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24.08.2014 @ 11:40 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. 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 247km 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 15.5km 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 mean 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 finished in the same time as the winner in 2011 and 2012. 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 6 most recent editions have all finished in sprints with Robbie McEwen, Tyler Farrar (twice), Edvald Boasson Hagen, Arnaud Demare and John Degenkolb 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 hillier 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 and as the Vuelta offers very few sprint finishes, most of them focus on this block of racing in Northern Europe.


Last year John Degenkolb took his first big classics victory when he powered down the Mönckebergstrasse to win his biggest home race in dominant fashion. In what was an unusually easy edition of the race, more than 80 riders arrived at the finish and here the Giant-Shimano put a disappointing Tour de France season behind by holding off André Greipel and Alexander Kristoff in the final dash to the line. Focusing on the Vuelta, Degenkolb won’t be back to defend his title but Greipel and Kristoff will both try to reach the top step of the podium. The former has finished on the podium thrice and hopes to finally win the biggest race in his home country.


The course

With very few topographical challenges in the area around Hamburg, it is no wonder that the Vattenfall Cyclassics is a race for sprinters. As the race is set to finish in the city centre which is dead-flat, it is even harder for the organizers to put together a tougher race that can produce a selection. Luckily, the short, steep Waseberg is located not too far from the finish line and the ascent has become the race’s landmark climb. 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 most of the recent editions.


After a few years where the organizers tried to change things a bit to find their best formula for the race, they now seem to have found the ideal course which has not been changed for a couple of years. This year it is again a very traditional race and the route is virtually identical to the one used for the last two editions. What makes the race hard is not the generally flat terrain but the length and the four ascents of the Waseberg.


The 247.2km 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. If it’s windy, the race can be nervous but otherwise, it usually pans out as a traditional sprint race.


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. 109.5km 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 94.0km 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 68.9km 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. It is also likely that a few teams will try to ride tempo up the climb to make the race as hard as possible for Marcel Kittel.


The riders now head back to the finish along the river to cross the finish line at the 53.4km 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 in its finale 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 28.3km and 15.5km remaining.


This is where the race really kicks into life. Usually, the early break has been reeled in or is now within shouting distance and it is now time for the classics riders to make their marks. They may attack on the Waseberg itself but very often the best time to launch a move comes just after the top when everybody is on their limit.


Usually, a small group forms after each passage of the climb and it now takes a little time for the sprint teams to get reorganized. 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 roads, however, are completely flat and not very technical, clearly favouring the peloton over the escapees who also have to try to figure out how to beat their companions.


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

Held in Northern Germany, the race can be marked by wind and rain but sometimes the riders have had very unusual conditions for the race. Two years ago the race was done under extremely hot conditions which turned it into a real race of attrition. This year the race will take place in much under typical German weather with showers being the order of the day.


The forecasts predict a cloudy day with lots of rain and even though there will be dry moments, it will be a big surprise if the riders won’t do most of the race on wet roads. There will be a moderate wind from a westerly direction which means that there will be plenty of crosswind sections on the first big loop. On the second loop, there will first be a headwind and then a tailwind.


On the Waseberg circuit, the riders will have a tailwind on the climb and more importantly, there will be a tailwind back to the finish which will favour the attackers. The Mönckebergstrasse has a number of sweeping bends in the finale but it will mainly be a tailwind sprint.


The favourites

In theory, the Waseberg offers the perfect launch pad for a late attack and in a windy, rainy race of 246km, it may be a bit of a surprise that the sprinters have dominated things as much as they have. The inclusion of more passages of the climb has whittled down the size of the peloton but it hasn’t prevented the sprinters from ruling in Hamburg.


However, the race’s reputation as a sprint race has made the bunch sprint a self-fulfilling prophecy. No teams go to this race without a sprinter on their roster and everybody is prepared for a sprint finish. Several teams go into the race with the only plan being a bunch sprint. A lot of teams plan to go on the attack but as they have a sprinter as a back-up, they are keen to lend a hand to the chase if they miss the breaks in the finale. That means that several teams are usually willing to do the work and this makes it virtually impossible to avoid the bunch sprint.


