Friday, August 23, 2013

Tour de l'Avenir Preview

Tour de l'Avenir is one of the few races that can make or break a rider's future career. Guys have performances here that get them contracts while other guys, who hedge their bets on a good performance here, will falter and eventually fade into anonymity.

Except for the most diehard of fans, who would have known Nairo Quintana before he stole the Tour de l'Avenir away from Yannick Eijssen in 2010 with two storming mountain riders? Romain Sicard went from promising French amateur to the next French climber after his dominating 2009 ride. Andrey Amador was an amazing rider on the Spanish amateur circuit but his prologue win in the 2008 edition really put him on the map. Tyler Farrar got his first major international win in the 2004 edition of the race with a sprint win over now-teammate Koldo Fernandez, Sebastian Chavanel, Matti Breschel and Marcel Sieberg.

l'Avenir is also the place where guys can find their moment in the sun before fading into anonymity. Sergej Fuchs was 3rd place in the 2009 race and where is he now? Riding on NSP-Ghost and still trying to chase a dream gone by. Troels Vinther was a Danish promise who won a stage in l'Avenir but after one year with Saxo Bank, he is back with CULT Energy. There are more...Hans Dekkers, Rafaa Chtioui, Alexander Gottfried and Oleg Opryshko are just a few in recent years that saw some of their brighter days in the Race of the Future.

The 50th edition of the race will be once again, as in most recent years, taking in the regions of Bourgogne and Frânche-Comte and mainly Rhône-Alpes, where the races will be decided on some of the more scenic climbs that the French Alp (and PreAlps) has to offer.

The route map and stage profiles can be seen in their entirety at the race website

Prologue Louhans - Louhans 5.1 km

The race begins with a flat prologue in the town of Louhans, which is known for next to nothing. Really, it is a town with not much going on other than a pretty large market. In recent years, the prologue of the Tour de l'Avenir has been dominated by English speakers with Taylor Phinney, Michael Hepburn and Jay McCarthy winning the last three prologues. I would be more surprised to see a non-Aussie win the prologue this year because of the presence of Damien Howson and Adam Phelan. The closest challengers should be Lasse Norman, Rasmus Sterobo, Jasha Sütterlin and Dylan van Baarle.

Stage 1 Louhans - Arbois 145.8 km

The race begins proper with an interesting stage that is a mainly flat affair except for a very late category 4 climb and descent into Arbois, a commune nestled in the Jura mountains. The first 90% of the stage is rather boring because of a flat parcours in a part of the country that isn't known for crazy wind or other meteorological obstacles. Where the race gets interesting is in the final final ten kilometers. Passing the finish line, the course goes up the Côte des Planches, a 1.7 kilometer climb that summits with just four kilometers to go. Following the climb is a fast descent and a flat finish in Arbois, which will most likely see a reduced sprint.

The key to this stage is whether any sprint oriented squads will be focused on keeping it together on the final climb or if the attacks will be too much for riders such as Caleb Ewan. To me, this is a stage that screams Silvio Herklotz but other riders that could do well include Mike Teunissen, Julian Alaphilippe, Michael Valgren and Simon Yates among others. I would personally like to see American Gregory Daniel try something. GC should not be too shaken up but a new rider could end up in the maillot jaune when the dust settles.

Stage 2 Champagnole - Saint-Vulbas 178.9 km

Another flat to rolling stage starting from the Jura town of Champagnole, known affectionately as the "Pearl of the Jura", which is a bit of a misnomer seeing as the town is known mainly for its raw materials production with such clean products as coal, iron ore and charcoal. The route travels south east to the sleepy town of Saint-Vulbas, which is situated on the Rhône in Ain. The only difficulty on the day is a climb at 51 kilometers to go, the Côte de Gévrieux, but after that there is nothing difficult to speak of. The race should be heading into the finish at full tilt for the first sprint finish of the race.

Australian Caleb Ewan will be the huge favorite heading in but there are plenty of other speedsters that will be salivating. Behind Ewan is Slovene Luka Pibernik, Simon Yates, Basque Carlos Barbero, Dane Magnus Cort, Belgian Jasper Stuyven, Norwegian Sondre Enger and Germans Jan Dieteren and Rick Zabel. The small teams lead to no big leadout trains and relative chaos, which is good if you like to see surprise winners.

