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Every day we bring you more pro-cycling news offers you a guide to the 4 races that give the riders an alternative path to the Tour than the Tour de Suisse

Photo: RCS Sport








13.06.2013 @ 12:10 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The cycling world may have its attention turned to the Tour de Suisse which is the second of the traditional preparation races for the Tour de France, coming on the heels of the Criterium du Dauphiné. However, not all riders choose one of the two big WorldTour races to put the finishing touches on their condition and this week offers them no less than 4 alternative paths to the world's biggest bike races. What can we expect from those events? Why should you choose these races instead of the Tour de Suisse? And who are the favourites to win? offers you a guide to one of the most exciting weeks of the entire calendar.


If the 9-day and very mountainous Tour de Suisse is a little bit too tough for your liking or if you need some extra racing kilometres after last week's Criterium du Dauphiné, the cycling calendar offers you plenty of opportunities this week. Today the Dutch Ster ZLM Toer and the Tour of Luxemborug will both kick off with an evening prologue and tomorrow it is time for the Pyrenean Route du Sud and the Tour of Slovenia. Like the Swiss race, the all finish on Sunday, thus offering some solid preparation for next week's national championships and the Tour de France which starts in a little more than 2 weeks.


We have already made a thorough preview of the Tour de Suisse here and give daily previews of the stages. Below, we guide you through the four alternative paths to the Tour de France.


NB: The guide to the Route du Sud and and the Tour of Slovenia will follow tomorrow when the final start lists are known.


Ster ZLM Toer

When: The race starts on Wednesday and runs until Sunday


Where: The race is mostly held in the flat parts of the Netherlands but makes a small digression to enter both the hilly Limburg province and the Belgian Ardennes to include some more hilly terrain


The course: The race kicks off with an 8km, almost completely flat prologue in the city of Goes. A number of sharp corners will test the riders technical abilities but there will also be some long straights to benefit the really powerful time trial specialists. The stage should open up the first gaps on GC and could play a crucial role in the final outcome of the race.


The race continues with a completely flat 175,7km stage around Breda which should see the many sprinters go head to head for the first time. The final kilometer is flat and straight and we should see a fascinating clash of the Titans when Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel go head-to-head for the first time this season.


Friday's 188,3km stage will take place in the hilly Limburg province and the riders will be challenged by many of the climbs known from the Amstel Gold Race. The final 70km are, however, all flat or downhill, and despite the difficult nature of the course we should see another bunch sprint at the end.


Saturday's 186,0km stage takes the riders into Belgium and the Ardennes for a very hilly ride. Liege-Bastogne-Liege climbs like Col du Rosier and the Cote de la Redoute will both test the riders' legs before a tough uphill finale to the finish in La Gileppe. This will be the day for the climbers to make their mark on the race and it will be the combination of this stage and the prologue that will determine the winner of the race.


The race finishes on Dutch soil with a flat 176,2km  stage from Gerwen to Boxtel. This will be the final chance for Cavendish, Kittel and Greipel to get a confidence boost prior to the Tour de France and we should see another really exciting bunch sprint as a fitting end to the race.


Why choose this race?: The Criterium du Dauphiné is certainly not one for the sprinters and while the Tour de Suisse offers some opportunities for the fast men, the organizers like to include some nasty hills close to the finish. For the pure sprinters, those two races offer very few chances of success and so it is much nicer for them to travel to the flat roads in the Netherlands to fine-tune their sprints and lead-out trains for the Tour. Hence, it is no surprise to see that the race has evolved into the dress rehearsal for the Tour sprints with the three fastest riders in the world all going head to head with their full lead-out trains in support.


Last year's race: Kittel, Greipel and Cavendish also took the headlines last year and they all came away from the race with some success. While Kittel and Greipel were successful in the three bunch sprints - Kittel won twice, Greipel once - Cavendish made up for his lack of sprint success by digging deep in the tough Ardennes stage. He was beaten by Lars Boom in the uphill sprint but bonus seconds was enough for him to take his first ever overall win in a stage win - despite coming away empty-handed in the sprints.


