Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Preview: Ronde de l'Isard

There is no proper entrance into good weather like heading into some big mountains in the Pyrenees for some U23 racing. Okay no one thinks that but still, spring has really sprung when you can get up to 1500 meters and not need a coat. The Ronde de l'Isard is the U23 kickoff the the big mountain season and while it isn't as high as say the Giro Ciclisto della Valle d'Aosta, it will be stinging the legs. Just in case anyone was confused, we are deep in the south of France in the Midi-Pyrénées just a couple hours from Andorra. To be more specific, the race stays mainly around the Ariège department.

Hopefully some rider will dedicate his stage win to the Isard (aka a Pyrenean chamois), which gave their lives countless times to protect rider's precious undersides and keep cars looking impeccable. (Photo: Wiki)
And the race's name? Well I'm fairly certain it is named after the Pyrenees Chamois, a goat antelope that lives in the region and was nearly hunted to extinction in the 1940's for its chamois leather. You know, the same stuff that was used in cycling shorts until synthetics were developed later in the century and still used today for automobiles, art, etc. It seems proper to have a race in the honor of an animal, more specifically its hide, that coddled countless numbers of cyclist taints and cleaned countless number of cars.

Stage 1

The stage begins in Saint-Girons. Luis-Leon Sanchez beat Sandy Casar and Vlaf Efimkin into town here on the 8th stage of the 2009 Tour de France in a three-man breakaway. The stage starts out pretty tame with one small climb and is more or less flat until the final 25 kilometers. It begins to head uphill once the race hits the town of Tarascon-sur-Ariège but it doesn't properly begin the climb to the Goulier-Neige ski station until 9.6 kilometers to go. That 9.6 kilometers averages a lovely 8% but the worst part of the climb is in the middle where it hits a stretch of 12.5% and the last 3 kilometers are around 9%. Here is the profile from climbbybike.

Back in 2008, Blel Kadri won solo on the climb ahead of Elver Corredor and Simon Geschke with the likes of Romain Sicard, Jarlinson Pantano and Alexandre Geniez trailing in his wake. Last year, Heiner Parra and Juan Chamorro did the 1-2 on the climb while Maxime Le Lavandier was 23 seconds late to the party.

Stage 2

The 2nd stage starts off quite easy with the first half flat to rolling, which will be good for a early break to get away before the climbs. The race goes from easy to hard in about 5 kilometers when the route tips upward and the races starts going up the Col de Mente. The climb is famous for being the place where Luis Ocana crashed in the 1971 Tour de France chasing after Merckx and was airlifted off the mountain after being hit by a pursuing Joop Zoetemelk. They were descending the col in that case and the race route will be climbing that side and will go past the plaque commemorating that bit of Tour de France history. The climb itself is pretty hard with an average over 9% for a smidgen over 9 kilometers but it is a pretty consistent grade and if you can find a rhythm, you can survive it. The climb has a commemorative stone monument for Serge Lapebie, who is the deceased son of Tour de France stage winner Guy Lapebie and nephew of overall Tour de France winner Roger Lapebie. Following a technical descent, the race goes into Bagneres du Luchon and right out of town to go up the climb to Hospice de France.  The first half of the climb isn't too bad with only a few steep ramps but once they hit Pont de Joueu, which signals 5 km to go, the race is on. The next last three kilometers is where the climb really brings out the knives; the gradient rarely goes under 11% and goes over 13% for nearly a half of a kilometer. The winner will probably weigh under 60 kilograms and have the same amount of body hair as a prepubescent teenager but he will be well deserved.

Stages 3a and 3b

We head a little bit out of the heart of the Pyrenees and go to the town of Boulogne sur Gesse for a split stage. The morning stage is a flat to rolling 82 kilometers which shouldn't take any longer than two hours. Paging Loïc Chetout.

The afternoon stage is where the race could be won or lost if the race is not decided in the mountains. It is a 17 kilometer team time trial around Boulogne sur Gesse that features little in the way of technical difficulties but if your team has a few stronger rulers that have survived the early hills, a team could put some serious time into a team of toothpicks that are being blown around in the wind.

Stage 4

3 climbs of varying difficulty finish off the stage race but it could come down to descending skills if a small group hasn't blown the race open yet. The bunch have 15 kilometers before they begin ascending the Col de Port. The Col de Port was first climbed in the 1910 by Octave Lapize when slave driver Desgrange pushed the race into the Pyrenees. It is a long climb at nearly 17 kilometers but the average is just a dainty 4.5%. Following the descent, the route goes over the Col d'Agnes is another 15+ kilometer slog but nothing too bad in terms of gradient, just some patches of 8% gradient. Following another twisty descent, the race passes through Seix before going up the Col de la Core, which is a 14 kilometer climb that is similar the d'Agnes in that the gradients never get too steep with the maximum stretch coming in at 8%. These climbs might be longer but certainly not as tough as the ones earlier in the race.

