Il Lombardia 2016 – Preview

Il Lombardia holds a special place within the race calendar, as the last of the five Monuments and the final World Tour race of the season.  The event, known as the Race of the Falling Leaves, does not close out the World Tour season this year however, with the Road Race World Championships taking place later in the month in Doha, scheduled to avoid Qatar’s high summer temperatures.  With the course for the World Championship Road Race being pan flat on this occasion and therefore a sprinter’s paradise, Il Lombardia, with its new, seven summit parcours, could be called the de facto climbers’ World Championship race for 2016, with a line up to suit.  You won’t find Andre Greipel, Mark Cavendish or Marcel Kittel anywhere near this year’s edition in particular, with the new route from Como to Bergamo containing 4,400 metres of climbing over 240 kilometres.  That’s 1000 more metres of ascending than the race contained last year when Vincenzo Nibali was victorious.

The first of Il Lombardia’s seven categorised summits is the famed Madonna del Ghisallo, topped with an iconic chapel which doubles up as a cyclist’s shrine, housing a host of artefacts to Italian riders, such as the bike that Fabio Casartelli was riding when he was involved in a fatal crash on a treacherous descent in the 1995 Tour de France.  Coming 65km in to the race, the first climb is unlikely to have too much of an impact upon the race overall – that honour will no doubt fall to a 75km stretch of road between the 100km and 25km to go markers, containing five of the seven categorised climbs, two of which are new to the race.  Valico di Valcava averages 8%, and is a long climb of almost 12km.  Sant’ Antonio Abbandonato, new to Il Lombardia, is half the length of the Valico di Valcava climb, but steeper, with an average gradient of almost 9%.  The Miragolo san Salvatore averages a 7% gradient; however the first 2km includes sections topping 11%, making for a tricky climb with the possibility of hurting a few riders.

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After the 75km stretch of successive summits, the peloton may feel that the hard work is behind them, however the race organisers have devised a course which will thrill fans right up to the last few metres, with the final, uncategorised and partially cobbled climb of Bergamo Alta appearing just before the route finishes, after a full 25km of descending.  This year the race finishes in Bergamo, having ended up in Como the year before, when Nibali took victory.  The last winner in Bergamo was Etixx-Quickstep’s Dan Martin.  So who is expected on the Como start line this time around, and who has the legs to face the thousands of metres of climbing?

Unfortunately for the Italian home fans, Vincenzo Nibali will not be racing to defend his title; therefore leadership of the Astana team falls to Fabio Aru, who does have a good chance on a course of this profile.  Supported by Jakob Fuglsang and Diego Rosa, Aru will hope to keep the race in the hands of an Astana rider.

Dan Martin will of course be looking to repeat his winning 2014 performance in Bergamo, no doubt bolstered by the return to the scene of his victory.  Etixx-Quickstep are fielding a strong team for the 110th edition of the iconic Monument, and could feasibly launch a double-headed attack with Martin and Julian Alaphilippe, ably supported by an in-form Petr Vakoc.  Perhaps the strongest team on the start line however, are the current leaders of the UCI World Tour team competition, Movistar.  Alejandro Valverde heads a star-studded line up of team mates comprising Winner Anacona, Jon Izaguirre, Dani Moreno, Nairo’s younger brother Dayer Quintana, Francisco Ventoso, Javier Moreno  and Giovanni Visconti.

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Looking to thwart Movistar’s aim of a 4th win in the UCI team competition are the Tinkoff boys, on a final World Tour outing before the team disbands at the end of the season.  Tinkoff need 70 points to dash Movistar’s hopes, but this could be a tall order, especially given Movistar’s solid line up, and Tinkoff not fielding two of their star riders – Sagan is of course expected to be focusing on retaining his rainbow jersey in Qatar, whereas Contador, who could have been an exciting prospect on this climber’s parcours, is suffering from a flu-like virus.  Roman Kreuziger and Rafal Majka spearhead the Tinkoff line up, with Majka, a former Tour de France King of the Mountain’s jersey holder, eyeing up the 4,400 metres of climbing with a decent chance of placing well.  Elsewhere, Ag2r-La Mondiale rider Romain Bardet is definitely one to watch in this race; the course suits his style and his form at this late stage in the season remains good.  Last year’s runner up, Dani Moreno of Movistar, has both the legs and the team mates to carry him to a strong finish, and Lampre-Merida’s Rui Costa stands a good chance, as does the Columbian Rigoberto Uran of Cannondale-Drapac.  His team will be hungry for a big win after having two riders on the Milano-Torino podium earlier in the week with Mike Woods and Uran himself, and early indications are that his form remains strong.

