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Will Ilnur Zakarin get his revenge in the Tour de Romandie time trial?

Photo: Sirotti

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TOUR DE ROMANDIE

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28.04.2016 @ 20:09 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Ilnur Zakarin and Nairo Quintana confirmed the impression that they are the two strongest riders in the race and the battle for the overall victory seems to have been reduced to a duel. After today’s relegation, the Russian will be aiming for revenge in the next important test in the mini grand tour when he goes into the hilly 15.1km time trial Sion as one of the favourites for the stage win.

 

The course

A few years ago, the time trial often came in the middle of the race but in the last few years it has very often been held on the final day, giving the time triallists the upper hand. This year it will be held on the fourth day and with the queen stage still to come, the climbers will know how much time they need to take back in the toughest stage. On certain occasions, the time trials in Romandie have been flat but due to the nature of the terrain, it has often been a hilly affair. This year it will be no different as the stage includes a mix of flat roads and a tough climb at the midpoint, making it very similar to the time trial that was used two years ago.

 

At 15.11km, the stage has the usual length of a Romandie time trial and this year’s stage will take place in the city of Sion. From the start, the riders will follow a long, straight, flat road along the river, passing through a few roundabouts, until they get to the first right-hand turn after 4.15km of racing. From here, the road is slightly uphill as the riders will go through a few turns that lead to the bottom of the climb which starts after around 5.3km of racing.

 

The next 3.7km are uphill at an average gradient of 5.7% and leads to the top of the climb at the 8.98km mark. Then it’s straight onto the descent which includes two hairpin turns and ends around 2km from the finish. From there, it is predominantly flat but as there are a total of five turns, there won’t be much room for the powerful riders to get their engine going.

 

Sion last hosted a stage in 2014 when Michael Albasini won the first road stage in a reduced bunch sprint. In 2012, Luis Leon Sanchez won the sprint from a select group of climbers and in 2010, Alejandro Valverde was the fastest in a four-rider group (he has since been disqualified from that stage due to his involvement in the Operacion Puerto). In 2008, Andreas Klöden won the time trial here while Valverde again won a sprint from a small group in 2006. In 2004, Fabian Jeker was the fastest in a five-rider group of climbers.

 

 

 

The weather

The bad weather will return in the weekend and at the moment, it seems that the queen stage is in danger. However, the riders will spend one more day in the sunshine before the rain and snow sets in as Friday will be an excellent day for a bike race. There will be bright sunshine and a temperature of 16 degrees.

 

There will be a moderate wind from a westerly direction which will pick up slightly as the day goes on. Hence the riders will have a headwind in the first flat section and mainly a tailwind on the climb, the descent and the final flat section.

 

The favourites

The first mountain stage lived up to our predictions yesterday. After Nairo Quintana’s excellent prologue and Ilnur Zakarin’s great ride in Liege, it always looked likely that those two riders were the strongest riders in the race. The unpredictable factor was Chris Froome whose form was very uncertain but we never got the chance to see what the Brit could have done. He failed to get back to the peloton after his puncture which was a clear sign of weakness but as the group was going very fast at that moment, there is no guarantee that the Sky leader couldn’t have been up there with the best. Furthermore, there’s a big difference between riding in the main group and chasing back as you always try to keep something in reserve for the moment when you get back. Froome quickly got a moral blow and now he has to turn his attention to stage wins.

 

Quintana and Zakarin were clearly the best of the rest and it seems that the race can be boiled down to a duel. They gained plenty of time on their rivals and it seems unlikely that they won’t do so again in the queen stage which is even harder. The unpredictable factor is of course the weather as it seems very unlikely that Saturday’s stage will go on as planned. Luckily it has been designed in a very smart way that makes it possible to just stay in the valley and then have a battle on the final climb. Hence, we expect that there will still be an opportunity for the climbers after tomorrow’s time trial even though the stage could be significantly easier than initially planned.

 

The time trial has traditionally been the most important stage of the race but with two summit finishes, it won’t be almost all-decisive as it has been in the past. Nonetheless, it will still play a huge role and will go a long way in determining the GC. Saturday’s final climb may be harder but like today the time gaps between the best are unlikely to be very big. As a lot of riders are at a very similar level, the time trial will be the biggest chance for many to make a difference.

 

The course is pretty typical for Romandie and is an exciting mix of a first section that really suits the specialists, a pretty hard climb, a technical descent and a flat, technical finale. As the first part is relatively short, the stage suits the GC riders better than the specialists and we can expect the contenders for the overall to come to the fore. However, there is still enough flat sections for the stronger riders to make a difference and the pure climbers will lose some time here. The stage is a bit shorter than usual but a 15km time trial can create some significant time gaps, especially on this kind of tough course.

 

It’s a different time trial compared to the one that was used 12 months ago. Back then, it was a lot more technical but the profile was pretty similar. It had a flat start, a tough climb and a technical descent and so it is definitely possible to draw some lessons from that TT. However, it resembles the 2014 TT much better even though there were more power sections in that stage.

 

One year ago, Ilnur Zakarin did the time trial of his life and he was on his way to victory when he suffered a puncture just as he had crested the summit of the climb with the best time. The wheel change cost him the stage win but he still managed to hold his teammate Simon Spilak off in the battle for the overall win.

 

This year Zakarin is clearly riding even better than he did 12 months ago and this naturally makes him one of the favourites for stage 3. In fact, he was a real time trial specialist at the start of his career but as he lost weight, he failed to maintain the same power on the flats. However, he is still one of the best time triallists in the world on hilly courses and tomorrow’s stage evidently suits him really well.