This year it is unlikely to be any different even though two aspects may give the escapees a slightly bigger chance. First of all, the rainy conditions will make the race a bit harder and more difficult to control and history shows that rain often favours attackers. It will be pretty windy but the only crosswind sections come in the early part of the race and so it is unlikely to split the race. In the finale, it will mainly be a head- or a tailwind and as the riders will be riding in the city, the roads are not very exposed. However, there will be a tailwind from the Waseberg back to the finish in Hamburg and this may give the attackers a slightly bigger chance.


However, Katusha, Lotto Belisol, FDJ and Giant-Shimano have gone into the race with only one plan: they want a bunch sprint on the Mönckebergstrasse. They all line up pretty powerful teams that have lots of experience in controlling sprint races and so it is very hard to imagine that it won’t come down to a bunch sprint.


The fact that Marcel Kittel lines up in this year’s race may change the dynamics slightly. Everybody wants to drop the big German before they get to the finish in Hamburg and this means that teams like Katusha, Lotto Belisol and FDJ will not ride as defensively as they usually do. They may try to set a harder pace on the climbs. Furthermore, Orica-GreenEDGE want to set up Simon Gerrans for a sprint win and this requires the race to be very hard. The combination of bad weather and a harder race could mean that a smaller group arrives at the finish but we still expect a sprint finish.


There is no doubt that Kittel is the fastest rider in the race but the sprint in Vattenfall Cyclassics is not your usual bunch kick. Coming at the end of almost 250km in the rain, it is much more suited to the classics riders who excel at the end of long, hard races.


One rider is better than anyone else at sprinting at the end of such races of attrition. Last year Alexander Kristoff won the bunch sprints for the minor position in Milan-Sanremo, Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix and this year he took a breakthrough victory in Sanremo after a long, wet day in the saddle. While many riders lose their top speed after so many hours in the saddle, Kristoff just becomes stronger and stronger.


This year his performance in Flanders proved that he is now one of the best riders in the hardest races and even though Sunday’s race is a lot easier than the Flemish classics, no one will be able to crack Kristoff on this course. Furthermore, his sprinting in the Tour de France was significantly better than it was 12 months ago where he had a hard time keeping up with the faster riders. This year he was even close to beating Kittel on the Champs-Elysees in a sprint that didn’t suit him at all.


In the Arctic Race of Norway, Kristoff proved that he is in excellent condition. He won two stages and he even finished fourth in the queen stage which ended on a long climb. In the final stage, he was the strongest rider on a short, steep climb in the finale and showed amazing power to pass Thor Hushovd on the finishing straight.


Most importantly, Kristoff is excellent at positioning himself and he rarely gets boxed in the sprints. He may not have the strongest lead-out train but that won’t hamper him much. Being in great condition, Kristoff is the obvious favourite to win this race.


However, no one can rule out Kittel. The German has won the Scheldeprijs three years in a row but that is a very easy race for pure sprinters. Otherwise, he has taken no major one-day wins and he has never done the Vattenfall Cyclassics before. This year, however, he will give his home race a short and it will be interesting to see how he handles the strains.


In the past, Kittel would have had no chance in this kind of race but now he is a lot stronger than he was a few years ago. In the last two Tours de France, he showed that he has become a lot stronger on the climbs. Earlier this year he won a very tough stage in the Dubai Tour to prove that he Is able to handle harder courses.


However, Kittel has never shown that he can handle a 247km race and his presence will prompt his rivals to make the race a lot harder. Furthermore, he is clearly not in peak condition. He made his return in the Arctic Race of Norway and unlike last year when he came out of the Tour in very poor form, he was at a decent level. However, he ran out of power in the only bunch sprint when he was beaten by Kristoff which proves that he is not at 100%.


Nonetheless, Giant-Shimano have lined up a team that is fully built around Kittel and he has most of his usual lead-out train at his disposal. The race may be too hard for lead-out man Tom Veelers but riders like Luka Mezgec, Reinardt Janse Van Rensburg, Roy Curvers and Albert Timmer know how to set up their sprinter. That will be very important in what could be a hectic finale and if Kittel is there in the end, he will definitely be the favourite.


For many years, André Greipel has been the best German sprinter but for some reason he has never won his big home race. He has finished on the podium thrice and in 2012 and 2013 he was runner-up. Greipel has taken lots of victories in his long career but apart from the win in last year’s Brussels Cycling Classic, he has taken no big classics win.