The race finishes on a descent off of the Col de la Core and even when off the descent proper, the race continues to go downhill all the way into Saint-Girons. Someone who isn't afraid to lay it on the line downhill could certainly benefit.

The Contenders

There was a time that the USA would seemingly always have a contender for the Ronde de l'Isard. Mike Creed was 3rd place overall here in both 2001 and 2002, the former of which he won a mountain stage solo.  Pat McCarty won the 2003 edition while Saul Raisin was 3rd. Raisin was 2nd to Philip Deignan in 2004 and in 2007, John Devine took the overall after winning a huge solo stage to Guzet Neige. In more recent years, Andrew Talansky and Joe Dombrowski got 3rd place in the race overall. Last year, Nate Wilson put on an impressive ride to take 5th overall. They have a mixed team of up and coming youngsters like Geoffrey Curran and Logan Owen with some more experienced riders in Jeff Perrin, Torey Phillip and Chris Putt. Mike Sayers has the experience behind the wheel DSing so I'll be interested to see if they can put someone in the top 10 overall.

4-72 Colombia are the reigning champions but the two riders (Juan Chamorro and Heiner Parra) that dominated for them last year won't be here. Ever Rivera was a big bright spot for them last year but he has been invisible this year. Diego Ochoa will most likely be their best bet for a GC run after winning the Colombian U23 RR Championship and taking a stage win the Vuelta Mexico earlier this year. One to keep an eye on is Hernan Aguirre, who is a first year U23 that can climb at a very quick pace.

Chambery CF will be backing Pierre-Roger Latour and Maxime Le Lavandier. Latour hasn't raced a lot this year but he was 6th overall here last year. Le Lavandier seems to always do well here as the last two years he has been 2nd (2013) and 6th (2012) overall.

**Chambery will also have the young Colombian Eduardo Estrada with them. Estrada set the Pan-Am Junior 3km Pursuit record last year (3'14"407), which broke Taylor Phinney's previous record. Estrada's time was just 4 tenths of a second off the junior pursuit world record set by Dale Parker in 2010. Estrada won the Pan-Am junior RR championship last year as well. The only gold medal he didn't win at the Pan-Am Junior Championships was the TT, which he finished 2nd in just 10 seconds behind his countryman Daniel Martinez. Estrada's agent Alex Carera, who is also the agent for Vincenzo Nibali, secured him a deal with Chambery CF, who is the feeder team for Ag2r. The slender Colombian stands at 1.84 meters (a hair over 6 feet) and weighs in at a heavyweight 67 kilograms (147.5 lbs) and he has already taken a win this year in France at the GP de la Municipalite in Vienne out of a small 4-man breakaway. It was nothing earth shattering but the talent is definitely there. Thanks to Tom for the reminder about Estrada.

Romain Guyot was 9th last year with Vendée U and should have leadership for this year's race as well especially after his 7th overall in the Tour de Bretagne.

The Russians are back. Denis Menchov won here in 1998. Sergii Chernetskii was 2nd overall here in 2012 and arguably the best climber in the race. Itera-Katusha is bringing a strong squad that is also a threat for the TTT. Ildar Arslanov is just a 2nd year U23 but he has been doing well in pro races (Coppi e Bartali) and the mountains is where he has the potential to shine. Alexander Foliforov is by far the most experienced rider on the team and will be the logical GC favorite after his 5th place in Giro della Valle d'Aosta last year. His problem is just being consistent.

I'm interested to see Nick Schultz ride here for CR4C Roanne. The Australian has been cutting his teeth in France the last couple of years. Just trust me on this one, he could put in a good ride.

Tiesj Benoot and Louis Vervaeke are the headlining acts for Lotto-Belisol U23 here in l'Isard. Vervaeke even moved to Italy so he could focus on training in the mountains and seems to be in good shape after a 5th in the Circuit de Wallonie. Vervaeke was 4th in both the Tour de Pays de Savoie and the Giro della Valle d'Aosta last year and will be looking for a big GC result. Benoot is perhaps not as suited to the big climbs as Vervaeke is but he can handle his own on the rolling stages and perhaps on the stages where there is not a summit finish.

Also, Loïc Chetout is here and being so close to the French Basque region, he will want to try and grab a stage victory here after his strong GC win at the Bidasoa Itzulia. Perhaps on the morning split stage or the descent finish on the last stage.

New race website upgrade from their circa 1998 version.

Full startlist

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