While many have their eyes on Il Lombardia and the World Championships, some of the best sprinters prepare themselves for another big finale of a long season. On Sunday, the prestigious Coupe de France which kicked off in January at the GP Marseillaise, will be brought to a close with what is likely to be an uphill sprint at the Tour de Vendee and this year the race shapes up to be one of the most exciting yet as Samuel Dumoulin and Baptiste Planckaert who are both excellently suited to this kind of finale, will battle it out for the overall win in a close contest, with the pair going into the race being separated by just a single point.
This weekend all cycling fans have their eyes on Il Lombardia but there’s another important event in France as the local riders are about to wrap up one of the most prestigious competitions. For the French teams, the Coupe de France race series is a huge goal and after a busy month of September, it will all come to an exciting conclusion on Sunday.
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 several crucial events were held.
After the summer break, things going got again at La Polynormande in late July and after a one-month break, the series reached its climax. The biggest race on the calendar, GP de Fourmies, gathered a formidable field and the Tour du Doubs gave the climbers a rare chance to shine. Two weeks ago, the sprinters were back in action at the GP d’Isbergues, the penultimate race in the series, and now the Tour de will decide everything.
The Tour de Vendee was first held in 1972 and has always been held in October. Until 1979, it was for amateurs and from 1980 it has been a professional race. It has steadily moved up in the UCI hierarchy as it started as 1.3 race until it reached 1-HC status in 2010. Now it has been scaled back a bit as it is only a 1.1 race but it plays a huge role in France as it has been the final even in the Coupe de France series for a few years. Its status is reflected in the fact that it has had lots of international winners, with riders like Jaan Kirsipuu, Thor Hushovd, Pavel Brutt and Marco Marcato all featuring on the honour’s roll.
Tour de Vendee is held in the relatively flat Vendee region and so the race has usually been decided in a sprint. However, it always includes few laps of a tough circuit in Roche-sur-Yon where the riders face an uphill finishing straight. This has allowed the puncheurs to mix it up with the sprinters and surprisingly often, a breakaway has denied the fast finishers.
This year’s edition shapes up to be one of the most exciting yet. The battle for the overall win at the Coupe de France is extremely close as Samuel Dumoulin and Baptiste Planckaert are separated by just one point. Both have been in outstanding form recently and are specialist in uphill sprints and this sets the scene for a very interesting battle in Vendee.
Last year Christophe Laporte beat Yauheni Hutarovich and Thomas Sprengers in the sprint finish.
The 45th Tour de Vendee will be held on a 203.8km between Fontenay-Le-Comte and La Roche Sur-Yon. After an opening circuit on the southern outskirts of the starting city, the riders will travel north through relatively flat terrain. The terrain gradually gets a bit hillier as the peloton will tackle the Cote de la Mouhee, Cote du Duiteau, Cote des Pouzeres and Cote du Moulin des Bois inside the final 65km. The final challenge comes with 38.5km to go and from there flat roads will lead the peloton to the finish. In the end, they will do three laps of the 3.9km finishing circuit which has an uphill finishing straight after the final turn just after the flamme rouge.
On paper, the Tour de Vendee should always be decided in an uphill sprint but history shows that it is surprisingly easy to deny the sprinters. The race comes very late in the season and at this point the level of fatigue and the different level of motivation mean that it is possible to change the predicted outcome. Furthermore, the region can be pretty windy and at this time of the year the weather is often bad. This has made it even easier to make a difference.
However, the 2016 edition is very likely to be decided in an uphill sprint. Nacer Bouhanni and Bryan Coquard are both in attendance and this means that both Cofidis and Direct Energie want to sprint. The same goes for Baptiste Planckaert’s Wallonie team and this means that there is plenty of firepower to keep the race under control. Furthermore, Sunday is forecasted to be sunny with very little wind so we expect a pretty forward sprint race.
With a sprint on the cards, we will put our money on Nacer Bouhanni. The Cofidis sprinter is already a former winner of this race and he is close to peak form as this is one of the final races before the Worlds. He has been sprinting very well since he beat a star-studded field at the Vattenfall Cyclassics (he was later relegated) and even though he has one won two races – stages at the Tour du Poitou-Charentes – he has been up there in almost every single sprint. Most recently, he finished seconds and third in the two big sprints at the Eneco Tour where most of the best sprinters were gathered and in that race he also climbed pretty well.
