Sunday, March 17, 2013

Tour de Normandie Preview (March 18th-24th)

Finally, we are into proper week long stage racing. So somewhere on the Spanish coast? The Cote d'Azur? No. Cold, rainy and windy Normandie. And I could not be happier! First of all, I find Normandie to be a fascinating place plus this is spring racing at its best. The racers might be miserable at points but the racing is first class. Now if I could just figure out a viable cost structure to get this type of racing some live pictures...

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The Tour de Normadie was first run in 1939 but after multiple lengthy breaks, the race has been run continuously since 1981. Throughout the 80's, the race was a hotbed for Eastern Bloc talent coming over to race against the best amateurs that the West had to offer. Former Eastern Bloc winners include Mario Kummer, Viatcheslav Ekimov and Dmitrti Zdhanov. Once the wall came a tumblin' down, the race continued to host a high proportion of Eastern European talent. Jens Voigt made the podium (2nd overall) in 1995. The race turned professional in 1996 but while it attracted some big names, it also had a high proportion of young riders. Some highlights...

  • 1997 saw a 20 year old Nicolas Vogondy win a stage
  • 1998's edition saw a young Andreas Klöden win the prologue. 
  • 23 year-old Luca Paolini won a stage in the 2000 race.
  • Thor Hushovd won three stages and the overall in 2001
  • Before God could judge him, Filippo Pozzato won 4 stages in 2002 while neo-pro Jérome Pineau won the overall
  • Rabobank Continental owned the race in the mid-2000's...Hans Dekker took two stages in 2003; Thomas Dekker won the race overall in 2004; 3 more stages for Dekker in 2005 while Kai Reus won the overall; Kai Reus won overall again in 2006 with two more stage wins; Martijn Maaskant won the race overall in 2007. Domination.
In more recent years, riders such as Adrien Petit (Cofidis), Tobias Ludvigsson (Argos-Shimano) and Boy van Poppel (Vacansoleil) won stages in more recent years. This race brings out the best in sprinters, rouleurs and TTers and is not for someone who cannot deal with rain and wind.

Speaking of the weather, it is not looking great for the race...As of now, it seems that everyday will be rain except for one day. 

Prologue: Saint-Lô - Saint-Lô (3.4 Km)

The opening prologue will twist and turn around the commune of Saint-Lô, taking in one small hill and descent before a fast finish on the Champs de Mars. Saint-Lô is notable in that it has not had the luckiest history. First mentioned in the 6th century, Saint-Lô has been ransacked by the Vikings, sacked by the English during the Hundred Years War, contracted the plague and was bombarded by Royalists in the Wars of Religion. Not enough? During the Operation Overlord in 1944, the city was flattened beyond recognition and nearly abandoned after 95% of the city was destroyed. Samuel Beckett gave Saint-Lô the nickname, "The Capital of Ruins". 


Forges-les-Eaux blazon

Stage 1 Colombelles to Forges-les-Eaux (201 km) 

This stage is a cornerstone in the Tour of Normandie as seemingly every edition has had a stage finishing in Forges-les-Eaux, usually the first stage. Forges-les-Eaux was first mentioned in the year 1186 but its roots come from Roman times when it was associated with iron mining. The town was also a spa town whose popularity peaked in the 17th century for their thermal waters that supposedly had therapeutic effects. In 1632, the spa-town saw Louis XIII, Anne of Austria and Cardinal Richelieu visit. Another random fact about the town is that it hosted France's first annual butter contest, with the winner producing over 3 kilograms of butter from a cow named Princess.

As is obvious, the stage has a lumpy profile and like in past editions, has served breakaways well. This year will see the race take the final loop around Forges-les-Eaux in the opposite direction than normal. Last year, this stage saw the break take a commanding lead and win by two minutes. In other years, this stage has been a mass sprint. It all depends how the course is raced but I think a break will rule the day.

