One of the things that characterize the traditional cycling countries is the fact that many of their regions have their own local stage races. As one of cycling’s traditional heartlands, France is no exception and one of the biggest regional tours is the four-day Tour du Limousin which is held this week. Taking place in a lumpy part of France without any major climbs, the race has traditionally suited sprinters and puncheurs and those riders have gathered in rich numbers to battle it out in one of the strongest fields in recent year.
Italy, France, Belgium and Spain have traditionally been regarded as cycling’s heartlands but the four countries have a different culture. While Italy and Belgium have mostly had one-day races in their country, it is always all about stage racing in Spain. France is a bit of a mix as it has a bit of everything in a very diverse calendar.
Like in Spain, many regions have their own local stage race and unlike in the big country on the Iberian Peninsula, most of them have survived the economic crisis. Most are relatively small 2.2 events on the UCI calendar but some of them stand out with their 2.1 status. Tour del’ Ain, Tour du Poitou-Charentes, Tour du Limousin and Tour du Gevaudan are held in the second half of the year, Tour du Haut Var and Tour La Provence are held in February and in May, the Tour de Picardie is on the menu.
Together with the race in Ain and Poitou-Charentes, Tour du Limousin forms a great racing block in August where riders of all kinds can find something to their liking. The climbers come to the fore in the mountainous Ain region while the sprinters and time triallist excel in the flat terrain in Poitou-Charentes. The Tour du Limousin is a bit of a mix. The terrain is hillier than it is in Poitou-Charentes but there are no big mountains like in Ain. The many short, steep climbs make it a great race for puncheurs who usually battle it out for the victory in the overall classification.
The race was first held in 1968 and was for amateurs until 1974. In 1975, it became a professional race and has been held every year since then. When the current UCI system was introduced in 2005, it was a 2.1 race but was briefly moved into the 2.HC category in 2011. However, since 2013, it had been back as a 2.1 race.
The list of winners is an illustrious one and it speaks volumes about its status in France that it has been won by many of the greatest names. Bernard Hinault won it twice in the early part of his career and since then the likes of Marc Madiot, Thieey Marie, Charly Mottet, Andrei Tchmil, Laurent Brochard, Patice Halgans, Pierrick Fedrigo, Björn Leukemans and Martin Elmiger have come out on top. In the early years, it was mainly a French affair as only two editions had international winners until Jens Heppner won in 1994. However, things have changed a lot in recent years and in fact the last Frenchman to win the race was Mathieu Perget in 2009. In the last three years, only one of the nine podium spots have been taken by a home rider.
The race has traditionally been held over four days in August, offering stages for both sprinters and puncheurs. Occasionally, it has had a time trial, most recently in 2010 when Gustav Larsson took the win. However, such a stage has largely determined the overall classification as the terrain is not hard enough to create big differences and so the organizers have generally preferred to stick to four road stage which has turned it into a battle of bonus seconds for the strongest sprinters and the best puncheurs.
That’s exactly what it was in 2015. Sonny Colbrelli won the first stage but then saw Jesus Herrada claim the lead when the Spaniard won the hard uphill finish on stage 2. However, Colbrelli continued to score bonus seconds in the final two stages and with a second place on the final stage, he beat Herrada on a countback for the first stage race win of his career. Rudy Molard was two seconds behind in third.
As said, the race has occasionally had a time trial but nowadays that is no longer the case. Instead, it consists of a mix of relatively flat stages for the sprinters and lumpy stages with finishes on short, steep climbs where the puncheurs come to the fore. This year the format is pretty similar but in general the sprints are maybe a little less hard than they have been in the past. After a flat finale on the first stage, the final three stages have uphill finales after relatively lumpy stages and so it should again come down to a battle of bonus seconds between the strong sprinters and the puncheurs. However, it generally seems that the stages are a bit easier than they have been in recent years so this year the faster guys will have a bigger chance than usual to come out on top in a race that has traditionally been for classics riders.
The first stage has usually been for the sprinters and it won’t be any different in 2016. On the first day, the riders will cover 165.4km between Limoges and Oradour-sur-Glane and they are mainly flat. There are three short climbs on the menu – 0.7km at 7.3%, 1.8km at 4% and 0.8km at 8.5% respectively – but the first two challenges come early in the stage and the final ascent comes with 22.6km to go. From there, it is mainly flat but a late turn 250m from the line will make for a technical, flat finale.
