Friday, May 18, 2018

Ronde de l'Isard Intro and Stage 1

l''Isard is here!
The season is full swing now and it is time for one of Espoirs Central's favorite races: the Ronde de l'Isard. Nestled in the Ariège department in the Pyrenees, l'Isard gets its name from the native Pyrenean chamois (l'Isard is the french for chamois), whose hide has been prized for its fine quality all over the world. The goat-antelope relative was nearly hunted to extinction in the 1940s but has come back very strong with numbers around 25,000 in the Pyrenees alone.

Foix, the capital of the Ariège department

Along with being a stronghold for the Socialist Party, the Ariège department is one of the most untouched in France with forests, lakes and streams abound and it's a popular destination for skiing in the Pyrenees in the winter including ski stations such as Ax 3 Domaines and Plateau de Beille, both of which have been made popular by multiple appearances in the Tour de France. There are always some nice gems that this race touches which make it one of the most beautiful races on the calendar.

Now onto the racing....

Stage 1 took the race from Lorp to Eycheil. These two villages are only a stone's throw away from one another but a 126km loop was back loaded with a climb up the Col du Portet d'Aspet along with a final climb up to the finish in Eycheil.

A breakaway of 11 got away early on in the first few kilometers, which is pretty big for a race like this and included riders like Daan Hoole (SEG), Gage Hecht (USA), Alex Braybrooke (AVC Aix en Provence) and Fabio Mazzucco (Trevigiani Phonix Hemus 1896).

The gap got out to a maximum of 3'40" until Vendée U and Chambery, who both missed the move, took the chase over. There were a few crashes early on but nothing of major consequence happened until the Portet d'Aspet was climb. The climb was tackled from the Aspet side, which is normally the side that major races descend and was the descent where Fabio Casartelli crashed in the 1995 Tour de France and died from a blow to the head. Climbing this side should be used more often as it is the tougher of the two sides and the final 4.5 kilometers of the climb average 9.5% and hit ramps of 12%.

Anyways...the race...the breakaway got up the Portet d'Aspet but the gap was now under a minute onto the descent back into Saint Girons and to the uphill finish at Eycheil. By the time they finished descending and got to the outskirts of Eycheil, the breakaway was just 6 riders and the gap around 40 seconds. When they got on the climb, the breakaway went boom-boom with only three riders holding onto a slight gap while Welshman Stephen Williams (SEG) attacked out of the peloton at the beginning of the climb, which elicited no response.

With nearly 2 kilometers to go, Williams bridged up to the lead riders including his teammate Hoole, who stuck with him for 500 meters before pulling the pin. Williams was able to extend his advantage on the uphill slope and took his maiden UCI win in the U23 ranks ahead of a chasing group that was 8 seconds back, which was led in by Julian Mertens & Kobe Goossens (Lotto-Soudal U23) , Tiago Antunes (Aldro...which is led by Manolo there is that), Marlon Gaillard (Vendée U) and Aurelien Paret-Peintre (Chambery CF).

This rest of the peloton came in dribs and drabs, which is expected with a short, sharp climb like this where a guy like Williams, who was 9th in Liege-Bastogne-Liege U23, can thrive. What will remain to be seen is how he and everyone else will perform on Goulier Neige, which is more of a true alpine climb. Okay, it is 3 a.m. and I need to be up in 5 hours.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Best U23 Riders for 2018 (through early May)

Top U23s through (the real) Labor Day

Robert Stannard (Mitchelton-Scott)

After having some nice successes as a first year last year, Stannard was looking like a future classics stud after going 2nd in the Trofeo PIVA, winning the Giro del Belvedere and then going 3rd in the Ronde van Vlaanderen (his teammate James Whelan took the win). Stannard continued through to the Tour de Bretagne, where he was able to take a brilliant stage win on the final stage in Dinan after missing out on stage 4. He should certainly be back for the Baby Giro, where he will likely be an outside favorite for the overall plus a heavy favorite for a stage win. 