Stage 3 Aix-les-Bains - Albertville 125.8 km

The mountains are looming. This is your last chance. There is no turning back. The race enters the Rhône-Alpes region and the riders get a small taste of what is to come for the rest of the week. Following the intermediate sprint at Valliéres, the course begins its long gradual pitch upwards. There is only one categorized climb on the course but there are some uncategorized pitches that will definitely sting the legs. The race tops out at 955 meters on the category 3 Col du Fréne before making a descent to Freterive. The race has one more small pitch before a flat finish into the 1992 Winter Olympic town of Albertville. While the finish might be flat, this could be a good chance for a breakaway to take the spoils.

Interesting picks for a breakaway win include 2012 stage winner Lukas Pöstlberger of Austria, France's Alexis Gougeard, Latvian Andzs Flaksis and Slovenian Mark Dzamastagic.

Stage 4 Albertville - Saint François-Longchamp 106.3 km

They're heeeeeere. Hide your kids, hide your wife...the mountains are coming in full force. There is no light intro to them either this year as the first mountain stage features a category 1 and a hors categorie uphill finish at the ski station of Saint-François-Longchamp, which is partway up the Col de Madeleine. The start from Albertville is rather uneventful but since the stage is just 106 kilometers, it isn't long until the race heads uphill. The road begins to rise at La Rochette and for the next 20 kilometers the road continues to rise to the summit of the Col du Grand Cucheron. While the categorized climb only begins 5 kilometers from the summit, there will be a pain train all the way up to that point. On a side note, the Grand Cucheron was featured on the 12th stage of the 2012 Tour de France but it was climbed from the opposite side, the side the Tour de l'Avenir will be descending.

At the summit of the Grand Cucheron, the race will descend the switchback-laden backside of the mountain to the village of Epierre. The riders will take on some last minute energy in the valley road along the Arc river until they hit the commune of La Chambre and go exit stage left. From La Chambre, the road pitches up for the next 13.9 kilometers at an average of nearly 8%. The climb edges off ever so slightly at the finish but the gaps will be evident.

Now for the favorites, which will most likely be the GC favorites as well but we will go down the whole list of those guys later. For this stage, I definitely see Merhawi Kudus (Eritrea/UCI) pushing the pace along with guys like Clement Chevrier, Herklotz, Juan Chamorro, Ever Rivera, Heiner Parra, Davide Formolo, TJ Eisenhart, Alexander Foliforov, Dylan van Baarle and the list goes on.

Stage 5 Saint-Gervais-Les-Bains - Morzine 71 kilometers

Most likely a breakaway will succeed because of the difficult final two stages and no one in a shout of GC contention will want to expend too much energy. Two climbs feature in the quick stage with the last one, the Col des Gets, summiting just 7.5 kilometers from the finish. Riders that could possibly go for it include American Gavin Mannion, either of the British Yates brothers, Toms Skujins, Simone Andreetta or the like. It is a stage that could go any way.

Stage 6 Morzine - Châtel 126 kilometers

I have to applaud the ASO and the Tour de l'Avenir for their route planning this year. Short and actioned packed is the way to go for most mountain stages and the final two stages are two great examples of that. While stage 6 is just 126 kilometers long, the route packs in four categorized climbs in the final 72 kilometers including an non-categorized uphill to the finish in Châtel. The stage rolls out of Morzine and takes a slightly downhill route all the way to Thonon les Bains, which sits along the southern shores of Lake Geneva. From there, the route begins to make a loop that will eventually double back on itself and takes in the category 2 Col de Saxel, which is not much in the way of difficulty, and the category 2 Col de Terramont. The route climbs the category 3 Côte de la Vernaz but that is merely an appetizer for the finale.

At nearly 8 kilometers in length and averaging over 8%, the Col du Corbier will separate the wheat from the chaff but even though the climb is difficult, there is still 22 kilometers from the summit until the finish in Châtel. While the final 13 kilometers are uphill, it is in the last 2.5 kilometers into Châtel that ramp up and average 5.5%.

The climbers will once again feast though a non-dangerous breakaway could sneak out in from depending on how the stage is raced.

Stage 7 Châtel - Plateu des Glieres 

It's over already? What the hell? While I'm sad the race will be ending so soon, the final stage will be one of the best stages that the Tour de l'Avenir has seen on paper in a long time. According to a local informant (Hi Will), the organizers did right by including both the final two climbs, Le Salève and the Col de Glieres, because of a combination of history and originality.

