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.
The race series has always had one day with a significant amount of climbing that has allowed the Ardennes specialists, climbers and stage races to come to the fore. That race has often been known as Trofeo Serra de Tramuntana and that is again the name of third race of the 2016 edition of the event.
While the first and second races were changed significantly compared to last year, the hardest race includes the same second half as in 2015 when Alejandro Valverde took a memorable solo win after attacking from afar. There is barely a metre of flat in the race which zigzags its way through the hilly northwestern part of the country. At 143.9km, it’s a short race that brings the riders from the coastal city of Port de Soller to the finish in nearby Deia.
After 4.4km of racing, the riders go up the category 2 Coll de Soller (7.8km, 5.4%) before a short descend leads to the two-step category 3 climb of Doll den Claret (10.3km, 2.4%). The descent and a rare flat section will bring the riders to the bottom of the category 2 Coll d’Honor (6.1km, 5.2%) from where the race is identical to last year.
That climb is followed by the final flatter section of the race and then it’s time for the big finale. The hostilities start with 49.9km to go when the riders hit the category 2 Coll de sa Batalla (8.6km, %) and then they climb the final part of the top of the famous category 2 Coll de Puig Major whose summit comes just 24.8km from the finish. From there, they descend to the city of Soller before they tackle the final challenge, the category 3 Coll den Bleda (4.1km, 6.3%) whose summit is located 5.2km the finish. A shorts descent leads the final 2.4km that are slightly rising.
Last year Valverde rode to a solo win while it was Michal Kwiatkowski making a similar performance in 2014. In 2013 Valverde won a 4-rider sprint while the race was cancelled due to snowfall in 2012.
A few years ago, this race was cancelled due to snowfall in the hills but that will definitely not be the case tomorrow. The clouds that appeared this afternoon will be present in the morning but they will slowly disappear and it should be pretty sunny at the end of the race. The maximum temperature at the finish will be 13 degrees but it will be much colder in the hills.
There will barely be any wind, with just a very light breeze blowing from a northwesterly direction. That means that the riders will mostly have a crosswind but there will be head- and tailwind sections too. There will be a headwind on the penultimate climb and a crosswind on the final part to the top of the Puig Major. Then it will be a crosswind in the final part of the race.
Gianluca Brambilla completed an excellent solo ride to win today’s Trofeo Andratx which turned out to be way too hard for the sprinters. As we had predicted, the uncertainty regarding the toughness of the course would make for a fast start and the creation of the big 36-rider breakaway forced Dimension Data to chase hard all day. This made for a very fast race and that turned out to be way too much for the likes of Greipel. Instead, it was a select group of classics riders and climbers that survived the climbing but they were unable to bring a very strong Brambilla back.
The race proved that most of the big names are in great condition and ready to race and this sets the scene for a fantastic show in the hardest race of the series. The tough course barely has any flat sections and this means that it will be extremely hard to control the race and should set the scene for a selective affair. Tomorrow there will be no room for the sprinters.
The climbs in the third race will be a lot longer but there are still no real mountains and none of them are extremely steep. History shows that the race is usually dominated by the Ardennes specialists and climbers but even some cobbled specialists have done well in this race. At this time of the year, they are usually at a pretty advanced level compared to the better climbers and this has made it possible for them to achieve great results. However, the race has usually been too hard for most of them.
Last year’s race had a very aggressive and tough start and this created a big 25-rider break after 40km of racing. Race winner Alejandro Valverde was already part of that group and would go on to escape before completing a solo ride of more than 30km.
Tomorrow the start to the stage will be even harder and even though there won’t be the same windy conditions, we can expect a brutal and very aggressive opening phase. Like last year the favourites will have to be on their toes right from the beginning and we could see some of them join the early moves like Valverde did 12 months ago. At the top of the first climb, the peloton is likely to have exploded to pieces and the break that ultimately gets clear will definitely be a strong one.
There is no doubt that Valverde has his eyes on a second consecutive victory and former winner Michal Kwiatkowski is also extremely motivated after today’s second place. Movistar and Sky both have very strong teams in this race and it will be up to them to control things if they don’t have potential winners in the early break. They will watch each other closely and either both of them will have strong cards in the early move or none of them will have.
If Sky, Movistar and Etixx-QuickStep are all confident in the break, the early move has a chance. However, history shows that Movistar usually back Valverde fully and they are likely to do so again tomorrow. If the Spanish champion is not in the break, they will probably control things and set the scene for a battle between the favourites on the final three climbs.
