Friday, August 26, 2016

Tour de l'Avenir Stage 6: Denz explodes; Gaudu bounces to victory in Tignes

On a day that saw a beautiful loop over 4 cols, the Tour de l'Avenir GC was basically put in a blender, pulsed for a few seconds and then dropped from a helicopter over the French Alps. Attacks went back and forth through the day but when riders such as Adrien Costa and Tao Geoghegan Hart didn't follow moves, riders further down on GC got a chance to move up.

From Saint-Gervais-Mont-Blanc, Nans Peters was the first to attack and drew out a rather large group from the peloton including Lennard Kamna, Miguel Florez (Colombia), Valentin Madouas (France), Giovanni Carboni (Italy), among many others. It was then Peters, Kamna and Florez who established themselves on the Col de Saisies.

The breakaway never really got over a minute for the vast majority of the stage. The trio made it down into Beaufort and started the Col du Pre together but then Florez went solo, dropping the other two, who were picked up shortly by the peloton, and went over the col du Pre solo. It was also here that Nico Denz said goodbye to any chance at GC as the yellow jersey was dropped like a stone.

Florez started the Cormet de Roseland solo but was soon joined by a quartet of riders including Michal Schlegel (Czech Republic), Max Schachmann (Germany), a recovered Lucas Hamilton (Australia) and stage 5 winner Jhon Rodriguez (Colombia). In the chasing peloton, France dominated with 4 riders while most other nations had either one or two.

On the descent of the Roseland, France decided to rip it. Even without their two best descenders in Aurelien Paret-Peintre & Nans Peters, it was Valentin Madouas, Mathias Le Turnier & Leo Vincent went out hard, which along with a crash by Artem Nych (Russia) got them a gap. The bad thing about this? They forgot their GC weapon David Gaudu. Whoops.

By the bottom of the climb, the trio got 50 seconds and were able to bridge up to the breakaway, which saw the group swell to 8 riders. Florez was the first rider to pop once the road started going up towards Tignes. Rodriguez and Hamilton were the next ones to attack, which brought out Schlegel with them. The trio worked well together while Schachmann & Vincent were forced to chase together.

At this point, the GC outlook was still normal and Tao Geoghegan Hart was in the main chasing pack along with other favorites. Then David Gaudu attacked with Edward Ravasi. Cue the blender. This duo, which needed to attack to get back much needed time on GC, lept away from the chasing group. In 7 kilometers, the duo got across a gap that was over 1 minute to join the leading trio while soon after Harm Vanhoucke, who is just 19 years old, would bridge as well to make it a sextet with 3 kilometers to go.

What does one do once they join the group they bridged up to? While attack of course. And who better to do it in front of than Romain Bardet, who was on course today on the climb to Tignes.

Good thing this jersey doesn't have sponsors David. Otherwise, 

David Gaudu put in another move that blew the front group apart. Ravasi and Vanhoucke trailed in his wake as Gaudu, the springy Frenchman who first showed his massive potential at the Ronde de l'Isard, bounced his way up through the ski resort and gave a mighty little roar over the line. Rodriguez came across in fourth, which lifted him to the overall lead thanks to his stage win yesterday.

Behind the attackers, it was Australia's Jai Hindley who came across first in 6th, at 1'43" down on Gaudu, while big favorite Adrien Costa came across shortly afterwards in 7th, 2 minutes down. While Egan Bernal was just another 15 seconds down, Geoghegan Hart lost over three minutes to Bernal.

May it be reminded that this was only the first of three big mountain stages so while the GC might have been put into a blender, it is by no means set. Just a day ago, Gaudu, Ravasi and Vanhoucke were 35th, 36th and 38th on GC over a minute down on Tao and nearly a minute on Costa. My how the tables can turn...

Here is GC as it stands:

1. Jhon Rodriguez (Colombia)
2. David Gaudu (France) +9
3. Edward Ravasi (Italy) +28
4. Harm Vanhoucke (Belgium) +29
5. Michal Schlegel (Czech Republic) +45
6. Adrien Costa (USA) +1:13
7. Tao Geoghegan Hart (GB) +1:58
8. Jai Hindley (Australia) +2:07
9. Michael Storer (Australia) +2:14
10. Egan Bernal (Colombia) +2:17

Unless there is a shocking move from a rider like Sivakov or Schachmann, I don't see anyone winning the Tour de l'Avenir outside of this top 10. Rodriguez has put in a lot of energy in the past two stages so if you are taking Espoirs Central's tip, look for him to slide on stage 7.

