Norway may have had strong riders in the past but only in recent years has the country turned into a major cycling country. While the number of top professionals is still relatively small, the Scandinavian country has some of the biggest names in the sport and with Thor Hushovd as the leading figure, this has inspired a boom in the interest. Having not had a major bike race in the past, the country now has no less than three big stage races attracting some of the best riders in the world, and this week it all comes to a conclusion with the beautiful Tour des Fjords which is expected to turn into a battle between some of the big local stars.
Knut Knudsen, Dag Otto Lauritzen, Dag Erik Pedersen… Norway has never been one of cycling’s big powerhouses but they have had great riders in the past. With six stage wins, Knudsen paved the way for his compatriots by winning six stages in the Giro d’Italia and winning Tirreno-Adriatico and Lauritzen went on to become the first Norwegian stage winner in the Tour de France. Their achievements created some interest for the sport but in a country that has always been one of the best in winter sports, it was hard for cycling to get much attention.
That changed in the 2000s. Thor Hushovd’s great success at the Tour de France, the classics and the World Championships created a major cycling boom that suddenly prompted many kids to turn their focus to cycling. The result is evident. Edvald Boasson Hagen, Alexander Kristoff, Sondre Holst Enger and Lars Petter Nordhaug are now leading figures on the international scene, the country fosters great talents in their many continental teams and the sport gets plenty of interest from the national media that have a huge coverage of the major cycling events.
The boom has also completely changed the racing scene. In the past, there have been a few smaller UCI events, most notably the Ringerike Grand Prix, but with the big interest, the racing calendar has probably seen the biggest growth in any country. In just a few years, organizers have managed to attract sponsorship for three major stage races with attendance from WorldTour teams. The Tour of Norway paved the way in 2011 and since then, both the Tour des Fjords and the Arctic Race of Norway which is even organized in a partnership with ASO, have followed suit. All three races are broadcast on national television, meaning that cycling is now one of the major sports in the far north and the country is one of cycling’s powerhouses.
As the national tour, the Tour of Norway plays a special role and the Arctic Race of Norway has the best field due to its ties with ASO. The Tour des Fjords is clearly the smallest of the races but it is no less spectacular. Norway is famous for its beautiful fjords and that is exactly what the race highlights. The scenery is stunning scenery and the race is well-organized. It may lack the big climbs of the other two races but with its many short, steep climbs, it’s a perfect testing ground for classics riders.
The race is a continuation of the Rogaland Grand pix which was created in 2008. In 2013, it became a stage race and got its current name. The race is now organized by its own organization which is owned by the Stavanger cycling club and Nordsjørittet and since it got its current format, it has been a 2.1 race on the UCI calendar.
Unlike the other two major races in Norway, it has had a hard time finding the right spot on the calendar. In the first year, it was held in August where many big names were in Norway for the Arctic Race. In 2014 and 2015, it tried to create a synergy with the Tour of Norway by moving to a May slot but this year it is in late August and early September. It comes a few weeks after the Arctic Race and so can’t really benefit from the strong field gathered there but with its lumpy parcours, it is the perfect preparation race for the World Championships. This may have inspired the organizers to make the change in a year when many sprinters are looking for good alternative to the very mountainous Vuelta a Espana.
Unfortunately, the move hasn’t really paid off and with just four WorldTour teams in attendance, they haven’t been able to strengthen the field. The organizers had hoped that the chance to preview the 2017 Worlds circuit on stage 1 would be a drawcard but it hasn't had much of an effect. However, they have managed attract two of their three big sprint and classics stars, Alexander Kristoff and Sondre Holst Enger, and with the former being one of the big favourites for the rainbow jersey, Norway will certainly be in the spotlight during the next few days. The race has also attracted several pro continental teams while the race is also one of the big highlights for the many Norwegian continental teams.
In recent years, the two other Norwegian races have included longer climbs and have been turned into races for climbers. The Tour des Fjords is different. In this coastal area, there aren’t any mountains but there aren’t many flat roads either. Hence, it has become a race for classics riders, puncheurs and strong sprinters and has always come down to a battle of bonus seconds. With small six-rider teams, it is very hard to control things and this has created some exciting racing where it has been possible to make a difference on the many small climbs.
