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Africa's biggest stage race offers a perfect opportunity for European riders to prepare themselves in warm weather conditions

Photo: Einar Oliver Landa

JEROME BAUGNIES

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16.02.2015 @ 11:30 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The globalization of cycling means that Asia, Oceania, South America and North America now all have major stage races that attract some of the biggest WorldTour teams. The development may still not have reached Africa but one of the events on the continent stands out. For several years, the Tropicale Amissa Bongo in Gabon has formed a key part of the preparation for some of the biggest French teams and even though the 2015 edition has failed to attract a single WorldTour team, it is high caliber race that deserves its status as the best cycling race in Africa.

 

While African riders are gradually starting to have an impact on the European cycling scene with the emergence of the likes of Daryl Impey, Louis Meintjes, Reinardt Janse van Rensburg, Merhawi Kudus, Daniel Teklehaimanot and Natnael Berhane, the continent still hasn’t been able to establish a race that has managed to attract the interest of the best teams. However, the racing scene is growing and several countries have national tours, with ASO even being involved in the Tour du Faso in Burkina Faso.

 

One event stands above the rest. Since 2006, the Tropicale Amissa Bonga has been held in Gabon and it is the only African race that has been registered as a 2.1 race on the UCI calendar. Hence, it is the only race that is allowed to field WorldTour teams and the race has always been able to present some of the best French teams.

 

The race has usually been held in January where it has served as a perfect preparation race for those teams who have escaped the European cold and had the chance to do some racing kilometres under very little media attention and in good weather conditions. The rest of the field has mainly been made up of African national teams but they have had a hard time competing with the European professionals and it is no wonder that the list of winners is dominated by Europeans. FDJ was the major force in the first four years as Jussi Veikkanen, Frederic Guesdon, Lilian Jegou and Matthieu Ladagnous were the first four winners. Since then, Europcar have taken over the reins with 5 wins in a row as Anthony Charteau won in 2010, 2011 and 2012 before Yohann Gene and Natnael Berhane continued their domination in 2013 and 2014. However, the Moroccan riders have been able to challenge the Europeans with Adil Jelloul finishing on the podium in 2011 and 2012 and Soufiane Haddi being runner-up in 2013.

 

In 2013, the organizers moved the race to a May slot but that change didn’t do anything good to the race as most of the big teams were too busy to attend the African race. Last year it was back at its usual January date but this year it will be held in February.

 

However, the race again comes at a time when there are lots of other stage races in Europe and the Middle East and this means that the organizers have only managed to attract to professional teams: Europcar and Wanty-Groupe Gobert. They will be joined by the continental teams SkyDive Dubai and Bike Aid and a host of African national teams, meaning that the scene is set for a battle between the Europeans and the high-level SkyDive team which has several former professional riders in its line-up.

 

The course

The Tropical Amissa Bongo has never been a very hilly race and it usually offers plenty of opportunities for the sprinters. If it had been a European race, the terrain would probably not have been hard enough to make much of a selection and the race was likely to have been dominated by the fast finishers. However, the European teams have often been able to blow the race apart in the harder stages, meaning that climbers like Natnael Berhane and Anthony Charteau have been able to win an event whose course doesn’t really seem to suit their characteristics.

 

The 2015 edition seems to follow a pretty traditional format but there are two major novelties. First of all the race will start in the eastern part of the country which is hillier than the areas that have traditionally been visited by the race. This should make the race a bit more selective and suit the climbers. Secondly, the organizers have decided to include a team time trial on the penultimate day and even though it’s only 8.5km long, it will play a big role in a race that is usually decided by seconds.

 

The stage kicks off with a 100km stage from Bongoville to Moanda and it has plenty of rolling terrain. There may be no long climbs but the many short hills may be enough for the professional teams to create a selection and avoid a bunch sprint. There are a few climbs inside the final 30km and they could offer an opportunity for strong climbers to get clear as they did in 2010 when Moanda last hosted a stage finish.

 

Stage 2 is mostly held in flat terrain and it should be possible for the sprint teams to control. Inside the final 3km, however, there’s a tough 1km climb that leads to the final flat 1500m, meaning that this stage should be one for the stronger sprinters. Stage 3 has more climbing than any other stage in the race and the first half contains two pretty hard ascents. However, the final 60km are completely flat and so there may be some kind of regrouping and a sprint from a reduced field.

 

For the fourth stage, the riders will be back in the western part of the country and this means that the terrain is significantly flatter. The stage seems to be one for the sprinters but they have to survive the small 1500m climb which summits just 1.5km from the line before they can show off their speed.

 

The fifth day offers two stages: stage 5 in the morning is almost completely flat and should be one for the sprinters while the afternoon stage 6 will be the all-important team time trial that is held on an 8.5km circuit in Port-Gentil. With only four turns, it is not a very technical course and as it is completely flat, it will be a high-speed affair. The race ends with two flat circuit race in Port Gentil on stage 7 and Libreville on stage 8 that should see the sprinters battle it out for the final stage wins in the race.

 

Stage 1:

 

Stage 2:

 

Stage 3:

 

Stage 4:

 

Stage 5:

 

Stage 6:

 

Stage 7:

 

Stage 8:

 

The favourites

The Tropicale Amissa Bongo has usually been a race that is decided by seconds and has suited fast riders who can make it into the small groups that may get clear on some of the hillier days. Anthony Charteau may have won the race thrice despite not being known for his fast finish and it is definitely possible for a strong rider to make a decisive solo move from a small group in one of the hard stages. In this kind of race, however, a fast sprint is definitely no disadvantage and bonus seconds are usually crucial.

