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2013 may finally be the year when Greipel can tick off the Vattenfall box. His performance on the final Eneco stage proved that he in fabulous condition at the moment.

Photo: Sirotti


25.08.2013 @ 15:07 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Most of the high-level German cycling races have disappeared in a cloud of doping suspicion but the big European country still has one event on the finest calendar. The Vattenfall Cyclassics offers the sprinters a rare chance to go for glory in a WorldTour one-day race but don't be fooled by the seemingly flat nature of the course. The Waseberg, a 15% ramp in Western Hamburg, has to be tackled 4 times in the final part and threatens to ruin the race for any sprinter who hasn't turned on his climbing legs for the day. On the other hand, classics specialists are on the outlook for chances to foil the sprinters' plans in what is usually an aggressive and high-speed finale.


Germany once had a very rich cycling calendar with numerous week-long stage races and a couple of high-level one-day races. Bayern Rundfahrt, Hessen Rundfahrt, Sachsen Tour, Niedersachsen Rundfahrt and Rheinland-Pfalz Rundfahrt were just some of the races that joined up with the national Deutschland Tour and one-day races like HEW Cyclassics (now Vattenfall Cyclassics), Rund um den Henninger Turm (now Escborn Frankfurt City Loop), Rund um Köln and Rund um die Braunkohle to form a rich and diverse cycling scene.


No other country has been more affected by the massive doping suspicion than Germany which is now left with very few events to showcase its many fine cycling talents. The race in Bayern is now the only top-level stage race in the country while the Frankfurt and Köln one-day races are in a constant survival battle. A new race has been established in Berlin but it is a rare occurrence in a country which has had news of cancelled races almost every year.


However, one race appears to be largely unaffected by the dramatic turbulence in Germany. Despite its short history, the Vattenfall Cyclassics has established itself firmly on the WorldTour calendar as one of the biggest one-day races in the late summer and combines the elite race with a cyclosportif event which has developed into one of the largest and most popular in Europe. On a big Sunday in August, the race gathers thousands of amateurs who test themselves on the same roads that form the scene of one of the biggest bike races in the world.


Held in the Northern city of Hamburg, the race was created in 1996 and set to take place in one of the flattest parts of Germany. At that point, German cycling was at an all-time high with Jan Ullrich winning the Tour de France one year later and Erik Zabel dominating the points competition several years in a row. Ullrich honoured his home-event by taking the win during his Tour-winning season and just one year later, the new event had made the big step onto the calendar of the finest one-day races: the World Cup.


It remained part of that series until its demise at the end of the 2004 season and was immediately included on the ProTour from the start of the next season. It has remained part of cycling's top calendar ever since and is an important late-season event for the sprinters.


The area around Hamburg is dead-flat and the terrain offers very few opportunities for a selective bike race. What makes the race tougher than most other flat races is the 246km distance and the race's landmark climb. The 800m, 15% Waseberg is a short ramp in Western Hamburg that spices up the race finale. As is common in most bike races, organizers have tried to make the race more selective by gradually adding more passages of the steep slopes and these days, the sprinters will have to survive the climb four times - the last one just 15,2km from the finish - to get a chance to go for glory in the high-speed finale on Mönckebergstrasse in central Hamburg.


The Waseberg and the distance means that the race is not one for every kind of sprinter. Only the toughest in the business have a chance to win Germany's biggest one-day race and it is no coincidence that no more than 30 riders have finished in the same time as the winner in the two most recent editions. Constant attacks are launched up the Waseberg in what is usually an uncontrollable finale and it requires a dedicated effort from the sprint teams to bring it back together for what is usually a confusing sprint.


Many have tried to foil the sprinters but few have had success. Alessandro Ballan was the most recent attacker to prevail in Hamburg in 2007 and before that we have to go all the way back to the 2003 edition when an in-form Jan Ullrich blew the race to pieces on the Waseberg, only for Paolo Bettini take the win from a small breakaway. The 5 most recent editions have all finished in sprints with Robbie McEwen, Tyler Farrar (twice), Edvald Boasson Hagen and Arnaud Demare coming out on top.


