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GRAND PRIX MONTREAL

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14.09.2014 @ 20:44 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

This weekend the preparation for the world championships reaches its climax 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 Ponferrada being the scene for the World Championships, this is again true for this year's 4th edition of the races and they have attracted a star-studded line-up of classics specialists that are eager to gauge themselves against some of their biggest rivals for the battle in Spain.

 

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 block of 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 the Atlantic to prepare for the world championships. Last year riders like Chris Froome, Richie Porte and Peter Sagan did that when they have combined high-altitude racing in Colorado with Worlds-like racing in Quebec and Montreal to prepare for the major autumn objective but this year that strategy has not had the same appeal.

 

The one-day races have remained popular though and it's hard to find a genuine Worlds contender that is not riding either the Vuelta or in Canada. 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 Ponferrada being pretty hard, no one could wish any better preparation than the Canadian dress rehearsals.

 

The races fit perfectly into the anatomy of the second half of the season which is loaded with one-day races. It all kicks off with the Vattenfall Cyclassics and from there the racing just gets tougher and tougher. While the Hamburg race is one for the sprinters, the GP de Plouay suits both classics specialists and fast riders. The Canadian WorldTour races are even tougher and here the sprinters have a very hard time. Instead, the races are for the puncheurs and Ardennes specialists and in Montreal, the climbers may even have a chance to shine.

 

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, Lars-Petter Nordhaug and Peter Sagan speaks volumes about the kind of riders that excel in this race. A decent sprint is a big advantage in this race but as it may turn into a race of attrition, climbers may fancy their chances on this course.

 

Last year Peter Sagan got his revenge from a disappointing showing in Quebec where he had blown up in the finale. While riders like Chris Froome tried to get rid of the Slovakian the final time up the main climb, the Slovakian stayed glued to his main rivals before he launched a searing attack on the final climb. He then dug deep in the final flat section to the finish to take an impressive solo win. Four seconds later, a 10-rider group sprinted for the minor placings, with Simone Ponzi beating local hero Ryder Hesjedal to complete the podium. Having recently abandoned the Vuelta, Sagan won’t be back to defend his title and as Hesjedal is still riding in Spain, the biggest Canadian rider won’t be on the start list either. Ponzi is now riding at the pro continental level and so none of last year’s podium finishers will be back in 2014.

 

The course

It’s very rare for a WorldTour race to be held entirely as a circuit race and that is what makes the Canadian WorldTour races special. Among the races, only the GP Ouest France-Plouay has a similar format but it is exactly this nature that makes them attractive for the Worlds contenders. Furthermore, their hilly nature makes them comparable to a typical Worlds course and this adds further value to the races.

 

As said, the course is unchanged and it will be the same circuit that has been used for the first four editions of the race, meaning that the riders now know what to expect. 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 the 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 with some technical corners leads 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 offers 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. The 2012 edition followed a similar pattern, with the decisive group being smaller. Last year, a highly competitive field with many climbers made it harder and as the dust had settled, only 11 riders remained in contention from where Sagan launched his solo attack.

 

Gesink's and Sagan’s solo performances are likely to be the exception and the two most recent editions are probably more indicative of what we can expect, especially as there are more classics riders than climbers in this year’s field. 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 Canadian WorldTour races usually offer pretty cold conditions for this time of the year and it won’t be any different in 2014. Sunday is forecasted to be a cloudy day and even though it is likely to stay dry, a shower cannot be excluded. The temperature will reach a maximum of just 13 degrees.

 

There will be a moderate wind from a westerly direction which means that the riders will have a headwind up the main climb. They will then turn into a tailwind for the second climb and there will be a tailwind during most of the flat run back to the finish. They will gradually turn into a crosswind and the wind will be blowing from the side on the finishing straight.

 

The favourites

Unlike the GP de Quebec, GP de Montreal will be held on the same course that has been used for the first four editions of the race and so the riders now know what to expect from the race. At a first glance, the race may look like the perfect opportunity for a punchy climber with a fast sprinter. Strong climbing legs are needed to survive the many climbs and with a mostly flat second part of the stage, a sprint finish from a small group seems to be a realistic outcome.

 

However, history has shown that it is very hard to set up a sprint in this race. In fact, it has never come down to a battle from a small group. Robert Gesink and Peter Sagan have both managed to take solo wins by attacking on the climbs on the final lap while in 2011 and 2012, a few riders managed to get clear after the selection had been made on the climbs.