Costa has moved a few times so far this race but compared to others, he has been relatively quiet. Will Gaudu be able to follow up this performance with some more magic? Ravasi showed he can go big on late stages over the last few years but with this deep of a field? Does Tao still have something in the tank? Will Bernal supercede Rodriguez as the best Colombian in the field?

So many questions and only two stages to go...

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Tour de l'Avenir Stage 5: The Mountains Are Here

Following the time trial stage that saw Adrien Costa take the first American win in six years at the Tour de l'Avenir, the race was supposed to really begin. It sort of did today but the finish did not prove that decisive, somewhat due to the stage length and after the teams have a fairly lengthy transfer, they didn't want to stir up the pot with four mountains summits.

What is surprisingly not the races shortest stage, the 98 kilometer affair started fast with riders trying to form a breakaway before the only real climb on the course up to Carroz d'Araches. A fast start saw multiple attacks try to get up the road and fail until a large group got off the front including three Americans, three Germans plus some dribs and drabs of Belgians, French and other riders. What was notable about the breakaway was that 2nd through 4th overall (Nico Denz, Nathan Van Hooydonck and Jon Dibben) all were present along with GC contender Neilson Powless.

Great Britain was keen to not let this move going and with Dibben in the breakaway causing disruption, the Brits clawed the move back just a few kilometers before the final climb. Pryzemyslaw Kasperkiewicz tried multiple times to get away in the finale but was subsequently brought back every time. About halfway into the climb, Jhon Rodriguez (Colombia) attacked with Pavel Sivakov (Russia) & GP Poggiana winner Michael Storer (Australia) at a moment when everyone was looking around and got some distance. None of them were immediate GC threats so the chasing peloton didn't really need to pounce on them.

The trio was working well together while some counter attacks behind were launched including one by Aurelien Paret-Peintre, Nans Peters and Alexander Vlasov. The chasers ran out of room as Sivakov was the first to move up front by ran out of gas and Rodriguez accelerated around him. Storer was able to follow but was limited as he was not in the big chainring when the climb leveled off, which allowed Rodriguez to take the first Colombian win in l'Avenir since "Superman", Miguel Angel Lopez, in 2014 on stage 6 to La Rosière.

Vlasov came in for 4th behind Sivakov making it two Russians in the 3rd and 4th spots, which funnily enough happened on stage 6 to La Rosière in 2014 with Aleksey Rybalkin and Alexander Foliforov. Actually the top five from that stage and this were almost identical in terms of nationalities and their finishing orders except that Paret-Peintre ruined it and let Alex Aranburu finish 5th (Pierre Latour was 5th on the 2014 stage).

David Gaudu led the bunch home 29 seconds in arrears with all of the main GC players as well as a few jokers still in their same positions. With Amund Grøndahl Jansen finally succumbing to his stomach issues, the yellow jersey was passed onto German Nico Denz, who holds a 1'40" lead back to Tao Geoghegan Hart, 2'05" back to Storer, 2'10" to countryman Jan Tschernoster and 2'13" back to Adrien Costa.

Storer, Rodriguez and Sivakov were able to move up slightly in the GC rankings but the main question being is about Denz. Obviously he is a World Tour rider and given that he has some free reign here, how long will he be able to hold this lead? He is a competent climber with some good results in the mountains from his U23 days but will he succumb to the onslaught of attacks or perhaps will a diesel engine like Max Schachmann be able to pilot him to an overall lead?

After a bad crash a couple of days ago, Steff Cras was forced to abandon today. He will most likely be back next year ready to give it another go.

The race continues tomorrow with a absolutely beautiful ride from Saint-Gervais-Mont-Blanc to the ski resort at Tignes over 4 climbs including a final ascent that is 17 kilometers in length.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Tour de l'Avenir Stage 3: Norway is the New Denmark

What is the hell do they think this is? 1524-1814 during the Dano-Norwegian union? Is Olaf II riding bikes now instead of eating some pickled herring? Norway has had a very good year on the U23 circuit, which is more of a culmination of the work Joker and other teams have been doing with young Norwegian talent. It remains to be seen if it all turns out a little bit Danish (see Thomas Vedel Kvist, Rasmus Guldhammer, Sebastian Lander) or if Norway is a new light in development cycling.

The stage started out of Bourg-en-Bresse and on the longest stage, David Per (Slovenia) really wanted to be alone. I don't know if he had an argument with his team or perhaps he didn't shower after the stage yesterday. Perhaps the race served some goulash that didn't sit well with him. In any case, the Ronde van Vlaanderen U23 winner took over 6 minutes after the peloton hit the breaks. Even after a puncture by Per, the gap was still over 4'30".