Bardiani-CSF have had a great few weeks, especially Italian favourite Sonny Colbrelli, who last week crossed the Tre Valli Varesine finish line in first place, ahead of the likes of Nibali, Aru, Gilbert and Viviani.  Team Sky have brought a strong squad, including Pete Kennaugh and Ben Swift, with Wout Poels looking to be in race winning form.  Supported by Mikel Landa, Vasil Kiryienka and Mikel Nieve, with the excellent tactical mind of Nicolas Roche, Poels has a good chance of a late season podium appearance.

With a host of other big names – Mollema, Schleck, Bakelandts, not to mention Olympic medallists Greg Van Avermaet and Tom Dumoulin, the race looks set to be one of the most exciting of the latter half of the calendar.  Those who are disappointed by the Doha parcours – and there have been many critics of the pan flat desert course – will no doubt prefer the climbs, descents, and potential for set-piece battles that Il Lombardia 2016 offers.  It’s going to be an exciting race for sure!

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Preview – Eneco Tour, Final Stage

Sunday’s final stage has an interesting profile.  At a swift glance, it appears to be incredibly flat, but on closer inspection, from 90km to the finish at kilometre 198, the riders will either be ascending or descending, with no real flat in sight.

The race takes in three ascents of the infamous Muur, a cobbled climb of just over 1km at a gradient of 8.7%.  After three full ascents, the finishing line is situated half way up what would have been a fourth climb of the Muur.  Riders with experience in the Spring Classics will be well aware of what lies ahead.  Current race leader Rohan Dennis may not be as well versed.  Whether this affects his grip on that white jersey remains to be seen.

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Freewheeling prediction – The final day of racing is a difficult one to predict, due to the many narrative threads running throughout the race.  The riders at the sharp end of the GC are not separated by huge gaps, so someone like Tony Martin, 24 seconds back, could decide to throw caution to the wind on the last day and try a courageous attack.  Any attack here would be courageous given the terrain – those cobbles on the Muur are no small matter!  The technical nature of some of the climbing could give pause for thought to those riders with World Championship hopes, as no one wants even the most insignificant of injuries to interfere with preparations for Qatar.

On Stage 6, Sagan seemed less concerned with claiming the leader’s jersey, perhaps instead targeting stage wins.  Tony Martin of Etixx-Quickstep attempted an attack as he chased down 24 seconds.  BMC were keen to protect Dennis, but will his lack of Classics experience impact upon his tactics on the final day?  And where have Tom Dumoulin and Greg Van Avermaet been?  All these questions and narratives make for one interesting day of racing, that’s for sure!  Hedging our bets?  Maybe.  But the unpredictability is what makes this final day so special and exciting!

Preview – Eneco Tour Stage 6

The two final days of this year’s Eneco Tour look set to bring the big GC contenders to the fore.  Stage 6, at 197.2km, contains six climbs, starting at Riemst and hugging the Dutch border before ending at Lanaken with an uphill finish.

The organisers have packed the climbs onto the route in quick succession, with three short, sharp ascents fitted into 7km of road.  The current GC standings and time gaps should see plenty of attacks, suggesting that Stage 6 could be an exciting day of racing.  The Golden Kilometre is once again located on a hilly section, a stroke of genius if exciting racing is what you want.  The concept was first trialled at the Tour of Belgium; the idea being that three intermediate sprints are contained within one stretch of road, 1km in length.  For each sprint, time bonuses are awarded – 3 seconds for the leader, 2 for second place, and one second for third.  For the leader therefore, 9 seconds are up for grabs, making it possible to win or lose a race based on time bonuses earned by racing for Golden Kilometre points.

Freewheeling prediction: Another nice stage for Sagan, but aren’t they all these days?!  The current GC placings will certainly make for some exciting tactical racing.  Without the Golden Kilometre time bonuses, Rohan Dennis might have been more comfortable about remaining in the leader’s jersey, however if Sagan goes for it, he’ll regain the top spot on GC by the end of the day.