Greipel has not had the best preparation for this year’s race as he had to abandon the Eneco Tour due to illness. In the sprints, he didn’t have much luck as his Lotto Belisol team failed to set him up in stage 1 while a break escaped in stage 2. However, he showed decent condition by beating Nacer Bouhanni in the sprint for the minor placings and he did a good time trial before leaving the race.


On paper, Greipel is one of the fastest sprinters and he is a very capable climber too. He has proved that he can handle this course but it seems that he loses a bit of speed at the end of long races. He is a much better climber than Mark Cavendish but unlike the Brit, he has never played a role in the finale of Milan-Sanremo and Gent-Wevelgem has also mostly been too tough for him.


The Lotto-Belisol train was once unrivalled but this year they have not been at their usual level. He will have Jurgen Roelandts and Marcel Sieberg at his side but he will miss lead-out man Greg Henderson and Jens Debusschere won’t be on hand to fill the gap in the train. Greipel is not very good at positioning himself and he doesn’t like to sprint on wet roads. This year it will be a bit harder for him to win the race but as he is one of the fastest riders, he remains one of the favourites.


Mark Cavendish made a last-minute decision to include the race on his schedule but his form is very uncertain. After his Tour de France crash, he has only done the Tour de l'Ain where he didn't feel good enough to contest the bunch sprints. However, he is now feeling a lot better and this has made him change his mind to ride in Hamburg.


Cavendish has proved that he can win the sprint classics but this race may come a bit too early for him. He is unlikely to be in a sufficient condition to win such a high-level WorldTour race. On the other hand, his team has made it clear that he is the captain which indicates than he may be better than we would expect. With Mark Renshaw, Matteo Trentin, Gert Steegamns and Gianni Meersman at his side, he has the strongest lead-out train and this will be very important in what is usually an uncontrollable sprint.


Two years ago Arnaud Demare won this race to take his first big classics victory and now he is back for more after a disappointing Tour de France debut. This week he did the Tour du Limousin but he didn’t show the best form in a race that was probably a bit too hard for him.


On the other hand, Demare is a very strong rider who has performed really well in the cobbled classics and it is definitely no coincidence that he managed to win the hard German race in his neo-pro season. He is very fast in a sprint and should be able to beat all the sprinters in the field. However, his big weakness is his poor positioning skills. He may have his trusted lead-out man Mickael Delage at his side but very often he is boxed in the finales or has to start his sprint from too far back. In this race, the lead-outs may be a bit less organized and this should give him a bigger chance but there is a big risk that he will never feature in the sprint. As he is not in peak condition, it will be hard for him to win the race. On the other hand, he is one of the fastest riders and this means that he deserves a top position on the list of favourites.


Last year Giacomo Nizzolo got very close to his first big classics victory when Filippo Pozzato passed him just metres from the line in the GP Plouay. This year he has become a lot faster as he proved in the Giro and he is now one of the fastest sprinters in the world.


Compared to the usual top sprinter, Nizzolo is a much better climber and on paper this race should suit him well. Last year a mishap took him out of contention in the sprint and this year he wants his revenge. However, he was clearly not at 100% in the Eneco Tour and he admitted that he still needs to work a bit to reach his best condition. Trek also have Danny Van Poppel as an option but at the moment, Nizzolo is their fastest rider. He usually positions himself pretty well and he has a very powerful team at his disposal. That combination could be a winning one in the uncontrollable sprint in Hamburg.


If Kittel is not up for the challenge, Giant-Shimano is not out of the running. Luka Mezgec will be on hand to take over the leadership role and he is definitely a very good plan B. The Slovenian excels in sprints that comes at the end of hilly courses as he proved earlier this year in Catalunya and by winning the final stage of the Giro, he proved that he also improved in the real sprints.


Mezgec showed great condition in the Tour de Pologne and the Eneco Tour where he was hampered by lots of bad luck and he will definitely be kept in reserve by Giant-Shimano. He should be able to handle the climbs and with a very strong lead-out team at his side, he will be a danger man. There may be faster riders than him but if he manages to start the sprint in the front, he is an obvious winner candidate.


