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Will Rein Taaramae continue his run of success from the Giro?

Photo: ANSA - PERI / DI MEO / ZENNARO

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TOUR DE SLOVENIE

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15.06.2016 @ 23:59 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The Criterium du Dauphiné and the Tour de Suisse have traditionally been the preparation races for the Tour de France but for several years, the Tour de Slovenie has offered an alternative path with less stress and attention. At the same time, the national tour has often served as the perfect comeback race for riders coming from Giro d’Italia as it offers the perfect chance to get back up to racing speed just one week before the battle for the national champions’ jerseys take place throughout most of Europe.

 

Traditionally, all the Tour de France stars have gathered for the Criterium du Dauphiné or the Tour de Suisse to finalize their long build-up for the Tour de France. However, there have always been a few different opportunities for riders who prefer an easier and less stressful final stage race before the biggest race in the world. For several years, the flat Ster ZLM Toer has become the preferred testing ground for the pure sprinters and their lead-out trains and the mountainous Route du Sud has got more attention recently as it has been the preferred path for Nairo Quintana for the last four years.

 

The least prestigious of the five big stage races that are held in the month of June, is the four-day Tour de Slovenie which has never managed to attract the same kind of attention of star-studded field. The race offers a very diverse route with mountains, sprint stages and time trials but it has never got the same attention as the more famous races in Switzerland, France and the Netherlands.

 

That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t offer a good option and several Tour de France riders have used it as a low-key build-up for the Tour. However, its main purpose is probably to be the comeback race for the Italians after the Giro d’Italia. Many of the local stars usually want to capitalize from their post-grand tour condition at the Italian championships and the relatively short Tour de Slovenie is a solid chance to find the racing rhythm again. At the same time, it has often served as a solid bridge for riders doing the Giro-Tour double as the Tour de Suisse and Criterium du Dauphiné are too hard to do as part of a grand tour double and here the shorter and easier Slovenian race offers a perfect alternative.

 

Slovenia is a relatively young country and so it is no surprise that the Tour de Slovenie is a new event. It was part of Yugoslavia until it proclaimed its independence in 1992 and so the Tour of Yugoslavia can be regarded as its predecessor. That race was first held in 1937 and was an annual event from 1947 to 1988 but was not held during the war from 1989 and 1993. After the country had been split up, the race was resumed in 1994 but it disappeared from the calendar in 2000. As most other Eastern European races, it was an affair mostly for riders coming from the communist countries in that part of the world.

 

With cycling becoming increasingly popular in the former Yugoslavia, it is no surprise that most of the new countries have established their own national tour. Slovenia were first as the first held their race in 1993 and it became a professional event in 1995. In the early years, it was mostly dominated by local riders and Russians but in 2005, it got into the 2.1 category, was moved from May to June and became a big international race. The list of winners includes riders like Przemyslaw Niemiec, Jakob Fuglsang, Vincenzo Nibali, Diego Ulissi and Tiago Machado and riders like Franco Pellizotti, Domenico Pozzovivo, Chirs Anker Sørensen, Giovanni Visconti, Ilnur Zakarin and Mikel Nieve have all been on the podium. With Slovenia becoming more of a powerhouse in cycling, the local riders have also had their say and recently the race has been won by local heroes Janez Brajkovic and Primoz Roglic.

 

Slovenia was the first-mover but now national tours have been created in most of the former Yugoslavia. The Tour of Croatia has become a major international event during its first two years and now serves as the ideal preparation for the Giro d’Italia. The Tour of Serbia is a smaller stage race and there are a few smaller one-day and stage races in Croatia and Slovenia in addition to the national tours.

 

The Tour de Slovenie is a very diverse race and a bit like a mini grand tour. It usually has a flat time trial and a big mountain stage which will decide the GC. There’s a flat stage for the pure sprinters and the race has often had a first road stage that is suited to strong sprinters who can overcome some tough climbing.

 

Last year’s race was won by local sensation Primoz Roglic who beat pre-race favourite Mikel Nieve and former winner Jure Golcer. The result was part of his breakthrough season and helped him secure a WorldTour contract with the LottoNL-Jumbo team.

 

The course

As said, the Tour de Slovenie is a diverse race which has traditionally offered a bit of everything. In recent years, the preferred layout has included a flat evening time trial on the first day, a pretty hilly first road stage on Friday, a big mountain stage on Saturday and a sprint stage on the final day.

 

This year the race has been given a small shake-up. Overall the layout of the race is unchanged but the order of the stages has been altered and the time trial has been made longer, much harder and more important. This year the first stage will be for the strong sprinters while the queen stage already comes on the second day. The time trial will be held on Saturday and is a very tough one compared to the flat prologue that has been used in the past. The pure sprinters should bring the curtain down in Novo Mesto on Sunday.

 

Stage 1

As said, the first road stage has often been for the strong sprinters and this will again be the case in 2016. He main changes are the facts that the stage will now come on the first day and that it seems to be a bit easier than it has traditionally been.