When I first looked at the last two stages, I felt that Geraint Thomas and Greg Van Avermaet might be top three GC riders by the end of this stage.  I’m no longer sure about Thomas, who, whilst riding well, looks to be steadying himself for Qatar.  Tom Dumoulin appears to be riding into form as Eneco progresses, and I’d expect him to try something on Stage 6.  Sagan, Van Avermaet and Dumoulin for me, with Dennis chasing the relevant breaks to protect his lead.

Preview – Eneco Tour Stage 5

With the UCI finally coming to an agreement with riders regarding the team time trial at the World Championships next month, the atmosphere around Stage 5 will be much less anxious and fraught.  As we reported last week, WorldTour teams were threatening to boycott the World Championship TTT due to a dispute over the financial implications.  The UCI has now agreed that the World Championship team time trial is not compulsory, therefore also removing WorldTour points from the competition.

Back to Eneco, and Friday’s stage begins in Sittard in the Netherlands before crossing into Germany and then swinging back round towards Sittard.  The course is 20.9km, and comes immediately before the two big GC stages this weekend.

Sagan has talked of his pre-TTT feelings, noting “it’s important to ride a good team time trial, BMC are the World champions, but I’m sure Tinkoff can deliver a good performance”.  Team BMC are the favourites as reigning champs, and have a very strong line-up for this discipline, including Van Avermaet, Rohan Dennis, Taylor Phinney and Daniel Oss.

Freewheeling prediction – It’s hard to see who could break BMC here, as their line-up is so strong.  Movistar and LottoNL-Jumbo should go well, and I’m sure Tinkoff won’t want Sagan to lose too much time to Rohan Dennis.  At 7 seconds behind Sagan, we predict more jersey swapping between these two…

Preview – Eneco Tour Stage 4

Stage 4 is the longest in this year’s 12th edition of the Eneco Tour, with 202km of racing between Aalter and Saint-Pieters-Leeuw.  Billed as a sprinters stage, the appearance of three uphill sections within the circuit, the last of which tops out within the final 13km – may decide otherwise.  If the climbs aren’t enough to contend with – enter the Belgian cobbles!

The pavé sections here are not too long, although could be tricky depending on the weather conditions.  The riders will also have to contend with three climbs included within the circuit section, which could see the bunch split.  To make things interesting, the Golden Kilometre begins just after the final climb of Bruine Put – a climb of almost 1km at 8.2%, which, given the time gaps at the top of the GC, could make for a very entertaining few metres as BMC seek to hold off Sagan and keep Dennis in the leader’s jersey.

With its technical sections, uphills and sprint-type finish, this should be another perfect stage for Sagan.  Only 3 seconds behind the race leader, day 4 could be the day for the Slovak to head GC for the first time in the race.

Freewheeling prediction – Fresh from our prediction success in Stage 3 thanks to Sagan and Boudhanni, Freewheeling is predicting that Sagan will take over the leader’s jersey by the end of Stage 4.  There could be another stage win for the Tinkoff rider given the shape of the parcours, although Olympic champion Greg Van Avaermaet is also in good shape to finish the stage at the sharp end.

Preview – Eneco Tour Stage 3

Stage 3 begins on the Belgian coast at Blankenberge, hugging the shore until Ostend before heading inland to Ardooie.  Unless a breakaway can gain a big enough lead before reaching the Belgian town, the stage seems destined for a sprint finish.  The circuit of Ardooie is actually pretty technical, with some tight corners to navigate before a straight 1km run in.

The technical aspects of the final urban circuit may make organisation difficult, however these are the types of finish which Sagan will relish with his exquisite bike handling skills ready to come to the fore.

Freewheeling Prediction – Sagan looks to be the likely beneficiary of the technical corners in the final circuit.  After backing the Cofidis boys for an outside chance with Nacer Bouhanni on Stage 1, don’t bet against them on this stage either.  Bouhanni was close on the first day, and he has won here before in 2014.

Preview – Eneco Tour Stage 2

Photo: Etixx Quickstep’s Tony Martin warming up before winning the Tour of Britain TT – Stage 7 Bristol

Photo credit: Rich Ainsley

Stage two is a 9.6km individual time trial around Breda in the Netherlands.  The short length of the stage will mean those who may not be TT specialists aren’t stretched to breaking point, however the big guns will have the chance to show their mettle.