Team NetApp-Endura is the only wildcard team in the race but they have one of the favourites on their roster. Sam Bennett has had an outstanding neo-pro season and on several occasions he has proved that he can mix it up with the real top sprinters. He climbs really well too and in the London-Surrey Classic and the Arctic Race of Norway he proved that he is in great condition.


The distance will be a challenge for Bennett who has never done such a long race and it remains to be seen how he will handle the strains in Hamburg. On paper, however, he is perfectly suited to this race and he seems to be well-supported by an in-form NetApp team that rode really well in London. Paul Voss, Jan Barta, Scott Thwaites, Daniel Schorn and Zak Dempster are all riding well and if they can position Bennett for the sprint, he has the speed to win.


On paper, Sacha Modolo should be one of the favourites for this race. The Italian grew to fame when he finished fourth in Milan-Sanremo just weeks after his professional debut. This proves that he knows how to cope with the distance and the climbs and he has a very solid sprint at the end of a hard race.


However, Modolo has not had the best preparation for this race. He abandoned the Tour due to illness and crashed out of the Eneco Tour. That is a definite setback and he will not be at 100% when he lines up in Hamburg. On the other hand, he is one of the fastest riders at the end of a hard race and he is definitely an outsider.


In the Tour de France, Bryan Coquard proved that he has improved a lot as a sprinter. He has always been one of the fastest riders but he has usually positioned himself very poorly. In La Grande Boucle, he proved that he has overcome those difficulties and this makes him a more obvious threat in the sprints. He is a great climber and this race suits him down to the ground. However, his condition is very uncertain as he withdrew from the Eneco Tour at the last minute and he hasn’t been racing since the Tour. This makes him more of an outsider than a favourite but he definitely has the speed to win.


Sky have not had a lot of success in the classics but for this race, they have a very solid candidate. Ben Swift finished third in Milan-Sanremo and he is perfectly suited to this kind of sprint at the end of a hard race. Among the sprinters, he is probably the best climber and his Sky team will probably try to make the race as hard as possible. In the Giro, he was sprinting better than ever and even though he has not reached the same standards since, he has a chance if this race becomes tough. He had a lot of bad luck in the Tour de Pologne but in London he proved that he is in great condition.


If Cavendish is not up for the challenge, Omega Pharma-Quick Step have lots of cards to play in a sprint. Gianni Meersman, Alessandro Petacchi, Mark Renshaw and Matteo Trentin could all be given their chance but Meersman is likely be the designated captain. The Belgian is in great condition and recently won the Tour de Wallonie overall and two stages in the Tour de l’Ain. There are definitely faster riders than Meersman who is no pure sprinter but he has one of the strongest teams at his disposal. If the race becomes tough and he gets a perfect lead-out, he has a chance.


Finally, Juan Jose Lobato deserves a mention. The Movistar sprinter recently won hard uphill sprints in Burgos and Wallonie and is clearly in very good condition. Earlier this year he was fourth in Sanremo which proves that he can handle the distance. Unfortunately, he is not very good at positioning himself which often means that he never gets the chance to sprint. If his teammates Francisco Ventoso and Jose Joaquin Rojas ride in support, however, he may be able to overcome that weakness and then he has the speed to be up there.


In case a break makes it to the finish, look out for in-form riders like Sep Vanmarcke, Lars Boom, Greg Van Avermaet, Silvan Dillier, Julian Alaphilippe, Marco Marcato, Jens Keukeleire, Giovanni Visconti and Michael Albasini who all have the power to escape on the Waseberg and the speed to win a sprint from a small group.


***** Alexander Kristoff

**** Marcel Kittel, André Greipel

*** Mark Cavendish, Arnaud Demare, Giacomo Nizzolo, Luka Mezgec

** Sam Bennett, Sacha Modolo, Bryan Coquard, Ben Swift, Gianni Meersman, Juan Jose Lobato

* Simon Gerrans, Thor Hushovd, Tyler Farrar, Davide Appollonio, Borut Bozic, Danny Van Poppel, Matteo Trentin, Mark Renshaw, Alessandro Petacchi, Matti Breschel, Sep Vanmarcke, Lars Boom, Greg Van Avermaet, Silvan Dillier, Julian Alaphilippe, Marco Marcato, Jens Keukeleire, Giovanni Visconti, Michael Albasini



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