The favourites: There will be three keys to determine the winner of the race: the prologue, the queen stage and bonus seconds. Last year there was no prologue, and while the Ardennes stage has been made sligthly tougher, the final 75km have not been changed at all. Lars Boom lost out to Cavendish due to bonus seconds in the most recent edition but the inclusion of a prologue puts the Dutch time trial specialist on top of the list of favourites. He has a rather fast finish and could win both the opening time trial and repeat his win in the queen stage. Tobias Ludvigsson has just finished his first grand tour in the Giro and while he is not as fast as Boom, he could possibly beat him in the time trial, thus gaining an early advantage over the big favourite.


The addition of a prologue makes it unlikely for Cavendish to repeat his win but the Manxman has actually performed well in short time trials in the past. His climbing this year makes it likely that he could once again finish with the best in the queen stage and if he has more success in sprints, bonus seconds could be enough to land him his second win in a row. In similar fashion, Andre Greipel has climbed strongly in his most recent races and has performed well in prologues in the past and so he could use a similar strategy to take his first ever overall stage race win.


If the course is too tough for Greipel, it could be something for his teammate Jurgen Roelandts who could very will win the queen stage. The race is also well-suited to Rory Sutherland but the Australian appeared tired in the final part of the Giro. At his best, Sebastien Rosseler should be able to survive the climbs and a strong time trial could catapult him into the early lead. Years have, however, passed since we last saw the Belgian perform strongly. Finally, young talent Yves Lampaert could use a solid time trial performance to put him close to the top of the leaderboard.


Other riders to look out for: The most exciting part of the race will be the battles between Greipel, Kittel and Cavendish in the sprints which will all be dress rehearsals for the Tour de France. They all have their complete lead-out trains at their disposal and we should get a first glimpse into the current sprinting hierarchy. Theo Bos will not be at the Tour but he will be eager to show that he is not far behind the best sprinters in the world and with the exception of Mark Renshaw, his complete support crew has been included in the line-up. Young sprinter Barry Markus has challenged the best on a number of occasions and the flat courses in stages 1 and 4 will be to his liking. Alexander Serov could spur a surprise in the opening prologue, and finally it will be interesting to see the progress of Alessandro Ballan who recently returned to competition after his bad crash in December.


The Tour of Luxembourg

When: The race starts on Wednesday and runs until Sunday


Where: The race is a national tour and during its five stages  traverses most of the tiny Benelux country, passing the same routes on numerous occasions.


The course: The race always starts out with the same short 2,55km prologue in the eponymous capital of Luxembourg. The distance and the nature of the course makes it less suitable to the time trial specialists as the stage finishes off with a steep cobbled climb to the finish. This is one for the really explosive riders and during the last few editions, it has been dominated by Jimmy Engoulvent who has won twice and finished 3rd once.


Luxembourg is a hilly country and it is not possibly to design a completely flat stage. The 183,8km first stage from Luxembourg to Hautcharage has 6 categorized climbs in the early part of the stage. The final 10,6km finishing circuit will be covered three times, and while it is certainly not flat, we should see a bunch sprint in the first road stage of the race.


The 173,1km second stage from Schifflange to Walferdange could see a different outcome. 6 categorized climbs are littered throughout the hilly course but they are all located a bit too far from the finish to make a difference. The 13,6km finishing circuit which will be covered twice, has, however, an uncategorized climb and while the roadbook does not give any information on its steepness, the profile suggests that it could be a tough one. We could some kind of sprint in the end but it will certainly not be with the full contingent of sprinters.


The 202km third stage from Eschweiler to Diekirch is the queen stage with 8 categorized climbs offering the terrain for the climbers to test each other. The key point in the race will be the 8,75% Huelewee climb which is located on the 11,1km finishing circuit which will be covered three times. From the final passage, 9,7km remain and this could allow riders to regain some lost ground but we are sure to see the best climbers put in some strong attacks on the steep slopes.


