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Will Adrien Petit take his first win for Direct Energi at Africa's biggest bike race?

Photo: A.S.O.




17.01.2016 @ 17:32 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The globalization of cycling means that Asia, Oceania, South America and North America now all have major stage races that attract some of the biggest WorldTour teams. The development may still not have reached Africa but one of the events on the continent stands out. For several years, the Tropicale Amissa Bongo in Gabon has formed a key part of the preparation for some of the biggest French teams and even though the 2016 edition has failed to attract a single WorldTour team, it is high caliber race that deserves its status as the best cycling race in Africa.


While African riders are gradually starting to have an impact on the European cycling scene with the emergence of the likes of Daryl Impey, Louis Meintjes, Reinardt Janse van Rensburg, Merhawi Kudus, Daniel Teklehaimanot and Natnael Berhane, the continent still hasn’t been able to establish a race that has managed to attract the interest of the best teams. However, the racing scene is growing and several countries have national tours, with ASO even being involved in the Tour du Faso in Burkina Faso.


One event stands above the rest. Since 2006, the Tropicale Amissa Bonga has been held in Gabon and it is the only African race that has been registered as a 2.1 race on the UCI calendar. Hence, it is the only race that is allowed to field WorldTour teams and the race has always been able to present some of the best French teams.


The race has usually been held in January where it has served as a perfect preparation race for those teams who have escaped the European cold and had the chance to do some racing kilometres under very little media attention and in good weather conditions. The rest of the field has mainly been made up of African national teams but they have had a hard time competing with the European professionals and it is no wonder that the list of winners is dominated by Europeans. FDJ was the major force in the first four years as Jussi Veikkanen, Frederic Guesdon, Lilian Jegou and Matthieu Ladagnous were the first four winners. Since then, Europcar have taken over the reins with 5 wins in a row as Anthony Charteau won in 2010, 2011 and 2012 before Yohann Gene and Natnael Berhane continued their domination in 2013 and 2014. Last year was a bit of a breakthrough for Africa though as Rafaa Chtioui came away with the overall victory. Furthermore, the Moroccan riders have been able to challenge the Europeans, with Adil Jelloul finishing on the podium in 2011 and 2012 and Soufiane Haddi being runner-up in 2013, and Algerian Abdelkader Belmokhtar was third last year.


In 2013, the organizers moved the race to a May slot but that change didn’t do anything good to the race as most of the big teams were too busy to attend the African race. In 2014, it was back at its usual January date but last year the organizers made another experiment by moving it to February. Now it is again back in January and this has definitely boosted the field that will again be led by two major French teams.


Direct Energie – the former Europcar team that has had so much success here – will make a welcome return and go into the race with a strong line-up. Fortuneo-Vital Concept – formerly known as Bretagne – will also be back after a very successful 2015 edition. The third pro continental team will be the Brazilian Funvic team while Bike Aid and Skydive represent the continental category. The rest of the field is made up of national teams from Africa.


The course

The Tropicale Amissa Bongo has never been a very hilly race and it usually offers plenty of opportunities for the sprinters. If it had been a European race, the terrain would probably not have been hard enough to make much of a selection and the race would probably have been dominated by the fast finishers. However, the European teams have often been able to blow the race apart in the harder stages, meaning that climbers like Natnael Berhane and Anthony Charteau have been able to win an event whose course doesn’t really seem to suit their characteristics.


Last year the organizers introduced two major novelties. The race started in the eastern part of the country which is hillier than the areas that have traditionally been visited by the race. Secondly, the organizers have included a team time trial on the penultimate day but due to unexpected circumstances, it didn’t count for the overall classification. The hilly opening stage created some differences and it was Chtioui who rode to a solo win. As the rest of the race was dominated by sprinters, he was able to defend his position at the top of the leaderboard.


This year the organizers won’t return to the Eastern part of the country and it is a bit less hilly. There will be no team time trial but instead the organizers have introduced a short 4km time trial that will play a key role in the GC. The road stages have a mix of the usual undulating terrain and flat finishes.


The race kicks off with a 146km stage from Kango to Lambarene. It is mostly flat but gets hiller near the end. Notably, it includes a 1300m climb inside the final 3km before it descends to the flat final 500m. Stage 2’s 105 flat kilometres should be for the sprinters.


Stage 3 is another mostly flat affair but again the terrain gets harder in the finale. There are 2 climbs inside the final 30km of the 130km from Lambarene to Ndjole, with the final summit coming just 5.1km from the finish. The finishing straight is slightly uphill. Stage 4 brings the race to Cameroun and is up or down almost all day but the climbs are all very short. However, the final 500m are all uphill at a gradient of more than 5%.


Stage 5 has a very similar terrain and includes a categorized climb just 2.4km from the finish. However, the ascents are again all very short. The 4km flat time trial comes on the penultimate stage and then the race ends with a  flat circuit race in Libreville.









The favourites

The Tropicale Amissa Bongo has usually been a race that is decided by seconds and has suited fast riders who can make it into the small groups that may get clear on some of the hillier days. Anthony Charteau may have won the race thrice despite not being known for his fast finish and it is definitely possible for a strong rider to make a decisive solo move from a small group in one of the hard stages. That’s what Rafaa Chtioui did last year. However, in this kind of race, a fast sprint is definitely no disadvantage and bonus seconds are usually crucial.