Le Salève is a tough nut that includes about two kilometers of 10% gradient near the middle of the 12.5 kilometer climb. Salève is known as the "balcony of Geneva" as it sits just south of the city and gives a panoramic view of the whole region. It is featured in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, where the monster escapes over the Swiss border and climbs the Salève, which only adds to his frightening lore. After a small descent and a short, sharp rise to the summit of the Col de Pitons before taking a longer descent to the foot of the Col de Glieres.

At Thorens-Glières, the reported birthplace of St. Francis de Sales, the route turns upward to the Plateau des Glières. The Plateau is one of the symbols of the French Resistance during World War II. The Free French resistance fighters chose the plateau as the ideal location to orchestrate a weapons drop with the British in 1944 because, at the time, it was inaccessible by roads but still a clear spot for Allied pilots. The plateau was a base of command against the Nazi/Vichy France forces and in March of '44, there was the "Battle of Glières" where 121 Free French fighters lost their lives against nearly 5000 Nazi and Vichy militia and even though it was a defeat on paper, it was a psychological turning point in the French Resistance.

In terms of the climb up to the plateau, it is an absolute beast. There is a uphill run-up to the climb but the climb proper has a 6 kilometer stretch that averages over 11% until it levels off in the final kilometer. There is no faking up that. Kudus, Chamorro, Rivera, Chevrier and the whole lot will be laying it all on the line. Speaking of which, we need to run down the favorites for l'Avenir.

The Riders

-Merhawi Kudus is the Eritrean sensation and he is the next big African to enter into the professional peloton. Kudus is riding with the all-African UCI Mixed team and will be licking his chops at the mountains. Kudus was just behind Clement Chevrier for the best amateur at Tour de l'Ain and he was 2nd at the Vuelta a Leon. Something holding Kudus back could be his team, which is a conglomeration of African talents that have been developing in the UCI system. Will they be able to cope with the pressure if Kudus does get into the leader's jersey?

-Then we come to Colombia, the home of the lithe, dream-like climbers. The team comes with three powerhouse climbers that could flip the race on its head simply because they are all on the same team. Juan Ernesto Chamorro is the reigning 2nd place here and lost out by just 1 second to Warren Barguil last year. The course is much tougher this year and Chamorro has had difficulties. Chamorro won the Ronde de l'Isard this year but was just 9th in the Vuelta a Leon and 40th in l'Ain, well behind other contenders. Chamorro comes with two strong teammates in Heiner Parra and Ever Rivera, who have both shown brightly this year. Parra won a stage at the Ronde de l'Isard, 2nd on the queen stage at Tour Alsace and was 4th in the young rider's competition in l'Ain. Rivera climbed with Kudus in the Vuelta a Leon, won the Coupe des Nations Saguenay mountains competition and is a big darkhorse for the mountains. If the Colombians are on form then it could be pain town for the others.

-Frenchman Clement Chevrier was 3rd in Valle d'Aosta, 2nd in Pays de Savoie and was top 20 GC in Tour de l'Ain, his first professional race. He is training partners with Romain Bardet when they are together and he will be keen to show his progession. Chevrier was told rather bluntly by Ag2r-La Mondiale (Chevrier normally rides for their feeder squad Chambery CF) thanks but no thanks and is on the hunt for a contract for next season, even though he still has one year of U23 racing eligibility. Beyond Chevrier, Julain Alaphilippe is always good for some excitement and I can get 5 dollars that Alexis Gougeard will attack at some point.

-Germany's Silvio Herklotz has been one of the sensations of the year and will be looking to continue his string of impressive performances. He has not raced a climbs like this before but after his win on Grand Ballon in Tour Alsace, he should be up near the front. I don't know of any concrete team plans for the sprints but Rick Zabel or Jan Dieteren will be taking up the German cause. Zabel has the name recognition for his U23 Ronde van Vlaanderen win but Dieteren beat Zabel straight up at the Thüringen Rundfahrt. Jasha Sütterlin will be going for the prologue.

-Australia will be focusing on the prologue and the early sprints. Caleb Ewan will be trying for one stage win while Howson and Phelan are good bets for the prologue. Past that, it is really up in the air about what they can do. They do not have a climber that can cope with the best ones Sam Spokes is here for Australia and he has been going well with Etixx-iHNed this year. He has been going well as of late and is climbing better than ever but he is another that is unproven in the big mountains. The others will have to try breakaways to get some more glory.