The wind is always a danger in this race but the terrain doesn’t offer many challenges. Hence, it should be pretty easy for the sprint teams to control this stage and make sure that it comes down to a bunch sprint. The late turn will make it a tricky finale and so a good lead-out will be important for riders aiming for the first leader’s jersey in the race.
After the flat opening stage, the terrain will be a bit harder on the second day but again the sprinters should find the course to their liking. The riders will cover 173.6km between Dun-le-Palestel and Auzances and like in the previous stage, the riders will have to overcome three small climbs – 1.1km at 5.4%, 3.5km at 4.5% and 4km at 3.9% respectively. However, the two first ascents again come in the first half while the second hill comes with 25.7km to go. From there, the terrain is definitely not flat as there is a long uphill drag before the riders will descend for the final 10km. In the finale, the riders face an uphill sprint of 200m.
The stage is a bit harder than the first one but the terrain should do little to challenge the sprinters. Again the main danger will be the wind but if it’s a calm day, it should come down to a sprint. The uphill finale should suit some of the stronger guys but the finish should still favour the sprinters over the puncheurs.
The third stage has often been the hardest and this will again be the case in the 2016 edition of the race. On the penultimate day, the riders will cover 179.9km between Le Lonzac and Liginiac and with a total amount of climbing of 3678m, it is definitely not a flat course. Already after 33.1km of racing, the riders will reach the top of the category 3 Cote du Bos (8.4km, 2.7%) and the hardest climb of the race, the category 2 climb of Cot de Soursac (4.9km, 4.7%), comes at the 81km mark. From there, the terrain is significantly easier but there is a nasty sting in the tail. The category 4 Cote de Roche le Peyroux (2.8km, 4%) tops out just 7.1km from the finish and from there it is a flat run-in to the finish. The final 200m are slightly uphill.
The final climb will be a perfect launch pad for an attack but it is hard to make a difference on a 4% climb. At the same time, many sprinters can survive this kind of ascent and the uphill sprint is not overwhelmingly hard. The stage should be more selective than the previous ones but we still expect a relatively big group to arrive at the finish. After a hard day, the puncheurs should have a better chance but in general, the stage probably still favours the strong sprinters.
The course for the Tour du Limousin usually varies a lot but one thing never changes. Every year the race with the uphill sprint in Limoges and that will be the case for this edition as well. At 185.3km, the stage between Saint-Leonard-de-Niblat and Limoges is the longest of the race and it is the typical lumpy affair. There are two early category 3 climb – 2.8km at 3.5% and 2.8km at 4.5% respectively – and another climb (4.4km, 3%) with 48.5km to. However, the main action will unfold during the final three laps of the well-known 12km circuit where it all ends on an uphill finishing straight of 1000m.
This stage is well-known by most rides as the final circuit features every year. It’s a tough one but it has rarely been possible to prevent a bunch sprint. However, the hard finale means that it both suits puncheurs and strong sprinters. With the GC likely to be very close, it won’t be easy for attackers to make a difference and we can expect a fourth sprint finish of the race. However, this is probably the hardest sprint of the entire race and offers the puncheurs their best chance to take a stage win and potentially go for the overall win.
Last year it was Maurits Lammertink who beat Sonny Colbrelli and Thomas Springers, indicating the classics riders are favoured over the sprinters. Manuel Belletti won in 2014 while Stephane Rossetto showed that a breakaway can make it when he won the stage in 2013. Jeremy Roy did the same in 2012 while Matthieu Ladagnous, Davide Appollonio and Romain Feillu won the uphill sprints in 2012, 2011 and 2010 respectively. Benoit Vaugrenard denied the sprinters in 2009 and Aliaksandr Usau, Sebastien Hinault, Thor Hushovd and Pierrick Fedrigo have all taken sprint wins here
In the last few years, the Tour du Limousin has followed a similar formula and come down to a battle for bonus seconds between the puncheurs and the strong sprinters. This year the design of the course is similar to what we have seen in recent editions so we can expect more of the same in 2016.
However, based on the information in the roadbook, it looks like the finales are a bit easier than they have been in recent editions. This year there is no really tough uphill sprint where we can expect real time gaps to open up. Three of the stages still have uphill finishes but they are not as hard as they have been in previous editions. This means that it will be much harder for the classics riders to compete with the best and strongest sprinters who should find this course to their liking.