Originally, the race was held just one week after the end of the Tour de France and so attracted many of the in-form Tour sprinters. In recent years, the race has been rescheduled to the weekend of the Vuelta start and kicks off an important series of European autumn classics that suit the same kind of riders and also include the more hilly GP Plouay and the Brussels Cycling Classic (formerly Paris-Bruxelles). Combined with the Eneco Tour, those races give sprinters and classics specialists many opportunities to go for all-important points in the late summer and early autumn.


Last year Arnaud Demare underlined his big talent by winning one of the biggest sprint classics in his first professional season. On a brutally hot day in Hamburg, the Frenchman survived the many climbs up the Waseberg before being delivered perfectly to the line by trusted lead-out man Mickael Delage. He beat big home favourite Andre Greipel who still hasn't won his most important home one-day race, and Giacomo Nizzolo in a select group sprint to take what is so far the biggest win of his short career.


The course

The course has its traditional lay-out and is similar to the one used for last year's edition. What makes the race hard is not the generally flat terrain but the length and the four ascents of the Waseberg. As said, the organizers have tried to toughen up the course by adding more passages of the feared climb but so far the change hasn't been enough to prevent a sprint finish. It has, however, had a clear effect on the toughness of the race as we have seen some rather small groups arriving at the finish for the sprint in the most recent editions.


The 246km race kicks off in central Hamburg and heads south onto a big, almost completely flat loop in the area just south of the big city. This is usually the scene for the creation of an early breakaway. As soon as the day's escape has been created, the race settles into a steady rhythm with the group getting a rather large gap and the sprint teams keeping everything under control. The peloton will climb one small ascent early on but the main purpose of this early section is to build up the distance and accumulate fatigue in the riders' legs.


Having returned to Hamburg, the riders won't pass the finish line but head onto another big loop which traverses the area just west of the city. That one is similarly flat but when the peloton reaches the Elbe river to head back along its shores to the city centre, they will be faced with the first passage of the Waseberg. 108,6km still remain and we should not expect too much action at this early point of the race.


The riders will continue along the river back to the finish line which will be crossed when 93,4km still remain. From there, they do a small loop in the city centre to head back along the shores of the river to the small circuit that will be the scene of the main action.


That circuit is 12,6km long and mostly flat but includes the Waseberg as a cruel challenge. The riders will do one lap on the circuit and pass the climb for the 2nd time with 68,2km remaining. We may see an attack be launched at this point but don't expect to see any of the potential race winners make a move this early in the race.


The riders now head back to the finish along the river to cross the finish line at the 53km to go mark. Once again, they will do the small city loop to head back along the Elbe to the Waseberg circuit.


The race will now be on and the pace kept extremely high as there will be a fierce battle for positions during the run-in to the climb for the penultimate time. The riders will do two laps on the circuit and pass the climb with 27,8km and 15,2km remaining.


Attacks will be launched on the climb itself but also in between the passages of the main difficulty. This phase is an extremely aggressive and uncontrollable one as the classics specialists all try to foil the sprinters. It requires a determined effort from the sprint teams to keep the breaks under control while the sprinters themselves have to dig deep to not get dropped on the climb.


Having finished the 2nd lap on the circuit, the riders speed along flat roads on the shores of the river back to the centre. This is often the scene of a hectic pursuit where the peloton desperately tries to reel in the late attackers.


The final turn is located 2km from the finish and from there it's a flat run down a big road to the line on the famous Mönckebergstrasse. The usual sprint is not your typical bunch sprint as domestique resources are limited at the end of a long, hard race. Anarchy rules and luck and positioning are crucial as no team can expect to give their sprinter a perfect lead-out. Many riders have seen their dreams vanish when they were boxed in and it is not always the fastest sprinter that wins the Vattenfall Cyclassics.


The weather

Last year's race was held in unusually hot conditions with temperatures staying way above the 30-degree mark for most of the day. The riders should once again enjoy a beautiful summer day in Northern Europe but they won't have to deal with last year's extreme heat.


At the start, the riders can expect 20-degree temperatures and a partly cloudy sky. Those clouds should disappear later in the afternoon and when the riders head down the Mönckebergstrasse for what is likely to be a sprint, they should enjoy bright sunshine. The temperatures are expected to reach a maximum at around 23 degrees.


There will be a moderate wind blowing from an eastern direction which means that the riders will mostly have a crosswind on the first big southern loop. During the finale, they will generally face either a head- or a tailwind with the wind being against the riders as they head back towards the finish in central Hamburg. This will be a clear disadvantage for the attackers who will find it much harder to stay away in such conditions. Their only consolation is that the finale takes place in urban areas and so the roads are less exposed to the wind.


