be strong enough to make a difference.

 

Chris Froome is the best climber in the world. However, he has never been at his best in the mountain stages in Romandie and even though he has won the race twice, he has never crushed the opposition in the way he has done in most other stage races. This year he has barely raced so it is hard to say how he is doing but unlike in recent years he has not had any health issues. Hence, we can expect him to be better than he was 12 months ago when he didn’t do that well in this race.

 

Froome didn’t excel in the prologue and he was quite far back at the top of the climb. However, Sky did their own timing on the ascent and claim that he was faster than all of his teammates. As Geraint Thomas did pretty well on the climb, this is a clear indication that Froome’s form isn’t bad. There is little doubt that he will try to make his usual dominant showing by attacking from Thomas’ wheel after a solid pace-setting from Sky but it remains to be seen whether he is strong enough to do so. If not, he will probably use his usual pacing strategy where he refuses to respond to the attacks and just time trials his way to the top. In that case, he won’t win the stage but as always he will finish close to the best. Froome has the big advantage compared to Quintana that he is the fastest in a sprint and in this kind of finish, this will give him a big advantage even if he is not able to claim the solo win that he is targeting.

 

Ilnur Zakarin is the defending champion and he is fully ready to defend his title. After his poor showing last autumn, he has proved that he his results from last year were no fluke as he has been flying all year. He won the queen stage in Paris-Nice and he was one of the best in Catalonia before he travelled to a training camp at altitude. He made an excellent return to competition as he was probably the strongest rider in Liege-Bastogne-Liege and it was only his low weight that prevented him from following the heavier guys on the cobbles.

 

Zakarin didn’t shine in the prologue where he rode on wet roads but his performance in Liege proves that his form is excellent which is no surprise as he is aiming for the Giro. He will probably be slightly less marked than the likes of Froome and Quintana and among the GC riders, he is probably the fastest in a sprint. This will give him a big advantage in this kind of finish.

 

Richie Porte did a very bad prologue but that is definitely not an indication of his form. He has never been a rider to take many risks in treacherous conditions and so we can’t gauge anything on his opening effort. For the first time this year he goes into a race claiming to be in good condition and this is a scary prospect for his rivals as he was third in Paris-Nice and fourth in Catalonia at a time when he was suffering from health issues. Last year he proved what an excellent climber he is and if he is back at that level, there is no reason that he can’t win solo here. Unfortunately, the relatively flat finish doesn’t suit him as he is not fast in a sprint and he hasn’t always been very good when he has just come down from an altitude training camp.

 

Thibaut Pinot won the queen stage 12 months ago and he would love to repeat that performance here. He has been flying all year and has been climbing excellently in races that don’t suit him. In fact, he has only done one long climb all year at the Criterium International where he rode to a dominant solo win. This is the first race that really suits him and he should find the final climb to his liking. He loves the relatively cold conditions and his performance in the prologue proves that the form is good. He is never afraid of attacking and he has the big advantage that he is relatively fast in a sprint.

 

Tinkoff are here with Rafal Majka whose condition is a bit uncertain as he comes straight from a training camp. However, he looked very strong in Liege-Bastogne-Liege until he was involved in a late crash. He is aiming for the Giro and so his form is probably pretty good. Furthermore, he has been riding really well all year, most notably at Paris-Nice where he played a key role for Contador. Due to his relatively poor time trialling skills, he will probably be a bit less marked and this could allow him to ride to a solo win.

 

Simon Spilak is a bit of a Mr. Romandie. He won the race in 2009 (after Valverde’s disqualification) and he has been second three years in a row. After an illness-marred start to the season, he is clearly back in excellent form as he was one of the fastest on the climb in the prologue even though he is not suited to that explosive effort and rode under heavy rain. Unfortunately, he is not fast in a sprint but if he and Zakarin are both there in the finale, they can attack in turns. If he gets away, Spilak will be very hard to catch.

 

Tejay van Garderen also did a pretty good prologue and this proves that his form is still good. Just like Spilak, he won’t win a sprint and even though he has improved his climbing, we don’t expect him to be the strongest in this field. However, he will be sharing the BMC leadership with Porte and will probably be a bit less marked than his teammate. This can allow him to benefit from the tactical battle.

 

Rui Costa is not a pure climber and usually he doesn’t have many chances in a big mountain stage. However, he is riding better than ever and has been absolutely flying this year. He should find the gentle gradients to his liking and the headwind should also suit him well. If it comes down to a sprint from a small group, he will be one of the big favourites.

 

The same goes for Bauke Mollema whose 9th place in Liege proves that the form is good. The Dutchman is unlikely to be the strongest rider here and he will probably just try to hang on. There aren’t many fast riders among the GC riders and Mollema is one of the select few with the speed to come out on top from a small group.

 

Diego Rosa delivered a real masterpiece with his 100km solo ride in the queen stage in Pais Vasco and last Sunday he was one of the best in Liege. The Italian finally seems to have found his best form and this makes him a dangerous outsider for this stage. He has the right aggressive mindset and he won’t be as heavily marked as the big favourites.

 

Louis Vervaeke has not had the best start to his pro career but this spring he has finally shown his potential. He was strong in Catalonia and was very impressive in Pais Vasco where he could match the best on the climbs. He still seems to be in great condition as he was the best on the climb in the prologue. It won’t be easy to win a stage in this kind of field but he could deliver a surprise.

 

Finally, Davide Formolo deserves a mention. After his excellent 2014 season, we regarded the Italian as the biggest climbing talent in the world but he never found his best form in 2015. This year he has not been at his best either but as he has been building form for the Giro, it’s not necessarily a bad signal. He did a surprisingly good prologue and this could indicate that he is finally ready to again prove his excellent potential.

 

CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Nairo Quintana

Other winner candidates: Chris Froome, Ilnur Zakarin

Outsiders: Richie Porte, Thibaut Pinot, Rafal Majka, Simon Spilak,

Jokers: Tejay van Garderen, Rui Costa, Bauke Mollema, Diego Rosa, Louis Vervaeke, Davide Formolo,

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