Max Kanter (Sunweb Development)

Max Kanter's year so far has been filled with near misses. He was 6th in the Trofej Umag including 4th in the bunch sprint. In the Kattekoers Nations Cup, Kanter and the peloton caught the breakaway as they were hitting the line. Kanter ended up 8th, which was the best from the peloton. 

Okay so a little annoying since he is fast but just not quite had the luck yet. Then comes the Ronde van Vlaanderen, where Kanter won the bunch sprint...for 2nd. Australian James Whelan took the win solo while Kanter took the scraps.

This continued on the next weekend at the ZLM Tour, where Kanter took 3rd in the bunch gallop behind Matteo Moschetti and Sasha Weemaes. This isn't mentioning his 5th and 2nd places on the opening stages of the Tour de Bretagne.
Outside of his German U23 RR Championship last year, Kanter hasn't won a UCI race as a U23. He definitely has the talent to get through a tough day on the bike and then sprint for a win but one thing he needs to do is JUST WIN BABY. I hard can it be?

Sean Bennett (Hagens Berman Axeon)

America always seems to be in search of the next big rider and grasping at anyone that shows themselves, especially in stage races. Every now and then, you see we have a rider that starts riding well in Europe in both stage races and one-day races, which usually gets people going. It can be said that Sean Bennett's year might be the most underrated of all of the riders included on this list.

First off, he wasn't even on the juggernaut of US development cycling before the year started. After hopping from Hagens Berman amateur team to An Post Sean Kelly to Jelly Belly, Bennett was originally down for CCB-Sicleri, Bennett got the opportunity to ride for Hagens Berman-Axeon after the shooting star-esque career of Adrien Costa came to a halt. While he was on Axel Merckx's radar, Neilson Powless' recommendation after last year's Tour de l'Avenir sealed the deal.

Riding for the USA National Team, Bennett started his year by going 8th in the Istrian Spring Trophy, which got Espoirs Central's attention. After riding the Driedaagse De Panne quite well support Jasper Philipsen, Bennett proceeded to go on a run of strong rides in the next two weeks including 7th in the Kattekoers Nations Cup (made the breakaway), 13th in Trofeo PIVA (front group in bunch sprint), 11th in the Giro del Belvedere (first chase group) and then 7th in the Ronde van Vlaanderen U23 (6th in bunch sprint for 2nd). Okay so a solid spring campaign and easily his best rides to date.

Oh wait, time to fly back to the US for some stage races. In the Tour of the Gila, Bennett was climbing well and following his 10th place in the TT, he was setting himself up for a nice overall result. On the Gila Monster stage, which is hands down one of the hardest race days in the US every year, Bennett was 7th on the stage and ended up 8th overall, which was the best U23. Could it get better? Bennett is currently at Redlands with his Hagens Berman-Axeon and on the first stage with the hill top finish at Oak Glen, guess who was 3rd place behind his winning teammate Tom Revard? Bennett. He ended up hanging on for 3rd overall in Redlands, which underline

From cobbles to mountain climbs, this guy can seemingly do a bit on just about any terrain. Obviously if you are a talent, you can show on nearly any course but it is certainly fun to watch.

Jasper Philipsen (Hagens Berman Axeon)

It is very rare when a 2nd year U23 is ready for the professional ranks but Jasper Philipsen seems like one of those gems. Last year as a first year, we won Paris-Tours U23, won Triptyque Monts et Chateaux overall plus stages in the Tour Alsace, the Baby Giro and the Olympia's Tour. This isn't even taking into account his 2nd places in the ZLM Tour, Ronde van Vlaanderen U23 along with top 5 places all over the place.

Philipsen could get some press since he is from Mol, which is also the hometown of Tom Boonen, but Philipsen isn't a carbon copy of Tommeke. A stronger time trialist than Boonen ever was plus he can sprint like a younger Tommeke. He doesn't have the physical presence of Boonen so how that will affect him as a classics specialist remains to be seen.

This year, Philipsen is just trying to blow the Belgian public's expectations sky high. After a few races, Philipsen made the splits at the ironically titled Driedaagse De Panne one-day race and ended up in 3rd place behind Viviani and Ackermann. The dude just turned 20.