The favourites

With the race usually coming down to a sprint finish, most teams line up dedicated sprint teams whose main task is to make sure that it comes down to a final bunch kick. That makes it much harder for potential escapees as there are always a couple of strong teams who have a genuine interest in chasing down a late break. The headwind on the run back to the centre of Hamburg will only make things even more difficult. A breakaway win cannot be completely ruled out but it's hard to bet against a sprint finish. This puts the strong sprinters into the spotlight and the winner is likely to be a fast finisher who is in blistering condition and so able to survive the fierce pace up the Waseberg.


For some reason, Andre Greipel has never managed to win his biggest home race. He has finished on the podium twice - most recently last year when he was 2nd - and fits the bill as a potential winner perfectly. As one of the world's three best sprinters, he is clearly the fastest rider in the peloton (Kittel and Cavendish are both absent) and he is a very strong climber who should have no trouble surviving the steep Waseberg.


When he hasn't added the race to his palmares yet, it is mostly due to the often uncontrollable sprint. Greipel has never been a man for the fierce battle for position and is usually hugely reliant of his strong sprint train which is the best in the business. In the hectic Hamburg finales, he has often been left to fend for himself and this has seen him miss out on the prestigious win.


2013 may finally be the year when Greipel can tick off the Vattenfall box. He is in fabulous condition at the moment as his impressive break on the final Eneco Tour stage proved. He managed to stay with Ian Stannard on the tough route in the Flemish Ardennes for most of the day and so Waseberg should pose no threat at all. Furthermore, he handled the sprint finishes unusually well. Despite not having his sprint train at his disposal, he kept his calm in the finales and managed to win two of the three bunch sprints and take 2nd in the final one (on two of the stages, the sprint was only for the minor placings).


From his usual sprint train, Marcel Sieberg and Jurgen Roelandts will both be present in Hamburg. The former has just recovered from a broken collarbone and is unlikely to survive the climbs. They should, however, be no big challenge for Roelandts who should be the final man to guide Greipel in the hectic sprint. That combination was a winning one in the Eneco Tour and if Greipel can once again keep his head calm in the battle for position, he should finally win the race.


His main challenger could very well be Alexander Kristoff. While Greipel has often missed out in the positioning aspect, Kristoff is hugely consistent and rarely finishes outside the top 10 in a bunch sprint. In a classic grand tour sprint stage, he may not be as fast as some of his rivals but when the sprint comes at the end of a long, hard race, Kristoff is one of the best in the business. He proved this ability when he won the sprint for the minor placings in the Milan-Sanremo, Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix and when he beat Peter Sagan in a tough uphill sprint in the Tour de Suisse.


Kristoff missed the Arctic Tour of Norway due to pneumonia but his splendid riding in the Tour des Fjords where he won a stage and worked hard for eventual winner Sergey Chernetskiy proved that he is back at his best. He has set his sights on the many autumn classics that suit him down to the ground and Vattenfall offers him the first opportunity. He hopes to see a hard race that takes away the punch from his faster rivals and if that scenario is realized, he may improve on his 4rh place from the 2010 edition.


Elia Viviani may mostly be regarded as a pure sprinter but don't be fooled. The Italian is an extremely versatile and resistant sprinter who is also one of the fastest in the business. He proved  that ability when he finished 2nd behind Ben Swift in the tough uphill sprint in Zakopane in last year's Tour de Pologne and when he made it over several climbs in a hard Dauphiné stage earlier this year to take the win in a sprint. It is no wonder that Viviani hopes to be a man for the cobbled classics in the future.


Having enjoyed a mid-season break, he is back in good condition. Yesterday he won the Dutch Food Valley Classics in a bunch sprint and he dominated the Tour of the Elk Grove earlier this month. In between those races, he participated in the Eneco Tour where he paid the price for a lack of team support but still took 5th and 9th in the bunch sprints. He tried to battle with the best in the uphill sprint in Brussels but that ended up being a little bit too much. He should survive the Waseberg and when it comes to top speed, he is maybe only surpassed by Greipel and Demare. If he can overcome his lack of team support, he will be  a danger man in Hamburg.


