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Sagan may have shown some signs of weakness but on paper, the course suits him extremely well and the climbing shouldn't be too tough to handle for a rider who battled the GC riders on far tougher climbs in Colorado.

Photo: Sirotti


15.09.2013 @ 18:43 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The preparation for the world championships reaches its climax this weekend with the two Canadian WorldTour races Grand Cycliste de Quebec and Grand Prix Cycliste de Montreal. Held on hilly courses over distances of more than 200km, the races and their circuit format offer the perfect opportunity to test the condition a few weeks prior to the battle for the rainbow jersey. With a hilly course in Florence being the scene for the world championships, this is more true than ever for this year's 4th edition of the races and they have attracted their best-ever, star-studded line-up of climbers that are eager to gauge themselves against some of their biggest rivals for the battle in Italy.


For a number of years, it almost appeared as being a certainty that the first North American race on the WorldTour would be the ever-growing and ambitious Tour of California. With UCI eager to globalize the sport and expand the pinnacle calendar to cover races on most continents, it would just be a question of time before the American stage race would put North America on the biggest scene.


However, the Californian race never got the honour of becoming the first event on the continent to join the exclusive club of WorldTour races. Canadian race promoter Serge Arsenault who has a long history of organizing bike races, planned to put Canada in the cycling spotlight by organizing two WorldTour one-day races and in 2009 quickly reached an agreement with the UCI that awarded his races in Quebec and Montreal 5-year licenses as WorldTour events. Despite several European races' year-long request to get onto the biggest calendar, Arsenault's brand-new project got immediate recognition, UCI being eager to spread their WorldTour calendar to a third continent as fast as possible.


The inaugural events were held in 2010 and didn't get overly much attention. For many teams, the long travel to North America was a hard burden at a time when most riders are on their knees and just looking forward to an off-season rest.


That has since changed and the races now have an important, well-deserved and well-timed place on the calendar. Being well-organized one-day races with a distance of more than 200km, their circuit race formats have turned them into the best possible preparation for the world championships for the riders that aren't racing the Vuelta a Espana. Having been set up as "mini world championships", the contenders for the worlds couldn't have wished a better of block racing two weeks prior to the big event and in recent editions, the organizers have attracted a star-studded line-up that surpasses the one seen at many European WorldTour races.


The main disadvantage is of course the long travel to North America. With the Tour of Utah and the USA Pro Challenge being held in the USA in August and the brand-new Tour of Alberta taking place on Canadian soil one week prior to the one-day events, it is, however, now possible to build a solid block of racing consisting entirely of North American races and riders can now make prolonged stays on the other side of Atlantic to prepare for the world championships. That' what riders like Chris Froome, Richie Porte and Peter Sagan have done when they have combined high-altitude racing in Colorado with worlds-like racing in Quebec and Montreal to prepare for the major autumn objective.


This year the races have even gained further popularity and it's hard to find a climber that's not either racing the Vuelta or the Canadian events. Held on hilly circuits in the cities of Quebec and Montreal, they are ones for the riders that excel in the Ardennes classics. With this year's course in Florence being dubbed as the toughest since 1995, no one could wish any better preparation than the Canadian dress rehearsals.


On paper, the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montreal is the harder of the two as the major climb is much more difficult than the ones found two days earlier in Quebec. On the other hand, the major difficulty is located in the first part of the course while the final 10km are all easier and it requires enormous strength to make a solo attack stick all the way to the line. However, the sprinters have nothing to say on this course which is one for the climbers and the Ardennes specialists and a winners list that contains Robert Gesink, Rui Costa and Lars-Petter Nordhaug speaks volumes about the kind of riders that thrive in this race.


Last year Lars-Petter Nordhaug rounded off a breakthrough season with his biggest ever win when he beat Moreno Moser in the uphill sprint. Having made the crucial 25-rider selection on the race's major climb, he launched an attack 5km from the finish, only to be joined by Moser and Alexandr Kolobnev. With the race favourites looking at each other, the podium was decided and Moser had to dig deep to reel in a late attack from Kolobnev, thus allowing Nordhaug to save himself for a final kick to the line. Nordhaug will be back to defend his title as he tries to make amends for what has been a disappointing first season at Belkin while Kolobnev will try to improve on last year's result. However, there will be no Moser this time, the Italian having put his season temporarily on hold due to fatigue.