Coming back to defend his Triptyque Monts et Chateaux title, Philipsen proceeded to take the first two stages in a row, both in bunch sprints. He then went to take 4th in the time trial and even had two teammates in the top 4 overall with Stan DeWulf sandwiched in there in 2nd overall. The final stage, which is probably one of the hardest in the races history, saw DeWulf trying anything to get some time on Hagens Berman Axeon and while he got the stage, Philipsen won the overall.

While Philipsen was a bit off in the Ronde van Vlaanderen U23 and Liege-Bastogne-Liege U23, he seems to have come back to some form by winning this weekend's Trofee Maarten Wynants.

Matteo Moschetti (Polarctec-Kometa)

My feelings on Moschetti have been well documented. I do not think he is the next messiah. Yes, he can sprint well but do I think he is the next coming of Cipollini? No. That being said, he does have a fast sprint. He is the winningest U23 on the calendar so far with 7 wins including the ZLM Tour Nations Cup along with two wins at the Tour de Normandie. He tailed off a little bit at the Tour de Bretagne with a couple of top 5s but ended up DNFing the final stage.

I'm assuming he will take a bit of a break now until the Baby Giro most likely. He already has a two-year contract with Trek-Segafredo so anything he does for the rest of the year is bonus.

Tadej Pogacar (Ljubljana Gusto Xaurum)

Pogacar burst onto the scene last year with some very impressive results as a first-year U23 in stage races, capped by his 5th place in the Tour of Slovenia, where was just 48 seconds behind Rafal Majka. Pogacar also does well in one-day events where he is usually in the main splits and can do really well but never seems to pull off a win.

This year, Pogacar's profile is a bit higher but he is still getting pretty great results though without a breakthrough win including 3rd in the Istrian Spring Trophy, 2nd in Palio del Recioto along with top 15 finishes in the Ronde van Vlaanderen U23 and Giro del Belvedere.

I don't want to say that he was disappointing in the Tour of Croatia because going 13th overall but after his 5th last year in Slovenia, there were some expecting a little bit more. Granted he lost a lot of time on the massive climb to Sveti Jure, which felt like it was never going to end watching it, but he did bounce back on the other mountain stage, where he got away with Niklas Eg to finish 5th.

Definitely look for him at the Tour of Slovenia but the rest of his summer is up in the air. Slovenia is on the fence for a Tour de l'Avenir bid so if he does get a big there, he will certainly be going for GC but he will also like the hilly course in Innsbruck for the World U23 RR.

Brandon McNulty (Rally Cycling)

Talk about a rider forging his own path. Barely any time with the national team over the past few years and eschewing the usual U23 races so far this year for some desert racing and time in the Iberian peninsula. McNulty, whose time trialing prowess has umpteen pro directors salivating, nearly pulled off an insane win in the Dubai Tour on the climb to Hatta Dam after being caught a mere 50 meters from the line when his legs gave out on the steep ramps. In a race that contained no time trial, his 14th overall has very impressive considering he was surrounded by World Tour talent and it was a boon to Rally Cycling's credibility.

McNulty proceeded to go top 15 in races like GP Miguel Indurain and Klasika Primavera followed by 5th overall in the GP Beiras and then 17th overall in Castille y Leon, where teammate Colin Joyce was 4th overall. While he wasn't burning up the rankings with wins here and there, McNulty's different path could be a guide to some others that don't ride all of the traditional races.

Stan Dewulf (Lotto-Belisol U23)

Kurt van de Wouwer might be a name that very few people outside of the know recognize but the former professional rider has probably eclipsed anything he did riding a bike with what he has done leading Lotto-Soudal U23 over the past few years. From Louis Vervaeke and Tiesj Benoot to Bjorg Lambrecht and now the new flavor is Stan Dewulf.