Stage 2 Forges-les-Eaux to Elbeuf-sur-Seine (161 km)

The stage continues the winding journey around Haute Normandie and finishes with two loops in Elbeuf-sur-Seine. Sitting on a meander of the Seine less than 20 kilometers away from Rouen, Elbeuf has a history of textile production and at one point, was nicknamed "the city of one hundred chimneys". The factories were so important that Napoleon came to visit them. Today, the factories are gone and have been replaced with light industrial plants. 

The last loop starts at 101km and goes until 131km and the group does another loop. So obviously this graphic sucks. In any case, it is Normandie so this small hills are all over the place. Nearly every stage in recent memory that has finished in Elbeuf-sur-Seine has been a sprint so I wouldn't go against it.

Stage 3 Thuit-Signol to Argentan (158 km)

No, this stage is not finishing in Moreno Argentin. The stage leaves the sleepy town of Thuit-Signol, winding into Lower Normandie and finishing guessed it, finishing loops, three of them, through Argentan. As this is Normandie and since Normandie is where the world loves to fight their battles, the town was in ruins and burning when it was liberated by the Allies in 1944.

More sprinting on this stage especially with the flat finishing loops.

Stage 4 Domfront to Villers-Bocage (155km)

The stage goes north from Domfront to Villers-Bocage, a commune outside of Caen. Domfront is notable in that the town contains the ruins of the Chateau de Domfront, a castle completed in 1020 that was besieged by William the Conqueror in 1049. The castle was officially destroyed in 1610 but the ruins now serve as a public park. The ride to Villers-Bocage is a bumpy one albeit rather short as their are 4 finishing loops around the city. Villers-Bocage had a battle in 1944 during the Battle of Normandy, one of the first during the offensive which saw an Allied retreat. The town was leveled during Operation Epsom in the same year, leaving it in ruin. 

The finishing loop has been considered for the French Championships and will serve as a tough finish, especially with a climb a few kilometers before the finish on the Rue de Clemenceau. Expect an elite selection to be made on this stage, which will probably either mean a breakaway ahead of a smaller peloton or a small group taking a big advantage.

Stage 5 Gouville-sur-Mer to Bagnoles-de-l'Orne (180 km)

The race hits the Normandie coast, which means...Wind! Wind! Wind! The stage starts out at the small village of Gouville-sur-Mer, which is situated on the west coast of Normandie and just 35 kilometers from Jersey. The only thing interesting about the town is that their crest has three pale cocks on a bed of vert with a lighthouse on the other yeah. They also have these neat looking cabins on the beach

The course itself rides along the coast for about the next fifty kilometers before bearing left. At 77 kilometers, the race takes a big right turn at Avranches and heads inland; bound for Bagnoles-de-l'Orne and the mythical Andaine forest. Bagnoles-de-l'Orne is famous in that its thermal waters have been renowned for their therapeutic effects dating all the way back to the middle ages. The story goes that some lord's horse was a bit decrepit so he let it out into the forest to die. The horse came back full of vigor, which astonished the owner so much. The horse, sensing this astonishment as if he was Lassie, took the owner to the pool from whence it drank and thus the spa legend was born. The spa was a getaway for the upper class and was seen as a destination by the wealthy as it has hosted many dignitaries and important persons. The Andaine forest that surrounds Bagnoles-de-l'Orne is also where Arthurian Sir Lancelot of the Round Table is to have originally come from.
The Mythical Andaine Forest

Anyways, back to the race. The race will cut across the Andaine Forest from west to east, going through stage 4's starting city of Domfront and taking in a few hills along the way before hitting finishing circuits in Bagnoles-de-l'Orne. The three finishing circuits are short at 6 kilometers and each one features a shallow climb. After a few days belonging to the G.C. men, this race will either be a break for some riders that are down on G.C. or sprinters who are keen to get another shot at stage glory.

