The waiting time is finally over! Tomorrow the European cycling season kicks off as the riders will head out for the first race in the four-day Challenge Mallorca race series. The four races may be mostly about preparation but their mix of climbing and sprints offer everybody a chance to take the pressure off early in the season by opening the account right from the beginning.
For the second year in a row, one of the most popular preparation events, the four-day race series Challenge Mallorca, will be held one week earlier than it has usually been and so marks the start of the European season which has traditionally been opened at the GP d’Ouverture la Marseillaise in France. At this time of the year, Europe is really not suited to bike racing but the island of Mallorca usually offers reasonable conditions for riders to get their season underway with a challenging mix of four one-day races that offer a bit for everyone.
It is no wonder that the race series is very popular among the teams. Mallorca is a preferred training venue at this time of the year and many teams use the four races as a test of form at the end of their final pre-season training camp. Like most other races at this time of year, the event has been forced to cancel and shorten races in the past but in general, the weather conditions have been favourable. That can’t be said of the economic situation as the series has been fighting hard to survive and on a few occasions, its future has been in doubt. It has been shortened from five to four races but until now, it has managed to remain an important part of the preparation for many teams.
The race series is no stage race as every team is allowed to field a team from which they can choose their line-up for every race. This means that the start lists for the individual races won’t be known until less than 24 hours before the start, with many teams making last-minute decision about who to race where. There is a classification for riders who do all four races but as very few do the entire schedule, it doesn’t carry much prestige. Instead, the riders pick and choose the races that suit them best as the series has a bit for everyone. Traditionally the first two races have been for the sprinters before the riders headed into the mountains for the final two races but like last year the sprint races will bookend the series in 2016.
In the past, the series always started on a Sunday with a criterium in Palma. That race has now been moved to the final day and even though it still finishes on the well-known circuit in the largest city on the island, its nature has slightly changed. The distanced has been increased and now most of it takes place outside the city, meaning that it is hillier than it was in the past. However, it is still a typical sprint race.
This year’s course brings the riders over 161.5km from Playa de Palma to Palma. The first part of the race consists of a loop on the northeastern outskirts of Palma. It is almost completely flat but the riders touch the hillier part of the island when they go up the category 3 Coll de Sa Creu (6.7km, 4.8%). The summit comes just 35.5km from the finish. The first part is descending and then the riders head to the centre of Palma where they will cross the finish line for the first time with 21.8km to go. The final part consists of two laps of the flat, well-known, banana-shaped 10.9km circuit along the coast. The final U-turn comes 2.4km from the finish which is located on a big avenue.
The race has always been decided in a bunch sprint. Matteo Pelucchi won last year’s race while Sacha Modolo was fastest in 2014. Kenny Dehaes came out on top in 2013 and Andrew Fenn won the 2012 race. Robbie McEwan, Gert Steegmans, Philippe Gilbert, Oscar Freire (thrice), Isaac Galvez (thrice), Allan Davis, Erik Zabel and Jeroen Blijlevens are the other previous winners since 1999.
This year the riders have had the best possible conditions for their races in Mallorca and it will even end on a high as Sunday will probably be the best day. It will be bright sunshine all day with a maximum temperature of 18 degrees and there will only be a light wind from a westerly direction. This means that the riders will mainly have a tailwind in the first part and then mainly a headwind as they head towards Palma. On the finishing circuit, the riders will mainly face a crosswind in the final 5km.
Fabian Cancellara proved that he is fired up for his final pro season by delivering a magnificent solo ride in a race that should actually be too hard for him. Using his great descending skills and his power on the flats, he single-handedly held off the combined power of Sky and Movistar which proves that the Swiss has done what he needed to during the winter. He is clearly not lacking in motivation for his final pro year which is evidenced by a performance that is much better than he has usually been capable of at this time of the year.
Cancellara’s win means that Sky and Movistar who were expected to be the main teams in the hills are likely to leave Mallorca empty-handed. The final race of the series may no longer be the criterium that it once was but the mostly flat parcours coupled with great weather conditions mean that it is destined to be a day for the sprinters. Hence, the sprint teams will come back to the fore and we should have a pretty straightforward race.
For many riders, this race series is mainly training so we can again expect a fast start as many riders will be keen to get into the early break. However, Lotto Soudal and Cofidis will be on their toes right from the beginning and will make sure that only a small group gets clear. Those two teams will also be responsible for the chase work, maybe with some assistance from Bora-Argon 18.