After a quiet start to the season, Dewulf came out blazing in Monts et Chateaux when he won the final two stages on the trot and nearly stole the overall away from Philipsen. He was strong in both the Ronde van Vlaanderen U23 (main pack finish after some attacks) and Liege Bastogne Liege U23 (he got trapped with team tactics and had to settle for 6th).

As I wrote in my Tour de Bretagne piece, DeWulf rode a very strong race for 2nd overall but he did make some tactical errors that would have tightened up the GC race even further and possibly take the win. After a slight break from racing, which was only ten days, Dewulf went up to Norway with his teammates where he bagged 3rd in the Ringerike GP.

Andrea Bagioli (Colpack) *Best First Year U23*

The only first year U23 in the top ten, Bagioli hasn't raced a ton but when he has, it has been done very well. Bagioli made the breakaway in the Liege-Bastogne-Liege U23 and while he wasn't able to mark winner Joao Almeida but was able to hang on for 2nd place ahead of the hard charging back.

The Colpack rider came back to the Toscana Terre di Ciclismo and put on a masterclass over the three days. Riding off the front or attacking the pack, Bagioli went 5th, 2nd and 1st over the three stage race to win the overall over Aleksandr Vlasov.

The Italian will surely be back for the Baby Giro and probably a few different races between now and then.

Sacha Weemaes (EFC - L&R - Vulsteke)

Probably the biggest surprise on this list (and maybe the most debatable) is the inclusion of Weemaes, the fast man from EFC. Hailing from Sint Niklaas, Weemaes was prolific as a younger rider with provincial (East Flanders) and Belgian Championships on the road and track. As a junior, Weemaes was mainly known for his sprinting prowess but always had a knack for time trialing.

Last year, Weemaes took three wins, all of them in sprints, while he also got a good handful of top 10s in Belgium. After getting into the track team for Belgium, Weemaes was apart of the 2nd place team in the team pursuit in the European Championships and being a part of the squad that got them under the 4 minute barrier for the first time. Weemaes was down for the World Championships in Apeldoorn but went out due to illness.

That track form seemed to come out on the road so far this year as Weemaes has been on absolute fire. He started off with a sprint win at the Handzame Classic, 2nd in the Zuid-Kempense Pijl, 4th in a stage in Triptyque Monts et Chateaux followed by 6th in the TT stage. Two days later, he won the provincial TT Championship. The next week, he won in Evergem and the finished 2nd in the ZLM Tour Nations Cup, where he thought he might have had form to beat Moschetti if he didn't misjudge the finale.

Within three days of each other, Weemaes won the Belgian U23 TT along with the opening TT of the Essor Breton. Even with this success, Weemaes isn't going to be focusing on the time trial and really, his success comes down to his strength in bike handling and being able to put out a boatload of power over a short course.

Sport Vlaanderen were impressed with his beginning of the season so much that he will be starting with the team on July 1st through 2020. 

Keep Watching: Harm Vanhoucke, James Whelan, Tom Wirtgen, Julius van den Berg, Ziga Jerman, Marc Hirschi, Gab Cullaigh, Giovanni Lonardi, Stefan De Bod, Niklas Larsen

(Other) Best First Year U23 Rider: Filip Maciejuk (Leopard Cycling)

I just couldn't resist here. Maciejuk, who was 3rd in the Junior World ITT last year in Bergen, has gotten his season off to a good start in thanks to his time trial ability. The Pole was 6th in the Triptyque Monts et Chateaux thanks in part to his TT as well as some decent climbing abilities. While racing for the Polish National Team in the Carpathian Couriers Tour, Maciejuk was able to weather the storm before making the decisive breakaway on the final stage to take the overall win. He should have a pretty good calendar the rest of the year so he is definitely one to keep watching in the time trials and shorter stage races.

Anyways, I will try to keep this an updated as possible but keep an eye out with the Ronde de l'Isard preview along with results from a good amount of .2 races coming next week.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Tour de Bretagne Thoughts

The racing here at the Tour de Bretagne has been on par with some of the best racing in Europe that is not on the World Tour level. Attacks going every day and nobody on the GC is ever safe.

