The sirens are calling. Their cries reach down into the valleys but only a few answers their calls. To rise to the top and then scream back down before doing it all over again; to push until the body has to make a silent pact that it will need to either sacrifice the lungs before your capillaries burst or your legs before lactic acid sears them into a bowl of grits.
When people think of the most prolific Italian amateur stage race, which should be at least a couple of times a month if you are sane like I, many probably think of the now-defunct GiroBio. While the GiroBio did have a glittering start list filled with Soviets and the who's who of up and coming talent. However, the Giro della Valle d'Aosta had been going for nearly a decade before the first GiroBio edition and nearly 15 years before the Giro della Regioni, which was basically a training group for Eastern European talent. Starting in 1962, the race has been run consecutively since 1967 and is celebrating its 50th consecutive edition this year. While the race had a few big names, it didn't start to gain more traction until the late 80s and into the 90s when names such as Ivan Gotti, Wladimir Belli and Gilberto Simoni won 4 consecutive editions. In more recent years, it has seen its racing days fluctuate and has seen some of the brightest stars see glory before spectacularly burning out as professionals (think Marco Marzano). Dan Martin, Thibaut Pinot, Carlos Betancur, Fabio Aru, Joe Dombrowski, Sergey Chernetskiy, Bob Jungels, Davide Villella and many others made their present felt here in one way or another.
This years edition of the race slowly turns the screws until Breuil Cervinia is the straw that could break many proverbial backs on the final stage.
I've discussed the course before on Twitter so I will attempt to be brief, something I can struggle with, with the course description.
Stage 1 - Pont Saint Martin to Montjovet - 19.94 kilometers - Team Time Trial
In a bit of a new move, the race with start out with a team time trial, which can limit some teams as they can brought some of their best climbers to this race and some of those riders are not the best against the clock on a more or less flat course. Moving up the valley from Pont Saint Martin to Montjovet, some GC men could get a bit of a head start if they have a strong team. Some other teams like Manzana Postobon are bringing a host of climbers but could struggle in this event.
Espoirs Central Favorite: Klein Constantia
Fun Fact: The ruins of the Castello di Saint-Germain, built in the 11th to 12thcenturies, sit just north of Montjovet. Montjovet was a strategic spot dating back to the Neolithic times and brought in quite a draw through the 14th and 15th centuries as a destination for merchants.
Stage 2 - Morillon to Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc - 138.4 kilometers
Just 8 days prior to when the Tour de France is climaxing in the Alps, the U23s will be getting their crack on the same finishing climb as the pros. Starting in the French town of Morillon, which has been a staple of this race the past 5 years, the race only features one climb before coming to the final 13 kilometer slog to the Le Bettex ski station, which sits in the shadow of Mont Blanc. The Saint-Gervais climb itself averages roughly 6% for the entirety but there are a few little ramps here that max out at 10% but they are brief. For riders that are big diesel engines, this is a good climb for them as the more lithe climbers will be saving their legs for the stepper climbs to come.
Espoirs Central Favorite: Bjorg Lambrecht
Fun Fact: Le Bettex feautred in the 2015 Criterium du Dauphine but the stage itself was an absolute brute as it included 6 climbs with five of them being category 1 ascents.
Stage 3 - Quincinetto to Piani di Tavagnasco - 159.1 kilometers
Just before joining Astana for what is going on 4 full years now, Fabio Aru gave one last gift to the U23 world by dominating the 2012 edition of Valle d'Aosta including an impressive solo victory on the Piani di Tavagnasco climb, which is arguably one of the hardest climbs in all of the Aosta Valley. Not even hitting 10 kilometers in length, the climb rises 1050 meters in elevation for an average, yes an average, gradient of 11.2% with max gradients of 15%. This is barely even a climb but more of a wall with a string of tarmac littered with burnt out clutches and broken dreams.
The stage itself is more or less a march to the Tavagnasco climb with only one small climb on the docket before the 9.4 kilometers from the depths of hell. This will separate the men from boys and GC will become very defined.