The race finishes with a 143,6km stage from Mersch to Luxembourg and has 6 categorized climbs on its course. The stage finishes with 5 laps of a 5,5km finishing circuit and while it contains a small ascent, this tried and tested stage is usually not hard enough to trouble the sprinters. An exciting bunch sprint in the capital should be the fitting end to the national tour of Luxembourg.


Why choose this race?: Up until this year, the race was held in the week after the Giro and was a perfect event for the Tour riders to get back into action after a short break. The organizers have, however, chosen to postpone this year's a few weeks and this appears to be a bad idea. While their stage race was the only one in their former calendar spots, they now have to compete with no less than 4 other events. The start list reflects this fact and it has been difficult to attract any world stars.


Nonetheless, plenty of Tour riders have still chose to participate in the Luxembourg race. For riders who have participated in the Criterium du Dauphiné, they could possibly face three weeks without competition prior to the start of the Tour - apart of the national championships of course. The Tour of Luxembourg offers an opportunity to keep the racing legs going in some hilly terrain that is not too difficult. For riders planning a Giro-Tour double, the Criterium du Dauphiné and the Tour de Suisse are too hard to include in their schedule but the shorter, less mountainous Luxembourg event is a chance to get the racing legs back up to speed. Finally, it is a formidable opportunity for sprinters to chase some success without having to face the star-studded line-ups in the Tour de Suisse and the Ster ZLM Toer.


Last year's race: Jakob Fuglsang won his first of two stage races last year when a solid performance in the prologue set him well up for the queen stage where he took the leader's jersey. Escaping with Wout Poels and teammate and national hero Frank Schleck on the steep climb on the finishing circuit, he kept the peloton at bay and had no difficulty in defending his lead on the final stage into Luxembourg. The remaining stages were dominated by the Lotto team as Andre Greipel won the first two sprints while teammate Jurgen Roelandts made a fantastic solo performance to hold off the peloton in rainy conditions on the final day of racing.


The favourites: Like the Ster ZLM Toer, three factors will determine the final GC: the prologue, the queen stage and bonus seconds. The race is a home event for the Radioshack team which has a rather strong line-up from which almost any rider could win. Home rider Bob Jungels, Nelson Oliveira and Tiago Machado should all be in the mix in the prologue and should be able to handle the climbs on the final stage. Jan Bakelants is in a similar position and even has a fast sprint which could deliver him some bonus seconds in the queen stage. The team's best option could, however, be sprinter Giacomo Nizzolo who is well-suited to the explosive prologue, has a good chance to survive the climb in the queen stage and could pick up bonus seconds along the way.


The Blanco team has two strong climbers in Robert Gesink - racing for the first time since the Giro - and Laurens Ten Dam but with a prologue and no uphill finish, it will be hard for them to win. Instead, Paul Martens and Moreno Hofland could be their best cards as they should both perform solidly in the explosive prologue and could pick up some bonus seconds.


Vacansoleil wants a hard race if Thomas De Gendt, Wout Poels and Marco Marcato are to win. The latter appears to be the best option as his explosive nature should make him suited to the prologue and he could also be a man for sprint from a small group. The same goes for Jonathan Hivert who was 4th in 2011 and has all the characteristics to win a race like this one, and his teammate Julien El Fares could be another option.


Manuele Boaro could perform well in the prologue but he has few changes of taking bonus seconds along the way and so an overall win will be difficult for him to obtain. On the other hand, a number of tough sprinters have a solid chance. Their explosiveness could minimize their losses in the prologue and the queen stage could very well end in a sprint from a select group. If they can pick up bonus seconds along the way, riders like Alexey Tsatevich, Yukiya Arashiro, Gerald Ciolek, Juan Jose Lobato, Sebastien Hinault and Manuel Belletti could potentially all take a rare overall win in a stage race.


Other riders to look out for: It will of course be interesting to gauge the condition of Blanco Tour captains Laurens Ten Dam and Robert Gesink and on a similar note, the progress of one of Contador's key domestiques for the Tour Chris Anker Sørensen should be noticed. Damien Gaudin won a short prologue in the Paris-Nice and it will be interesting to see him go head-to-head with Jimmy Engoulvent on this course. Finally, the race has attracted numerous sprinters and besides those already mentioned as potential race winners, it will be interesting to see fast Belarussian Yauheni Hutarovich go up against young talents like Danny Van Poppel, Rüdiger Selig, Alexander Porsev and Matteo Pelucchi as the Ag2r riders tries to convince selectors that he deserves to be included in the line-up for the Tour.