-Austria brings Patrick Konrad was 9th last year here and while his year hasn't been over the top, he should be near the top 10. Lukas Pöstlberger is a former stage winner from last year and has a huge engine, which will suit him in breakaways. One rider I am interested in seeing is Gregor Muhlberger, who is a first year U23 that has performed consistently this year and mainly in the service of others.

-Belgium's Louis Vervaeke was 4th overall in both Pays de Savoie and Valle d'Aosta and loves the steep stuff. Belgium has other good climbers like Dylan Teuns but look for Vervaeke to be the one to perform. Obviously, there is Sean de Bie and Jasper Stuyven, both of whom are capable of a stage victory.

-Denmark is a team I can't quite figure out. Without a doubt, they bring a squad that is super strong but where can they shine on a parcours such as this one? Lasse Norman and Rasmus Sterobo will be all over the prologue and Michael Valgren is an animal on shorter hills but he is untested on longer climbs. I really like Magnus Cort, the double stage winner from the Tour of Denmark, and he could definitely win from a breakaway, ala his Thüringen Rundfahrt stage win, and he has a good turn of speed on him.

-Italian Davide Formolo was 2nd overall in Valle d'Aosta and won the Peaches and Nectarines overall and his climbing skills are near the top of the U23 class. One drawback to Formolo is that he is not the best at reading a race. Simone Andreetta is an option for a breakaway while Manuel Senni will be Formolo's helper in the mountains.

-TJ Eisenhart has been one of the best young American climbers on the European circuit and he will be up there in the fray. The American squad here has been more or less together through the majority of races that the USA National team has done and seems to be a cohesive unit. Gavin Mannion climbs well and sprints well and could pull off something big. Gregory Daniel has been going well with results in Belgium and Germany in the last month.

-Dylan van Baarle is the best U23 of the season so far but has not shown himself on any big mountains so far and l'Avenir is where he could show himself. Mike Teunissen as been on fire as of late and a stage win would not surprise me in the slightest but the mountains could be too much for him.

-Russian Alexander Foliforov was 5th in Valle d'Aosta and was climbing pretty well lately but his consistency is something I doubt. Tatarinov was 7th last year but he has shown no form as of late and he shouldn't be anywhere near the front.

-Carlos Barbero will be Spain's best chance at any glory as the Basque sprinter has been the best U23 they have to offer. Beñat Txoperena was 6th at the Vuelta a Leon and 2nd in the Spanish U23 RR. Watch for him on some of the hillier terrain.

-The Yates twins (Simon and Adam) will be leading a GB team that could get some nice stage results in the flatter to rolling stages.

-Latvia has two options in Toms Skujins and Andzs Flaksis. Skujins won the U23 Peace Race with a last stage attack and has been on some great form this summer that has included a bronze in the U23 Euro RR and buckets of top 10s in Tour de Guadeloupe. Flaksis will have to attack and could be a candidate for the mountains classification as he goes uphill well and is a good TTer.

-Norway is lighter than in previous years but they still bring Sondre Enger, the wünderkind from Tour of Norway, where he was 3rd overall, and Coupe des Nations Saguenay, where he won the overall. Enger has cooled off as of late and he has no history of climbing big mountains so Norway will have to fight for results.

-Slovenia has a few riders that could produce. Luka Pibernik is the obvious choice and he could do well in a selective sprint and can get over some hills. Matej Mohoric is the reigning junior World Champion and his climbing has been improving over the season. Mark Dzamastagic could be apart of a breakaway that takes it to the line and he does have a decent turn of speed on him.

-Kazakhstan has a good rouleur in Maxat Ayazbayev who I am predicting will target the mountains jersey and a bonafide climber in Bakhtiyar Kozhatayev, who has been on a hot streak as of late where he has been finishing in every front group. If there is a chance that a breakaway can go the distance on a mountain stage, Kozhatayev could be a good candidate and he has a pretty good sprint on him if need be.

-I haven't talked about Switzerland or Ukraine for two good reasons. Neither of them have brought much in terms of riders that will do anything. Switzerland has guys that were on their U23 European Champion team pursuit squad but Adrian Chenaux was 3rd in the Valle d'Aosta prologue and could pull a nice result here. Ukraine...well they didn't bring Marlen Zmorka so they will do nothing. They should not even be at this race and both Switzerland and Ukraine are filling a spot that should belong to Petr Vakoc and the Czech Republic.

If for some reason you don't know, follow me on twitter @Vlaanderen90 and I'll be twittering about the race. Check back here for stage reports and coverage.

1 comment:

  1. Great preview, love reading your analysis! Keep it up!