 

The 177.8km stage will bring the riders from the capital of Ljubljana to Koper and has the hardest part in the first half. The riders will tackle a category 2 and a category 3 climb during the first 70km before they get to a flat and descending section. The terrain again gets a bit hillier in the final 50km and the most difficult challenges come when the riders have reached Koper for the first time with 24km to go. Without crossing the finish line, they will tackle a small category 3 climb whose top comes with just 18.9km to go. From there they will descend to the finishing city where they will tackle a short climb. Finally, they will do one lap of a 4.8km circuit that includes the same short ascent.

 

With the stage coming on the first day, the GC teams will be keen not to let the race get out of control and there are a few strong sprinters who have their eyes on this one. Hence, there will be no room for an early break but the finishing circuit with its small climb could be a challenge. This years the climbs are not very hard so it will probably be a relatively big field that arrives in Koper but here the race can split a bit on the tricky circuit while some of the puncheurs will try to make a difference on the climb. It’s definitely not impossible for them on such a tricky circuit but the most likely outcome is a reduced bunch sprint.

 

 

 

Stage 2

The stage always has a big mountaintop finish that goes a long way in determining the overall winner. This year the inclusion of a longer and harder time trial means that it will be more than just about the queen stage but the day in the mountains is still the most important of the race. Unlike in recent editions, it comes in the first half of the race as it features on the second day of the race.

 

At 217.7km, the stage between Nova Gorica and the Golte mountain is a very long one. The first part is mainly flat, with just a single category 3 climb early in the stage, but then the climbing starts at the midpoint with the category 1 Crni Vrh (11.9km, 5.7%). Another flat section leads to the category 2 climb of Crnivec (17.5km, 4.2%) whose descent and a short flat section will bring the riders to the final and hardest climb of the day. The category 1 mountain of Golte averages 7.3% over 15.7km and includes a maximum gradient of 23%, meaning that it’s a very tough climb.

 

The final climb is a proper mountain and will create huge time differences. It was last used in 2011 when Diego Ulissi won the stage and only four riders finished within a minute of the Italian. It’s a stage for the real climbers and we can expect to know a lot more about who’s going to win the race when the mountain goats have battled it out on the final ascent.

 

 

 

Stage 3

The tradition of having a flat opening evening time trial has been skipped in favour of a much harder TT later in the race. This year the time trial comes on the third day and the 16.8km between Celje and Celjska Koca are by no means flat. The first 10km are for the powerful specialists but then the climbing hostilities start as the final 6.8km are almost all uphill. First there’s a 1.5km climb with a 16% section and then a short, flat section leads to a climb that averages 6.4%. The final part of the stag is a long, gradual rise.

 

The stage has a pretty interesting mix as the specialists can make a difference in the first part while the climbers should come to the fore in the second part. The climbs are too tough for the big engines to win the stage but the pure climbers will lose too much time in the first part. This means that it’s a great stage for stage race specialists who will battle it out for the stage win and precious seconds in the final fight for the overall win.

 

 

 

 

Stage 4

In the Tour de Slovenie, the battle for the GC has usually been decided before the final day which has often been for the sprinters and it should be no different in 2016. The final 179.1km stage between Rogaska Slatina and Novo Mesto is the easiest of the race as there are no major climbs on the menu. After a flat start, the riders will tackle three small category 3 climbs at the midpoint and then they will head along flat roads to Novo Mesto where the will end the stage by doing three laps of a flat 5km circuit.

 

Novo Mesto has hosted a stage every year and mostly the city has welcomed the riders on the final day. Almost every time it has been a day for the sprinters and with a strong field of sprinters gathered in Slovenia, there is no chance that the race won’t end with a big bunch kick to find out who’ll follow the three most recent winners Brett Lancaster (2013), Elia Viviani (2014) and Marko Kump (2015) as the fastest guy in Novo Mesto.

 

 

 

The favourites

The Tour de Slovenie is always a very hard race to predict as most of the favourites are coming from the Giro. It’s always a big question mark how everyone has digested the strains of a grand tour and it makes it a bit of a lottery when they line up for their next race so close to the end of the three-week race. It’s a bit of a hit-and-miss for most of the contenders and this should make the race a very open affair.

 

The race has traditionally been decided in the queen stage as the flat time trial hasn’t made too much difference. This year the TT is longer and harder and should play a much bigger role. However, it’s a very tough course which should suit the climbers pretty well and it is very likely to be dominated by the GC riders. On the other hand, the first part is completely flat so there is little doubt that the more powerful climbers will have a big advantage compared to the pure mountain goats.

 

One of the riders coming from the Giro is Rein Taaramae. The Estonian had always tried to time his form for a peak in the third week and this definitely worked very well. He was a very loyal domestique for Zakarin until the Russian crashed out and then rode to an amazing stage win in the final big mountain stage. There is no doubt that he finished the race in very good condition and this should set him well up for this race.

 

However, Taaaramae is one of the most inconsistent riders in the peloton and you never know what version you will get. He can be really poor or excellent like he was when he enjoyed a golden run of form last summer, winning both the Vuelta a Burgos and the Arctic Race of Norway. If he has his best legs, he will be one of the best climbers and among the GC riders, he is one of the best time triallists too, especially on a mixed course like this. As everything suggests that he ended the Giro in very good form, the Estonian is our favourite to win the race.