Last year Katusha realized that it was too difficult to control the race single-handedly and while everybody was looking at Alexander Kristoff, they had Marco Haller join the crucial attacks in the hardest stage. That allowed the Austrian to win the race with a 12-second advantage over Søren Kragh Andersen.
In the first year, the Tour des Fjords had a team time trial but that format has now been abandoned. Instead, the race has been made up of 4-5 road stages of which some are for sprinters and others for strong classics riders and puncheurs. The format for the fourth edition hasn’t changed and the race will be very similar to last year’s. Even though there are rare long climbs on stage 3, the first three days should be for the sprinters but the final two stages will be the same as those that decided last year’s race. Two lumpy finishing circuits allowed the puncheurs to make a difference and again this is where the GC is likely to be decided in an exciting battle between classics riders and strong sprinters.
The sprinters are expected to show themselves right from the beginning of the race on the relatively short 140km opening stage which offers a chance to check the 2017 Worlds circuit. The riders will travel from Osøyra to Bergen and will first do a small loop north of the starting city to go up the Fanafjellet climb at the 18.4km mark. Having contested a sprint in Osøyra, they will head along mainly flat roads to Bergen while tackling the Grasdalen climb at the 64.6km mark. The first passage of the line comes at the 121.1km where the second sprint is located and then then the race ends with one lap of the 19km circuit that will be used for the 2017 Worlds. It includes a small climb 9.7km from the finish. From there, it is a flat and technical run-in to the finish.
The wind is always a danger in Norway but if it’s a calm day, this should be a stage for the sprinters. The small climb on the circuit is no major challenge and the fast guys should all be able to survive. The technical finish will make it difficult to organize a lead-out but a fast finishers will win in Bergen.
The first selection could be created in the second stage where the riders will face a pretty hard climb in the finale. The 202.3km course will bring the riders from Stord to Odda and is mainly flat. After an early intermediate sprint, the peloton will tackle the first climb when they exit the spectacular Bømlafjord Tunnel. From there they will head along flat roads while contesting the final two intermediate sprints with 96.6km and 76.7km to go respectively. The key challenge is the 8.8km climb to Grostøl whose summit comes with 22.2km to go. From there, the riders will descend to the flat and non-technical finish.
The climb will create a selection but it’s probably not hard enough to get rid of the strongest sprinters as it’s a gradual ascent. They will be expected to survive and the most likely outcome is a reduced bunch sprint. However, it will be hard to control the race with 6-rider teams so a late attack may pay off.
This year the race includes some pretty long climbs that will take the riders up to more than 1000m of altitude. Those climbs come on the third day when they will travel a massive 221.2k from Ulvik to Suldalsosen. The first 75km are almost completely flat and include the first intermediate sprint at the 71.1km mark. Then the riders will tackle the long climb of Røldalsfjellet whose top comes at the 102.8km mark. A short descent leads to the 8.5km climb of Kringletjørn. The top comes with 101.6km to go and the descent is followed by flat roads that include two intermediate sprints with 69.8km and 31km to go respectively. The finale is flat and non-technical.
The stage includes some big climbs but they come way too early to make a real difference. There will be plenty of time to organize a chase and so we can expect another bunch sprint. However, after such a long and hard stage, there won’t be many fresh legs left when the fast riders battle it out in Suldalsosen.
The classics riders hope to make a difference on the fourth stage which will bring them over 163.4km from Stavanger to Sandnes. The first part is completely flat and includes a sprint at the 29.1km mark. Then the riders will tackle the 1.5km Fjermestad and 2.7km Seldal climbs with 97km and 65.8km to go respectively and contest an intermediate sprint at the 77.5km mark. The stage ends with two laps of an 11.5km finishing circuit that includes a small climb (900m, 8.5%) just 3.8km from the finish. The final 2km are flat and includes a sharp turn less than 500m from the line.
The late climb is short but it is pretty steep and is a perfect launch pad for a late attack. A small group of puncheurs is likely to go clear and it will be touch and go whether they can hold off the peloton. A reduced bunch sprint is most likely but this is a day when a puncheur can make a GC move. That’s what worked out for Søren Kragh Andersen in the similar stage last year where the Dane rode to a solo win.
