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The course suits Peter Sagan down to the ground and the race is likely to be an "all-against-Sagan" event. Everybody knows that the Slovakian will be impossible to drop on these kind of climbs and that he will be even more im...

Photo: Sirotti


13.09.2013 @ 18:15 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 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 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 Quebec is the easier of the two as the climbs on the 12,6km circuit are gentler than the ones used for the Montreal race. On the other hand, the finish is tougher in Quebec as the final 1,5km are all uphill. With Thomas Voeckler, Philippe Gilbert and Simon Gerrans being the previous winners, it is evident that the race suit the puncheurs and the Ardennes specialists.


Last year Simon Gerrans proved his pedigree in the hilly one-day races by taking a beautiful win in what was a fantastic season for the then Australian champion. In an aggressive finale, Greg Van Avermaet attacked with 4km to go and Gerrans bridged across a little later. Pre-race favourite Peter Sagan dug deep on the climb to the finish line but faded in his quest and drifted backwards. Gerrans beat his Belgian companion in a two-man sprint while Rui Costa won the sprint of the peloton to complete the podium. Due to injury Gerrans has put his season to a premature end and won't be back to defend his title but Van Avermaet and Costa will both try to do better than they did last year.


The course

Like the recent GP Ouest France-Plouay, the Grand Prix Cycliste de Quebec is held entirely on a circuit and so is not too different from a world championships road race. The 12,6km course will be repeated 16 times to add up to a 201,6km race which makes it a tough race but far shorter than the battle for the rainbow jersey. The course has three small climbs and the long gradual drag to the finish line on Grande-Allée Ouest.


The race starts at 91m above sea level on the outskirts of the Parc des Champs-de Bataille in Quebec. The first kilometre is slightly ascending as the riders take two sharp left-hand turns to enter the park. The roads are slightly descending when the peloton takes a sharp right-hand corner that leads them onto a rolling road that traverses the park. At the 3,5km mark, the riders leave the park as they take a left-hand turn to get back onto the Grande-Allee Ouest and just after the 4km mark, they make another left-hand turn to get onto a descent with a few hairpin corners that take them back to sea level.


From there, the riders roll alongside the park on completely flat roads for four kilometres. Just before the 9km mark, they make a couple of turns that lead them onto the day's first climb Cote de la Montagne (375m, 10%) that brings the riders up to 42m of altitude in just 375m. The ascent is followed by an immediate descent and at the 10km mark, the riders are almost back at sea level. While the riders tackle two left-hand corners, they head up the Cote de la Potasse (420m, 9%) that sits at 47m of altitude. An almost unnoticeable descent leads to the bottom of the short Montee de la Fabrique (190m, 7%)  whose top is at 47m of altitude. This section is fairly technical with several corners. 100m of flat roads lead to the long gradual incline to the finish in 91m of altitude. Two sharp corners will bring the riders onto the finishing straight which is around 900m long and all uphill. Thin final kilometre has an average gradient of 4%.


The only really steep climb is the Cote de la Montagne but it is rather short and it is the accumulated fatigue more than the climbing itself that makes the difference. Unlike in the Montreal race, the strongest sprinters may have a chance to make a result on this course but the gradual incline to the finish clearly favours the Ardennes specialists and the puncheurs.


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.


In the first two editions of the race, small groups got clear on the penultimate passage of the climb and were left to fight it out in a hectic finale. Last year a bigger 40-rider group remained in contention when they entered the final kilometres. This makes the races very hard to control as few riders have any support riders left in the hectic finales and so one of the numerous attacks on the final lap are likely to be successful. That's what happened last year when Gerrans and Van Avermaet benefited from Sagan's lack of teammates and that's what happened in 2010 when Voeckler made a well-timed attack to deny Edvald Boasson Hagen the win. In 2011, Gilbert managed to control the final 10-rider group before unleashing his immense power on the final uphill straight to the line.


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 have used their Twitter accounts to complain about the misty and rainy Canadian weather in recent days. They will be happy to know that a slight improvement is in store for Friday's race but they can't expect sunny and warm conditions.


At the start of the race, the sun will be visible on a partly cloudy sky and the temperatures are expected to hover around the 15-degree mark. However, light rain and slightly lower temperatures are forecasted for the afternoon and the riders cannot expect to complete the race in dry conditions.