He might not have wanted to be out on his lonesome but Per was able to gobble up the KOM points on offer, which vaulted him to the lead in the KOM competition, which he will hold headed into stage 5 after the TT.

When Per began to flag, Galym Akhmetov (Kazakhstan), a former Asian Junior MTB XC Champion, bridged up to him. Soon, Akhmetov dropped Per but a counter attack from Adrien Costa (USA) and Gonzalo Serrano (Spain) soon made it a trio. Any substantial moves were short lived as the peloton was, at least for once, set on a sprint finish.

The last substantial move was by Gab Cullaigh (GB). The former Peace Race stage winner set out for about 15 kilometers and dangled in front of the jaws of the peloton until 4 kilometers to go. Once the catch was made, the nervous energy in the peloton was ratcheted up until the uphill finish in Autun kicked in

In the final, it was Kristoffer Halvorsen who did a copy cat sprint from his efforts yesterday except that this time, there was no one in front of him. Even with the steep pitch, Halvorsen was able to hold off Vincenzo Albanese and Jon Dibben for the stage win, making it three in a row for Norge, coming close to Denmark's 4 out of the first 5 stage win haul from last year. Really, this sprint was a lot like Nokere Koerse this year, where Halvorsen was 2nd to the flavor of the season, Timothy Dupont, as the finish on that course is a straight power sprint that can tend to drag on a bit.

It was a shame that Pascal Ackermann couldn't make the finale as he could have potentially made it interesting against Halvorsen. Also good to note that this was a finish that Simone Consonni would usually devour however with his track legs from Rio, he was off the back as well with Ackermann.

The real GC hunt starts in a couple of hours as the Lugny TT will be the first test that will begin to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Tour de l'Avenir: Grøndahl Jansen dominated first two stages

In the Tour de l'Avenir, there is nothing that guarantees a sprint stage. With small teams and a big emphasis on the mountains, there are no teams that can waste riders to bring back breakaways. On stages that are definite sprint stages in pro races, small breakaways come to the line here. There hasn't been a bunch sprint here since stage 3 in 2014 when Dan McLay trumped Magnus Cort and Fernando Gaviria. It looks like we will have to wait until 2017 to see a bunch sprint unless a miracle happens on stage 3, which looks unlikely as the course is quite bumpy over the first half along with a short, sharp uphill finish.

Stage 1

On a slight downhill start, the Tour de l'Avenir got underway and it didn't take long before attacks were flying. Eventually, a group of 17 got away with some fairly big names including Tao Geoghegan Hart (GB), David Gaudu (France) Lennard Kamna (Germany), Michael Carbel (Denmark), Nathan Van Hooydonck (Belgium) and Vincenzo Albanese (Italy).

An attack by Geoghegan Hart was innocuous at first but drew out Grøndahl Jansen and Jan Tschernoster (Germany). In a post-race interview, David Gaudu regretted letting this move go as he sat on with the rest of the now chasing group. He really began to regret it when Van Hooydonck and Albanses bridge to the move, which then put it into over drive.

The dreary weather didn't help the proceedings. Albanese took the sprint as well as the two small KOM climbs on offer. The group held a minute gap on the chasing group with Gaudu while the peloton bided their time until 30 kilometers to go, when they took up the chase group again. With Germany and Italy having sprinters in the peloton but men in the move, they were no help to the chase. With no other sprinters having a big chasing effort, it was more about teams wanting to limit the GC loses with Geoghegan Hart gaining precious time before the mountains.

A small climb in the finish town of Veauche didn't do much to prevent the inevitable as Bardiani-bound Albanese won the sprint ahead of Grøndahl Jansen, from won the ZLM Roompot Tour & Tour de Gironde this year, and Van Hooydonck. Behind, it was Espoirs Central favorite U23 German sprinter Pascal Ackermann taking the bunch sprint ahead of Kristoffer Halvorsen (Norway) and Ivan Garcia Cortina (Spain). Albanese locked up the yellow jersey, sprint jersey and KOM jersey while Geoghegan Hart took 50 seconds on GC ahead of his closest rivals.

Stage 2

Even more straight forward, the attack of the day came on the only categorized climb of the day, the Côte de Charnay, when Grøndahl Jansen was at it again with a long range attack, similar to his day long romp in Gironde earlier this year.

It wasn't for another 20 kilometers that a counter attack was made with Jon Dibben (GB) and Nico Denz (Germany) dropping Sergey Luchshenko and motoring up to Grøndahl Jansen. Even with a World Tour rider like Denz up the road, the gap went way out to nearly 6 minutes.