Last year the GC changed on the final day and it could be the same in 2016 as the race will have the same finale. The finale stage will bring the riders over 165.8km from Hinna Park to the big finish in Stavanger. There’s an early climb after 16.9km of racing but from there the riders will travel along mainly flat roads to the finishing city while contesting the intermediate sprints at the 31.2km, 69.1km and 109.1km marks. With 49.1km to go, they will hit the 18.8km finishing circuit which includes the steep 1100m climb of Sørmarksbakken just 8.7km from the finish. The riders will do almost a full lap before they get to the finish for the first time and as they will do two laps in the end, they will tackle the climb a total of three times. The final 3km are flat and very technical with numerous turns in the final kilometre.
Last year the race was decided when Edvald Boasson Hagen, Daryl Impey, Marco Haller and Sven Erik Bystrøm rode away on the final climb and put 15 seconds into the peloton. In 2014, 15 riders made it to the finish together and Kristoff made the selection before winning the sprint. This definitely won’t be a full bunch sprint but it will be touch and go whether a small group can make it or we will have a sprint from a reduced group.
The course makes the race very similar to last year’s race and so it should suit the same kind of riders. Back then, it all came down to the lumpy circuits on the final two stages where the puncheurs managed to get rid of the sprinters. Those two stages are again likely to be the key stages as it is the best chance to get rid of Alexander Kristoff and Sondre Holst Enger who are the two best sprinters here.
The addition of longer climbs on stage 3 is an interesting novelty. However, they come so early in the stage that we doubt that they will make much of a difference. However, BMC are here with a very strong team without any sprinter so they have to ride aggressively and grab every possible opportunity. If he has his best climbing legs, Enger may be strong enough to follow and he will have an in-form Stef Clement as a very valuable domestique. With small six-rider teams here, Katusha may not be strong enough to bring it back together so it’s not impossible that we will see time gaps here. However, the most likely outcome is that we will have a sprint in that stage.
The weather is always an interesting aspect of races in Norway. This year it seems that it will be very bad. The first four days will be rainy and only the final day is forecasted to give some sunshine. Wednesday looks really bad as huge amounts of rain are forecasted and it will be very windy too. This will probably make the race pretty selective and we could see echelons in this stage. If that’s the case, this could be a key stage in the race which will make it much more difficult for the continental teams which are not able to match the WorldTour teams in these conditions. However, it should still end in some kind of sprint, just like stage 2.
Overall we expect some crosswind action on stage 1 and reduced bunch sprints on the first two stages. That’s also the likely scenario for stage 3 but we could see a small group of climbers make the difference. The key stages will come in the weekend and this is where the puncheurs have to see whether they can rid of the likes of Kristoff and Enger who are likely to pick up lots of bonus seconds during the week.
It is hard to look beyond Alexander Kristoff as the man to beat. The Norwegian is by far the strongest rider in the race and he is suited to these courses. He is building form for the Worlds and seems to be riding pretty well. He won the sprint for third in Bretagne last Sunday and he climbed really well in the Arctic Race which was his comeback after the Tour.
Kristoff is by far the best sprinter here so he should be able to pick up lots of bonus seconds. He will have no trouble in the crosswinds and we expect him to make it in stage 3 too. The big challenge will be to go with the best puncheurs in the final two stages. Two years ago he managed to do so but last year he couldn’t. Everybody will be looking to Katusha to bring it back and it won’t be easy with a small 6-rider team if Kristoff fails to go with the best. However, he may not need to as he will score so many bonus seconds that he can afford to lose some time in one of the stages. This year there aren’t any really big puncheurs in the race so we expect him to be strong enough to win the race.
His biggest rival will be Sondre Holst Enger. In the Tour, Enger showed that he has the speed to mix it up with the best. However, he is not as fast as Kristoff so if it comes down to a sprint every day, it won’t be easy. However, Enger is a better and more explosive climber than Kristoff so he will try to gain time on one of the final three stages. If he can do so, he is likely to win the race as he is the second best sprinter here. Unfortunately, his form doesn’t seem to be excellent.