There will be a light wind from a northwesterly direction but the strength should decrease as the day goes on. This means that the riders will mostly have a headwind on the first part of the circuit while the middle section will be dominated by a tailwind. The final 3,6km of the circuit will mostly be raced into a headwind and with the Montee de la Fabrique being the only exception, the riders will have the wind against them on all climbs, making it more difficult to create a selection. There will be a cross-headwind on the uphill finishing straight.


The favourites

These days there's always one outstanding favourite for a circuit race with a number of short, sharp climbs and a gradual 4% finishing straight. The course suits Peter Sagan down to the ground and - as it has been the case so often before - the race is likely to be an "all-against-Sagan" event. Everybody knows that Sagan will be impossible to drop on this kind of climbs and that he will be even more impossible to beat in the uphill sprint.


Last year, the Slovakian never reached peak condition in the autumn season and appeared to be a bit fatigued at the end of a long season. He was in the mix in the Canadian WorldTour races but never played a role in the world championships and put an end to his season when he had crossed the line in Limburg.


This year it is completely different. Having raced the RideLondon Classic as his first race after the Tour, he travelled to Colorado and had a hard training camp at altitude in the American state. He returned to competition with all guns blazing in the USA Pro Challenge where he won 4 stages. It is not the number of victories that underlined his strength in a race that lacked top level sprinters. His standout performance was his climbing on stage 2 when his fierce attack on the final climb was only matched by eventual winner Tejay van Garderen.


He recently dominated the Tour of Alberta prologue by taking a crushing victory but lost the overall win due to a weak team and another "all-against-Sagan" attitude on the remaining stages. Having shown this level of condition, the Slovakian will be unbeatable if things go his way on Friday.


The major difficulty will be to bring everything back together for a final sprint. He has lost numerous races due to a weak team and may do so again this time. That's what happened in the Amstel Gold Race (where he suffered from cramps and so his lack of team support was no disaster), on stages 2 and 3 of the Tour de France and in the Tour of Alberta. His team will have to do the majority of the early chase work and that will leave him with only a few teammates to control what is likely to be an extremely aggressive finale.


It will be crucial for him that at least one of his teammates survive the selection that is likely to be made on the penultimate lap. If he is isolated on the final lap, it will be almost impossible to cover all moves. Last year he found himself in that situation and had no teammates to bring back Gerrans and Van Avermaet. He had to do a long sprint that made him crack and we may see a similar outcome tomorrow.


His key domestique is Damiano Caruso. The Italian has been riding well and should be present in the finale. Alessandro De Marchi and Kristijan Koren should also be able to support their captain deep into the race but the former appears to be tired at the end of a long season. Sagan's winner chance is not a question of his own strength: it is much more a matter of team support.


As Sagan is likely to be unbeatable in a sprint, we will look to other potential winners in the big group of in-form riders that are strong enough to make the final selection and may make it into a successful move on the final lap. Greg Van Avermaet fits the bill perfectly. The Belgian saved BMC's classics campaign in the spring and has hit peak condition for the late summer and autumn races. He dominated the Tour de Wallonie by winning two stages and the overall before travelling to the USA where he finished in the top 2 on the first 4 stages on the Tour of Utah.


Like Sagan, his strength was more underlined by his climbing than the actual results. The Belgian battled with the best on climbs that should usually be way too long for him to handle. He did will in the USA Pro Challenge before heading back to Europe where he emerged as the strongest in the finale of the GP Ouest France-Plouay. His solo attack was reeled in inside the final kilometre and a brief moment of hesitation would have put him on the top step of the podium.


Van Avermaet is perfectly suited to this kind of course and he has the right aggressive mindset to make it into the decisive move on the final lap. If that happens, he will be difficult to beat in the uphill sprint and so could go one better than he did last year.


Michal Kwiatkowski has had an outstanding breakthrough season with numerous excellent performances in both stage races and the Ardennes classics. With a very heavy race schedule, most - ourselves included - thought that he would be fatigued in the autumn.


The talented Pole has proved us wrong. He returned to competition in the Vattenfall Cyclassics where he briefly made it into a big group in the race finale but his standout performance was delivered one week later in Plouay. Having put his hand up for the race, the Pole asked his team to chase down the early break before launching a devastating attack on the final climb. His acceleration created a small front group but a lack of cohesion spelled the end of his chances.


