Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Weekend Update: Tour Alsace

So I spent the last week at the beach with my lovely girlfriend and her family so that explains the lack of updates here but now that I'm back, be prepared for a barrage of stories.

The Tour Alsace has been a fairly important race over the last few years with riders such as Wilco Kelderman, Thibaut Pinot and Silvio Herklotz winning the race overall with others such as Warren Barguil, Jan Hirt and Heiner Parra. This year was no different as many riders are starting to get into their best form for the Tour de l'Avenir and other later-season races.

Stage 1 had a 2-man breakaway including Gregoire Tarride (La Pomme Marseille) and Maxim Pokidov (Itera-Katusha) dominate the majority of the day. Frenchman Tarride took off in the closing kilometers to take the solo win ahead of Pokidov while Anthony Maldonado (AVC Aix-En-Provence) won the bunch sprint for 3rd, 34 seconds back ahead of Mathieu van der Poel (BKCP-Powerplus) and Martijn Budding (Rabobank Devo).

Stage 2 saw multiple late breakaways come together in the final kilometers to hold off the peloton once again. Edouard Lauber (CC Etupes) and Guillaume Thevenot (Vendée U) were out front in the last 20 kilometers while behind them, Reidar Borgersen (Joker), Olivier Le Gac (BIC 2000), Huub Duyn (De Rijke) and Dmitri Ignatiev (Itera-Katusha) chased. With 10km to go, Lauber dropped Thevenot, who is signed with Europcar for 2015, and the CC Etupes rider was solo. Shortly after, Le Gac flatted out of the break and Thevenot was picked up by the chasing trio, who was just behind Lauber. Heading into the final 2 clicks, Lauber was picked up and in the sprint, Ignatiev won ahead of Duyn and Thevenot. It was a cyclocross sprint with Philipp Walsleben beating out teammate van der Poel for 6th place.

Stage 3 wasn't the queen stage but it certainly helped to separate the weed from the chaff. A breakaway including USA National's TJ Eisenhart spent the majority of the day off the front but was eventually joined (and dropped) by a trio including Alexey Vermeulen (USA National), Robert Power (Australia) and guess who...Mathieu van der Poel. That trio was joined by Jack Haig (Australia), Bert-Jan Lindeman (Rabobank Development), Walsleben, Julien El Fares and eventually by others including Silvio Herklotz (Stölting), Karel Hnik and Jan Hirt (both Etixx) to make a group of 15. This was the GC favorites group and it was the youngster van der Poel, one of the youngest in the race, taking the sprint ahead of the ex-TdF rider El Fares and Norwegian Kristoffer Skjerping.

Stage 4. Queen Stage. The gem of the Tour Alsace is the Grand Ballon, which is the highest peak in the Vosges Mountains and is occassionaly used in the Tour de France. It is also the only Hors Categorie climb in Northern France, with the road peaking at 1340 meters. It was a day of attrition by most peoples standards with the mountains goats taking their place up front. First it was Lilian Calmejane out front but he was eventually overtaken by Logan Owen (USA National) who was eventually joined by Zhandos Bizhigitov (Astana CT). Bizhigitov went for broke 10 kilometers from the summit of Grand Ballon and had a decent gap but it was falling fast.

The Kazakh was being chased by Remy Di Gregorio (La Pomme Marseille) and Clement Penven before Czech super climber Jan Hirt (Etixx) lept out of the fold and attacked. He joined the chasing duo and as they caught Bizhigitov, Hirt went flying by, going over the summit of Grand Ballon solo. Hirt drew out teammate Karel Hnik (Etixx), Jack Haig (Australia) and Guillaume Martin (Vendee U). The trio joined Di Gregorio and Penven and brought back Hirt on the small descent and it was a small group together for the sprint in Markstein. Hnik was able to power to the win ahead of Martin and Haig with Hirt on the same time in 4th. 30 seconds back included a group of favorites in Lars van der Haar, Silvio Herklotz, Robert Power, Bert-Jan Lindeman, Mathieu van der Poel and others.

Thanks to bonus seconds, Hnik was in the lead by 6 seconds on Haig and 10 on teammate Hirt while 12 others were within a minute of the lead. The race was more or less decided heading into the final stage.

The final stage to Huningue was dominated by a breakaway that managed to last nearly the entire race. The breakaway included Borgersen, Pokidov, Walsleben, Lukas Postlberger (Tirol) and Jan Brockhoff (Giant-Shimano). The quintet go away early and got a gap on the peloton that held steady at around 3 minutes until the finale of the race. They worked well together and going into the final 3 kilometers, they had a gap of nearly 30 seconds that was falling rapidly. They had to start the sprint early to ensure they wouldn't be caught and it was Brockoff who took out the sprint ahead of Borgersen and Walsleben. In the peloton, it was Dan McLay (Lotto-Belisol U23) wiping up the leftovers for 6th place ahead of David Menut, just 4 seconds behind the breakaway.

Karel Hnik wrapped up the overall on the fairly uneventful day for the GC contenders ahead of Haig and Hirt. Hnik is a year out of the U23 ranks and this is an important year for him because youth is everything in this sport. A year too old and you can be passed up for a contract. Hnik has a stagiaire deal with MTN-Qhubeka, which should give him a nice late season schedule and a chance at a nice contract.

The other two on the podium are equally as interesting. The Tour Alsace was Jack Haig's 2nd European UCI race on the road and after winning the Australian NRS last year, the U23 riders rise has been somewhat meteoric. Haig's climbing and overall capabilities are well documented at this point and he should be a force in the late summer at l'Avenir and at Worlds. Hirt is very similar to his teammate and countryman Hnik. Hirt is a very good climber just one year out of the U23 ranks but hasn't had the best of years this year. He has come around with a stage win at the Czech Cycling Tour and after his impressive performance here, he will be keen to go with a bang in the late summer to try and secure a contract.

There was a group of riders at 40 seconds behind Hnik that didn't have the race that many might have thought. Silvio Herklotz won the Tour Alsace last year with a blistering attack on Grand Ballon but this year, he wasn't as sharp and was only able to follow wheels. The German did level off a bit last year after winning Alsace so perhaps his "Steady Eddy" approach this year could be a signal that he is just coming into his best form. Joining him on the same time is Australian wunderkind Robert Power and fellow German Emanual Buchmann, who was more consistent that in previous races.

Exceeding expectations was Guillaume Martin, the CC Etupes rider that will be joining FDJ as a stagiaire this August. Martin was one of the best climbers in the race and was always in the right selection. He was just a wheel away from winning the queen stage and 4th overall is damn impressive.

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