Route du Sud:

When: The race starts un Thursday and runs until Sunday.


Where: Taking place in the heart of the Pyrenees, this race is one for the climbers. The course usually takes in some of the legendary climbs known from the Tour and so it is simply perfect preparation for the world's biggest bike race.


The course: The race starts out with a rather tricky 209km stage from Castres to Mirande just North of the Pyrenees. The course is mostly flat but gets hillier when we reach the finale. Inside the final 15km of the stage, two climbs are on the menu and one of them even has been rated as a category 3 ascent. They are not overly steep but from the top of the final one, only 3km remain. This could be one for either a tough sprinter or an opportunist who makes a successful attack in the final part of the stage.


The 182,8km stage 2 takes in the area around the city of Villecomtal-sur-Arros and is of a similar nature to the previous one. A mostly flat route is punctuated by a few  smaller climbs but the real challenge will be the final part of the stage. A long gradual ascent tops out at the 5km mark and is followed by a sharp descent and two flat kilometers. The finale is a little easier than yesterday's and a sprint is the most likely outcome but we could see success from a late attack.


Saurday's 175,3km stage from Izaourt to Bagneres-de-Luchon is the race's queen stage and takes place in the heart of the Pyrenees. Early in the stage, the riders tackle the Peyragudes climb where Alejandro Valverde won the final mountain stage of last year's Tour, and after a short descent the category 1 Col de Val Louron Azet is next up. A long descent leads to the bottom of the day's final climb, the hors categorie Port de Bales where Andy Schleck's chain came off in the 2010 Tour. The climb was also part of last year's edition of the world's biggest bike race and is followed by its traditional 20km descent to the finish in Bagneres-de-Luchon.


The final 149,2km stage from Saint-Gaudens to L'Isle-Jourdain is one for the pure sprinters. Apart from two early category 3 climbs, the route is completely flat and we should see a bunch sprint as the end of four days of racing in the Pyrenees.


Why choose this race?: The race is mostly a French affair and traditionally Movistar has been the only non-French ProTeam. This year Team Sky has decided to include it in their schedule but both top tier teams mainly use the race to get some of their Giro riders back into competition. For the French teams, it is, however, a key preparation event and traditionally many of the best French climbers have used the race to keep their racing legs going after the Criterium du Dauphiné. Despite the mountainous terrain, organizers are wise enough not to make the race too hard while the queen stage offers a perfect opportunity for the Tour riders to get in some final climbing at race speed before the Tour de France. At the same time, the lack of a time trial turns the event into the select few that can be won by a pure climber, making it attractive for the tiny riders to chase some success.


Last year's race: Three sprint stages were punctuated by a queen stage which forced the riders to climb legendary climbs like the Tourmalet, Soulor and Spandelles. Nairo Quintana - with a recent win in the queen stage of the Dauphiné already in his pocket - showed his amazing climbing talent by riding away from all of his rivals. His nearest challenger Hubert Dupont lost 1.16 while third-placed Anthony Charteau arrived no less than 5.34 too late. The tiny Colombian safely defended his lead in the final sprint stage to bring home his second stage race win in his first season in a ProTeam.


The favourites: The GC will of course be completely determined by the GC and thus the winner will certainly be a  climber. Hence, it is no surprise to see that the start list is loaded with uphill specialists who have either recently raced the Giro or are preparing for the Tour.


Unsurprisingly, Ag2r has the strongest team in the race with four potential winners of the race. John Gadret has targeted the Tour all year but has not been guaranteed a spot in the line-up. He will be eager to show that he deserves to be at the start in the world's biggest bike race. The same goes for Rinaldo Nocentini while young talent Romain Bardet is one of 5 riders who have already been selected for La Grande Boucle. Finally, last year's runner-up Hubert Dupont wants to make amends for a disappointing performance in the Giro.


