Wednesday, October 29, 2014

2014 Lookback: Top 5 Race Days

I don't have quite enough time to pour over the whole of the 2014 U23 season but even without a lot of TV coverage, there were some races that had my hair standing on end just from the words. This article will present you with, in my opinion, the top 5 racing days of the 2014 season. If you have any objections, please feel free to let me know. Or even better yet, if there is a U23 reading this that has a vote on their favorite racing day from 2014, please feel free to let me know and I'll add it on here.

These are in no particular order but without further adieu...

1. Ronde de l'Isard stage 2: Muret to Bagneres de Luchon (May 23rd)

After Alexander Foliforov took the yellow jersey into stage 2 after a dominant performance on the opening stage of the Ronde de l'Isard, Lotto-Belisol U23 was pretty determined to take back the yellow jersey. A sunny day was short-lived as attacks flew off the front while Itera-Katusha controlled the pace from behind. An attack, spearheaded by 4-72 Colombia's Diego Ochoa, led out front with chasers including Pierre-Roger Latour, Lilian Calmejane (Vendée U) and Jeff Perrin (USA).

Riding into the Hospice de France climb at Bagneres de Luchon, Calmejane had attacked and brought with him Romain Campistrous, Loïc Bouchereau and Perrin. Campistrous had attacked on the climb but in the final kilometers, he was brought back and passed by Calmejane, the cylocross rider who was beginning his best season on the road ever.
Behind it was chaos. Foliforov was on a horrible day and Louis Vervaeke and co. had succeeded in dropping the Russian on the early stages of the final climb. Vervaeke was piloted by Brecht Ruyters through the shallow lower sections before Tiesj Benoot took over on the final half of the climb. I have yet to mention that the climb was under a sleeting wintry mix that made conditions down right miserable.

While Calmejane was being chased by Perrin nearly 2 minutes ahead with 3 kilometers to go, Benoot hit the gas and dropped everyone besides Vervaeke and Maxime Le Lavandier. When the slopes hit 13%, Le Lavandier was dropped and the Belgian duo were scorching the remote climb. In the final two kilometers, the duo made up 1'20" on the front riders and while Calmejane was able to take the win solo, Vervaeke came storming across the line in 2nd just ahead of an exhausted Jeff Perrin.

Foliforov lost nearly 5 minutes to Vervaeke, who took the overall win a few days later. Vervaeke would then go on to win the Tour des Pays de Savoie and begin his pro career with Lotto-Belisol.

2. Trofeo Sportivi di Briga - Briga Novarese (August 7th)

This was the race that should have showed every keen observer how badass Robert Power is and is going to be. Power, the New-Zealand born Western Australian with an American grandfather, had a strong season going but he had not been able to get a win yet. His biggest opponents were the riders of Zalf-Euromobil. For those unaware, Zalf is the top dog team on the Italian amateur circuit that finished with 56 wins this year, which is just 3 wins off their best ever that was set last year. Zalf doesn't like to lose home races. Zalf had controlled the race to perfection and into the final kilometers, they had a train at the front of the race that was whipping the pace up to an insane rate for the final uphill finish.

What happens in the final kilometer is a thing of beauty. It was Power's first win as a U23.

3. Tour de Normandie stage 6: Torigni-sur-Vire to Caen (March 30th)

Coming into the final stage of the Tour of Normandie, Lukasz Wisniowski riding high on some of the best form of his career and was looking to secure the overall. Wisniowski had a slight lead on Bert-Jan Lindeman but lurking 18 seconds back was Stefan Küng, the Swiss prodigy from BMC Development. On the stage commemorating the invasion of Normandie on Omaha Beach, Küng and BMC launched an assault on the race that flipped it on its head.

On the rolling, windy terrain of northern France, Küng and teammate Tom Bohli hit out early with a group of nearly 20 including Alex Kirsch (Leopard-Trek), Frederik Ludvigsson (Giant-Shimano), Kevin Ledanois and many others. No Wisniowski. No Etixx. Uh oh.

The breakaway held a good 2 minute gap all of the way down Omaha Beach and even as the peloton tried to chase through the big right hander towards Caen, the gap was not falling. They had a gap of over 1'30" by the first of the local laps in Caen around the hippodrome. Wisniowski was taking turns on the front but the gap was still hovering around 1 minute with one lap to go. Benoit Jarrier took the stage while Küng rolled in with the breakaway, quite content with his accomplishments on the day.
It was one of Küng's 5 wins on the road and it went a long way of showing his future capabilities as a pro.

4. Trofeo Antonietto Rancillo - Villastanza, Italy - (March 30th)

On the same day as Stefan Küng pulled a coup in Northern France, there was a major upset in the suburbs of Milan. Caleb Ewan came into the season as the next sprinting god who was going to vanquish anything that came his way. The Australian National Team, lead by their faithful leader James Victor, came strolling in declaring that this was a training race in preparation for the upcoming Nation Cups. They proceeded to sit on the front and control the race in preparation for Ewan to unleash his big sprint, which everyone expected.

It was a little bit too textbook though. While Ewan has an incredible turn of speed, it seems like they hadn't done their homework in terms of possible riders that could upset everything. In the final 10 kilometers, the Australians hit the front and got everything back together. They were feeling quite confident in themselves. In the final 250 meters, Caleb Ewan came off his final lead out and launched his sprint on the inside barriers, quickly getting an advantage. With 100 meters, there was a green/black bullet that had drawn himself equal to the powerful Australian. The challenger had his chest on his stem; churning the bars and trying to snap them off in his hands. With 50 meters to go, he drew clear of Ewan and in the end, he had enough time to post up and salute with Ewan nearly a bike length back in 2nd.

Jakub Mareczko, up until that point at least, had only won a single race in 2014 but this was the turning point that saw the Polish-Italian rider go for 13 wins and 19 total podiums. Mareczko, who is done to ride with Neri Sottoli for 2015, has a style that reminds me of an early Mark Cavendish. He gets his chest down to the handlebars and the bike is the one holding on for dear life while his legs churn away. While he struggles with some longer races, he could be a force to be reckoned with a in a couple of years time.

Australia tried to write off the defeat by saying that they were just focusing on everyone getting through (instead of winning the thing) but they were upset, hands down. Mareczko handed Ewan a beat down and it was pretty fun to watch.

5. Vuelta de la Juventud stage 4: Villa Leyva to Alto del Crucero (June 6th)

While I know that there are some other major races I'm going over, I feel like the queen stage of the Vuelta de la Juventud deserves its place because it was the race that one of the revelations of the season, Miguel Angel Lopez, busted out. "El Superman", riding for the Boyacan Lottery, was sitting high on the GC but about a 10 seconds behind leader Brayan Ramirez. Lopez, who had gained the Superman monicker after being stabbed by would-be robbers yet still being able to fight them off. He would use that on the 24 kilometer climb of El Crucero.

Heading into the finale, a breakaway including Daniel Rozo had been brought back and while there was a temporary lull, Lopez attacked with 8 kilometers to go and the only one able to respond was Brayan Ramirez. Ramirez's latch onto the GC lead was short-lived as Lopez accelerated with 4 km to go and went streaking through the mist. It was a precursor to the season that would come and Lopez gave everyone a taste of his explosive power, which was relatively unknown up to that point because of his lack of racing.

Lopez would go on to take the GC lead by 42 seconds on Ramirez by the end of the day and would end up winning the race overall. It was the 1st of 5 GC wins that Lopez had on the season including his incredible Tour de l'Avenir win. While I think Lopez is moving too fast to the pro ranks with Astana, this was the victory that sparked it all.

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