The stage progressed on as riders in the peloton plodded along while the gap was minutes ahead. David Gaudu did take a spill but got up just fine. It really was a bit of a snore. Grøndahl Jansen does have a beautiful position on the bike that is a bit more old school than most riders these days; very long torso with a flat back.

In the sprint, Dibben and Denz tried to mix it up a bit as the finish was a bit uphill but Grøndahl decimated them in the sprint while Halvorsen got the better of Ackermann this time for the lower placings.

Grøndahl Jansen now leads on GC by 1 minute on Denz, 2 minutes on Dibben and over 3 and a half on the main pack. He is no climber however the decision to let Denz get time is puzzling as he is a World Tour rider and he isn't a slouch in the mountains either, especially when he is on some good form. Why risk it? Especially when he has over 2'30" on the main group of GC contenders.

Monday's stage is the longest of the Tour de l'Avenir this year and the last chance for any sprinters glory but as stated previously, the lack of organization with the chase is killing any chances of bunch sprints.

Friday, August 19, 2016

52nd Tour de l'Avenir Preview: This is it

Well, it doesn't get much better than this. The Tour de l'Avenir is here within a few days and for the first time in years, an actual time trial joins the race. U23 races have such a lack of stage races with time trials that if there is anything more than a prologue, there is a cause for celebration. How does one prepare for the pro ranks without ever racing a 45 kilometer time trial?

Stunning Le Puy-En-Velay in Auvergne is the take off point for the Tour de l'Avenir. One of my first memories of cycling was sitting in my grandparent's sitting room in West Virginia early one summer morning in 2005 watching Giuseppe Guerini attack his breakaway mates late in the game on stage 19 of the Tour de France before soloing into Le Puy-En-Velay for his final professional win.
Kicking off from Le Puy-En-Velay, the opening stage of the race isn't too difficult and should see a small breakaway get away early and get over the first two climbs of the race, both of which are fairly shallow. The trick will be if the small teams can pull back a strong move to set up for the bunch sprint into Veauche, which is just 20 clicks north of Saint-Etienne as well as on the banks of Loire River.

Teams will be keen to keep the race together as once the hills begin to come, the chances for sprints will go out the window. Remember last year? Obviously you would if you were following Espoirs Central but a bunch sprint wasn't even contested as breakaways were the name of the game.

Small note about the finishing town of Veauche is that former World Hour Record holder and World Pursuit champion Roger Riviere was married in the town and lived there. He has a small back street named after him.

Stage 2

The race takes off from Motrond-les-Bains and after a short northeast journey over another shallow category 4 climb, the race hits a few circuits in the Lyonnaise suburb of Trévoux, which is situated on a cliff overlooking the Saône river.

The finishing circuit is fairly flat but does have a few bumps in it, including a nice little kick up to the finish line that looks like it could shake things up a bit including the expected bunch sprint.

Stage 3

The Pyramid of Couhard, which sits near Autun and dates back to the first century A.D.
The longest stage of the race goes from the foothills of the Alps in Bourg-en-Bresse and travels northwest to the medieval city of Autun, which gets its first visit from the Tour de l'Avenir since 2000, when Janek Tombak won a breakaway sprint over Björn Leukemans and Sylvain Chavanel.

Transitioning into the Saône-et-Loire department, the race takes in three small climbs early on in the stage as well as an uncategorized 4th climb between Charmoy and La Tagnière. The race itself flattens out again after this climb and then it has another short, sharp uphill finish at Autun.

This stage could play to a breakaway as many of the GC favorites will be looking to protect themselves going into the time trial.

Stage 4

For the first time since 2010, a time trial of actual consequence will appear here in the Tour de l'Avenir. As I said above, it is a rare treat to see a time trial, even of only 16 kilometers, appear in a U23 race usually as they stretch teams equipment wise as well as they can be a bit more costly for races.
Lugny from above

25 years ago, Lugny was the launch point for the penultimate stage of the 1991 Tour de France, which funnily enough was also a time trial; a massive 57 kilometer test to Macon. Miguel Indurain won the stage on the way to his first overall win.

The race itself goes out and around Lugny on a rolling course that has a number of turns in it but it isn't too hard so time trial specialists should be licking their chops.

Stage 5

After a fairly long transfer that is 200+ kilometers from Lugny to Scionzier, the race finally gets its first uphill finish with the race going up the stair step climb at Le Carroz d'Arâches, a nice little ski resort. The stage itself is quite short by being only 98 kilometers and while there is a climb nearly right out of the gate, there is about 70 kilometers in the middle that are nice and flat, which will give the proverbial breakaway time to get some distance.