The best climber is clearly Damiano Caruso. He is very explosive and fast in a sprint so the final two stages should definitely suit him. However, this is his first race since the Tour so it remains to be seen what kind of form he has. He is part of a strong BMC team which will try to blow the race to pieces and Caruso will be their best card. If he can make the difference in a small group on one of the final two stages, he has the sprint to win both the stage and the overall.
Joey Rosskop is the in-form BMC rider at the moment. He has just won the Tour du Limousin overall and was impressively strong in the Tour of Utah. He is not as fast as Caruso so he will have to make the difference by brute force. However, he could very well be the strongest rider in this race and with a small six-rider teams, it is definitely not impossible that he will be able to ride to a solo win in one of the final three stages.
Stölting are here with a great team of puncheurs. Their best card is probably Danish champion Alexander Kamp who is perfectly suited to these short, steep climbs. He showed great form at the Tour of Denmark but failed to impress in the Arctic Race. However, if he has the legs he had just a few weeks ago, he could very well be in a small group that makes it to the finish in one of the final two stages and then he has the sprint to finish it off.
Rasmus Guldhammer is an even better climber and he also has the skills to excel in this race. However, the Dane has been far from his best level in 2016. He showed signs of improvement in Denmark but then performed poorly in the Arctic Race. It remains to be seen whether he has the form to be competitive but on paper he has the skills to do well. The team also has Mads Pedersen who is ideally suited to the course. He doesn’t climb as well as his compatriots but is very fast. However, he hasn’t shown much form recently.
Roompot are here with an in-for Huub Duijn who recently finished second in Druivenkoers Overijse. He is clearly one of the best climbers here and so has a great chance to make a difference in one of the final two stages. Unfortunately, he is not very fast in a sprint.
On paper, this race is perfect for Jonathan Hivert as he is explosive on short climbs and has a fast sprint. He has been set back by injury but showed signs of improvement in the Arctic Race and in Wallonia. He has still not had the level to be competitive but he may now be good enough to win a race that suits him really well. At his best, he should be with the attacks in the final two stages.
BMC have Alessandro De Marchi who had a fantastic ride at EuroEyes Cyclassics where he nearly denied the sprinters. The form is obviously good but this race doesn’t really suit him. However, if BMC can blow the race to pieces and attack in turns, De Marchi may solo to victory in one of the harder stages.
Among the continental riders, August Jensen stands out as the best rider. The Norwegian is a talented sprinter at the end of hard, selective races as he proved in the Tour of Norway and the Arctic Race. This makes it an ideal race for him. He won’t beat Kristoff in a sprint but if he can follow the attacks on the final stages, he will have options.
Andrea Pasqualon is the right kind of sprinter for this race as he climbs well. He has shown good form but it won’t be easy to beat Kristoff in the sprints. Bert Van Lerberghe is also one of the fastest here. However, he is not climbing as well as Kristoff and he can’t beat the Norwegian in the sprint.
Quentin Pacher should be able to do well here as he climbs well and has a fast sprint from a small group that escapes in one of the final two stages. In the same way, Bjørn Tore Hoem and Karel Hnik should be among the best on the climbs but unlike Pacher, they are not fast in a sprint.
Finally, we will point to young sprint sensation Kristoffer Halvorsen. He should definitely be up there in the sprints and he has proved that he can handle tough courses too. However, he won’t be strong enough to follow attacks so it won’t be easy to win the race.
***** Alexander Kristoff
**** Sondre Holst Enger, Damiano Caruso
*** Joey Rosskopf, Alexander Kamp, Huub Duijn, Jonathan Hivert, Rasmus Guldhammer
** Alessandro De Marchi, August Jensen, Andrea Pasqualon, Quentin Pacher, Mads Pedersen, Bert Van Lerberghe, Karel Hnik, Kristoffer Halvorsen, Bjørn Tore Hoem
* Eliot Lietaer, Michael Schär, Alex Kirsch, Stef Clement, Nick van der Lijke, Sjoerd van Ginneken, Pawel Poljanski, Carl Fredrik Hagenm Andreas Vangstad, Javier Megias, Rasmus Tiller
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