Here are a few of my takes from Bretagne:

Where were all of the Pro Continental teams?

If you were to look at the start list for this race, you saw a list that included the likes of Androni, Vital Concept, Fortuneo - Samsic, Wilier Triestina and Hagens Bermans Axeon. 

In all honesty outside of the first couple of stages, Hagens Bermans Axeon was the best represented out of the bunch but they were mainly represented by Zeke Mostov (before he abandoned on the final stage) and Rui Oliveira, whose one bad stage took him out of the overall contention but snagged 5 top 10 stage placings.

The other teams have no excuse really. Androni did get a stage win with Malucelli on stage 2 but otherwise, they were insignificant and only finished with 3 riders. Wilier only had 2 finish. Fortuneo ran into bad lunch when their sprinter Bram Welten crashed multiple times on the first day but still managed to get through the race. The rest of the team was absent for the majority of the race. Vital Concept got into a lot of attacks so they get some points there but Tanguy Turgis was their best rider overall as he managed 10th in the final standings and he is only 19 years old.

Overall it seems like these teams brought their B/C teams and got their head kicked (except for Hagens Berman Axeon, who was pretty decemt). Step it up! This race isn't for the faint of heart.

Stan Dewulf

When Stan DeWulf is on good form, he is not afraid to show it. The Lotto-Soudal U23 rider was all over the place this past week with attacks on nearly every stage. This aggression saw him nearly pull off the overall win but was pulled back by Fabien Schmidt, who took the sprint ahead of him to take valuable bonus seconds. 

DeWulf has had a brilliant spring but there were a couple of opportunities here where he could have taken time to help his overall cause. On stage 2, he missed a split in the peloton and lost 9 seconds, which would have had him one second ahead of Schmidt in the overall coming into the final stage and made the final sprint for 2nd and 3rd places even more important. What if DeWulf beat Edoardo Affini for the sprint for 3rd place on stage 3 to get a few more seconds? It is little things like this that could propel him to overall victory but overall, he rode a very good race.

Cees Bol & Julius van den Berg

2016 saw Cees Bol win the Olympia's Tour overall and looked poised for a big 2017. After suffering a bad concussion early on in 2017, Bol's season was wrecked and only got in a handful of races before the end of the year. This year has been the complete opposite as Bol continues to build and build with every race. After losing the Arno Wallard Memorial by the width of a tire to Joshua Huppertz, Cees sprinted to 6th on the two opening stages and then bided his time until the 5th stage, where he got into a 5-man move including future race winner Fabien Schmidt. Bol attacked with 4 km to go and solo'ed to the line for his first UCI win since the Olympia's Tour in 2016. 

Bol even got into a move late in the final stage and was solo at one point but ran out of gas with about 10 km to go and ended up 7th on the final day, which moved him up to 4th overall. Bol isn't a U23 anymore so this is a vital year for him to get results and so far, he is proving his worth in spades.

Speaking of van den Berg, the Dutchman took a stage win on Stage 6 that was nearly identical to his stage win in the Tour de Normandie. After being in the breakaway the entire day, van den Berg make a final move with Johan Le Bon and eventual overall winner Schmidt. Van den Berg played a wily card and made nice with the others to make it to the line however he was the first to jump for the line and the tall Dutchman was able to make it a SEG Racing 2-peat.

Robert Stannard

After some impressive results in the beginning of the season including a win in the Giro del Belvedere among other podium places. Stannard got close on the 4th stage with 4th place and after laying low, he followed the key moves on the final stage before attacking the lead group including DeWulf and Schmidt on the penultimate climb up to the finish in Dinan. After soloing for over a lap, Stannard was able to hold on through to take another impressive victory. 

With the Baby Giro coming up later on in June, Stannard is looking like a favorite to bag a stage win or two.

TV Coverage

Some other races could take a note or two from the Tour de Bretagne for their very good coverage on their Twitter feed and then live coverage of the final two stages, which showed how nuanced the racing is and how things change on a moment's notice. 

Stay tuned for the best U23s of the first part of the season...