 

His biggest rival could very well be Diego Ulissi. Like Taaaramae, the Italian ended the Italian grand tour really well as he was in almost every attack in the final mountain stages. He is a former winner of this race and has won on the final climb of the queen stage so he knows what to expect. He is not a TT specialist bu he has always done very good TTs in Slovenia and on a hilly course he can be really excellent like he was when he finished second in the Giro TT in 2014. We won’t be surprised if he wins the time trial and then it will be all about how he handles the queen stage. He is more of a puncheur than a climber though so he may suffer a bit compared to the best climbers. However, he can dig extremely deep on such climbs and if he can do a good TT and maybe pick up some bonus seconds in some intermediate sprints, he will be hard to beat here.

 

Alexander Foliforov delivered the biggest surprise of the entire Giro when he won the mountain time trial. He was still riding well in the third week so he has probably finished the race well. It was his first grand throu so nobody knows how he will handle it but usually young riders benefit massively from getting through their first three-week race. If he has the Giro legs, he will be one of the best in the queen stage. The TT will be a problem but as half of it is uphill he could actually do pretty well as mountain TTs are his specialty.

 

Local hero Janez Brajkovic leads the national team and is former winner of this race. However, he hasn’t been at his best for several years and he didn’t shine in California and the Tour of the Gila. He was not far off the pace though so the form is not too far away and if he has improved since then, he should be good here. Last year’s Abu Dhabi Tour proved that he still has it. On paper, the TT should be a big advantage but unfortunately he has not done a good TT for several years and it may now be one of the chinks in his armour.

 

Orica-GreenEDGE claim that they are not here for the GC but it would be stupid not to test former Tour de l’Avenir runner-up Jack Haig. It has been a tough start as a pro for the Australian but he finally showed his potential at the Dauphiné where he was 20th in the first mountain stage. This proves that the form is great and he will be one of the best climbers. The TT will be a disadvantage but he should do reasonably well on the hilly course.

 

This is a chance for young Gianni Moscon to lead Sky. The Italian has had an impressive professional debut and has been up there in the mountains and the classics. When he last got his own chance, he was on the podium at Coppi e Bartali and he has even achieved decent results while working for the team. He is not a pure climber but should be able to do well and he is a good time triallist on a hilly course like this.

 

Androni missed out on Giro selection so they will be eager to prove themselves in the Tour de Slovenie which must be a big goal for them. They have three cards to play for the GC: Egan Bernal, Rodolfo Torres and Franco Pellizotti. The latter has been riding poorly all year so we don’t have much confidence in him. Torres has never reached the great level he had in 2015 but he is definitely a strong outsider if he can rediscover those legs.

 

However, their best card is Bernal. The 19-year-old has emerged as one of the greatest climbing talents and we have been constantly impressed by his performances. He was one of the best in the Coppi e Bartali where a stupid crash destroyed his chances in the queen stage. He has been a bit inconsistent but if he is at 100%, he will be very strong in the TT. Unfortunately, he will probably lose too much time in the TT to win the race.

 

Damiano Cunego is also coming from the Giro where he rode well in the first two weeks. However, he was clearly tired at the end and it is hard to imagine that he is already back at 100%. On the other hand, his performances in the Giro showed that he can still be competitive so you can definitely not rule him out here.

 

Pawel Poljanski gets a rare chance to lead Tinkoff and he has the climbing skills to do well. Unfortunately, he seemed to be very tired at the end of the Giro and the TT will be a big problem for him.

 

Radoslav Rogina is a former winner of the race and you can never rule the veteran Croatian out. This year he has proved his class in the Tour of Croatia where he was one of the best climbers. This race is a big goal for him so he will be on fire. The TT will be a big problem though and it will be hard to win in such a classy field. His teammate, the hugely talented Domen Novak should also do well and has shown great form recently.

 

Bora-Argon 18 have Jose Mendes and Gregor Mühlberger. The former has shown the best form, most recently in the Tour of Norway and should have become even stronger as he has come back from injury. However, he is not good enough to win the race.

 

Finally, Lars Petter Nordhaug and Pavel Kochetkov deserve a mention. The latter will be ready to take over if Taaramae fails but unlike his captain he was very tired at the end of the Giro. Nordhaug is fresh but he is not a pure climber so the race is likely to be too hard.

 

***** Rein Taaramae

**** Diego Ulissi, Alexander Foliforov

*** Janez Brajkovic, Jack Haig, Gianni Moscon, Egan Bernal, Damiano Cunego

** Pawel Poljanski, Radoslav Rogina, Rodolfo Torres, Jose Mendes, Franco Pellizotti, Lars Petter Nordhaug, Pavel Kochetkov, Domen Novak

* Jure Golcer, Floris De Tier, Gregor Mühlberger, Gianfranzo Zilioli, Alessandro Bisolti. Omar Fraile, Enrico Barbin, Alessio Taliani, Iuri Filosi, Antonio Santoro, Matteo Rabottini, Davide Mucelli

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