Defending champion Arnaud Demare would love to repeat what is so far the biggest win of his career and everything suggests that he has the form to do so. He was extremely unlucky when he returned to competition after a mid-season break and twice punctured in the sprint finales of the Tour de Wallonie. Since then he has won the RideLondon Classic but his most impressive win was taken in a difficult uphill sprint in the Eneco Tour. That victor suggests that he is at his peak these days and no one will be able to drop the Frenchman on the Waseberg.


When he isn't one of our main favourites for the race, it is due to his lack of ability to position himself for the sprint. That was evidenced in the Eneco Tour when he failed to make an impression in any of the three traditional bunch sprints. He may benefit from a hard race and a reduced size of the bunch which should make the finale less hectic but he needs to improve on his positioning ability if he wants to repeat his win. He has a strong and dedicated team to support him and if he gets a clear run to the line, his kick will make him difficult to beat.


Giacomo Nizzolo is tailor-made to the Vattenfall Cyclassics and it is no wonder that he finished 3rd last year. He is one of the most resistant sprinter on shorters climbs as he proved when he won two hard stages in the Tour of Luxembourg earlier this year. He is really good condition at the moment and finished in the top 2 with Greipel in all three bunch sprints of the Eneco Tour.


His main asset is experienced lead-out man Danilo Hondo who is one of the very best in the business and will have no trouble surviving the Waseberg. The veteran German managed to position Nizzolo perfectly in the Eneco Tour and should be able to do so again tomorrow. If that happens, Nizzolo has the speed to finish it off and so take the biggest win of his career.


John Degenkolb is the second big German sprinter in the race and like Greipel, he has all the characteristics to add the event to his palmares. The classics specialist is a very capable climber and hopes for a hard race to eliminate most of his rivals. Degenkolb isn't the fastest sprinter around but he is one of the toughest and that may come in handy tomorrow.


Of some concern is his apparent  lack of condition. He was married just prior to the Eneco Tour and that may have taken a little bit of his focus away from his training. His performance in the Dutch/Belgian race suggested that he is far from his best these days. Hopefully, a week of quality training will have improved his form. His main asset is his fabulous lead-out train and Koen De Kort and Tom Dumoulin should both be present at the expected sprint finish.


Veteran Alessandro Petacchi made his comeback to top-level competition in the Eneco Tour following more than 4 months of self-imposed absence. He surprised many by being immediately competitive, taking 9th and 4th in two of the bunch sprints. His most impressive ride was, however, the one he delivered on the uphill finish on stage 2. He mixed it up with the puncheurs in a very tough finish to end up 5th on what was just his second day of competition.


He crashed out of the Dutch/Belgian event but has recovered for tomorrow's race. His performance in the Eneco Tour suggests that he already has the condition to survive the climbs. He has often had difficulty getting into position for the sprints but last week he handled that aspect really well. He may not have the top speed that turned him into one of the most successful athletes ever but he remains fast enough to win a race like tomorrow's.


Finally, we will point to former world champion Thor Hushovd. The Norwegian has had a difficult 18 months but he has finally rediscovered his best legs. That was evident in the Tour de Pologne when he both won a traditional bunch sprint and the hard uphill sprint in Zakopane. Since then he has won two stages and the overall in the Arctic Tour of Norway and he has made tomorrow's race and the GP Plouay some of his major autumn targets.


Hushovd is not the fastest sprinter in the peloton as was evidenced in Norway when he won the race on power, not on speed. Hence, he needs a very hard race that will tire out his rivals ahead of the high-speed sprint that doesn't suit him perfectly. With in-form riders like Daniel Oss and Manuel Quinziato on the roster, he has the team to make the race tougher and he is fabulous at getting himself into position. It will be difficult for Hushovd to win the race but don't be surprised to see the big Norwegian step onto the podium.


***** Andre Greipel

**** Alexander Kristoff, Elia Viviani

*** Arnaud Demare, Giacomo Nizzolo, John Degenkolb, Alessandro Petacchi, Thor Hushovd

** Matthew Goss, Roberto Ferrari, Steele Von Hoff, Daniele Bennati, Gerald Ciolek, Danny Van Poppel, Juan Jose Lobato, Manuel Belletti

* Jose Joaquin Rojas, Simone Ponzi, Matti Breschel, Daryl Impey, Filippo Pozzato, Marco Marcato, Sep Vanmarcke, Daniel Oss



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