It has been quite the week in U23 cycling. Favorites crashing, favorites underperforming and some favorites performing right on cue. Let's take some time to remember the week that was and perhaps some of the details that might have slipped through the cracks.
There were zero stages that were decided by a large group coming to the line together. The largest group that decided a victory was the group of 7 that decided the win on stage 2 when professional Mads Pedersen sat on the breakaway and then toyed with everyone in the finale to take the win. Looking back, it is the first edition of l'Avenir since 2007 where there hasn't been a true bunch gallop albeit that year was very close when Martin Kohler barely held off a hard charging Edvald Boasson Hagen for the stage 4 win into Contres. With the mountain stages back loaded, many teams brought a climbing-oriented roster but that seemed to be a mistake as there were more chances for glory in the opening four stages than anywhere else.
While the appearance of Mads Pedersen here is debatable, the Danish team from this year's edition of the Tour de l'Avenir is the most successful team to date as they absolutely dominated the flatter portion of the race. Bringing 5 riders that were suited for flat to rolling terrain, the Danes started off with a prologue win by Søren Kragh Andersen and kept going from there. There only "misfire" from the early half of the race was missing out on stage 1, where solo breakaway Jonas Koch stuck it to the line, but they did manage 2nd place with an attack from Mads Würtz Schmidt.
They then just got into the meaningful breaks and animated the race. Pedersen's stage 2 win was perhaps the most controversial since he is a professional rider and was being a bad breakaway companion by sitting on the back, not contributing and then attacking everyone in the final kilometer. Kragh Andersen struck again on stage 3 with an impressive sprint over Mathieu van der Poel after his group got away in the final kilometers of the stage. Würtz Schmidt made it the third different rider by making it over the first couple of bigger climbs in the race and being the strongest sprinter to survive.
Obviously they were gone when the mountains came but 4 stage wins is the biggest Tour de l'Avenir haul...well at least in the last 15 years. There many been multiple teams that have won three stages including Edvald Boasson Hagen in 2006 and France in 2009. Even if some are unhappy with Pedersen's presence here, it was quite the performance that will be remembered.
Thanks to USA DS Mike Sayers, it was broadcasted that the the French feds had stopped the team vehicles on the transfer to the stage finish and searched vehicles for drugs. While it might be inconvenient, I would love to see IAAF federations submit to this type of searches. They would be shitting their shorts while watching police rip apart their operations. These searches should start at the junior and U23 level but continue through the pro ranks and perhaps even extend to hotel rooms, if it needs to come to that. Transparency is key to building trust so this move by the French gets Espoirs Central Stamp of Approval™.
After thinking about the course for this race, I feel like the organizers need to take a step back and stop making it some mountains-heavy at the tail-end. This year's race was incredible but as the stages wore on, the pack was beginning to be decimated. Only 61% of the starters made it to the end and only 11 within 10 minutes of winner Marc Soler. DNFs are inevitable but with how packed the mountain stages were this year and how the races went from the gun, many were on the back foot from the beginning.
I liked the race when they have a nice mix of mountains, rolling hills, flat stages and perhaps even a short time trial. Give something for everyone and mix the race us a bit; don't just make it a given for the best climber in the race to get the overall crown. When Jan Bakelants won the race in 2008, he certainly wasn't the best climber. He used rolling stages and breakaways to gain his advantage but had to hang on for grim death in the mountains to hold off Rui Costa and Arnold Jeannesson. While it doesn't have to be a flat race, give some more chances to riders that have an explosive finish such as Gianni Moscon or Gregor Mühlberger to mix it up with the pure climbers such as Soler.
Obviously, the winner of the race, Marc Soler, comes from the Movistar team and came into the race with nearly 50 racing days and a whole season of professional support behind him. Soler is a legitimate professional who, while still in his rookie season, is obviously with a strong setup and has consummate professionals helping with his coaching, nutrition, etc. He should not have been allowed to compete here. Give Jack Haig a year riding with Orica-Green Edge, bring him back here and then see what he would do. He beat the competition fair and square but the blame doesn't go on the rider.
The blame starts with the UCI ignoramus who passed this rule. Then it goes on the national federation and director, Pascual Momparler, who want to win at all costs instead of focus on getting riders exposure and develop them for the next level, which should be the main purpose of their positions. Momparler was having an orgasm when describing Soler as "he is just like Bradley Wiggins" and "there is one thing Marc Soler doesn't like: to lose". No, you just do not like to lose old man.
I've spoken on Pedersen previously but he shouldn't be here either after riding nearly the same amount of top level races as Soler did coming into l'Avenir.
Sebastian Henao is the one that sparked my outrage over this rule earlier this summer but wasn't on his best form for l'Avenir and was beaten handily by some of the U23 ranks best. And transition...
