My favorite race of the year is back again. I have been so out of sorts this year that this race came out of nowhere and I realize as I am typing this that the riders are mere hours away from waking up to the first stage.
The region of Ariege itself is like something out of my dreams. Remote with a mixture of lush farm fields, foothills and proper mountains, the Ariege is one of the gems of France. If I ever get the chance to actually retire and the world is still somewhat in order, I would love nothing more than finding a small mountain hamlet, getting a small cottage and living out my days.
But I digress...
The 39th Ronde de l'Isard begins out of the small village of Lorp-Sentaraille with the presence of French cycling royalty, Raymond Poulidor. Poulidor, who was at the race in 2014 pedaling a book, is back this year without anything to pedal and is following along with the race. The village itself is more recently known for making jams. The stage goes here and there on a mainly flat course until it reaches the village of Tarascon and then very uphill at Vicdessos until they reach the ski station of Goulier-Neige.
This stage finish has featured prominently in the past few editions of the race and have really defined the race in terms of a general classification as it is quite a steep finish. The riders that are serious for the general classification will need to be on point at the beginning.
The race then moves onto a nice little punch with another quiet start from Roques sur Garonne to a summit finish at Ax 3 Domaines. The finish is actually a two-banger including the Col du Chioula followed by a sharp descent and up to Ax 3.
Saturday's stage is a classic transitional stage to Boulogne-sur-Gesse which has been used in recent years and should result in a small breakaway to the line.
The final stage sees the race take on another two climbs that are big, bold and ready to shred the pack. Coming up the side that has seen the Tour de France descend, the race will go up the Col du Portet d'Aspet and past the Memorial Fabio Casartelli. Once past the summit, the race goes up the Col de la Core, which has been featured many times in the Tour as while being quite long, it has a pretty nasty little finish with over 7% average gradient on the final 5 kilometer. The finish of the stage, and the race, is looking a bit...anti-climactic? A breakaway could survive but it is a steep downhill of 15 kilometers followed by 10 kilometers of flat before a finish into Saint-Girons. The finish here has never really decided GC, at least in its current iteration since 2013, so a breakaway will most likely rule while GC should be status quo.
The riders for l'Isard can be found here on Directvelo and there is a field studded with some future GC talent. Interesting note: out of the top 12 riders from last year's GC, there is only 1 rider, Loic Bouchereau, that hasn't turned professional or isn't back for more in l'Isard.
My favorites include...
Unieuro-Wilier won this race last year with Simone Petilli and bring Giovanni Carboni (who finished the Tour de Azerbaijan in 6th overall), Simone Ravanelli (7th in the Giro della Valle d'Aosta last year) and Marco Tecchio (9th overall here last year & 3rd in the Trofeo Piva this year).
Lotto-Belisol U23 bring the climbing powers of Steff&Steff (Cras and Hermans)
Wiggins is led by Dan Pearson, who is with a shout of winning after finishing 5th in the Giro della Valle d'Aosta last year with Zalf-Euromobil and finishing 12th in the Tour of Croatia this year, and Scott Davies, who was 9th in Croatia and 6th in Triptyque Monts et Chateux but recently DNFed the Tour de Yorkshire.
Manzana-Postobon bring a devilish little climber Hernan "The Wrath of God" Aguirre, who at just 19 years old finished 9th overall in the Vuelta a Colombia.
CR4C Roanne bring last year's 5th place Lucas Papillon, who seems to be riding in the cut a bit this year and could once again come out in the mountains.
Aurelien Paret-Peintre is still looking for that standout performance after a huge junior career. He was 6th here last year and if he plays his cards right, he could bring Chambery CF a podium.
A large Spanish contingent is led by Alvaro Cuadros (Fundacion Contador) and Xabier San Sebastian (Fundacion Euskadi) but a lot of the riders are young, green and in need of some racing miles. This will help.
Nikolay Cherkasov & Stepan Kurianov are getting a test in the mountains as the Russians are trying to send more boys in the mountains to fill all of the vacancies from recent graduates.
I don't think there is a GC favorite on the French national team however there are two riders that arre big stage win favorites in Elie Gesbert (Tour de l'Avenir stage winner from last year) and Leo Vincent, who has a knack of winning final stages including in last year's Ronde de l'Isard.
GB Espoirs look to be more suited for Flanders than the mountains; Portugal has talent but will it come out here?; Japan...well they should be happy to finish.