After two near-misses, John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin) finally got that elusive first victory of the 2016 season when he came out on top in a huge clash between the Milan-Sanremo champions on the final stage of the Arctic Race of Norway. With a perfectly timed sprint, he managed to pass Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) and Arnaud Demare (FDJ) on the uphill finishing straight to finish off perfect work from his teammates while Gianni Moscon (Sky) finished safely to take the overall win ahead of Stef Clement (IAM) and Oscar Gatto (Tinkoff).
After his great 2015 season, John Degenkolb had huge goals for 2016. However, his focus had to change in the most dramatic manner when a big training crash in January almost ended his career.
Degenkolb nearly lost his finger but he quickly turned his attention back to the bike. After a long recovery, he made his comeback on May 1 at the Rund um den Finanzplatz and a few weeks later he contested his first sprints at the Tour of California.
However, Degenkolb was from his usual level in his first races and when he also struggled at the Dauphiné and the first part of the Tour de France, people started to question whether he would ever return to his former level. He showed signs of progress towards the end of the Tour though and this made him confident that he was back on track.
This week Degenkolb has finally proved that he is close to his former level. The German has been sprinting excellently at the Arctic Race of Norway. Only a gear problem prevented him from winning the first stage and he was only beaten by Danny Van Poppel on stage 2 in a photo finish.
Degenkolb still had one shot in today’s final stage which was expected to suit the sprinters and finally things came together for the German star. Following an excellent performance from the Giant-Alpecin team, he beat Alexander Kristoff and Arnaud Demare in a close sprint between the three latest Milan-Sanremo winners.
The other big winner was Gianni Moscon who never had any trouble in the hectic stage. He finished safely with the bunch and so secured a breakthrough overall victory.
After yesterday’s queen stage, the sprinters were expected to be back in action on the final stage which brought the riders over 193km from a spectacular start on the Arctic Circle in Rana Kommune to a finish in the big city of Bodø. The first part was mainly descending but then the riders faced the category 1 climb of Ljøsenhammeren (10.7km, 4.9%) that they already tackled in the finale of the first stage, albeit from a different side. Then the category 2 climbs of Enge (3.1km, 3.2%) and Kvikstadheia (3.2km, 8.5%) followed in quick succession but the final 77km were relatively flat. The riders crossed the finish line for the first time with 28.5km to go and then the rest of the stage consisted of three laps of a 9.5km circuit. It included the small climb of Kleivaveien and there was an intermediate sprint at the top on every lap. The riders reached the top for the final time with 6.5km to go and then a slightly downhill section led to the flat finale.
As forecasted, the riders had fantastic sunny weather when they gathered for the start on the Arctic Circle Sam Bennett (Bora-Argon 18) who has been ill, was the only to stayat the hotel and skip the last stage.
As expected, it was a crazy early phase with numerous attacks and for a long time, it was impossible for anyone to get clear. At one point 13 riders, Ruslan Tleubayev (Astana), Johann Van Zyl (Dimension Data), Haavard Blikra (Coop-Østerhus), Andrew Fenn (Team Sky), Max Kanter (Giant-Alpecin), Tom Van Asbroeck (LottoNL -Jumbo), Paul Voss (Bora-Argon 18), Sylvain Chavanel (Direct Energie), Simone Antonini (Wanty), Bert Van Lerberghe (Topsport Vlaanderen), Pete Williams (One Pro), Trond Trondsen (Sparebanken Sør) and Torstein Træen (Ringeriks-Kraft), got an advantage and it developed into a fierce battle. For a long time the gap was stable at 15-20 seconds, but as the peloton started to win the battle, Chavanel, Antonini, Williams and Van Asbroeck rode away from their companions. After 32km of racing, they had an advantage of 10 seconds while the rest of the group was brought back.
With Van Asbroeck in the break, Bora-Argon 18 could not let them go since Andreas Schillinger had his eyes on the mountains jersey and therefore Bora-Argon 18 had to chasehard. For a long time, the lead was approximately 20 seconds, but finally the German team gave up, and it quickly went out to 2.40. However, it was the maximum they would get, and when they hit the Ljøsenhammeren climb, their lead was again down to 2.05.