 

A lot of riders want it to come down to a sprint finish from a select group but the past editions have shown that the course is very difficult to control. The climbs cannot be underestimated and usually whittle the group down to 10-15 riders. In such a small group, only a select few are likely to have any teammates at their side and the fast riders could easily be isolated. The long, flat run back to the finish is perfectly suited to attacks and then it all comes down to a combination of timing, legs and luck to make the right move.

 

This year there will be a headwind on the main climb which will make it hard to make a selection and a bigger group than usual may crest the summit. On the other hand, there will be a tailwind on the second climb mostly a tailwind in the flat run back to the finish. This will be an advantage for late attackers who will have an easier time holding off their chasers.

 

To sum it up, the first requirements for a contender in this race are very good climbing skills as the Camilien-Houde is so hard that only Ardennes contenders and climbers will have a chance. That whittles the list of contenders significantly down and they can be split into two groups. One group is made up of riders who hope to win a sprint for a select group while the second group is made up of riders who will benefit from the lack of domestiques to go on the attack. As luck plays a crucial role for riders that have made the selection, the outcome may be a bit harder to predict in Montreal than in Quebec where it usually comes down to an uphill sprint.

 

This year there may be a bigger chance than usual that a small group will sprint for the win. Simon Gerrans goes into the race as the favourite to win in such a scenario and he is surrounded by one of the strongest teams in the race. With Pieter Weening, Simon Yates, Michael Albasini, Jens Keukeleire and Daryl Impey at his side, Gerrans is surrounded by several riders that may still be present deep into the finale.

 

To be in contention, Gerrans first needs to survive the climbs. As an Ardennes specialist, he excels in this terrain and the climbs should not be too tough for him. At the moment, he is building condition for the World Championships where he is expected to lead the Australian team and when he has a goal, he rarely mistimes his condition.

 

He abandoned the Tour de France due to injuries sustained in a crash on the opening day but returned to training at an altitude training camp. Back in competition in the Vattenfall Cyclassics, he surprised himself by sprinting to third in a race that is really too easy for the versatile Australian. Two weeks ago he did the GP de Plouay where he looked strong on the final climb but made a wrong tactical decision by not joining the attacks, saving everything for a sprint finish. Everything suggests that Gerrans is riding strongly at the moment.

 

If he survives the climbs, Gerrans needs to set up a sprint finish and here his strong team comes into play. In Quebec, the team will be keen to make the race hard but in Montreal the course is very selective and so the strategy will probably be to have numbers in the finale. Hence, they may be riding a lot more defensively and it will be key to have several riders in the front group after the final passage of the Camilien-Houde.

 

In Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Pieter Weening played a key role in reeling in the late break and the Dutchman could again be instrumental in setting Gerrans up for a win. He rode strongly in Alberta and should be able to make the selection. If Albasini is riding well, he may also be there in the finale but Yates didn’t seem to be too strong in Alberta. The climbing should be too hard for Keukeleire and Impey but if Gerrans has a couple of teammates at his side to set up a sprint finish on the uphill finishing straight, he will be very hard to beat.

 

In the past, this race has often been too tough for Greg Van Avermaet but last year he showed great improvement by taking fourth. This year he has become a lot stronger. The Belgian has been riding outstandingly all season and doesn’t show any signs of fatigue yet. In the Tour de France, he climbed better than ever before and in the Eneco Tour, he finally took a first season win in the hard stage in the Flemish Ardennes. Since then he has been riding the classics and he was clearly one of the strongest riders in Hamburg and Plouay.

 

This year we feel pretty sure that Van Avermaet will make the selection and then he has a number of options. He is fast in a sprint finish but may have a hard time beating Gerrans. He usually has a very aggressive mindset and so he will probably try to attack in the finale.

Like Gerrans, Van Avermaet is surrounded by a formidable team and he can count on in-form riders like Tejay van Garderen and Ben Hermans. BMC are likely to have numbers in the finale which makes it possible to cover moves or set up a sprint for Van Avermaet. The Belgian can win from both scenarios and being one of the strongest riders at the moment, he is an obvious favourite.

