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Will Arthur Vichot break the Ag2r dominance in the Drome Classic?

Photo: Sirotti




27.02.2016 @ 20:44 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

While most of the cycling world will have its eyes firmly on the cobbles in Belgium, another group of riders will be preparing themselves for the upcoming stage races and the Ardennes classics in a pair of French one-day races. The Classic Sud-Ardeche and the Drome Classic offer the riders a perfect chance to test themselves on hilly courses that make them very similar to the later one-day races and provide some of the key contenders with a chance to gauge their form ahead of Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico.


For some of the best riders in the world, the coming weekend is the first really important time on their 2016 race calendar as they aim for their first big classics win in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. For stage race riders and Ardennes specialists, it is important to continue their preparation for their goals and the Belgian cobbles are certainly not the perfect way to get ready for races like Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico.


However, France offers an alternative path as the country plays host to two hard, hilly one-day races. On Saturday, the 15th edition of the Classic Sud-Ardeche is held on a tough course with several climbs and gives the riders the chance to get some hard racing just one week before the start of the Race to the Sun. One day later, the new Drome Classic will offer a slightly easier course, meaning that riders can now do two days of solid preparation for their bigger goals.


In the past, Classic Sud-Ardeche was a stand-alone event that was an important event for the French teams but very often it failed to attract many foreign stars. With the addition of the Drome Classic, however, it has become much more international and in 2014 teams like BMC, Belkin, Omega Pharma-Quick Step and Trek mixed it up with the local heroes. Last year those four teams were joined by Orica-GreenEDGE to form an even stronger line-up. This year there will even be six foreign WorldTour teams in attendance as Giant-Alpecin and IAM will join the field while LottoNL-Jumbo have decided to skip the events which will be hotly contested.


Both races take place in Massif Central which is famously known for its tough terrain and so it is no wonder that they are really tough affairs similar to an Ardennes classic. While the Classic Sud-Ardeche has often come down to a sprint from a small group as the distance from the final climb to the finish was a bit longer, the Drome Classic has usually more selective, with both edition being won by lone riders. This year things have changed as Saturday’s race has become significantly harder and now seems to be the toughest challenge of the weekend.


Drome Classic is a relatively new race that has only been held twice. After Romain Bardet rode to a solo win in 2014, it was his teammate Samuel Dumoulin who timed his move on the Cote de Livron perfectly in last year’s race and he held off Fabio Felline and Sebastien Delfosse to take an impressive solo win.


The course

As this is only the third edition of the race, there is no tradition involved in the design of the course for this new event. The organizers are not obliged to honour any kind of history and have been completely free to vary the nature of the race. This led them to put together a completely new course for last year’s race which had very little in common with the one that was used for the inaugural edition. Apparently, they liked the formula as this year’s race is an identical copy.


The 2014 race started and finished in the city of Valence but the center has been moved. For the thirs edition, the riders will again both take off and end in the smaller city of Livron just a few kilometres of the inaugural start and finish.


The 203.8km course can be split into two parts. The first part of the race consists of two laps of a northerly 50km circuit that includes the climbs of the Cote de Beauvallon, Cote de Monteleger, Cote d’Allex and Cote de Livron. The Beauvallon and the Allex climbs were the ones that played a key role in the 2014 year’s race. In general, it’s a hilly affair as there is barely any flat road and lots of short, steep ascents. The categorized climbs are all very short but some of them are pretty steep.


Having finished the second lap, the riders will do almost another full lap of the circuit. At the bottom of the Cote d’Allex, however, they will turn left to tackle one lap of another circuit on the southern outskirts of the city. That part of the race is significantly harder as it includes the much longer climbs of the Cote de Chabrillan (52.3km to go), Col de Tartaguille (44km to go), Col de la Grande Limite(3.6km, 6.8%, 28.9km to go) and Cote de Roberts (18.2km) to go. After the final climb, they will return back to the bottom of the Cote d’Allex where they will complete the original circuit, meaning that they will again tackle the Allex and Livron climbs with 8.1km and 1.6km to go respectively. After the final climb, they head down a tricky descent before reaching the final few hundred metres which are flat.




The weather

The weather on Sunday will be very similar to what the riders will have encountered on Saturday. It will be a mostly cloudy day with a maximum temperature of 11 degrees and a 10% chance for a shower. It will be a bit windier as there will be a moderate wind from a northerly direction. This means that it will be a tailwind in the first part of the final circuit and a headwind back to the final two climbs. It will be a crosswind on the Mur d’Allex and a headwind on the Livron climb.


The favourites

As the race doesn’t have a long history, there aren’t many previous editions to use to predict the outcome of the race. Furthermore, the course for the inaugural edition was completely different and so we only have last year’s race to use as a gauge. However, as the route is completely unchanged, it gives a solid indication of what to expect.


