By David Hunter
Chartres – Tours 231km
The final race of the year, for many of the pro peloton. Yes, we still have the Japan Cup, but this is still regarded as the final race of 2015.
Look at the profile and you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is a nailed on sprint. A closer inspection shows that the sprinters have two problems.
The Cote de Beau Soleil and Cote de l’Epan, give the puncheurs two opportunities to break the sprinters. After that, we have 7km remaining. The climbs are close together, which makes it hard to control, but the closing 7km does provide teams a chance of bringing the break back. It is a race where we sometimes get a big sprint, but not that often.
2014 was a big surprise, with Jelle Wallays outfoxing Tommy Voeckler. In 2013, John Degenkolb won a sprint, but it wasn’t the full story. He sensed that a sprint was hard to control, so he followed the attacks on the climbs, and ended up in small breakaway. He was joined by Arnaud Demare and the rest of the riders didn’t want to work in the break, so the peloton caught them and the German won. It was great tactics from Degenkolb and Demare, to force the race into a sprint. It’s not a great race for a sprinter.
Other riders to win here include Van Avermaet, Gilbert, Marcato, Freire, Petacchi and Zabel. This is a tough race, usually won by an experienced rider. The distance, 231km, makes it very selective and difficult on the legs. Coming at the end of the season, ensures that riders are also tired. Two climbs inside the final 10km, is what makes it hard for the sprinters. Riders will attack and create a gap, the sprinters need to work together to stop the gap getting up to 30 seconds. Teams cannot afford to look at each other, they need to organise the chase immediately after the Cote de l’Epan.
We do have a lot of sprinters here, so we might see a rare sprint. Cofidis have the big favourite for the race, in Nacer Bouhanni. He’s had a good season but has crashed too often. His team does not contain his usual lead out men and this cost him dear in Paris-Bourges. There’s no Soupe or Simon, instead he has to rely upon Laporte, Vanbilsen and Van Staeyen. They have the strength to ensure a sprint, but I’m worried about their lack of a lead-out man. This could cost Bouhanni the win.
FDJ don’t have that problem. After a long season, they’ve eventually developed a sprint train. Why it took until now is the question that Arnoud Demare should be asking. It seems that have now settled on Sarreau, Delage and Reza. I like the look of this, especially with Reza moving into 2. To be honest, Delage has looked out of his depth in that position, all year round. Demare has had a terrible year, but Paris-Bourges did offer some encouragement. He was on the wheel of Bennett, but suffered a mechanical, as he sprinted. He finished 4th but would have done better, if he didn’t have the bad luck. He usually performs well at the end of the season, he seems to prefer the colder temperatures. The climbs won’t bother him, but I don’t think he’ll attack, like in 2013. With a good train, he will be looking towards his teammates, to try and bring back the break. If we get the sprint, he has a great chance of being in position and finishing on the podium.
Another podium contender is Giacomo Nizzolo. He’s finished in that position on 10 occasions, in 2015, but only once did he make the top step. So consistent, but not good enough at turning excellent positions into wins. His squad is strong and he’ll count upon the help of Alafaci, Van Poppel and Stuyven. He’s been climbing well, but he won’t go attacking. Having Cofidis, FDJ and Trek all interested in the sprint, is bad news for the break.
Another team keen on a sprint is Bora-Argon. After a brilliant win by Sam Bennett, in Paris-Bourges, they will be flying. I mentioned in that preview the skills of Shane Archbold. He delivered a 1km lead-out for Bennett, almost unheard of in the sprinting world. Coached by Greg Henderson, he is developing into one of the best in the business. Bennett and Archbold rode together for An Post, before Bennett moved up in 2014. Looking for a better lead-out man, Archbold was signed in 2015. The two of them have continued their brilliant relationship and look at home in the big leagues. The distance might be an issue for Bennett, but his two wins in Bayern-Rundfahrt were over 200km, maybe he is starting to find his legs in the longer races. If the forces of Bora, Cofidis, FDJ and Trek join together, it looks like we’ll get a sprint.