The late climb will be the main challenge and it is actually not that easy. There is a solid chance that we will see some late attacks and teams like Etixx-QuickStep and Trek may try to make things hard for the pure sprinters. However, there will be plenty of time to get back and so we should have a full-on bunch sprint on the flat, high-speed circuit in Palma. However, the final climb is hard enough to get rid of Greipel and if Etixx-QuickStep can keep up the pace, it is not totally impossible that a small group will be sprinting for the win.
However, Greipel is clearly in very good condition and he will be the man to beat. On paper he is the fastest rider tin the race and he has by far the best lead-out with Marcel Sieberg-Jurgen Roelandts-Jens Debusschere. They completely dominated the finale of the first race and should again be in a class of their own tomorrow. Furthermore, this kind of power sprint suits Greipel down to the ground so it will be a surprise if the German doesn’t take the win.
His biggest rival will be Nacer Bouhanni who will finally make his debut after skipping the first three races. Compared to last year, his lead-out train is now much more well-drilled and they go into this race with fast riders Rayane Bouhanni, Borut Bozic, Jonas Ahlstrand, Christophe Laporte, Cyril Lemoine and final lead-out man Geoffrey Soupe. That’s a strong line-up but history proves that they have never been able to dominate the finales. However, they won’t be able to challenge Lotto Soudal anyway so it will be all about getting Bouhanni into a good position. He is usually in very good form right from the start of the year and he has the speed to challenge Greipel. Furthermore, he is a very good climber so if the pace is high on the final climb, he may even get the chance to do the sprint from a smaller field that doesn’t include the German.
Sam Bennett was not far off the mark in the first sprint race and he aims to go one better this time around. The Bora-Argon 18 train is trying to integrate Rudiger Selig so they still have some work to do. In the first race, Bennett got lost in the finale and was on his own in the final kilometre. However, this wider road and less hard finale should make it easier to stay together and on paper Bora-Argon 18 have a powerful team. Bennett has won this kind of boulevard sprint in the Tour of Qatar and is extremely fast in such a finale.
In the first races, Etixx-QuickStep were working for Matteo Trentin but he is taking a break. This means that Gianni Meersman will be the protected rider but he is no pure sprinter. Hence, the Belgian team will probably try to make the race hard on the final climb to get rid of the faster riders and this could put Meersman in prime position to go for the win. In a big bunch sprint, it will be much harder. He is usually not fast enough to win that kind of sprint but he can still rely on one of the best trains.
Trek-Segafredo had a perfect day as Cancellara took victory in the hardest race. However, their first sprint on the opening day was a bit of a disaster and they will try to make amends tomorrow. Edward Theuns will get another shot and is usually in good form at this time of the year. He is no pure sprinter but he was on the podium in Scheldeprijs so he knows how to position himself for this kind of sprint.
Ramunas Navardauskas emerged as a great sprinter in 2014 when he finished third on the Champs-Elysees and he was fourth in the first sprint. He was aggressive in the second race and seems to be in very good condition. He is terrible at positioning himself but likes this kind of long drag race and with a wide road, his position will be less important.
Sky will be riding for Andrew Fenn who gets a rare chance to sprint for himself. They have some strong riders to position him but he doesn’t have a real lead-out train and is not fast enough to win this kind of race. Jonas Van Genechten is faster but IAM haven’t brought any real lead-out guys so he will probably lose out due to positioning as it is often the case.
This race is a chance for Filippo Fortin to again prove his worth at the highest level after he had to leave Bardiani a few years ago. He is very fast in this kind of pure bunch sprint but is a bad climber. Hence, it was very encouraging that he was 8th in the first sprint race which indicates that his form is excellent. He should do much better here.
FDJ have two fast riders: Lorrenzo Manzin and Marc Sarreau. They both won races in their neo-pro season and can both do this kind of sprint. The latter was protected in the first race and is probably the faster of the pair. With Sebastien Chavanel and Manzin at his side, he has a decent lead-out.
For other fast riders, keep an eye on Andrea Pasqualon, Youcef Reguigui, Owain Doull and Roman Maikin.
***** André Greipel
**** Nacer Bouhanni, Sam Bennett
*** Gianni Meersman, Edward Theuns, Ramunas Navardauskas
** Andrew Fenn, Filippo Fortin, Jonas Van Gechten, Marc Sarreau
* Andrea Pasqualon, Youcef Reguigui, Owain Doull, Roman Maikin, Lorrenzo Manzin
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