Espoirs Central Favorite: Aldemar Reyes
Stage 4 - Pontey to Fenis-Clavalite
Featuring two 9% climbs back to back, the ending to this stage is absolutely brutal with the finish on the Clavalite, which throws in a bit of dirt road right at the end to mix things up a little bit. The Clavalite climb is unlike anything else that these riders will face this year. Featuring a maximum gradient for 19% as well as a final three kilometers that averages over 11%, the race's favorites will go from slim to very slim in a very quick fashion.
Espoirs Central Favorite: Mark Padun
Stage 5 - Valtournenche to Breuil Cervinia
Sound familiar? This is the 3rd time running that this climb is being used as a finish point. Last year, this stage was an absolute slog with an 160 kilometer stage taking nearly 5 and a ahalf hours. The final 60 kilometers of this particular stage mirror that of the 2015 Giro d'Italia where Fabio Aru won all by himself. You want to shake things up on the GC? You better come and bring it. The final climb itself isn't incredibly difficult as it just average 5% but it does go on for roughly 18 kilometers and has ramps nearing 10%. Combined with the St. Pantaléon climb just before it, it is going to be a brutish finale.
Espoirs Central Favorite: Jose Luis Rodriguez in a breakaway
The start list for this year's edition of Valle d'Aosta is a pretty good mix save for a few here and there. Most of the top teams are here bar Axeon-Hagens Berman and some of the stronger French teams like Chambery CF. For those hoping Adrien Costa would show up here, Mike Sayer's USA National Team is giving this race a pass to rest the young charge for an assault on the Tour de l'Avenir later this summer. Australia has also given the pass with their pivot from Italy to Belgium. Going down the start list by numbers, let's see the what's what...or who's who for that matter.
Lotto-Soudal probably has the revelation of the year with Bjorg Lambrecht, who won the Ronde de l'Isard in his first ever mountainous stage race and then went on to win a stage in the Zavod Miru/Peace Race U23 and 10th overall in Pays de Savoie. He might not be a man for the highest mountains like Aosta but still a good trial for him. He should be splitting leadership with Steff Cras, who has been consistently 8th overall in UCI stage races this year. Harm Vanhoucke is another good asset in the mountains and could be an outside bet to take a stage win here if a breakaway makes it to the line.
BMC Development comes in with one of the favorites for the overall win in Kilian Frankiny. 4th here last year after taking 5 minutes on the GC favorites on the final stage, Frankiny has become more consistent this year with 3rd in the Peace Race and 6th in Pays de Savoie. Patrick Müller is a force in one day racing but should be competent in the mountains along with TJ Eisenhart.
Zalf-Euromobil has a problem in that they can win any lumpy Italian one-day race but they have next to nothing for the high mountains currently. Bagioli is their best bet for a result or maybe Zilio. I would potentially say Lucca as he was a standout junior but hasn't done anything yet in the U23 level. Just seems like an okay roster for such a deep team.
Palazzago, led by Popovych's old director Olivano Locatelli, is a shell of its former self. Riabushenko is touted as a climber but it remains to be seen what he can do in the high mountains. Ippolito made a breakaway here last year for a top 10 stage result so perhaps he can be the old man's saving grace.
Norway lost a lot of its punch after losing Odd Eiking and Sindre Lunke to the pro ranks but they bring some up and coming riders. Njal Kleiven and Øivind Lukkedal are probably the two best climbers on the team but they would be looking for maybe a top 10 overall? We will see if they get that lucky but a breakaway seems like a good bet.
Another one of the heavy favorites is the winner from Savoie, Enric Mas of Klein Constantia. The Spaniard went toe to toe with Tao Geoghegan Hart and came out on top thanks to consistent climbing and a strong time trial. Mas could replicate his victory here by gaining time in the team time trial and then following wheels in the mountains and covering any dangerous attacks. Now he has not been the best climber all season long and Savoie was his coming out party so could he falter? Certainly. He has diesel-powered Max Schachmann at his disposal for the dirty work of pulling back breakaways while Nuno Bico and Michal Schlegel will be there in the mountains for him.