 

Most of the stages are likely to be decided in bunch sprints but stages 1 and 3 seem to be suitable for smaller groups to get clear. It may be that all stages will be decided in some kind of field sprint and then it will be a battle of bonus seconds between the riders who make the selection every day. If a small group arrives at the finish in one of the two hilly stages, it will be a battle of seconds between those riders.

 

This year the inclusion of a team time trial adds another dimension to the race as it offers the strong teams the opportunity to gain a few seconds. In such a short time trial, the difference between the professional teams will be very small though and so it seems that the race will be decided by bonus seconds and gains in the team time trial for the riders who make the selection each day.

 

With most of the field being made up of African national teams, four teams should be far stronger than the rest and it is very hard to imagine that the winner will not come from Europcar, Bretagne, Wanty or Skydive Dubai. However, those four teams all have genuine winner candidates without any obvious favourite and they should be fairly equally matched in the team time trial which turns the race into an open and unpredictable affair.

 

Last year Wanty had a highly successful race but they failed to come away with the overall victory. Jerome Baugnies won a stage for the Belgian team and finished 7th overall and he will be back in 2015 to do even better. 2014 turned out to be a breakthrough year for the 27-year old Belgian who went on to win a stage of the Tour des Fjords and finish on the podium in the Norwegian stage race and the one-day races Giro della Toscana, GP Kanton Aargau and Rund um den Finanzplatz.

 

2015 could be an even bigger year for Baugnies who is knocking on the door for his first big win and he could get it all off to a good start by winning Africa’s biggest stage race. On paper, he is perfectly suited to this course as he is very fast in a sprint and excels in this kind of hilly terrain. He will try to make a selection in the hills and if a small group arrives at the finish, he should be able to pick up a few bonus seconds. His Wanty team should be able to defend itself reasonably in the team time trial and even though they may lose a bit of time to Bretage, Baugnies should be able to enough bonifications to make up for it. This makes the Belgian our favourite to win.

 

On paper, Bretagne seems to be the strongest team in the race and they have several cards to play. One of them is Anthony Delaplace who is brutally strong in this kind of hilly terrain and has a fast sprint at the end of a hard race. Furthermore, his Bretagne team seems to be the strongest for the team time trial. If they can win stage 6, Delaplace will be in a very good position to win overall and compared to Baugnies, he has the advantage that he has already done a bit of racing at the GP La Marseillaise.

 

Another strong Bretagne contender is Yauheni Hutarovich. The Belarusian may be known as a pure sprinter but in last year’s French one-day races, he proved that he handles hilly terrain pretty well. With no really tough stages, he may be able to make the selection each day and on paper, he should be the fastest rider in the bunch. As his team is also likely to win the team time trial, he will be the major favourite if no one manages to drop him on the climbs.

 

Another Bretagne rider that has the skills to do well in this kind of race is Benoit Jarrier. The Frenchman is both fast in a sprint and strong in this kind of hilly terrain. He showed solid condition in the GP La Marseillaise and if a small group escapes on one of the harder days, he could be there alongside Delaplace. With both riders packing a good burst of speed and being favourites for the team time trial, Bretagne have two strong cards to play in the tactical battle among the remaining contenders.

 

Europcar may have won this race five years in a row but this year they will have a hard time defending their title. The team have no obvious favourite and they are likely to suffer a bit in the team time trial. Their best card seems to be Giovanni Bernaudeau who can both handle the small climbs and has a fast sprint. However, he needs to make up for a likely time loss from the team time trial and that could turn out to be a challenge. Youngster Romain Guillemois and Morgan Lamoisson are alternative options but none of them seem to be fast enough to pick up the bonus seconds that are needed to win this race.

 

The SkyDive team have a few very strong riders, with an in-form Edgar Pinto being their best card. The Portuguese showed good condition in the recent Dubi Tour where he finished 10th in the queen stage but this race doesn’t really suit him. His team is likely to lose time in the team time trial and even though he is fast in an uphill sprint, he is not suited to the flat finales of this race.

 

Francisco Mancebo showed that he is still very strong when he did two impressive attacks in the Dubai Tour. This flat race, however, is not made for him and he is also likely to lose a bit of time in the team time trial. However, this race is traditionally very hard to control and this could open the door for Mancebo to take it all by launching a wily solo attack from a small group in one of the harder stages.

 

Usually, we would also pick Bryan Nauleau as a potential winner of this race but the Frenchman seemed to be far from his best form in the Tour de San Luis. The same can be said about former winner Yohann Gene. If the race turns out to be less selective, however, fast finishers like the French Europcar rider and Frederique Robert may have a chance. Finally, Rafaa Chtioui is a joker who could produce a surprise as he is both fast and can handle the smaller ascents of this race if the race doesn’t turn out to be too hard.

 

***** Jerome Baugnies

**** Anthony Delaplace, Yauheni Hutarovich

*** Benoit Jarrier, Giovanni Bernaudeau, Romain Guillemois, Edgar Pinto

** Francisco Mancebo, Morgan Lamoisson, Bryan Nauleau, Yohann Gene, Frederique Robert, Rafaa Chtioui

* Tim De Troyer, Tom Devriendt, Christophe Laborie, Florian Guillou, Mekseb Debesay, Azzedine Lagab, Mouhcine Lahsaini, Salah Mraouni, Essaid Abelouache, Adil Jelloul, Soufiane Haddi

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