 

World Champion Rui Costa is a dark horse as he has only done very little racing since he was forced out of the Tour de France. In fact, he has only been riding in Plouay where he was up there on the final climb but didn’t respond to the attacks. However, he follows his usual post-Tour schedule which usually sees him arrive in Canada in good condition and history shows that he is always competitive in these races.

 

In fact, he has finished 1st, 6th and 8th in his three participations and so the race obviously suits him. The race is harder in Montreal than in Quebec and so this is his best chance to boost his confidence ahead of the World Championships. We will be pretty surprised if he doesn’t make the final selection and then it is all about making the right decisions.

 

Costa has proved that he is a very wily rider and he knows how the follow the right moves in the finale. Even though he is fast in an uphill sprint, he won’t beat Gerrans and Van Avermaet. Hence, he needs to ride aggressively but if he gets clear with a few companions, his speed may allow him to excel in the uphill dash to the line.

 

Tom Dumoulin was clearly the strongest rider in the Tour of Alberta. He crushed the opposition in the difficult prologue and he was stronger than his rivals on the climbs in the final stage. However, the race was too easy to make a difference and so he lost the race due to bonus seconds.

 

Dumoulin is obviously in very good form and even though he is mostly known as a time triallist, he is actually pretty explosive too. This year he has been climbing outstandingly and this course should suit him pretty well. He proved that in the Eneco Tour where he excelled in terrain that is similar to Montreal’s and he was up there in the Ardennes classics to. If he attacks from the group in the finale, no one will be able to catch him.

 

For some reason, Tony Gallopin has never really excelled in this race but as he proved in the Tour de France, he has taken a massive step up. Nowadays, he is one of the very strongest riders in this terrain and even though he would have preferred the race to be harder, he is an obvious winner candidate.

 

He hasn’t done a lot of racing since the Tour but showed good condition when he was instrumental in setting André Greipel up for a repeat win in the Brussels Cycling Classic. One day later he supported Jonas Vangenechten in his win at the GP de Fourmies, and Lotto Belisol have done nothing to hide that he is in great form.

 

The Belgian team have several cards to play, with Jelle Vanendert and Tim Wellens both likely to ride aggressively. That means that they could have three cards to play when the selection has been made in the finale. This will allow them to cover all moves. In the Tour de France, Gallopin showed that he knows how to time a late attack and hold off a group of chasers. He is very fast in a sprint and even though he may have a hard time beating Gerrans, he will be virtually impossible to beat if he joins the right group of attackers in the finale.

 

Tim Wellens took a breakthrough win when he won the Eneco Tour overall after having won the queen stage. The Belgian has obviously become a lot stronger by doing the Giro. He has always been riding aggressively but now he seems to have reached a level where his many attacks may be paying dividends.

 

In Plouay, Wellens proved that he is still in great condition when he first joined a late attack and still had enough in reserve to join the decisive move after the final climb. The course in Montreal suits him excellently and he should be able to make the final selection. If Lotto have three cards to play at that point, they will be going on the attack. Wellens is pretty fast in a sprint and so may finish it off if he arrives at the finish with a few companions.

 

Romain Bardet has mostly been known as a stage racer but the Frenchman is a great one-day rider too. Earlier this year he won the hilly Drome Classics and he finished in the top 10 in Liege. He may have had a hard Tour de France but he is still in great condition as he proved in the Tour de l’Ain where he was clearly the strongest rider, and in Plouay where he rode very aggressively.

 

While the race in Quebec is too easy for Bardet, this race suits him really well and he should be able to make the final selection. He is no fast sprinter and won’t have a chance in a sprint from a small group. He needs to go on the attack but at the moment he seems to be strong enough to go so in a winning way.

 

No one really knows how strong Bauke Mollema is. The Dutchman was clearly tired at the end of the Tour de France but bounced back with a good showing in San Sebastian. In the Eneco Tour, he was far below his usual level and since then he has done no racing.

 

However, he hopes to finish the season strongly and on paper, he is suited to this race. The harder race in Montreal suits him really well as he has finished in the top 10 in all the Ardennes classics. If he is back in good condition, he should be able to make the selection. Even though he is fast on the line, he won’t be able to beat Gerrans and so he needs to make a wise attack in the finale.

 

Enrico Gasparotto is mostly overlooked in the classics but that is a huge mistake. The Italian is a past winner of the Amstel Gold Race, has finished on the podium in Liege and last year he climbed excellently in the final part of the season, crowning his performances with a top 10 in Il Lombardia.