 

Compared to last year, the stage is less technical and there is a longer power section. This is a disadvantage for Zakarin as he won’t be able to match the likes of Tom Dumoulin and Jerome Coppel there. However, he will probably be faster than everybody else on the climb and he won’t be too far off the mark in the flat section either. For this kind of course, Zakarin will always be a strong contender and with his current form, he is our favourite to win the stage.

 

The obvious stage winner pick is naturally Tom Dumoulin. If the Dutchman was asked to design a time trial, he would probably come up with something like this. He will be able to gain time on everybody in the power section and he is very strong on this kind of climb. His technical skills are outstanding so there really isn’t any point where he won’t be one of the strongest. Last year he won the Vuelta al Pais Vasco which was much harder than this one and he should be even better here.

 

If he had been at 100%, Dumoulin would have been our favourite but as he suffered from stomach problems in today’s stage, we doubt that he will be at the maximum of his capabilities. As he is up against an in-form Zakarin, he needs to be really sharp to win the stage. If he has recovered, we expect him to win but if is still not 100% healthy, he will have a hard time.

 

Ion Izagirre won the prologue and seems to be in the form of his life. The Basque has always been one of the best in the hilly time trials and rarely finishes outside the top 10. Last year he did an excellent time trial in the Basque Country and even though that stage suited him better, he will definitely find this one to is liking too.

 

Izagirre is powerful on the flats and climbs well but his main advantages are his great technical skills. He did a marvelous descent in the prologue and he should again be better than most in the final part of the course. Whether he will be good enough on the climb to keep up with Zakarin is a bit more doubtful but he could definitely take another stage win here.

 

Like Zakarin, Simon Spilak is one of the best in the world in hilly time trials. Last year he did great time trials in both Romandie and the Tour de Suisse and he should find this course to his liking. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to be as strong as he was 12 months ago and we were slightly disappointed to see him suffer in the finale of today’s stage. It’s no big surprise as he has been ill in the spring and is still searching for his best form. On the other hand, he was great in the prologue where he rode in very difficult conditions so he should still be one of the best in this stage.

 

Chris Froome is out of the GC battle but he will still be motivated for this stage. After all, it is a very important test for the Tour de France and as he has barely done any time trials in the last few years, he needs to measure himself against some of his key rivals. Froome was once one of the best time triallists in the world and he won the very similar time trial in Romandie in 2014. However, he has not done a good TT since the 2014 Dauphiné and for some reason he seems to have lost the edge. He still needs to prove that he can return to his former level. On the other hand, we can expect him to do much better now than he did in 2015 where he had little incentive to work on his time trialling. With two long TTs in the Tour, he has probably spent a lot more time on his TT bike.

 

Jerome Coppel is one of the best time triallists in the world. He was third at the World Championships and has improved massively in the last 12 months. He has been up there in every time trial he has done this year and he prefers this kind of hilly course. He did pretty well in the prologue until he decided to take no risks on the descent and so his form is pretty good. Unlike his rivals, he could save energy today and so he will be ready to go for the stage win tomorrow.

 

Rui Costa has been in the form of his life and confirmed that impression in today’s stage. He was clearly one of the best on the final climb which is an indication of a great condition as he is not a pure climber. When he has had this kind of form, he has always done some great hilly TTs even though he is not a real specialist. He has based his Tour de Suisse victories on excellent time trial performances and we expect him to do another great TT tomorrow. Most recently, he did a very good TT in the Pais Vasco despite suffering a puncture and this stage should suit him even better.

 

In the early part of his career, Thibaut Pinot was always one of the big losers in the time trials. However, things have changed completely and now it has turned into an asset to such an extent that he even won the Criterium International TT. Most recently, he did a very good TT in Pais Vasco on a technical, rainy course that wasn’t tailor-made for him. This one is far less technical, has a solid mix of flat sections and climbing and a descent that is not too important. Pinot should definitely be able to do well her.

 

Nairo Quintana is definitely not a TT specialist but he has improved massively. Most will remember what an excellent time trial he did on a flat course in last year’s Vuelta and most recently he almost won the time trial in Pais Vasco. That stage suited him a lot better as the descent was more technical and the climb a lot harder but with his current condition, we won’t be surprised if he finishes in the top 3 on this course too.

 

Rigoberto Uran suddenly turned into a real TT specialist in 2014 but he failed to reach the same lofty heights in 2014. This year he has been time trialling even worse and he did a very poor prologue. However, he bounced back with a solid showing in today’s stage and the form seems to be good. We are not too confident in his chances but as he has had the skills in the past, we won’t rule him out.

 

Gorka Izagirre was not known as a TT specialist until he suddenly did a great time trial in the Tour de Pologne a few years ago. Since then he has occasionally done some very good TTs, most recently in the prologue. He has not been at the same level in the long time trials but he should find this kind of course to his liking. As his form seems to be excellent, he could very well be the second Izagirre in the top 10.

 

In general, we expect a great ride from Movistar. Andrey Amador seems to be getting close to his level from last year’s Giro and he should be able to do well on this course. He did a pretty good prologue and he is much better suited to a longer time trial like this one. The main question is whether he will be allowed to go full gas as Movistar will need him on Saturday.

 

Finally, Damien Howson deserves a mention. The Australian is a former U23 world champion but he has not been time trialling well at the pro level. However, he did a very good TT in Poland last year and this year he has been riding better than ever. He is climbing pretty well and delivered a great ride today. He may no longer be as powerful as he once was but he could do well on this course.

 

CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Ilnur Zakarin

Other winner candidates: Tom Dumoulin, Ion Izagirre

Outsiders: Simon Spilak, Chris Froome, Jerome Coppel, Rui Costa

Jokers: Thibaut Pinot, Nairo Quintana, Rigoberto Uran, Gorka Izagirre, Damien Howson

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