In just one short week, riders will be descending on the Ariège department for what is one of the most consistently difficult U23 stage races on the calendar, the Ronde de l'Isard. Nestled in the heart of the Pyrenees, the Ariège is one of the most unspoiled regions of France with a fairly sparse population and with 40% of the region being dedicated as a national park. With plains, foothills and full blown mountains, the region is an incredible and demanding location for a bike race and the Ronde de l'Isard, which is in its 38th edition now, will see even the best riders crack and salivate for a ride in the team car.
The race itself first appeared in 1977 as a French regional race before slowly gaining prestige throughout the next few decades. In 1998, it became a race just for U23 racers and the palmares become a bit more familiar. '98 saw Denis Menchov win and he was followed by the likes of Jamie Burrow, Graziano Gasparre, Christophe Le Mevel and Markus Fothen. Names that many know dot the podiums from the 00s including a strong American contingent in Mike Creed (2x 3rd), Pat McCarty (1st in 2003), Saul Raisin (2nd and 3rd) and John Devine (2007) as well as others including Ignatas Konovalovas, Philip Deignan, Kevin Seeldraeyers, Ben Hermans, Francis De Greef, Blel Kadri, Maxime Bouet and more.
While in the 00s many of the winners varier between climbers and rouleurs, the majority of winners in the last few years have been pure climbers except for Pierre-Henri Lecuisinier. These winners include Alex Geniez, Yannick Eijssen, Kenny Elissonde, Juan Chamorro and Louis Vervaeke.
Perhaps the only thing holding this race back is its start list but because of the U23 requirement and the intense parcours, it is understandable that the majority of the teams are just French amateur teams with some foreign teams scattered in for good measure.
For the teams for the 2015 edition, visit the race website that includes all of the riders and numbers.
An interesting note is that just days before the race is beginning, it was announced that Team Ecuador would be participating. With no Colombian team in this year's edition, it is a good sight to see some South American participation.
Mirepoix to Goulier Neige (143 kilometers)
Kicking off the race is a swift kick in the pants. Starting from Mirepoix, situated in the Hers Valley, the race is fairly flat for the first 120 kilometers with only a small climb to handle during that time. I'm certain a breakaway will get time here because the last 25 kilometers will see all of the big hitters in the peloton going for it.
The climb to Goulier Neige doesn't start until the turn at Vicdessos and then for the next 9.5 kilometers, the climb averages a stout 8%. With 15 kilometers of false flat before the climb even begins, there will be some tired legs before the climb even starts.
This climb was used on the finish of stage 1 last year and only 3 riders finished within a minute of winner Alexander Foliforov. There is a good chance the race will be won or lost here so if anyone wants to have a shot, they better be on their A game.
Salies du Salat to Plateau de Beille (139.9 kilometers)
Nothing like having a mountain top finish one right after another. This stage is very similar to stage 1 in that for the first 100 kilometers, it is fairly straightforward with only 1 climb to speak of and the rest involving valley riding.
The climb itself is relentless with nearly 15 kilometers of 8%+ average gradient before leveling off at the end. If people were not hurting on Goulier Neige then they will be asking for their parents to take them home on Plateau de Beille. This isn't a climb that is necessarily steady either. They have kilometer long sections that go up to 9 or 10% average and the climb winds up at nearly 1800 meters in elevation.
Will over at cyclingchallenge.com cycled it so you can read his words on the climb. If GC isn't done and dusted by this stage then something is wrong.
Auterive to Boulogne-sur-Gesse (157.6 kilometers)
After two consecutive mountain top finishes, this will either result in a mass bunch sprint or a breakaway over the up and down terrain. Boulogne-sur-Gesse hosted a stage finish last year that saw Loic Chetout take a small group sprint out of a group of 6 and something very similar could happen on Saturday.
Foix to St. Girons (130.4 kilometers)
A carbon copy of the final stage from the 2014 edition. Following work on the Port de Lers, the race substituted the Col de Latrape for the Col de Port and just went with last year's stage. Within roughly 80 kilometers, the race takes on the Col de Port, the Col d'Agnes and the Col de la Core.
The peloton will be sorted at will be most likely a small group coming of the de la Core with 30 kilometers of downhill for the finish in St. Girons. If it is anything like last year, the group will be small but together perhaps a solo rider out front.
For the complete guide book with the full route, go here. I will try to get another post about the riders out before Thursday.