Bouhanni likes an uphill sprint like this and he can rely on the best train as both Geoffrey Soupe and defending champion Christophe Laporte will be at his side. He is the best when it comes to positioning and we doubt that anyone will be able to beat him in this race. The fastest sprinter is in great form and has a great team and so Bouhanni is our favourite.
If he had been at 100%, Bryan Coquard would probably have been our pick. In recent years, he has developed into one of the best uphill sprinters in the world and this finale is simply tailor-made for hm. However, he has been riding pretty badly since the Tour and has failed to win a single race. He has shown signs of improvement recently but mostly he has been caught out in the sprints, partly due to his poor positioning. However, he will have a better chance here where the field is less stacked and where the uphill sprint means that it is more about the legs. He has Adrien Petit and Angelo Tulik for the lead-out so he is well-supported and will be very motivated due to his non-selection for the Worlds. If he is getting closer to his best form, he will be tough to beat in this kind of finish.
Samuel Dumoulin is usually not as fast as Bouhanni and Coquard but in an uphill sprint he has a chance. More importantly, he seems to be close to the form of his life for the second time this year. He won the Tour du Doubs which should have been too hard for him and he was fourth in a very star-studded edition of the European Championships. There are faster riders like him in this race but with the form he has, he will definitely be competitive.
Dumoulin’s big rival for the overall win in the Coupe de France is Baptiste Planckaert who has had a fantastic breakthrough season. He has been in great form almost since January and his victories at La POlyn Normande and the tough final stage of the Czech Cycling Tour and his second and seventh places in the hard Tour du Doubs and Grand Prix de Wallonie is a further confirmation of the fact that he is still riding well. He excels in uphill sprints like this and on paper he is even faster than Dumoulin. The question is whether he has the form to match the Frenchman who seems to be stronger than ever.
Romain Feillu had a bad start to the year but he now has really found his best form. The Frenchman has been up there in almost every single sprint he has done recently. Most recently he was second in the GP d’Isbergues which is a further indication of his good condition. He prefers uphill sprints so this is a great race for the in-form Frenchman.
Carlos Barbero has finally returned to his best after his bad crash at the Tour of Turkey. He sprinted really well in the Tour of Britain and recently he has been riding strongly in the Italian classics. His third place in the tough Coppa Sabatini is a testament to his great condition and he is a real specialist in uphill sprints. Unfortunately, he would probably have preferred the finale to be a bit a bit harder.
Jonathan Hivert is not a real sprinter but his puncheur skills could bring him far in this race where he has been on the podium twice. After an injury-marred his season, his form is now excellent as he was up there in almost all the Italian classics last week. The finish suits him but to beat the faster guys he would probably have needed it to be steeper. Former winner Armindo Fonseca is another option for Fortuneo-Vital Concept but he seems to be far from his best form.
Rudy Barbier is another specialist in uphill sprints and he will be keen to get the victory he was close to in a similar finish at the Criterium International. This year he has proved that he can match the sprinters at this level which has earned him a contract with Ag2r. Unfortunately, his form is no longer at its best.
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 and Laurent Pichon for the lead-out. He has proved that he can win at this level but the uphill finish is not ideal for him.
Finally, we will point to Asbjørn Kragh. The Dane has had to deal with a number of health issues but as his stage win in one of the hardest stages at the Tour des Fjords shows he is now close to his best level. He is great puncheur with a fast sprint and so he should be competitive in a finish like this.
***** Nacer Bouhanni
**** Bryan Coquard, Samuel Dumoulin
*** Baptiste Planckaert, Romain Feillu, Carlos Barbero,
** Jonathan Hivert, Rudy Barbier, Lorrenzo Manzin, Asbjørn Kragh, Armindo Fonseca
* Yannick Martinez, Christophe Laporte, Florian Vachon, Laurent Pichon, Xandro Meurisse, Gaetan Bille, Thomas Voeckler, Evaldas Siskevicius, Romain Combaud, Guillaume Levarlet, Yannis Yssaad, Stephane Poulhies
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