 

This year he rode very strongly in Hamburg and Plouay where he was part of the attacks and even though he failed to come away with a result, it showed that his condition is good. The harder Canadian races suit him a lot better and as a past winner in the Cauberg sprint at Amstel, he is obviously very strong in an uphill sprint. If he makes the selection, he can prevail both from a sprint or from a late attack.

 

Jelle Vanendert is the third Lotto Belisol card and the Belgian has proved that he is riding strongly. He decided to skip the Tour and the Vuelta to focus on the autumn classics and the Canadian races may be his best chance to score some WorldTour points. In the Eneco Tour he was up there with the best but the course in Plouay was too easy for him to excel.

 

Like Wellens and Gallopin, Vanendert is strong enough to make the final selection and then he will try to attack. His main disadvantage is that lots of riders are faster than him in a sprint but he has finished on the podium in Amstel Gold Race after a sprint up the Cauberg and so he shouldn’t be underestimated if he arrives at the finish with a few riders for company.

 

For Arthur Vichot, 2014 has been a horrible year. Everything started out well when he won a stage and finished on the podium in Paris-Nice but since then injuries and illness have plagued him. Finally, he seems to have returned to form in time for the World Championships and the late-season classics that suit him well.

 

Vichot rode strongly in the Tour de Limousin but his greatest performance came in the GP de Plouay. The former French champion was one of the strongest on the final climbs and quickly joined the right move in the finale. In the sprint for the small 7-rider group, he was forced to brake several times but still managed to take third.

 

This indicates that Vichot is close to 100% and he is very strong in this kind of terrain. Last year he sprinted to second in Quebec but the course in Montreal may be a bit too hard for him. However, the Frenchman seems to be getting stronger and stronger and if he makes the selection, his fast sprint will give him a few cards to play.

 

Cyril Gautier has been known as a perennial attacker who is rarely rewarded for his efforts. This year, however, he has become a lot stronger and has been agonizingly close to a big win. In Plouay, he instigated the decisive move and was only narrowly denied a spot on the podium by Vichot.

 

Gautier excels in this kind of terrain, has a very aggressive mindset and is fast in a sprint. He is unlikely to beat the likes of Gerrans in a direct battle but in Plouay he used his good form to attack at a time when everybody is at their limit. If he is there in the finale, it will be a good idea to keep an eye on the Europcar captain.

 

BMC have one of the strongest teams and may have numbers in the finale. While Van Avermaet will be their man for a sprint, Tejay van Garderen and Ben Hermans will go on the attack. Both showed very good condition in the USA Pro Challenge and Hermans confirmed that he is still riding well when he rode impressively in Plouay.

 

Van Garderen’s form is a bit more uncertain as the race in Colorado was his final big objective. However, he has been selected for the Worlds which indicates that he remains focused on the final part of the season. None of them are very fast in a sprint but they may benefit from their strength in numbers. With Van Avermaet as a back-up plan, both will have the freedom to attack if they make the selection

 

Another rider whose form is uncertain, is Geraint Thomas. The Welshman was riding strongly in the Eneco Tour but openly admitted that he was very tired at the end of the race. Since then he has tried to recover but he has done a lot of racing this year. Hence, his condition is very uncertain.

 

However, Thomas is suited to this race as he is strong on the climbs and fast in a sprint. Of course there are faster riders like him but like Dumoulin, he may launch a strong attack in the finale. If that’s the case, the strong rouleur will be hard to catch.

 

***** Simon Gerrans

**** Greg Van Avermaet, Rui Costa

*** Tom Dumoulin, Tony Gallopin, Tim Wellens

** Romain Bardet, Bauke Mollema, Enrico Gasparotto, Jelle Vanendert, Arthur Vichot, Cyril Gautier, Tejay van Garderen, Geraint Thomas

* Ben Hermans, Simon Spilak, Michael Rogers, Jan Bakelants, Davide Formolo, Gianni Meersman, Chris Horner, Benat Intxausti, Eros Capecchi, Ben Gastauer, Matti Breschel, Julian Alaphilippe, Steven Kruijswijk, Francesco Gavazzi, Frank Schleck, Simon Geschke, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Tom-Jelte Slagter, Tom Danielson, Alex Howes, Alexander Kristoff

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