The gradient on the final climb isn't like a deep Alpine climb but at 5.5% for the last 3 kilometers up to the finish, it could definitely cause some separation. This stage could go one of two ways in that a breakaway could succeed as there are still three more mountain stages after this for GC men OR a GC favorite will lay it down to set the standard much like Marc Soler did on this stage last year.

Stage 6

Much like last year's stage 6, the race will first go over the Col des Saisies, which is only an average of 5% but hits ramps of up to 10% and certainly isn't a very steady climb. After 17 kilometers of descent down to the village of Beaufort, the race will deviate from last year's stage by taking in the Col du Pré instead of going up the long way on the Cormet de Roseland. The Pré climb is steep with an average gradient over 7% that jumps around in gradient but sees sustained gradients of 10 to 11% before the summit. After a short descent, brings the race up to the Lac de Roseland resevoir.

Lac de Roseland on the Cormet de Roseland pass
The Cormet de Roseland might be shorter but still has some decent gradients between 5 and 7% before topping out at nearly 2000m in elevation. Following 20 kilometers of nearly straight descending, the race finds a brief pause before entering Ste-Foy-Tarentaise, where the riders will begin their final climb up to the ski resort at Tignes. Profile of the final climb can be seen here and as can be seen, the climb is relatively steady (4.5-6%) for the vast majority of the climb until they approach the resort, where the gradient averages over 8% over the final three kilometers.

For most races, this would see a race defining event but for l'Avenir, there are still two more stages to go...

Stage 7

Moving just a stone's throw away from Tignes to Val d'Isere, which together form the Espace Killy ski area, which is one of the big three ski areas in the Tarentaise Valley. From the end of the neutral rollout, the riders go 300 meters before going straight uphill on the Col de l'Iseran, the highest mountain pass in the Alps that tops out at 2746 meters (9'086 feet), which is almost home for some riders from Colorado or perhaps Quito, Ecuador.

Once everyone is close to blacking out, the race tips downward for nearly 40 kilometers with only a couple of brief climbs upward. They go over the short and sweet Cote de Sardieres, which is easy compared with everything else on tap, before continuing downhill to Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne, which is over 2000 meters lower than where they were 72 kilometers prior (a 2.78% downhill gradient).

The  Col de Beaune, which is the third climb on tap for the day.
(photo: by the fantastic WillJ)
Making it back to Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne, the race goes along the valley to St. Martin d'Arc, where the climb to Valmeinier begins.
The final climb to Valmeinier is another two-part climb with the first part being a strong, sustained gradient around 8% for the first few kilometers before backing down slightly to 6 to 7%. With 5 kilometers to go, the road flattens out for half a kilometer where the actual village of Valmeinier is before going upwards again for the final 4 kilometers, where the gradients are sustained around 7 to 8%. The race finishes short of the true finish of the climb but the riders won't certainly mind that.

There is no place to rest once the race hits Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne so if you are a racer, you will need to be on point if you have any business being up front.

Stage 7

This stage is short, sweet and direct to the point. Two climbs. Once the first 15 kilometers of flat riding are out of the way, there are 57 kilometers of either up or down. The race is basically the opposite of last year's final stage finale as it is La Toussuire up first followed by a summit finish on the Col de la Croix-de-Fer.

The Saint-Roch chapel at Varcinières, just outside of Jarrier.
La Toussuire is La Toussuire. A prototypical Alpine climb that does level off in places but is in the 7 to 8% gradient range for the majority of the time. This year, they are climbing the other side of La Toussuire that begins at Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. Moving up the D 78d, the riders go past hamlets such as Jarrier before hitting ski towns like Les Bottieres and L'Alpettaz. The climb then takes a left onto the D 78 and hits the ski station of Les Sybelles, which is one of the largest in France and the summit of the La Toussuire climb.

Once off the descent, the course follows the l'Arvan river, which forms the Arves Valley to the feet of the Croix de Fer climb. The ride down the river valley is uphill for the most part and half of it is uncategorized, at least by the race, until they hit the Saint-Sorlin-D'Arves. From here, the race will be blown apart. The final 7 kilometers never fall under 7.5% gradient with one kilometer averaging nearly 10%. Topping out at 2057 meters, the 52nd Tour de l'Avenir comes to a close.

Last year, I said it was one of the best editions yet. This year's race look like it could even go past that.

**Unless otherwise noted, all photos are used via WikiCommons

In terms of favorites, the official start list has not been confirmed so if you are looking for a breakdown, you might want to head over to @EspoirsCentral on Twitter for more later on today.