The first stage will be for the pure sprinters. Stage 2 has an uphill finish but it is likely to be a complete field that hits the finishing straight. The two most selective stages come on days 3 and 4 but none of them are overly hard. If the classics riders want to win the race, they have to ride aggressively here. There’s a late climb in stage 3 but it’s not very hard and it won’t be easy to make a difference. The best opportunity probably comes on the final stage as history shows that it’s possible for a breakaway to make it in Limoges. Furthermore, this is the hardest sprint in the race and where the really fast guys will suffer the most compared to the strong guys.
To make the race harder, some of the classics riders would have preferred bad weather. However, the real challenge will be the heat as bright sunshine and temperatures of 30 degrees are forecasted for Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Rain is very unlikely and there won’t be much wind either. Hence, it should be relatively easy to control the race.
The race will be characterized by the presence of Bryan Coquard and Nacer Bouhanni who are the two big favourites, and everybody will be looking to Direct Energie and Cofidis to control the race. Cofidis are here with a strong team and they should be able to ride a lot on the front. Direct Energie may suffer a bit more as they are here with a team of youngsters.
At the same time, there are two very strong teams from Movistar and BMC. They don’t have any big sprinters so their goal will be to try to create chaos. That should set the scene for some aggressive riding in the final two stages and it’s not impossible that those two teams will be able to make a difference in one of the stages. If that’s the case a small group could decide the stage and the overall. However, most teams have some kind of sprinter here and this means that there will usually be some kind of alliance. As the stages are not very hard, the most likely outcome is that we will have four sprint finishes.
This will turn it into a battle between Coquard and Bouhanni who are clearly the fastest riders in this year’s race. Both are known as strong sprinters who excel in hilly terrain and are comfortable in uphill sprints. At the same time, they are the fastest in flat sprints so this race and this course is really tailor-made for them.
However, none of them arrive here with much of a lead-out. Coquard has Adrien Petit at his side but the rest of the train has been left at home. Cofidis have a good team of climbers but Bouhanni only has Cyril Lemoine from his usual train. This will make this much less predictable and it will be harder for the two stars to benefit from their fast speed.
It is likely to be a close battle between the two French sprinters. On paper, Bouhanni is probably the fastest but Coquard is one of the best in the world when it comes to an uphill sprint. Bouhanni is a master in positioning and so is not that hampered by the lack of a train. Coquard is often out of position but with Petit at his side, he has a better train than his rival.
With three of the stages having uphill finishes and the finale in Limoges being relatively hard, we will put our money on Bryan Coquard. The Frenchman has proved that he is one of the very best uphill sprinters. At the Tour de France, he would undoubtedly have won in Limoges if he hadn’t been out of position in the sprint. In general, La Grande Boucle proved that he can match everybody in these finishes, just like he did at last year’s Paris-Nice.
This means that Coquard will be the obvious favourite for most of the stages, especially the final one. Furthermore, he has really improved his climbing a lot and so he should be fresher than most at the finish. He may even be strong enough to follow the attacks from the classics riders. Furthermore, the presence of Petit will be key in a race without any great trains and this could make all the difference. There is some uncertainty about his form as he hasn’t raced since the Tour but he is never bad. With three uphill finishes, Coquard is out favourite.
His biggest rival will be Nacer Bouhanni. The Cofidis star first made the world aware of himself in uphill sprints and even though most of his wins have come in flat finales, he is still strong in an uphill dash to the line. When he is on form, he is an excellent climber – just remember how he mixed it up with the GC riders on a tough stage at the 2014 Vuelta. He doesn’t have much of a train here but usually that’s not a great issue as he is a master in positioning.
However, there are some question marks regarding his form. He had to skip the Tour due his hotel altercation and he didn’t look great in La Polynormande and the Dwars door Het Hageland. In the former race, he was there in the finale but it became too hard for him. Of course he is likely to be better now but he is unlikely to be at 100%. He is probably not as fast as Coquard in an uphill sprint so this time he has to settle for the position of being the biggest rival for the favourite.