Last year it became a gradual elimination race until only 30 riders were left at the bottom of the penultimate climb. Here six riders escaped and looked like they were going to stay away but Romain Baret sacrificed himself for Samuel Dumoulin who sprinted past the escapees on the final climb. He then sped down the descent to take a solo win. Further back, the group splintered to pieces with the best 13 riders arriving within a minute of the winner and mostly one by one.


This year we can expect a similar scenario. The first circuit is not overly hard but the second one is pretty hard. This is where the aggression will really start as several teams have numerous cards to play and they will try to make things tough. We can expect a big elimination and it won’t be impossible for a group to stay away.


Last year a regrouping took place and then it was all decided on the final two climbs which are short and explosive. Especially, the Mur d’Allex is steep which makes it a great race for puncheurs that can handle the amount of climbing earlier in the race. The most likely outcome is that a reduced peloton will decide the race on the final two climbs but if a strong group gets clear on the final circuit, an earlier move can definitely be successful.


We have already made Arthur Vichot our favourite for the Classic Sud-Ardeche and it is also hard to look beyond the in-form Frenchman for this race. His performances in Laigueglia and Haut Var were outstanding and he was clearly the best rider in both races. He is very strong in this moderately hilly terrain and is explosive on short, steep climbs. Furthermore, he is a great descender and even if he gets some company in the finale, he is fast in a sprint.


Like in Sud-Ardeche, the main challenge is his team. Only Alexandre Geniez and Odd Christian Eiking can expected to be there in the finale and it won’t be easy to control things on the final circuit. If he can just get to the final two climbs in the lead group, he should be able to take care of things as the legs will do the talking here. Vichot is clearly the man to beat and the favourite to win this race.


Orica-GreenEDGE have one of the strongest teams and they have numerous cards to play. Adam Yates, Simon Yates and Esteban Chaves are all making their season debuts this weekend and so their form is a bit of an unknown. However, they have been training intensely and are approaching the first goals in March. Hence, their form can’t be too bad but of course they may need some time to get back into the racing rhythm. Last year none of them were flying in their first races but they were strong just a few weeks later.


If they are ready, they are all tailor-made for his race. They all have the right punchy skills to do well on the climbs in the finale and the overall amount of climbing should be no issue. Furthermore, their great team will allow them to ride offensively or control thing so they can win the race from several different scenarios. The Yates brothers have had more one-day success and so they are probably a bit better suited to this challenge and their form is probably also more advanced as they are aiming for one-week races in the spring while Chaves is going for the Giro. However, they are all capable of winning this kind of race.


Etixx-QuickStep also have more cards to play. For this race, their best option is probably an in-form Petr Vakoc. On the first stage of Tour La Provence, the riders faced a very similar steep climb in the finale and here he turned out to be the best. He is not a real climber and may suffer a bit more on the longer climbs early in the race but he has the skills to beat the best in the finale. Gianluca Brambilla offers the team a second option. He has been in great form all year and won a stage in Mallorca. He is a punchy climber and a great descender.


Romain Bardet is a former winner of this race and will love to claim another win. Last year he sacrificed himself for Dumoulin who has been ill and won’t be a contender this year. Instead, he will team up with Jan Bakelants to form a very strong duo and in general Ag2r have one of the best teams here. They will probably try to make the race hard and then Bardet and Bakelants have to finish it off.  Last year Bardet attacked too early and then emptied himself in the finale but this year he will probably wait a bit longer. He is not as explosive as some of his rivals but his form is obviously excellent. Bakelants is more explosive and is in great form too. The Belgian messed things up in the La Provence queen stage but if he can gauge his efforts a bit better, this is a race that suits him really well.


Michael Albasini is another Orica-GreenEDGE card. If his form is good, these short, explosive climbs suit him really well – remember that he has been on the Fleche Wallonne podium twice – but he has rarely been very good at this time of the year.


It will be interesting to see what Direct Energie neo-pro Lilian Calmejane can do here. Only Vakoc was stronger than him on the final climb in the Provence queen stage and he definitely has huge potential in this kind of finish.


The finale is tailor-made for a punchy climber like Julian Arredondo but nothing suggests that he has returned to his best yet. However, he showed signs of progress in Algarve. Finally, we will point to Samuel Sanchez who gets a rare chance to lead BMC and his great time trial in Andalucia indicates that the form is not too bad. He is no longer the rider he once was but he is still strong in this kind of terrain.


***** Arthur Vichot

**** Adam Yates, Simon Yates

*** Esteban Chaves, Petr Vakoc, Gianluca Brambilla, Romain Bardet, Jan Bakelants

** Michael Albasini, Lilian Calmejane, Pieter Serry, Julian Arredondo, Samuel Sanchez

* Enrico Gasparotto, Daryl Impey, Maxime Bouet, Arnold Jeannesson, Eduard Prades, Eduardo Sepulveda, Thomas Voeckler



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