The course

Like the recent GP Ouest France-Plouay and the Grand Prix Cycliste de Quebec, the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montreal is held entirely on a circuit and so is not too different from a world championships road race. The 12,1km course will be repeated 17 times to add up to a 205,7km race which makes it a tough race but far shorter than the battle for rainbow jersey. The course has two  climbs and a short 500m ramp to the finish on Avenue du Parc.


The race starts at 79m above sea level on the Avendue du Parc near the University of Montreal and the circuit mostly consists of a lap around the large area that hosts that institution. From the start, the riders head down a small 200m descent before taking a left-hand turn onto the circuit's major challenge, the Cote Camilien-Houde. The 1,8km climb has two hairpin bends and a right-hand corner near the top and takes the riders up to 211m of altitude at an average gradient of 8%.


The climb is immediately followed by a long, gradual descent that follows slightly winding roads and leads to the 5km mark. A flat kilometre with three sharp turns brings the peloton to the bottom of the course's second challenge, Cote de la Plytechnique (780m, 6%), that takes it back up to 158m of altitude, has its top at the 6,5km mark and has a 200m section with an 11% gradient. A short, sharp descent leads with some technical corners lead to a flat 8th kilometre. The 9th kilometre is slightly downhill and has two sharp corners but from there the roads are mostly straight and either flat or slightly downhill.


At the 10,6km mark, the riders make a sweeping right-hand turn onto Avenue du Parc and 500m further up the road, they start a small 500m descent. At the end, they make a U-turn to head 580m back up the same road to reach the finish line, the finishing straight having a 4% gradient.


The Cote Camilien-Houde is a really tough climb that rules out any chance for the sprinters and puts the climbers and the Ardennes specialists to the fore. The climb is tough enough to make a difference but  due to its early location, it is difficult for the pure climbers to keep it going all the way to the line as the final 10km are mostly downhill. The Cote de la Polytechnique offer a launch pad for an attack but from its top 5,6km of mainly descending or flat roads remain. A versatile climber with a fast sprint has a good chance to shine on this course.


The racing is usually extremely aggressive and the race very difficult to control. It usually takes some time for the early break to be established and from there, the race follows the traditional scenario with an organized chase where the stronger teams gradually increase the pressure.


However, attacks have a good chance of being successful in this race and so new offensives are often launched from afar. The final 3-4 laps are usually a festival of attacks where groups are being formed, reeled in and new established. The teams of the favourites try to keep things under control and the fierce pace makes it a gradual elimination race. Compared to Quebec, the selection will be much bigger and towards the end of the race, the peloton should be smaller.


In the first edition of the race, Robert Gesink did the trick when he attacked the final time up the climb and rode solo all the way to the finish. In what has been the most selective edition of the race so far, he was chased by a small 5-rider group that had gone clear on the climb while a larger 22-rider group followed a little further behind. The least selective edition was in 2011 when Rui Costa had escaped on his own on the main climb but a rather big group came back together for the finale. Costa, Stefan Denifl and Pierrick Fedrigo slipped clear and decided the race. Last year's edition followed a similar pattern with the decisive group being smaller.


Gesink's performance is likely to be the exception and the two most recent editions are probably more indicative of what we can expect. A few riders may go clear on the climb but some kind of regrouping is likely to take place on the descent. With domestique resources being limited, the final kilometres will be very difficult to control and the stage could very well be decided by a late attack as in a typical breakaway stage in a grand tour. Any rider with a fast finish will need teammates or luck to bring it back together for a small group sprint on the uphill finishing straight.


In this kind of aggressive and uncontrollable final, power, tactical ingenuity, team support and luck are all of importance. You need to be strong to get to the finale but the strongest rider doesn't always win the race.