One team that won’t ride for a sprint is Etixx. In Niki Terpstra, we have one of the favourites for a late attack. He actually holds the Strava KOM for both the final climbs. He went for a long attack in Binche, but he’ll be patient here. He has great legs just now but doesn’t have a win to show for it. This is his final chance of the season and he’ll look to take it. Etixx have a number of options, but if Terpstra fails, they should support Matteo Trentin in the sprint. He was 3rd in Bernocchi and 2nd in Piemonte, and clearly in great form. Maes and Vermote will supply the lead-out but they might turn to Gianni Meersman instead. He was poor in Binche and not as reliable as the Italian.
Another sprinter in fine form is Jens Debusschere. With 3 wins in the last month, the Belgian is flying just now. He won the bunch sprint for 3rd in 2014 and has a quality lead-out. Like Etixx, Lotto will not simply wait for the sprint. With Benoot and Roelandts, they have two great attacking options. The two short hills are perfect for Tiesj Benoot. He’s had a season to remember but is still lacking his first pro win, this race is perfect for him. If he can get away in a small group, he’ll have the fastest sprint. Remember he finished 4th in a sprint finish at the Dauphine. Lotto will need to carefully plan their tactics, as they can sometimes get things wrong. Tony Gallopin hasn’t been rewarded for his fine recent form, but this race isn’t great for him. He might have to fill the role of lead-out man, with more explosive options needed for the break.
To stand a chance of making that break, you must be able to sprint up a hill for 1 minute, at full speed! That certainly narrows the field a bit. We do have some of the breakaway kings of cycling, present and future: Vanmarcke, Terpstra(already mentioned), Van Avermaet, Gougeard, Haussler and Marcato.
Vanmarcke still looks in great form but never seems to carry any luck. It was the same old story in Binche, when he had a mechanical at the wrong time. His team fought to bring him back and he went straight into the break. Having expended too much energy, he was soon dropped. I’m struggling to remember the last time he didn’t have bad luck in a big race. For that reason, it’s hard to predict him as the winner of any race. He’s only won 5 races as a pro and none this year.
Van Avermaet is a great pick for this race. Sprinting up hills is one of his strengths and he has the pace to drop others. He tried in the Worlds but couldn’t match Peter Sagan, no shame there. He’s not raced since then and there is a slight question mark over his form. That being said, he knows this race well, winning it in 2011. It’s hard to imagine him not attacking and getting in the break. Once there he has to use his tactical brain, this isn’t always his strong point. He has a fast finish, so doesn’t need to drop everyone. He’s had a wonderful season, one more win would be nice.
Marco Marcato loves this race. He was 2nd in 2011 and won it in 2012. Bad news is, he hasn’t won since! Now riding for Wanty, it would be a massive surprise to see him win the race for a 2nd time. He will try, but seems to lack some of the explosiveness that he once possessed.
Alexis Gougeard is the young pretender. The 22 year old has had a great season, he defended his Loire Atlantique title, won a stage of the Vuelta and won the Tour de l’Eurometropole. He is going to have a massive career in cycling and is starting to develop into a breakaway expert. He is the main rider for AG2R and will look to get involved in a late breakaway. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him standing on the podium, at the end of the day.
The weather forecast seems okay and it doesn’t look like the wind will play a major part, although that could change! It should all come down to the last 10km and who makes the break. If we have representation for the sprinter teams, the break will survive. However, if the 4 main sprinter teams miss the move, they should have enough riders to bring it back. If we get a sprint, it’s going to be hard to beat Bennett, if he has Archbold with him. If it’s a break, I would have to go with Terpstra or Benoot.
Well, that’s it for another year of previews. 2015 has been a bumper year for cycling and I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have. I am honoured to have so many fans read my previews, but not just fans, real people that know and love the sport. Whether you’re in Scotland, Spain, Colombia or Argentina(or anywhere else!) I hope you have a relaxing close season. I’ll be back in 2016, until then, thanks for reading.
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