Most of the stages are likely to be decided in bunch sprints but this year the organizers have included more climbs in the finales and several uphill sprints. This should make for more animated finales where classics riders and puncheurs can make a difference. Furthermore, the time trial will of course be crucial. At just four kilometres, the time gaps won’t be big but it offers a big chance to create time gaps in a race where gaps are traditionally relatively rare. Overall the race seems to suit a puncheur that can do well in the explosive finales and do a good time trial.


With most of the field being made up of African national teams, fourt teams should be far stronger than the rest and it is very hard to imagine that the winner will not come from Direct Energie, Fortuneo-Vital Concept, Funvic or Skydive Dubai. However, those four teams all have genuine winner candidates without any obvious favourite and as there is no big time trial specialist at the start, the race will be a very open affair. Furthermore, it is the season debut for all the main riders and so it is always hard to know how they are going.


As said, Direct Energie have traditionally dominated the race and they will be keen to make up for last year’s failure. Thomas Voeckler spearheads the team but he doesn’t really have the speed for the explosive finales. Instead, the race seems to be tailor-made for new signing Adrien Petit. He will mainly act as lead-out man for Bryan Coquard this year but in Africa he will get his own chance. He is no pure sprinter but excels on short, punchy climbs. Furthermore, that explosiveness has allowed him to do well in prologues. In 2015 he won the Tour de Luxembourg prologue and he should do well in the time trial. With a strong team at his side, uphill and flat sprints and a short time trial, he seems to be suited to the race. It all depends on form at this time of the year but if he has prepared well, he is our favourite.


Fortuneo-Vital Concept have numerous cards to play. Their best option is probably Anthony Delaplace who is likely to be the best time triallist in the race. The Frenchman is no sprinter but he has a decent punch, especially in these kinds of hilly finales. He is very strong in undulating terrain and is a real strongman who is certain to make the selection if things get tough and he has had good winter training. If he can keep up with the faster guys in road stages, he can win the race overall by doing a good time trial.


Skydive are without defending champion Rafaa Chtioui. Instead, they go into the race with an in-form Andrea Palini who rode very well in Jelajah Malaysia and Tour of Al Zubarah in December. Alongside Yauheni Hutarovich, he is probably the fastest sprinter in this race and he should be able to pick up lots of bonus seconds. There is a risk that some of the finales will be too hard for him but he is not too bad on shorter hills. If he can keep up with the best there and limit his losses in the time trials, a good haul of bonus seconds could see him come away with the win.


Funvic may not be the best-known team in the race but they have numerous cards to play. Unlike the Europeans, their many Brazilians have had perfect training conditions and can be expected to be at a very high level already at this point of the year. One of them is Magno Nazaret who is one of the best Brazilian time triallists and the reigning national champion. He is definitely not a sprinter but he climbs reasonably well. If his team can protect him in the road stages, he will be ready to strike in the time trial. Another good candidate for the team is former WorldTour rider Pablo Urtasun. The Spaniard is fast in a sprint, especially if the finale is a bit undulating. He will lose time in the time trial but can limit his losses on such a short course.


At this time of the year, form is the key to success. Francisco Mancebo is no longer a grand tour star but he is riding consistently well everywhere. He recently won the Jelajah Malaysia overall so there is no doubt that he is at a high level. This kind of explosive race doesn’t suit a diesel engine like Mancebo but he could very well be the strongest rider in the race. If anyone is able to make a difference like Chtioui did in 2015, it is definitely Mancebo.


One of the fastest sprinters in the race is Yauheni Hutarovich who won numerous stages last year. The hilly finales don’t really suit him though and he will probably lose too much time in the time trial to come out on top. However, if he can make it a clean sweep in the bunch sprints, bonus seconds could be enough to come out on top. His teammates Steven Tronet and Armondo Fonseca are tailor-made for the punchy finales but none of them are usually in very good condition at this time of the year and they are both poor time triallists.


Yohann Gene is a former winner of the race but he is no longer as fast as he once was. He is likely to ride in support of Petit but if the latter is not in his best form, Gene will be the lead sprinter. However, it will be hard for him to beat the faster guys in the sprints and he is not a great time triallist.


If one of the African riders is going to deliver a surprise, it will probably be Skydive’s Soufiane Haddi or Moroccan Salah Eddine Mraouni. Mouhssine Lahsaini, Abdelkader Belmokhtar, Essaid Abelouache, Azzedina Lagab and Janvier Haddi are also outsiders but all the African riders will have a hard time in the time trial.


***** Adrien Petit

**** Anthony Delaplace, Andrea Palini

*** Magno Nazaret, Pablo Urtasun, Francisco Mancebo

** Yauheni Hutarovich, Steven Tronet, Armindo Fonseca, Yohann Gene, Soufiane Haddi, Salah Eddine Mraouni

* Thomas Voeckler, Flavio Cardoso, Mouhssine Lahsaini, Abdelkader Belmokhtar, Essaid Abelouache, Azzedina Lagab, Janvier Haddi



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