The Quebec course suits him well and he has all the assets to make it into a late move. Being one of the most versatile athletes in the peloton, he masters it all: climbing, descending, time trialling and sprinting. His power would be extremely beneficial in a late-race breakaway and he would have a good chance of winning a final sprint.


Rui Costa is a man for the Canadian races, having won in Montreal in 2011 and finished 3rd in Quebec and 8th in Montreal last year. Following a post-Tour break, he has gradually rebuilt his condition by racing three European one-day races and he showed that he has reached a high level when he made a very aggressive showing in the finale of Sunday's GP de Fourmies.


The Portuguese is a wily competitor who knows how to time his attacks and he will be an extremely powerful workforce in a late break. He has a dangerous sprint in this kind of uphill finish as he proved when he won the sprint for 3rd last year. Look out for Costa to animate the race finale.


Astana lines up a really powerful squad with a number of different options. Enrico Gasparotto, Francesco Gavazzi and Simone Ponzi have all the capabilities to shine on this kind of course as they excel on shorter climbs and all have a fast uphill sprint. While Gavazzi hasn't set the world on fire recently, Ponzi and Gaparotto have been riding really well and the team has decided to back the latter in Quebec. The former Amstel Gold Race winner showed that he has got into form when he made the late selection in the GP Ouest France-Plouay before being reeled in by virtue of a lack of cohesion in the escape. The veteran knows how to keep calm in these kind of hectic finales and knows how to time his moves perfectly. As a former winner on the Cauberg, he is a dangerous rival in an uphill sprint and may recommend himself to the squadra azurra for the world championships by winning in Quebec.


Another Italian who has set his sights on the worlds in Florence is Filippo Pozzato. The Lampre rider had a disappointing spring season and never showed much of his strength in the Giro d'Italia. However, he has now found his best form and has won the Coppa Agostoni and the GP Ouest France-Plouay from select group sprints.


While the Montreal course will be too hard for Pozzato, the race in Quebec suits him well and the uphill finishing straight is tailor-made for him. However, he will have no chance against Sagan and so he has to make it into a late move. The Lampre rider is often too content with following wheels and often contributes to the lack of cohesion that characterizes such moves. He will have to put everything into such an attack and believe in his own sprint if he wants to win the race. However, he may be content with just sprinting onto the podium behind an invincible Sagan.


The rider that has a slight chance of beating Sagan in a sprint is John Degenkolb. The German excels in this kind of uphill sprints and while the course in Montreal will be too hard for him, Quebec should be manageable. The German is riding really well at the moment as he proved when he beat Andre Greipel in the sprint in the Vattenfall Cyclassics and finished 2nd behind his compatriot in Saturday's Brussels Cycling Classic.


What really marks him out as a danger man on Friday is his performance in Plouay. He may only have finished 10th in the race but he showed his cards in an impressive way earlier on. When Kwiatkowski put down the hammer on the final climb, Degenkolb made it into the select 8-rider group. That was no mean feat and proves that he is climbing really well at the moment. It will be very difficult to beat Sagan in a sprint but if anyone has a chance, it is Degenkolb.


Finally, it would be a mistake to rule out a win for Chris Froome. For the Tour de France champion, the two Canadian races represent an important test ahead of the world championships and he will show his hand at some point. Following his post-Tour break, he delivered an unusually modest showing in the USA Pro Challenge but since then he has trained hard to reach his peak for the worlds. The race in Montreal offers him the best opportunity but he is definitely in with a chance on the Quebec hills as well. He can't be too far from his best form and everybody knows what a classy bike rider he is. His rivals will have to stay aware if he gets into one of the late moves. Sprinting may not be what has brought him to fame but he has a decent kick in the end as he proved when he won the stage to La Planche des Belles Filles in last year's Tour de France and a stage of this year's Tour of Oman.


***** Peter Sagan

**** Greg Van Avermaet, Michal Kwiatkowski

*** Rui Costa, Enrico Gasparotto, Filippo Pozzato,  John Degenkolb, Chris Froome

** Sylvain Chavanel, Daniel Oss, Bjorn Leukemans, Cadel Evans, Jan Bakelants, Jurgen Roelandts, Simone Ponzi, Tony Gallopin

* Alexandr Kolobnev, Andrew Talansky, Tejay van Garderen, Simon Spilak, Ryder Hesjedal, Robert Gesink, Marco Marcato, Michael Albasini



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