The weather

The riders were lucky that it almost stayed dry for Friday's race in Quebec and they should be similarly fortunate in Montreal. However, there won't be any chance to see the sun on what should be a very cloudy day. At the start, the temperature is expected to be around 15 degrees and will reach the 20-degree mark later in the afternoon.


It will be a rather windy day in Montreal with the wind coming from a southwesterly direction. This means that the riders will mostly have a headwind on the Camilien-Houde climb and on the subsequent descent. At the 5km mark, the riders will change direction to head into more of a tailwind and they will have a cross-tailwind on the Polytechnique climb. In the final part of the circuit, the wind will gradually turn from a cross-tailwind to a cross-headwind. When the riders have made the U-turn onto the finishing straight, they will have a cross-tailwind for the final sprint.


The favourites

As expected, the Grand Prix Cycliste de Quebec developed into an "all-against-Sagan" event and numerous teams tried to tire out the Cannondale team prior to the finale. The green-clad riders did an impressive job to keep things under control but Sagan still ended up being isolated in the finale. He would probably have wished that Caruso had been able to stay with him a little longer as the Italian hadn't taken many turns on the front. Being left with little support, Sagan tried to create the selection himself and appeared to have everything under control when he bridged across to Van Avermaet but ran out of steam on the uphill finishing straight.


It was a surprising sign of weakness for the talented Slovakian who has set the world on fire with his recent climbing in California and his fabulous prologue in Alberta and it must be a cause for concern as he heads into the Montreal race which is even harder than yesterday's. He can expect to find himself isolated even earlier and it would be a surprise to find any other Cannondale rider than Sagan in the front group after the final passage of the Camilien-Houde climb. At that point, attacks will go thick and fast and it will be extremely difficult to control a race that has never been decided in a sprint.


This makes the race very unpredictable as luck plays a crucial role when it comes to getting into the decisive move that may go away in the finale. If one has to point to a favourite, it must, however, be Sagan. He may have shown some signs of weakness but on paper, the course suits him extremely well and the climbing shouldn't be too tough to handle for a rider who battled the GC riders on far tougher climbs in Colorado. On paper, the uphill finishing straight suits him perfectly and if he is back to his best, he will be very difficult to beat in a sprint.


At this point, yesterday's failure may even be a blessing in disguise. Sagan has shown signs on vulnerability and so more riders may enter the race without a single-minded focus on the Slovakian. This may offer his team more help in the early part of the race and may open up the possibility that he won't have to respond to all attacks himself in the finale. This may allow him to save energy for the sprint finish. Whether such a finish comes to fruition remains to be seen as it requires a certain amount of luck but Sagan remains the man to beat.


Alongside Robert Gesink, the strongest rider in yesterday's race was probably Greg Van Avermaet. The Belgian used his team to tire out Cannondale before launching his own devastating attack on the penultimate climb. Only Sagan could match his acceleration but when things slowed down, more riders joined from behind. Believing that Sagan was the man to beat, he positioned himself on the wheel of the Slovakian and this proved to be a costly mistake. Van Avermaet did a very strong sprint and would probably have won the race if he had positioned himself better.


The Quebec course suits Van Avermaet better than the harder one in Montreal. However, he has survived the climbing in the past and this year he is going better than ever. He is part of what is probably the strongest team in the race and they may play it aggressively while Van Avermaet can focus on the sprint from a select group. An attack on one of the two climbs is probably not in the books for the Belgian who will have gained confidence from yesterday's performance. If Sagan hasn't returned to his best, Van Avermaet will be the favourite on the uphill finishing straight.


It's hard not to mention Robert Gesink who surprised the entire cycling world by taking a sprint win against some very capable sprinters in Quebec. The Dutchman was always present and attentive near the front of the peloton and showed his strength by almost matching the accelerations of the far more explosive riders on the climbs. The longer climbs in Montreal suit him even better and he could very well emerge as the strongest climber the final time up the Camilien-Houde ascent.


