Sunday, March 23, 2014

Preview: Tour de Normandie

While this weekend had some pretty good races including the GP San Giuseppe, a personal favorite of mine, and the Zuidkempense Pijl, this week signals the start of the big amateur stage races in Europe. The Tour de Normandie and Volta ao Alentejo will be having two very different climates, the former being windy and rainy while the latter is hot and dry, but they both are races that draw out the best in the pack over rolling terrain. Let's start off with the tour around northern France and the windy fields of Normandie.

Tour de Normandie (March 24th-30th)

The race will be commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day with rides along both Utah and Omaha Beach, the latter shown above (Photo: Wikipedia)

I previewed the Tour de Normandie in depth last year, where I went all out to describe the course in depth including the stunning history that surrounds the mythical location. Thankfully, Normandie isn't the size of Siberia and the races tends to hit the same towns so for my sake, I don't need to research 7 new stages.

Smartstop DS and former Pro Tour rider Mike Creed described the Tour de Normandie as "one of the hardest races that nobody gives a fuck about." I find this to be a perfectly apt description of the race. It can be three different seasons, the wind can keep guys in the gutter for hours on end and the rolling terrain can seem relentless. While the race is certainly difficult, it does produce a high caliber of podium finishers including BMC pro Silvan Dillier, Kai Reus, Thomas Dekker, Jerome Pineau, Thor Hushovd and more.

The race starts off with a winding prologue around the town of Saint-Lô,which has been used in the previous two editions. The Scud Missile, Kiwi Tom Scully, won the prologue last year while Swede Michael Olsson won the year before. There is a small hill in the course but like most prologues, it does suit explosive riders. Weather can be a factor such as last year when it rained during a good part of the race and derailed riders such as Dylan van Baarle.

The 1st stage is a 200km romp from Colombelles to Forges-les-Eaux, which was a blood-bath last year that included multiple crashes in the last 20 kilometers. In Roman times, Forges-les-Eaux was the home to an important mine for iron ore but in the last half of the millennia, the town became famed as a therapeutic spa destination because of the thermal waters. The town also had the first annual French Butter Convention in 1906. Last year's stage was decided in a small sprint, which could be a likely outcome this year but there is always the possibility of an attack.

The 2nd stage heads out from Forges to the town of Elbeuf-sur-Seine. The stage finish in Elbeuf has historically been a sprint (it used to be the 2nd stage in a 2-split stage day) but last year, Martin Mortensen and Jesper Hansen attacked on the windy circuit and held off the peloton, who finished 7 seconds behind.

The 3rd stage will feature a new finishing town to the Tour de Normandie, Argentan. The stage only features one major difficulty in terms of hills but after that hill, the wind could prove to be a big factor. The finish is a circuit that will be done three times and will be flat, so it will be difficult to stay away if the bunch if big enough. While the finish might not be the most exciting, the town of Argentan is fascinating. Situated on the banks of the Orne, Argentan dates back to the Middle Ages when it was built by Henry I and multiple castles and battlements popped up in the vicinity. Eleanor of Aquitaine took up residence in the town in the late 12th century and produced two sons, including Richard the Lion-Heart. The city also became one of the centers for lace production in Europe during the reign of Louis XIV. During WWII, Argentan was more or less leveled due to excessive bombing during the D-Day offensive and later battles and by the time Patton's troops liberated the city, it was in ruins and on fire.

Stage 4 is a classic case of French flat; a parcours that is rolling hills up and down all day long including a nice steep pitch less than 5 kilometers from the finish. This stage, which is an extra 11 kilometers from last year tacked on, was the stage where Dylan van Baarle attacked from way out and only Anthony Charteau had the grit to go after him and drop him for the stage win. This will be an important GC stage because if there is a breakaway, there will certainly be multiple packs behind them and any guy with a fighting chance will want to stay near the front.

In recognition of the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy, the namesake race will be taking a ride along its famous coast on the 5th stage of the race. Starting out in coastal town of Gouville-sur-Mer, which has one of the more er...interesting coat of arms, the race will travel up and then across the Cotentin Peninsula in Manche before turning southward again to ride along Utah Beach, a fitting way for a bike race to give tribute to those that fought bravely. But the tribute isn't quite finished...

The 6th stage, which finishes with the usual sprint romp on the big avenue, Cours General De Gaulle, in Caen, will have a bit of a memorable twist this year. Leaving Torigni Sur Vire, the race will ride north and then proceed to race alongside Omaha Beach for the next 40 kilometers. Omaha Beach was one of the five landing points for D-Day on June 6th, 1944 and there were a mass amount of casualties, around 4,200 in the space of a single day. Once the race turns back off the coast, it finishes off with a few laps around the hippodrome in Caen and a big ol' sprint to finish all off.

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