Sonny Colbrelli is the defending champion but he would have preferred a tougher course more suited to a classics rider like him. However, after his bad 2015 season, he has been better than ever in 2016. He has been climbing excellently and impressed with his third place at the Amstel Gold Race and he seems to have improved his sprinting too. With three uphill finishes, he should be able to challenge the big-name sprinters and especially the stage to Limoges should suit him. He is also strong enough to go with the attacks in the two hardest stages. He missed some racing in June where he suffered from pneumonia and he hasn’t been at his best recently. However, he showed signs of progress at RideLondon Classic and we expect him to be close to 100% for this race.
Caja Rural are here with Carlos Barbero. The Spaniard is not the fastest rider in a flat sprint but in an uphill finish he is one of the best. Many will remember his great victory in a tough finale at last year’s Vuelta a Burgos and so he should find this race to his liking. However, he hasn’t really had much success since he crashed out of this year’s Tour of Turkey and he must have been frustrated to miss out on Vuelta selection. If he is getting closer to his best form, he should be one of the fastest in the hardest stages though.
Manuel Belletti is a former winner of the Limoges stage and this automatically turns him into a great contender. The Italian is no longer as fast as he once was but in this race he is still one of the fastest. He excels in sprints at the end of tough races so this race should suit him and this year none of the stages should be too hard for him. With Enrique Sanz and Filippo Pozzato for the lead-out, he has one of the best trains here and this will be a great advantage.
Wanty are led by Roy Jans who is another specialist in uphill sprints. However, the Belgian has had numerous health issues and he hasn’t been at his best for most of the season. He showed signs of progress in the Tour of Denmark and he could be set for a better autumn. On paper, he is one of the fastest but he needs to take another step to win the race.
Francesco Gavazzi would have preferred a harder course but he should still be competitive in the uphill sprints. He has been riding really well for most of the year and showed great form at the Volta a Portugal where he won a stage. He is fast in an uphill sprint but his best chance is probably to follow the attacks as he could very well be the fastest from a small group.
Jesus Herrada finished second in last year’s race but he would have preferred a much harder course. In the Dauphiné, he proved what kind of kick he has in an uphill sprint but these sprints are probably too easy for him. However, he will definitely try to go on the attack in the final two stages and if he can make it into the right group, he could very well be the fastest. His form is a bit uncertain as he had to abandon the Tour due to illness but he is likely to be back on track.
Andrea Pasqualon is a rider who excels in uphill sprints and after a slow start to the season he really found some form in June and July. He hasn’t been at the same level since then as he abandoned in Portugal. However, it’s a race that suits him if he has returned to form.
Romain Feillu is no longer as fast as he once was but he is still a strong rider in an uphill sprint after a hard race. Unfortunately, his form hasn’t been great recently. Romain Maikin finds himself in the opposite position as he climbed and sprinted excellently at the Tour de Pologne. He should be up there in this race but he is probably not fast enough to win.
The same can be said about Rick Zabel who is mixing it up in more and more sprints. He was in the top 10 in the Giro on a few occasions and recently showed good form in Utah but his top speed probably lacks a bit to be competitive for the overall victory.
Topsport Vlaanderen have two strong cards in Amaury Capiot and Pieter Vanspeybrouck. The former showed good form in the uphill sprints in Denmark and should be up there in this race too. The latter is enjoying a bit of a breakthrough season and is likely to be one of the best attackers in the hard stages where he is also fast enough to finish it off in an uphill sprint.
Finally, we will point to Yannick Martinez. The Delko sprinter is hugely inconsistent but when he hits peak form, this is the kind of terrain that he likes. He climbs really well and he is fast in an uphill sprint. Unfortunately, he may not be fast enough to take the overall win.
***** Bryan Coquard
**** Nacer Bouhanni, Sonny Colbrelli
*** Carlos Barbero, Manuel Belletti, Roy Jans, Francesco Gavazzi
** Jesus Herrada, Andrea Pasqualon, Romain Feillu, Roman Maikin, Rick Zabel, Amaury Capiot, Yannick Martinez, Pieter Vanspeybrouck
* Giovanni Visconti, Filippo Pozzato, Joey Rosskopf, Erik Baska, Anthony Maldonado, Armindo Fonseca, Michel Kreder, Florian Vachon, Dimitri Claeys, Thomas Sprengers, Steven Tronet, Francisco Ventoso, Delio Fernandez, Paolo Simion, Maxime Vantomme, Alexis Gougeard, Cyril Gautier, Julien Duval
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