Thomas Voeckler showed some solid climbing form in the Criterium du Dauphiné, winning an intermediate stage and finishing 14th in the queen stage. He will be supported by Anthony Charteau who usually rides well in the event and young talent Natnael Berhane.


Franco Pellizotti got better and better during the Giro and his condition should be at its peak as he prepares to defend his national championship title in a little more than a week. Young talent Diego Rosa will be at his side and is eager to continue his amazing early part of the season.


Sky line up two of their Giro climbers, Kanstantsin Siutsou and Dario Cataldo, and if they have maintained their condition, they are solid winner candidates. An interesting rider in the Bristish line-up is young talent Ian Boswell who should get a rare chance to race for himself.


Movistar have three solid climber sin their roster but their form is a little bit uncertain. Ruben Plaza and Javier Moreno have not raced for a while and Sylwester Szmyd has been a shadow of his usual strong self all season, most recently in the Dauphiné. The other Spanish team, Caja Rural, lines up a number of climbers and Amets Txurruka, David Arroyo, Ivan Velasco and Danail Petrov could all perform well.


Finally, a host of Frenchmen will be eager to show off themselves on home soil and Francis Mourey, Nicolas Edet, Guillaume Levarlet, Florian Guillou and Julien Antomarchi could all end up near the top of the final GC.


Other riders to look out for: It may be a Pyrenean race but with three easier stages, there are also opportunities for the sprinters. We should be in for some exciting battles when Francisco Ventoso, Samuel Dumoulin, Sebastien Chavanel, Mattia Gavazzi, Adrien Petit, Benoit Drujon, Justin Jules, Yannick Martinez, Benjamin Giraud, Chris Sutton, Danilo Napolitano and Manuel Cardoso go head to head in the bunch sprints.


Sandy Casar returns to competition after his Giro crash and will be eager to show that he has recovered sufficiently to line up in the Tour. Strong climber Christophe Kern - who either rides splendidly or simply terrible - needs to show some sign of form if he is to get selected for the Tour and the same goes for teammate Anthony Charteau. Finally, it will be interested to gauge the progress of talented mountainbiker Alexis Vuillermoz in a race that should suit him well.


Tour of Slovenia:

When: The race starts un Thursday and runs until Sunday.


Where: As a national tour, the stage has a obligation to visit all parts of Slovenia. The country both has flat and mountainous parts and so the race usually offers a little bit for everyone throughout its four days of duration.


The course: The time triallists will get their only chance to shine already on the first day of racing as the race kicks off with a short 8,8km race in the Slovenian capital Ljubljana. The course out-and-back course is one for the true specialists as it is completely flat and non-technical while the climbers hope to limit their losses with more mountainous terrain coming up.


The second day offers a tricky 168,5km stage from Kocevje to Visnja Gora. A tough category 1 climb at the midway point of the course is just a prelude for the finale. Two category 3 are located inside the final 25km of the stage and will probably be too tough for the pure sprinters to handle. Expect to see a tough sprinter or a late attacker ride away with the win.


Saturday is the day of the queen stage. The 170km stage from Skofja Loka to Vrsic offers a category 2 and a category 1 climb in the early part of the race as suitable opportunities to tire out the legs of the rivals. The outcome will, however, be determined on the slopes of the category 1 climb to Vrsic which is located 1611m above sea level. With a length of 13km and an average gradient of 9,2% on most of the climb, this is a really tough finish to the stage and due to the short time trial, the winner of this year's Tour of Slovenia will probably be a climber.


The final 155,8km stage from Brezice to Nove mesto is completely flat and offers the pure sprinters their only chance to shine in an otherwise very hilly edition of the Tour of Slovenia.