As soon as the peloton hit the climb, Philippe Gilbert (BMC) attacked and the peloton exploded completely. Suddenly, a 30-40-rider group with rider like Paul Voss (Bora-Argon 18), Daniel Oss, Amael Moinard, Michael Schär (BMC), Odd Christian Eiking (FDJ) and Ben Swift (Sky) had gone clear and the peloton was split into several groups. Van Asbroeck was the first at the top of the climb, followed by Carl Fredrik Hagen (Sparebanken) and Moinard while the peloton arrived almost one minute later.
Oss, Schär and Voss almost single-handedly kept the break alive and since it was a very dangerous situation for the sprint teams, a great alliance was formed. Trek, Astana, Dimension Data, Giant-Alpecin and Katusha chased full gas with the likes of Gregory Rast, Boy Van Poppel, Laurens De Vreese, Johann Van Zyl, Songezo Jim, Soren Kragh, Max Kanter, Viacheslab Kuznetsov and Sven Erik Bystrøm. It was a tremendous battle for several kilometers, but slowly the peloton got the upper hand and the gap started to go.
With exactly 100km to go, the break was brought back and immediately, Voss, Schär and Moinard went again. Swift followed the move but the peloton responded immediately and made sure that they were brought back. Instead, Carl Fredrik Hagen (Savings Bank) countered. He was soon joined by Marco Marcato (Wanty) and a Fortuneo Vital Concept-rider, and the trio hit the next climb with a slight advantage.
Marcato set a high pace which the Fortuneo rider couldn’t follow and he fell back to Andreas Schillinger (Bora-Argon 18) and Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) who chased. Philippe Gilbert (BMC), Swift and Lars Boom (Astana) also tried, and together with Oscar Gatto (Tinkoff) and Björn Thurau (Wanty) they joined the three chasers.
The strong chase group was brought back and instead Boom and Oss attacked again. They were joined by a small group that included Martin Elmiger (IAM), Laurens De Vreese (Astana), Floris De Tier (Topsport Vlaanderen), Nikolay Trusov (Tinkoff) and Boy Van Poppel (Trek) and the group was not far behind the front duo when Hagen won the KOM sprint ahead of Marcato and Oss. Moments later, they made the junction.
The group was obviously too dangerous for Katusha, who had to chase hard with Rein Taaramäe. Also Sky gave a hand, and they managed to bring the group back with 91km to go. Kristoffer Halvorsen (Joker) countered immediately and he got a small gap. Swift brought him back but that did not mean that Joker gave up. The Norwegian team was very active in the subsequent attacks.
Finally, Anders Skaarseth (Joker) managed to create a group that also included Marcus Burghardt (BMC), Floris De Tier (Topsport Vlaanderen), Karol Domagalski (ONE) and Øivind Lukkedahl (Coop) and when the peloton finally took a breather, they quickly got a lead of 40 seconds as they hit the final 85km. Fabian Wegmann (Stölting) reacted a little too late and he took off in a solo move.
The gap grew to 2.00 before Chavanel and Boom had had enough of the relaxed riding. The pair made an attack when they passed a tunnel, but apparently it was just for fun, and even though it forced the sprint teams to react, it was quickly neutralized.
The gap had gone out to 2.20 when they hit the final climb of the race and after a small natural break for most of the peloton, it was time for Sky to up the pace. Lars Petter Nordhaug hit the front as they tackled the ascent and they slowly brought the gap down to less than two minutes.
Wegmann made the junction before they got to the top where Skaarseth led De Tier and Domagalski over the line without any battle for the KOM points. In the peloton, Voss attacked again and he quickly got a small advantage. However, he soon realized that it was mission impossible and he was brought back when the peloton crested the summit 1.40 behind the leaders.
Things really calmed down and the peloton took the chance to enjoy a small rest following the hectic start. However, very soon the escapees started to ride a lot harder and this forced Nordhaug to ride hard too. The Norwegian brought the gap to 1.20 and then kept it there for a long time.