Freewheeling  prediction – In incredible form and seemingly capable of winning stages in every road race discipline, perhaps Sagan might make a cheeky top three appearance?  Freewheeling is looking forward to seeing what Tom Dumoulin does on this stage in particular, although Tony Martin appears to have rediscovered his TT legs at the Tour of Britain, and Van Avermaet has had a great season.  We’re going for Dumoulin; with Martin, Van Avermaet, Rohan Dennis and Geraint Thomas as strong finishers.

Preview – Eneco Tour Stage 1

Monday sees the start of the Eneco Tour, the only WorldTour stage race assigned dual nationality – shared between Belgium and the Netherlands.

Appearing later in the race calendar to accommodate the Olympic Games, the race is packed with star riders using the event as the perfect preparation for the World Championships in October.  Fresh from his win at the European Championships, Sagan will be on the start line of the Eneco Tour for the first time, as Freewheeling favourite Geraint Thomas leads Team Sky supported by previous World Champion Michal Kwiatkowski and Brits Luke Rowe, Andrew Fenn and Ben Swift.

Although the route favours the Classics experts, the race contains something for everyone with flat stages, hilly stages, a team time trial and an individual TT.   Last year Belgian Tom Wellens of Lotto-Soudal took the overall classification, with Olympic road race champion Greg Van Avermaet of BMC in second.  This year offers a favourable parcours for sprinters, with Andre Greipel, Peter Sagan, Nacer Bouhanni, Caleb Ewan, Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb all in the hunt for stage wins and sprint points, with the orange points jersey their ultimate prize.

Stage 1, a 184km circuit from Bolsward in the Netherlands, could see a bunch sprint on the finish line, although with part of the route hugging the coast, there is potential for echelons to form and split the peloton.  The weather forecast however looks good, so it seems likely that the bunch will finish together.  The streets are fairly narrow in the final run-in, so teams will need to be organised to avoid a messy finish and potential pile ups.

With the individual time trial on day two, the GC contenders will be on the hunt for time bonuses to secure a good TT starting position, so team tactics will come into play early in the race.

Freewheeling Prediction – A bunch sprint with the potential for one of the big names to secure the stage victory.  Greipel, Kittel and Sagan will hope to be up there, but don’t underestimate the strength of Team Cofidis, who’ll be working to deliver Nacer Bouhanni to the line, and Orica-BikeExchange have a sense of purpose with Caleb Ewan, fresh from his Tour of Britain stage win in London.

Grand Prix de Wallonie -Preview

At lunchtime today, 18 teams will set off on the Grand Prix de Wallonie, a one-day race through the Wallonia region of Belgium.  The race, categorised as part of the UCI Europe Tour, was first run at professional level in 1935, and has seen a total of 36 Belgian wins from 56 editions, the most recent winner being Jens Debusschere of Lotto-Soudal.  So who has the wheels to race for the 2016 win?

Fresh from claiming victory in the 2015 edition of the GP, Lotto-Soudal return to Wallonia with a team brimming with Belgian talent.  Of the 8 riders participating for last years’ winning team, 6 are Belgian racers, with New Zealand’s Greg Hendersen and France’s Tony Gallopin adding some international flair.  Lotto-Soudal are one of five WorldTour teams in the race, the others being Etixx-Quickstep, FDJ, Ag2r La Mondiale and IAM Cycling.

The parcours is undulating throughout, beginning at Beaufays near Liège, and ending at Namur and the famed climb up to the Citadelle.  The gradient on the final climb averages 6% and tops 8% over some sections, and is sure to separate the men from the boys coming after 200k of hard racing, and featuring some technical cobbles.

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Julien Vermote, wearing number 22 for Etixx-Quickstep, will be looking to capitalise on his success at last weeks’ Tour of Britain, where he wore the leader’s jersey for 4 days.  The team fielded by Etixx-Quickstep is a young one, including Vermote and the talented Petr Vakoc, who performed well in Canada recently before unfortunately crashing in the finishing straight of the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montreal.  This young squad is our pick for the 57th Wallonian GP, coming off the back of a successful season for these stars of the future.

Look out for the Freewheeling race round-up later on!