With a headwind, it will be difficult for him to repeat his 2010 performance when he rode away from everybody on that climb but by now, everybody knows that he cannot be ruled out in an uphill sprint like the one that's in store. The finishing straight is shorter than it was yesterday and this plays the cards more into the hands of the more explosive riders but Gesink is likely to be more fresh at the end. At the same time, he is a very aggressive rider that is likely to mix it up in the attacks that are bound to occur in the finale.


Rui Costa showed his intentions early in yesterday's race when he asked his Movistar team to join forces with Cannondale in the chase of the early break. The Portuguese did well to finish 5th and confirmed the positive indications he had given in the GP de Fourmies by responding to all late attacks. He would probably have finished even higher if he hadn't dug deep to close down the late attack from Simon Geschke and Niki Terpstra.


While he is going strong, it is, however, evident that he is not in peak condition at the moment. On the other hand, he is clearly on the rise and the harder course suits him better. He is a master in keeping his head calm in a finale and he could very well make it into a successful move late in the race. It's no wonder that he won this race two years ago. The uphill finishing straight suits him well and he has a fast kick if it comes down to a sprint from a small group.


The most impressive rider in yesterday's race was certainly Niki Terpstra. He held off the peloton on his own for more than 10km before being caught by Van Avermaet and Sagan. When most thought that he had burnt his matches, he launched an attack inside the final kilometre before going on o finish 6th in the sprint. If he had raced more conservatively, he may have finished on the podium.


On paper the Montreal course should be too hard for him and he won't be the rider that sets the world on fire on the climbs. With his current condition, he should, however, be able to get back on when the pace slows down and then he will be a danger man. An attack by Terpstra in between the climbs on the final lap when most riders are likely to be isolated, will be lethal. Yesterday, most riders still had domestiques to organize a chase but that will be much harder tomorrow.


Argos-Shimano mostly focused on John Degenkolb in yesterday's race but the final climbs ended up being a little bit too tough for the strong German. Instead, it was one of his compatriots that took up the mantle and represented the Dutch team in the finale. In the Tour of Alberta, Simon Geschke had indicated that he was riding well and yesterday he confirmed the assessment. He was one of the strongest climbers when the repeated attacks were launched in the finale and he even made his own acceleration inside the final kilometre. He is a fast sprinter and it would probably have been wiser for him to wait for the sprint finish but yesterday's performance must have given him a great confidence boost. He will be hard to drop on Sunday's climbs and with his fast finish, he will be a danger man in the finale.


Yesterday Arthur Vichot got plenty of attention. Throughout the entire race, his French champion's jersey was a constant presence at the back of the peloton and few would have expected him to play any role in the race. When Terpstra, Van Avermaet and Sagan had slipped clear, Vichot was, however, one of the first riders to bridge across. Having had a difficult Tour de France, the Frenchman appears to have found his best form just in time for the world championships. He should be able to handle the climbing and he is a very fast sprinter. It was no coincidence that he finished 2nd yesterday. Tomorrow he may improve on that performance.


Finally, we will mention Cadel Evans. Honestly, we didn't have any expectations for the veteran Australian when he lined up in the Tour of Alberta but he was a positive surprise when he finished 4th in the prologue before winning a stage later in the race. Yesterday he performed well on a course that didn't suit him and he will be happy to get into the hillier terrain in Montreal.


As said, BMC has the strongest team in the race and they may have the numbers in the finale. This means that they may send riders into the late moves that are likely to occur while Van Avermaet can save himself for the sprint. Evans is a wily competitor that knows how to capitalize from such an opportunity and he is hard to beat in an uphill sprint. He won the world championships by getting clear late in the race. Tomorrow he may repeat that performance.


***** Peter Sagan

**** Greg  Van Avermaet, Robert Gesink

*** Rui Costa, Niki Terpstra, Simon Geschke, Arthur Vichot, Cadel Evans

** Simone Ponzi, Bjorn Leukemans, Fabian Wegmann, Pieter Weening, Tom-Jelte Slagter, Matti Breschel, Tejay van Garderen, Paul Martens

* Jan Bakelants, Filippo Pozzato, Christophe Riblon, Enrico Gasparotto, Alexey Lutsenko, Alexandr Kolobnev, Tony Gallopin, Chris Froome



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