Why choose this race?: This year's hilly course means that the Tour of Slovenia has many of the same characteristics as the Route du Sud but the line-up of teams is a little bit different. Hence, the reasons to include this race in the schedule are very similar to the ones applying to the French race. The race is a formidable opportunity for the Giro riders to get their racing legs up to speed prior to the Tour de France while it offers riders from the Dauphiné a change to maintain their condition. The Slovenian race even offers a possibility to get in a final test in a time trial. Last year the Orica-GreenEdge team sent their entire sprint team around Matt Goss to Slovenia as the Australian wanted to stay fresh for the Olympics. Hence, he regarded the racing load of the Tour de Suisse as too much and instead he saw the Tour of Slovenia as the perfect opportunity to fine-tune his condition. This year the race has, however, very few opportunities for the sprinters and so the fast men have mostly avoided the Slovenian tour. Furthermore, the race has been unable to attract its usual strong line-up of teams and the only ProTeams to start this year's race are Orica-GreenEdge and Lampre-Merida.


Last year's race: After a pair of stages for the tough sprinters, Domenico Pozzovivo and local favourite Janez Brajkovic simply rode away from their rivals in the most mountainous stage. The winner would be decided in the final time trial and everybody of course expected Brajkovic to win. However, the tiny Pozzovivo had an amazing ride and only lost 10 seconds on the 17,8km course, thus almost spurring a major surprise. Brajkovic was declared winner though and so the national tour was fittingly won by the big Slovenian star.


The favourites: The time trial is rather short and so the final GC will mostly be determined by the queen stage. The race promises to be an open affair and has a number of potential winner. Stefano Pirazzi will be eager to prove that his KOM win in the Giro was no fluke and should be one of the best climbers in this race. Young Angelo Pagani should be at his side with an ambition to prove that it was a mistake to leave him out of his team's Giro line-up. Pirazzi's predecessor as Giro king of the mountains Matteo Rabottini never found his best level in the Italian grand tour and wants to make amends in this race.


Lampre lines up Kristijan Durasek who has been unable to live up to expectations in his first year in a ProTeam but the Slovenian will be motivated to put his Giro and Dauphiné form to good use on home soil. He will be supported by super talent Mattia Cattaneo who returns to competition after his bad crash in the Giro. Another returning rider is Francesco Reda who was in splendid condition in the early season but has since taken a long break due to "personal problems". He will be ably supported by young climber Patrick Facchini.


The Colombian duo Darwin Atapuma and Robinson Chalapud will be aggressive in the queen stage to make up for time lost in the time trial while Sander Armee will be keen to show that he could be a future Belgian stage racer. Sergey Firsanov is a complete rider who could lay a foundation for an overall win already in the time trial. And then it would be a mistake to write off ex-dopers Tadej Valjavec and Patrik Sinkewitz, the latter having shown splendid condition in a couple of Italian one-day races earlier this season.


Finally, Jan Polanc, Jure Golcer, Radoslav Rogina and Tomasz Nose are strong Slovenian climbers and they will be keen to perform in their most important race.


Other riders to look out for: Adriano Malori has taken a step up this year and twice challenged Tony Martin for the win in WorldTour time trials. He will be the big favourite to win the opening day race against the clock but Svein Tuft should be able to put up some stiff competition. The Orica-GreenEdge team has plenty of time triallists with Michael Hepburn and Sebastian Langeveld joining Tuft in the line-up while Artem Ovechkin should perform well for the Rusvelo team.


The final sprint stage should be an exciting battle between Allan Davis or Brett Lancaster, Ariel Richeze or Massimo Graziato, Jeffry Romero, Omar Bertazzo, Filippo Fortin, Marco Benfatto, Boris Shpilevsky and Enrico Rossi while Daniele Pietropolli, Andrea Palini, Fabio Felline and Enrico Barbin could mix it up in the tough second stage.


Few riders will travel make the Slovenia-Tour double but a number of the Orica-GreenEdge riders will be keen to show that they deserve a spot in the world's biggest bike race. Lancaster forms an important part of the Matthew Goss' lead-out train but recently raced the Giro and it will be interesting to gauge his recovery from those efforts. Finally, Malori should form an integral part of the Lampre team in La Grande Boucle and should perform well in the first long time trial in France, thus making his performance in Slovenia interesting.



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