Tuesday, June 11, 2013

U23 Nations Cup: Enger takes Coupe des Nations Ville de Saguenay

I hope that I don't sound overly negative when it comes to checking the hype of U23 riders because that isn't what I am trying to accomplish. Sondre Enger is a fantastic bike rider and he showed again that he is a talent for the future with his overall victory at the Coupe des Nations Ville de Saguenay this weekend. Just don't sound like a complete homer and exclaim that, "Sondre Enger is the next Peter Sagan", like some (Norwegian) bloke did on Twitter after his 3rd place overall at the Glava Tour of Norway. All that accomplishes is making you sound like a complete dolt.

The intro gave away one of this weekend's big results but the race itself did not turn out like it should have on paper. The Coupe des Nations Ville de Saguenay parcours for this year, while challenging, should have been manageable even with small teams and with a reduced race schedule this year, bunch sprints could have ruled the day. This was not the case.

Friday's first stage saw the race blow wide open thanks to a large breakaway and a peloton that was happy with the makeup of said break and let the gap balloon. A break of twelve snuck away early on the stage but soon after it was a chasing group of eight, including Norwegians Enger and Sven Erik Bystrøm who would eventually bridge up to the break. Three riders in Alexis Gougeard (France), Diego Ochoa (Colombia) and Bakhtiyar Kozhatayev (Kazakhstan) broke away with two laps to go and got a healthy gap ahead of Nathan Brown (USA) and a dwindling chase group. As the chase group broke up over the final climb, Bystrøm sacrificed himself for Enger and put in a monster effort to bring back Brown and close the gap to the leading trio. It was just a little too late...

Alexis Gougeard taking the win (Photo: Etienne Garnier / VeloFotoPro)

In the final straighaway, Gougeard launched his sprint and was able to hold off Ochoa and Kozhatayev while Enger was only able to make it up to the wheel of the Kazakh for 4th place. In the end, it was 11 riders who were close enough to fight for the overall GC. Gougeard, a noted time trialist, took his 3rd win of the season and has shown himself well in the Nations Cup events this year, after a long solo breakaway at the Ronde van Vlaanderen and 10th at the ZLM Tour.

Stage 1 La Baie to La Baie (151km)

  1. Alexis Gougeard (France)
  2. Diego Ochoa (Colombia)
  3. Bakhtiyar Kozhatayev (Kazakhstan)
  4. Sondre Enger (Norway)
  5. Romain Guillemois (France)
  6. Nathan Brown (United States)
  7. Maxat Ayazbayev (Kazakhstan)
  8. Alberto Bettiol (Italy)
  9. Antoine Duchesne (Canada)
  10. Ever Rivera (Colombia) +5"
  11. Sven Erik Bystrøm (Norway) +14"
After the craziness that was Saturday's stage, there were many who missed out that were trying to get stage glory. As stated before, bonus seconds are important in this race and naturally, the first sprint was hotly contested as Enger won over Bettiol and Yean Rodriguez (Colombia). A breakaway including Nurbolat Kulimbetov (Kazakhstan), Gavin Mannion (USA), Florent Mottet (ColorCode-Biowanze) and Alexander Krieger (Germany) were away for the middle part of the stage but with the Italians and Norwegians craving a stage win and bonus seconds, the gap dropped quickly and it was all set up for a bunch sprint.

Coming into the finale, it was Norway who took control and Daniel Hoelgaard was putting in a devistating leadout for Enger but when Hoelgaard pulled off at 200 meters to go, Enger couldn't accelerate hard enough past him and this allowed Italian speedster Niccolò Bonifazio to pip the two Scandinavians on the line for a dramatic win. 

Bonifazio makes on of the most unattractive winning faces ever
(Photo: Etienne Garnier / VeloFotoPro)
Thanks to taking a large chunk of time bonuses, Enger only found himself 3 seconds behind Alexis Gougeard on the overall standings. It would be a showdown Sunday for the overall and the dramatics were high until the final kilometer.