With 50km to go, the gap had gone out to 1.35 and even though he did an impressive job, Nordhaug could not match the six leaders without any help. He got a welcome hand with 43km to go when Giant-Alpecin put Max Kanter on the front, with the German team targeting victory with John Degenkolb. Trek soon came to the fore too as they put Stijn Devolder on the front and with 40km to go, the gap had already been reduced to 1.25.
Devolder and Kanter were doing all the work and had brought the gap down to 1.05 as they hit the circuit with 32km to go. As they crossed the line for the first time, it was only 55 seconds.
Going up the small climb for the first time, Skaarseth attacked and only Burghardt could follow. The Norwegian was first over the top, winning the intermediate sprint ahead of the German and Domagalski.
De Tier and Domagalski rejoined the leaders and then the quartet pushed the gap out from 35 seconds to 50 seconds. Lukkedahl desperately tried to close the gap while Wegmann had been dropped completely. Th German was brought back with 21km to.
Kanter and Devolder started to lose ground as they completed the first lap. At the second passage of the line, the gap was still 50 seconds and Devolder had now finished his work.
Kanter swung off just as they crossed the line and then Nordhaug again took control. He kept the gap stable as they went up the climb again.
Skaarseth led De Tier and Domagalski over the top to win the second intermediate sprint before Trek again hit the front of the peloton with Gregory Rast and Marco Coledan. Katusha also came to the fore with Sven Erik Bystrøm and the trio worked together to slowly bring the gap down.
At the start of the final lap, the gap was down to just 20 seconds and now Bora-Argon 18 hit the front, working hard for Zakkari Dempster. As they approached the climb, Trek and FDJ lined out their trains, 15 seconds behind the leaders, with Niccolo Bonifazio and Yoann Offredo riding in the wind.
As they hit the climb for the final time, FDJ took complete control with Daniel Hoelgaard. Further up the road, Skaarseth attacked to win the final sprint ahead of Burghardt and De Tier. Domagalski lost a bit of ground but made it back on the descent.
In the peloton, a Joker rider and Vegard Breen (Fortuneo-Vital Concept) attacked and they created the summit with a small advantage over the peloton which was still led by Hoelgaard. The pair approached the leaders but as they finished the descent, their progress stalled and they were caught in no man’s land.
Hoelgaard and Marc Sarreau shared the work for FDJ but they didn’t get much closer to the leaders who worked well together. It wasn’t until Trek put Coledan on the front that the trend changed and the two chasers were brought back.
With 3km to go, Giant-Alpecin lined out their train with Roy Curvers, Max Walscheid, Søren Kragh, Ramon Sinkeldam and Degenkolb and a massive turn from the former ended the day for the break with 2500m to go. Walscheid then took over while Katusha and FDJ fought hard for position behind the German team.
Kragh, Sinkeldam and Degenkolb were first under the flamme rouge, followed by the FDJ pair of Mickael Delage and Arnaud Demare, Danny Van Poppel (Sky), Marco Marcato (Wanty), Jacopo Guarnieri, Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek), Sep Vanmarcke, Moreno Hofland (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Andrea Guardini (Astana) and then Sinkeldam did the lead-out. However, they were passed by Delage and Demare and it was the former who delivered the latter in the perfect position.
Demare started his sprint with Kristoff and Degenkolb on his wheel and the former easily passed the fading Frenchman. However, Degenkolb was even stronger and in a close battle, he just managed to come around to take the win. Kristoff was second and Demare third while Hofland finished very fast to take fourth.
Gianni Moscon finished safely and so took the overall win with a 15-second advantage over Stef Clement. Oscar Gatto was 30 seconds behind in third. Degenkolb also won the points jersey and Tom Van Asbroeck was the best climber. Moscon was of course also the best young rider and Sky just won the teams classification ahead of IAM.
With the Arctic Race of Norway done and dusted, the attention turns to the final of the three big Norwegian stage races, Tour des Fjords which kicks off on August 31.
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