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 Poitou-Charentes which is held this week. Taking place in a mostly flat part of France, the race has traditionally suited sprinters and time triallists, with the former battling it out in most of the road stages and the latter deciding the GC in the key race against the clock.
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 races in Ain and Limousin, Tour du Poitou-Charentes 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 puncheurs excel in the flat terrain in Limousin. Like the latter region, Poitou-Charentes don’t have any major climbs and the terrain is even much easier. This means that it is usually sprint festival but with the addition of a key time trial, the race is usually won by one of the big rouleurs.
First held in 1987, Tour du Poitou-Charentes is a relatively new race which celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2016. The race became a professional event in 1991 and since the current system was introduced in 2005, it has been a 2.1 event of the UCI Europe Tour. It had some big winners already before it became a pro race as Pavel Tonkov won in 1989 and since then it has been conquered by riders like Kim Andernse, Thierry Marie, Christophe Moreau, Floyd Landis, Jens Voigt, Sylvain Chavanel, Thomas Voeckler and Tony Martin. While it was once dominated by Frenchmen, it has become a rather international affair and last year there was no home rider on the podium.
This year it’s no different as the field for the race is very strong. FDJ, Ag2r, Movistar, Sky, LottoNL-Jumbo and Giant-Alpecin will make up the WorldTour teams and so it’s one of the strongest fields for a French stage race outside the WorldTour.
As said, Poitou-Charentes is relatively flat and this means that it is a great race for the sprinters who have lots of reasons to travel to France in August. With the Tour du Limousin coming one year earlier, there are lots of bunch sprints in the country during those two weeks in the late summer and that makes it great preparation for the WorldTour classic in Plouay which takes place just two days after the end of the race in Poitou-Charentes. Traditionally it has been a key indicator of form for one of the biggest one-day races in France.
At the same time, it is a great race for time triallists. The race has follows a fixed format with three relatively flat road stages on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday and the key day for the GC on Thursday. Here the riders do a flat road stage in the morning while the GC mostly comes down almost exclusively to the afternoon ride against the clock.
However, things were slightly different in 2015. Tony Martin was beaten by both Adriano Malori and Jonathan Castroviejo in the TT but as he made it into a breakaway on one of the earlier stages, he won the race ahead of the Movistar pair. However, he won’t be back to defend his title and there will be no Malori who is still recovering from injury, or Castroviejo who is busy at the Vuelta, either.
As said, there is never much change to the course for the Tour du Poitou-Charentes. The first two road stages are usually for the sprinters while the third day offers a flat morning stage and a TT in the afternoon. The hardest stage comes on the final day and the lumpy course in Poitiers has often been tough enough to create differences. However, it is rarely enough to change things after the TT which often decides the GC entirely. This year the course follows the traditional formula.
As said, the first stage I usually for the sprinters and it is unlikely that it will be any different in 2016. The 189.6km between ANngouleme and Puilboreau are pretty flat. There are two small climbs – 1km at 6% and 300m at 8% - in the first half and two climbs – 500m at 4% and 1km at 6% - in the middle section but they won’t be much of a challenge. The stage ends with one lap of a flat 24.4km circuit.
With lots of sprinters in attendance, there will be plenty of interest in keeping things together. The wind can always become a danger in these stages but it is unlikely that the first day won’t be decided in a big bunch sprint.
The terrain won’t be much harder on stage 2 where the peloton will cover 179.8km between La Rochelle and Niort. There are two small climbs – 1km at 4% and 400m at 5% - but the final ascent comes with 56.1km to go. The stage ends with two laps of a flat 22.1km circuit in Niort.
Niort has produced bunch sprints when it was visited in 2014 and 2010 and it is hard to imagine that it will be different in 2016. Again the main danger will be the wind but otherwise there should be enough interest from the sprinters to ensure that we will get another bunch kick.
As usual, the third day is split in two and as always, the sprinters hope to come to the fore in the morning. Stage 3 coves 95.2km between Thure and Chatellerault and has three climbs – 1km at 7%, 1km at 7% and 800m at 6%. The final ascent comes with 39.7km to go and then the stage ends with one lap of a flat 16.7km circuit.
The time triallists hope to get an easy ride and save energy for the afternoon but the sprinters have no reason to hold anything back. Morning stages with afternoon time trials are usually decided by the sprinters and it should be the same this time.
After three stages for the sprinters, it is time for the stage that will probably decide the race. The Thursday afternoon time trial is usually flat and around 20-30km long and that will be the same this time around. This year the riders will cover 23km between Saint Saviour and Chatellerault and they are mainly flat. There aren’t many technical challenges either.
With a course with very few undulations and long, straight roads, this is a perfect stage for the big rouleurs. The time triallists will battle it out for the stage wind and probably also the overall win.
Only one stage has traditionally been hard enough to create some small differences. Every year the race finishes on a lumpy circuit in Poitiers and it has often allowed puncheurs and classics riders to deny the sprinters. This year the riders will cover 171.3km between Thouears and Poitiers and they are much hillier than what they have faced until now. There are two small climbs – 800m at 5% and 500m at 6% - inside the first 25km and a 1km climb at 6% at the midpoint. With 40km to go, the riders will tackle a 700m climb at 7% and then they will hit the 13.7km circuit. It includes a 500m wall at 11% which the riders will tackle a total of three times. They will do two full laps of the circuit, tackling the climb for the final time with 2.8km to go.