Gougeard, not known for his sprinting, was trying to play tactician and to combat Enger, he sent his French teammate Christophe Laporte up the road to soak up the first time bonus. While Laporte took the 5 seconds, it was Bettiol and Enger fighting it out for the minor places with each respectively getting 3 and 1 seconds. The gap was now only two seconds. To Gougeard's relief, a break of seven got up the road and looked dangerous enough to stay away until the end.

The group of seven included Italian speedster Andrea Zordan, Kazakhs Kulimbetov and Zhandos Bizhigitov, Lennard Hofstede (Netherlands), Simon Pavlin (Slovenia) Loïc Pestiaux (ColorCode-Biowanze) and Basque Carlos Barbero. The group worked well together and while the finishing circuits were flat, they kept a healthy gap going into the pointy end of the race. It was the USA (for some reason) that was leading the charge up to bring back the breakaway. As the breakaway began to crumble, it was Kulimbetov who set out alone and was heading for a solo victory until the final descent back into Chicoutimi, when the pack picked him up with less the 500 meters to go.

Once again, it was Enger who was out front early but this time it was another Italian, Federico Zurlo, who took advantage of his slipstream and shot past to take the victory ahead of the Norwegian and Italian teammate Bettiol. You might remember Zurlo from earlier this year when he got into a fight in the final kilometers with a Trevigiani rider in an Italian amateur race and was disqualified after winning the sprint. It seems for now that he has his attitude in check and took an impressive victory. Enger wasn't mad about getting 2nd place either as that was all he needed to shoot past Gougeard on the overall and take the yellow jersey.

Stage 3 Chicoutimi - Chicoutimi

  1. Federico Zurlo (Italy)
  2. Sondre Enger (Norway)
  3. Alberto Bettiol (Italy)
  4. Carlos Barbero (Spain)
  5. Aljaz Hocevar (Slovenia)
  1. Enger
  2. Alexis Gougeard (France) +3"
  3. Diego Ochoa (Colombia) +7"
  4. Bettiol +8"
  5. Bakhtiyar Kozhatayev (Kazakhstan) +11"
  • Young Rider (1994): Zurlo
  • Climber: Ever Rivera (Colombia)
  • Points: Enger
  • Team: Norway

Sondre Enger is on a great year so far but, and no offense to the competition here, what would he do against a better U23 field like the one at Thüringen? He showed himself against the pros and he is obviously capable in the U23s but I still am left wanting more because I am not convinced he is the real deal just yet. L'Avenir and Worlds will be a testing ground.

Diego Ochoa has been impressive this year. You might have not heard about him much but go look at his results. 3rd overall here with 2nd on stage one. 6th in the Tour de Gironde with three top 10 stage results. He also had two top 10 stage placings in the Ronde de l'Isard. He is only 20 years old, as of last week, and has a pedigree as a sprinter who can climb.

Other impressive ride was from Bakhtiyar Kozhatayev. Kozhatayev has been incredibly consistent this year: KOM at Triptyque Monts et Chateaux, 12th in RvV U23, 14th ZLM Tour, 3rd in the Tour de Azerbaijan and now 5th overall here. If he gets a chance to ride either Valle d'Aosta or l'Avenir, watch out.

I think that Saguenay gets a fairly raw deal when it comes to its Nations Cup race. Because it is across the Atlantic and seems to always run concurrent with Thüringen Rundfahrt, it gets a watered down field that is only here for one race before heading back to Europe, South America, etc. Why not extend the trip? It is time for an American U23 Nations Cup race and it would be perfect to have the foreign riders stay here for a bit longer so they have time to get over get lag, get acclimated and then set out racing.  It seemed like big names such as Davide Villella and Ignazio Moser struggled because of the short trip and not having enough time to find their legs. You only have so many Nations Cup races and the fields shouldn't be watered down because of bad scheduling or the UCI not giving these races enough importance. If anything, the UCI should be funding these races more, bumping them up to 4 or 5 days and trying to get these races out to the greater mass audience.

For lots and lots of pictures of the Coupe des Nations Ville de Saguenay, head over to VeloFotoPro. Really, they have so many great pictures and need to get the attention that they deserve.

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