...was more or less a flop. The Colombian team came in with arguably the overall favorite in Henao and a rider that could take multiple sprint stages in Gaviria. It became apparent early that Gaviria was on his own and with the lack of cohesion in the peloton in regards to keeping a peloton together for a sprint, Gaviria got the short end of the stick.
The team lost Rodrigo Contreras, Gaviria's climbing buddy that is also headed to Etixx, who was out on stage 5. The team also lost Gaviria on stage 6 but throughout the mountain stage, the team was either attacking at inopportune moments that wasted energy (such as Daniel Martinez chasing a streaking Guillaume Martin on stage 6) or their riders not being able to respond.
While Henao tried to make up for his race on the final day, the overall classification ride never happened and his 9th place overall capped a pretty silent week for the South Americans. Martinez is certainly one to watch in the future after some promising rides and being just a first year U23.
The Melodramatic French
Okay, that might be a bit mean but it was certainly an up and down Tour for the French. Coming into the race, they had a seemingly unlimited amount of options but they were slowly whittled down from 6 riders to just 1 on the final stage.
After a strong Tour de l'Ain, Nans Peters was looking like a viable overall candidate but a hard crash early on limited him and eventually saw him pull out on stage 5. Jeremy Maison was on a flier on stage 5 on the Col du Pre but on the subsequent descent, he crashed out and broke his collarbone. Even with these two riders down, Guillaume Martin survived a solo breakaway to hold of Gregor Mühlberger for the stage win.
The next day, it was Elie Gesbert who did the long solo attack over the Col du Madeleine that survived until the end. However, the French would be decimated on the final day. Gesbert attacked out of the gate but was caught and then dropped and eventually had to drop out, along with his teammate Leo Vincent and Fabian Grellier.
It was Guillaume Martin, winner of stage 5, who survived the race. Martin described the final stage as "a cyclosportive or an Ironman" because of how stretched the pack was and how most did not have any teammate around. Martin lost his KOM jersey on the final day but did manage 10th overall to go with his stage win. The philosophy graduate certainly has a promising future as a climber but perhaps needs a little more consistency.
Maison was the best chance for France to go for the podium so even with two stage wins, there is always that what if to think about. However, Maison is joining FDJ for 2016 so perhaps he can make up for it on a bigger level.
-Jack Haig certainly picked up where Rob Power left off last year and did a great ride for 2nd overall and 1st overall for true U23s. It would have been an entirely different race if Power was present and Haig would have been riding on the front for countless kilometers, no doubt. Haig got stronger as the mountains went on and when it got really steep, he and Matvey Mamykin even dropped race leader Marc Soler on the final stage. Haig struggled with injury this year and then riding for others so seeing him relish this leadership opportunity is a good sign for the future.
-Laurens De Plus might have failed on the last stage but he did cap off a fantastic season of stage racing where he didn't finish outside of the top 8 in the overall GC bar the Circuit Ardennes in March. De Plus was sitting 2nd overall before his legs turned to wood on the final stage and he slipped to 8th overall. He isn't a robot. De Plus just enjoys winning. He climbed with Soler on stage 6 after having a disappointing stage 5. He has the tools but this is just his first year in a leader's role. Perhaps his jump directly to Etixx might be a bit premature as opposed to something like Loïc Vliegen or Louis Vervaeke jumping mid-season but he does have a three year deal so Lefevere will need to be patient with this one.
-Odd Eiking should not be trusted with a overall leader's role going into a race. If anything, he should be a dark horse but right now, he had failed in terms of GC in his last two big races that featured big mountains. Perhaps he is bound for one-week races or races without hills that stretch over 10 km or over 6 or 7% gradient. Sindre Lunke seems to be the better choice for a future Norwegian climber and GC threat.
-Another rider that will need consistency lessons in the mountains in the pro ranks is Gregor Mühlberger. The Austrian nearly had a stage win on stage 5 but was misdirected in the finale, which might have cost him the win. He paid for his stage 5 exploits the next day and implode any GC chances before coming back for 4th place on the final stage. This isn't the first time that this has happened with Mühlberger and no doubt the last time it will happen. He is another the does well in the medium mountains and even a day in the high mountains but after a big effort? Fogettaboutit.
-Sam Oomen was a hurting dog on the final stage and was dropped at one point with his back in incredible pain. Yet the young Dutchman fought through this and even managed to put in an attack off the Col de la Croix de Fer and while he wasn't able to hang with the best climbers in the end, he moved up on the GC to 4th overall. While I had him pegged for the win, he was much more consistent than a year ago and if he stays in the U23 ranks for another year, I do not see why he wouldn't be the favorite for the win.
The analysis could last for hours but that is all for now. Anything else that you would like to see picked apart? A rider with potential? Something that has been annoying you to pieces? Please let it me know.
Relive the race that was by going through Espoirs Central coverage from l'Avenir.