Coll de Sa Batalla and Puig Major will be the place for the best climbers to make their moves and we are likely to see a small group of favourites escape at this point – maybe even a solo rider. The descent is difficult but most likely the group will decide the race on the final climb which is pretty steep. If no one is able to make the difference, we could see an uphill sprint from a handful of riders but history shows that this race is usually won with a solo move. In any case, this race will be decided by the in-form Ardennes specialists.
It is hard to look beyond Alejandro Valverde as the big favourite. The Spaniard is always in magnificent condition at this time of the year and he will be motivated for a repeat win. He was only 8th in today’s race but tomorrow is definitely his big goal. He has usually been the strongest rider in this race and that is likely to be the case again tomorrow.
With the Izagirre brother, Dayer Quintana, Jose Herrada and Giovanni Visconti at his side, he is supported by the strongest team in the race. He is likely to have some company in the finale and this will make it easier for him to control things after the two hardest climbs. Only Kwiatkowski can really hope to possibly beat him in this kind of uphill sprint but usually Valverde is the fastest. With the best teams, great form and a deadly sprint, Valverde can win from almost every scenario and will be the man to beat.
Michal Kwiatkowski will be his biggest rival. A second place in his first race for Sky proves that the form is good and Sky sports director Servais Knaven has done nothing to hide that the Pole is in great form. 12 months ago he was aiming for a slower start but this year it seems that he aims to repeat the successful 2014 formula that made him the rider of the early season. That year he rode to a solo win in this race and if he has the same kind of form, it will be hard even for Valverde to follow him. He is a great climber, a fabulous descender and a strong sprinter and can win both with a solo move and from a small group.
Tiesj Benoot may be mostly known for his skills on the cobbles but he is actually a great climber too. In the Eneco Tour, he proved that he can mix it up with the best on this kind of climbs and he was in the mix in this race 12 months ago. In his second year at the pro level, he is probably even stronger and that makes him extremely dangerous. He rode really well in today’s race and has a fast sprint to finish it off.
Tom-Jelte Slagter had a fabulous start to his 2013 season when he won the Tour Down Under and this proves that he can be firing at all cylinders at this time of the year. Last year he was set back by knee injuries but with a strong attack in the finale of the opening race, he showed that the form is good. He skipped today’s race and will be fresher than some of his rivals. He is strong on these climbs and he has the punch to win in an uphill sprint.
Zdenek Stybar is not a climber but as a former winner of the Eneco Tour, he has proved that he can do well on this kind of climbs. He was third in today’s race and attacked in the finale of the opener so the form is its usual excellent self. He won’t be able to drop the likes of Valverde and Kwiatkowski on the climbs but Etixx-QuickStep are likely to have numbers in the finale. Stybar can both make a move on the descents or the flats or come out on top in a sprint. He is likely to have Gianluca Brambilla at his side and the Italian has showed that his form is amazing. Like Stybar, he is a fabulous descender and has a solid uphill sprint.
Trek will be backing Bauke Mollema in this race. Today’s course was too easy for the Dutchman who is usually strong at this time of the year. He is one of the best climbers in the race and has flown a bit under the radar in the battle between Movistar, Sky and Etixx-QuickStep. He is strong in this terrain and fast in a sprint.
Sky and Movistar can both play more cards than their leaders and if one of their lieutenants get into the right move, they will be allowed to finish it off. Giovanni Visconti, Lars Petter Nordhaug, Leopold König and the Izagirre brothers could benefit from such a scenario as they are all in great form and suited to this course.
Today Dimension Data worked hard for Edvald Boasson Hagen but left the race empty-handed. He messed it up in the sprint and admitted not to have the legs. That means that it will be hard for him to follow the best climbers but on paper the race suits him down to the ground. He is always pretty strong at this time of the year and if he is still there at the finish, he will definitely be a contender in a sprint.
Tim Wellens has done well in this race in the past and he was already active in today’s race. He is definitely one of the best climbers in the race and should be close to the front. However, most of the favourites are faster than him in a sprint do he probably needs to escape to take the win.
If you are looking for surprises, keep an eye on Gregor Mühlberger, Angel Madrazo, Nicolas Edet, Maxime Bouet, Hugh Carthy, Vegard Staeke Laengen, Serge Pauwels, Eduard Prades and Garikoitz Bravo
***** Alejandro Valverde
**** Michal Kwiatkowski, Tiesj Benoot
*** Tom-Jelte Slagter, Gianluca Brambilla, Zdenek Stybar
** Bauke Mollema, Tim Wellens, Fabio Felline, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Giovanni Visconti, Lars Petter Nordhaug
* Gorka Izagirre, Ion Izagirre, Leopold König, Maxime Bouet, Matteo Trentin, Angel Madrazo, Nicolas Edet, Gregor Mühlberger
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