History shows that this stage can be won from a small group or in a bunch sprint but usually only the strongest of the fast finishers have a chance. Last year Matteo Trentin came out on top and in 2014 Jesus Herrada won a sprint. The Spaniard also won a three-rider sprint in 2013 and Francisco Ventoso was the fastest in 2012. Alex Dowsett took a surprise solo win in 2012 and Jimmy Casper and Heinrich Haussler took breakaway wins in 2011 and 2010 respectively. The stage will be the usual aggressive affair but if a small group makes a difference, it will be hard to gain enough time to cause any major changes in the GC.
The Tour du Poitou-Charentes is usually a very predictable affair that is decided almost exclusively by the time trial. Bonus seconds can come into play but as the sprinters always lose too much time in the time trial to be in GC contention, that rarely happens. Time differences can be created on the final stage where some of the heavier guys may get dropped and a small breakaway can gain some seconds. However, the time gaps after a 23km time trial will usually be so big that the final stage is unlikely to change the winner of the race.
What can change the outcome is the wind. This year Tuesday will be the windiest day but in general there won’t be much. It is unlikely to be enough to split the field. The main challenge will be the extreme heat as it will be 36 degrees almost every day.
Last year Tony Martin managed to gain enough time on one of the road stages to win the race even though he didn’t win the time trial. However, it is unlikely that it will be possible to repeat that in 2016. Arnaud Demare, Bryan Coquard and Nacer Bouhanni are all in attendance and this means that it will be very hard to break the stranglehold of the sprint teams. Hence, we expect it all to come down to the final time trial, with bonus seconds and the final stage having a very small chance to slightly change the outcome.
Movistar have traditionally arrived with their best time triallists. Last year they were close with Malori and Castroviejo and this year they again have the two biggest favourites. Alex Dowsett stands out as the man to beat. The Brit has been a bit inconsistent in his time trialling but this year he has been really good. He was in a class of his own on the flat course at the Tour de Pologne and he was fourth at Tirreno-Adriatico. This flat course is ideal for him and he will be the man to beat in the TT.
Dowsett is not the best climber and he could come under pressure on the final stage. However, Movistar have a strong team here and the Brit has improved his climbing a lot. He may lose some seconds in the fial stage but his gains in the TT should be enough to win the race. Hence, he is our favourite.
The plan B for Movistar will be Nelson Oliveira. The Portuguese has really improved his level massively in 2015 and 2016. This year he was third in the first TT at the Tour and he was seventh at the Olympics. He usually prefers a harder course but he has been good in flat terrain too. His form in Rio was very good so he could very win the TT. Furthermore, he is strong in lumpy terrain so he won’t get dropped on the final stage.
LottoNL-Jumbo are here with Wilco Kelderman. The Dutchman may no longer be climbing as well as he once was but he has returned to his best time trialling. Like Oliveira, he would have preferred a harder course but at the Eneco Tour he has proved that he is very good on the flats too. Last year he even beat Dumoulin on a flat course at Nationals. His form is an unknown but last year he was very strong at this time after the Tour.
Primoz Roglic will be the second option for LottoNL-Jumbo. Known as a pure climber, the Slovenian is the TT revelation of 2016. He won the long TT in the Giro and was second in the opening TT. At the Tour de Pologne and in Rio, he proved that the results were no fluke. In the Giro and Poland he has shown that he can do well on flat courses so he should be among the best here.
Sylvain Chavanel has won this race three times but he is no longer as strong as once was. However, he was still close to victory in the TT at Route du Sud and up there in the Belgium Tour prologue. This is the kind of time trial that he really likes, both when it comes to terrain and distance. He is ever fast in a sprint so he may go for some bonus seconds.
Søren Kragh Andersen is a late addition to the start list. The Dane is a big TT talent which he proved with his impressive fourth place on the TT in California. This TT is pretty similar so he should be good here too. He is even the Giant-Alpecin sprinter here so he may pick up some bonus seconds even though it will be difficult in a field loaded with strong sprinters.
Arnaud Demare and Bryan Coquard both did very good TTs in Route du Sud and if they can do so again here, they may be in contention as they can score a lot of bonus seconds. However, this TT is longer and the field is stronger so it will be hard to limit the losses sufficiently in the time trial.
Movistar also have Javier Moreno. The Spaniard was once known as a climber but he has really done some great TTs recently, even on flat courses. However, this one may be a bit too long to suit him ideally.
FDJ have a number of cards to play but Anthony Roux is their best option. He is very inconsistent in his time trialling but he did an excellent TT at Nationals. Furthermore, he showed very good form in San Sebastian so if he has maintained that level, he will be good.
Sep Vanmarcke was up there in last year’s race. He has improved his time trialling massively but it will be hard to match the specialists. However, he is very fast and can ride aggressively in the final stage. If he can gain seconds here and there, he may be able to win the race.
Finally, we will point to the Ag2r pair of Patrick Gretsch and Alexis Gougeard. Gretsch is a real specialist but he has not been at his best in recent years. Nonetheless, he tends to produce at least one good TT every year and he has shown good form recently. Gougeard came out of the Tour in great form and is very powerful. He is a good time triallist but it may be hard for him to match the big specialists.
***** Alex Dowsett
**** Nelson Oliveira, Wilco Kelderman
*** Primoz Roglic, Sylvain Chavanel, Søren Kragh Andersen
** Arnaud Demare, Bryan Coquard, Javier Moreno, Anthony Roux, Sep Vanmarcke, Alexis Gougeard, Patrick Gretsch
* Gianni Moscon, Damien Gaudin, Jeremy Roy, Gaetan Bille, Ignatas Konovalovas, Hugo Houle, Eduardo Sepulveda, Simon Geschke
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