The opposite of Zalf-Euromobil, Colpack brings a team with a potential overall GC favorite in Lampre-bound Edward Ravasi as well as a strong climber in Ukranian Mark Padun. Think of them as more of a two-pronged threat because if Ravasi loses time on a stage, we will then just go for stage wins and the KOM jersey while Padun has been loving the hard Italian one day races with a 2nd at the recent Medio Brenta to teammate Fausto Masnada. Padun could certainly win a stage if he gets it right and if Ravasi is consistent, they have a strong team behind them to make it work.
The Haute-Savoie team? Better be ready to hang on.
Flavio Zappi is bringing yet another young British team to the mountains but this year, they are probably the most green. I'm going to go with James Davey for their best chance at a result.
Alberto Contador's Foundation team gave us Enric Mas and this year, they bring a mixed bag. Alvaro Cuadros is a good rouleur but the big mountains can catch him out (see what happened last year). Any chance of a result will come from either Cuadros or Diego Noriega, who started to come alive on the horrible final stage of l'Isard this year.
Jose Luis Rodriguez has been dropping hints for a couple of years now and then he went to win the Tour du Pays de Roannais. He isn't the best climber but if he can show big improvement, he could be an outside shot for a top 10 overall at the Tour de l'Avenir this year. Andrej Petrovski apparently has had testing numbers off the scale but hasn't been able to put together a great performance. Caio Godoy is a competent climber as well that can make a breakaway.
VL Technics? Better be ready to hang on.
UC Monaco? Better be ready to hang on.
Russia begins and ends with Nikolay Cherkasov. Yeah, Aydar Zakarin might be a professional but he is a one-climb wonder; he might be a bit better with the pro miles in his legs but he won't be winning here.
Bringing one of the strongest team of climbers, Wiggins is bringing along the trio of Dan Pearson, James Knox and Scott Davies. Davies had a huge victory on the final stage of the Ronde de l'Isard and did very well in Croatia. He is similar to Pearson in that they are not flashy climbers but very consistent when they are on form. Knox is probably the best climber out of the trio as he is able to follow accelerations with the pure climbers. Knowing the course, I would say that Knox is the best bet as long as he keeps up the consistency he showed earlier this year.
I'm excited to see the Dimension Data team as they have my favorite Rwandan rider, Valens Ndayisenga. I'm assuming his goal is to get through the race but good luck to him. Probably the best chance of a result comes down to Eritrean Amanuel Gebreigzabhier.
Colombia last won here in Aosta with Bernardo Suaza in 2014 and they could very well win it with his current trade team Manzana Postobon and Aldemar Reyes. Reyes was contending for the podium in the Vuelta a Colombia filled with scourges of the peloton before a bad day knocked him down to 10th overall. In a nearly two week race, Reyes performed beautifully and he after showing his form in Portugal this weekend, he could be primed for his first big win. He has a team behind him and in the name of clean cycling, he could be a beacon for Colombia.
Astana City...hmm...well...uhh...Akhmetov, I guess.
Former Euskaltel rider JJ Oroz brings the Lizarte team, which are juggernauts in the Spanish amateur circuit. Problem being is they very rarely compete on the UCI circuit so if they are looking for a result, I am thinking of Oscar Rodriguez.
EFC-Etixx bring a lot of talented riders but for the mountains? No, not really. Perhaps Declercq can get into a breakaway or two.
Daniel Savini is young but Hoopla doesn't have much else to hang their hopes on so hopefully Savini finds his climbing legs and fast.
You know those riders that are between places 9 and 17? Basically this is the majority of Tirol Cycling. So perhaps a top 10 overall with Dennis Paulus.
Gavardo-Tecmor? Better be ready to hang on.
Cycling Academy? Better be ready to hang on.
Vlasov can climb pretty well. So why not Viris-Maserati for the overall? Well, I guess you will see why not.
Espoirs Central Overall Picks
1. Aldemar Reyes
2. Kilian Frankiny
3. Enric Mas
4. James Knox
5. Bjorg Lambrecht