Stage 6 Bagnoles-de-l'Orne to Caen (137 km)

Caen cityscape

The final day of the race will see the riders go from Bagnoles-de-l'Orne to the capital of Lower Normandie, Caen. Caen was built around a castle, Château de Caen, that was constructed for William the Conqueror in 1060 and is one of the largest medieval fortresses in Western Europe. The castle was used extensively in the Hundred Years War and was even used as a barracks as late as World War 2. 

Partial view of Château de Caen...the thing is massive (Photo: 8W)
Abbaye aux Hommes, Caen. One of two abbeys ordered built William the Conqueror after he married his cousin Matilda of Flanders. This was his original resting place before Calvinists destroyed his tombstone and his bones were scattered.
Church of Saint-Pierre
The guidebook described the finish of this stage as the Champs Elysees of Caen, as the race finishes with three laps, originating from Cours Général de Gaulle and making a loop that goes along the banks of the Orne river and around the city's hippodrome. While the stage is more of a procession than anything, there will be the the obligatory desperate attacks and a peloton focused on keeping it together for a sprint.

Looking down Cours Général de Gaulle (Photo by 8W)

Normandie is really a beautiful place and I hope to visit one day. The combination of natural beauty, mystique and history make it a perfect place to ride and race a bike. Jeez, I sound like the tourist board now. But I digress...

The Contenders

  • Europcar's Jerome Cousin won this race last year and they return with a strong line-up but not one that is assured of an overall win. They bring talented guys such as Anthony Charteau and Christophe Kern but they both have had a string of DNFs. Tony Hurel could be a surprise but might struggle with multiple hard days in a row. 
  • Bretagne-Schuller is the other Pro Continental squad and brings a mix of younger and older riders. Jean-Marc Bideau won the recent Paris-Troyes and has won multiple stages here in the past, including last year. He will be looking for a high finish overall. Gael Malacarne was 5th overall last year after getting into a strong breakaway and will be looking for a repeat performance.
  • Then we have the buzzsaw that is Rabobank Development. The Dutch team has been lighting it up this season, in particular with Dylan van Baarle. Van Baarle was 10th overall here last year but he has been on rip-roaring form so far this season and will be a big favorite. They are bringing an A-team here so I would not be surprised if van Baarle or one of his teammates, most notably Ivar Slik, ends the race in yellow.
  • BigMat-Auber 93 is bringing a strong team with Mathieu Drujon and Steve Tronet headlining. Raleigh is bring former champion Alexander Blain along with strongman Eric Berthou. Other random guys I will be watching for the overall are Jeroen Hoorne (VC Rouen), Julian Guay (Sojasun Espoir), Nikita Umerbekov (Astana Continental) and Kasper Klostergaard (Concordia-Riwal).
There are a lot of young riders here so I will list the teams first and then some more riders to watch. Teams wise, we have: Rabobank Development, Leopard-Trek, CC Nogent-sur-Oise, EFC-Omega Pharma-QuickStep, Astana Continental, Itera-Katusha, Vendée U, BMC U23, VC Rouen, Joker-Merida, People4You-Unaas, Sojasun Espoir, CULT Energy and Verandas Willems. 

More young riders to watch: Nick van der Lijke, Jasper Bovenhuis (Rabobank Continental) Fabio Silvestre (Leopard-Trek) Jimmy Turgis (CC Nogent-sur-Oise) Josh Atkins, Jens Geerinck (EFC-OPQS) Ilya Davidenok (Astana CT) Pierre-Henri Lecuisinier (Vendée U) Silvan Dillier, TJ Eisenhart (BMC U23) Vegard Robinson Bugge (Joker-Merida) Frederik Ludvigsson (People4You-Unaas) Emmaunuel Keo (Sojasun Espoir) Michael Valgren Andersen (CULT Energy) Niels Vandyck (Verandas Willems)

I didn't want to keep blathering on about every rider but as the week progresses, I will try to go a bit more in depth about riders that get results. Check back in here for video highlights and updates after every stage!

Please feel free to comment or tweet me (@Vlaanderen90) :)

All images, unless noted, come from Wiki Commons and are used under Creative Commons License. All profiles and graphics come from the race website 

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