1st Arnaud Démare 2nd Peter Sagan 3rd Dylan Groenewegen
An increasingly familiar sight, this year’s Vuelta a España opens the three week grand tour with another expected team time trial; though this particular curtain raiser differs greatly from the norm. A bizarrely short (7.4km) course for the team time trial was the initial surprise when first unveiled, but what followed was greater confusion when closer inspection revealed the tricky array of surfaces upon which the riders were meant to contest day one’s victory. Rubber tiles, polished stone, loose sand and cement paving are all among the variety of surfaces represented in this prologue sized team contest. Surprisingly, this creation was approved by the UCI who did not deem it dangerous, while it had also not been investigated closely by the teams present here until this very week. The subsequent fallout from the riders reaction of shock at the expectation of racing on such unsuitable time trialling terrain has resulted in this opening affair being neutralised in regards to the expected time gaps; leaving only stage honours up for grabs. A likely consequence of this will be that those who were expecting the need to protect their general classification leader’s hopes immediately on day one, are able to now take it incredibly easy, assuming they do indeed view this as an unnecessary expenditure of energy before the much tougher Stage 2 finale.
In the absence of a squad seriously targeting this team time trial, the opening chance of victory is relatively wide open, with many general classification focused teams likely to limit their efforts hear due to the time neutralisation. Trek Factory Racing should have a great chance of winning this short and flat team time trial which suits their sprint and power based roster for La Vuelta. The Van Poppel brothers, Fabian Cancellara, Jasper Stuyven and Ricardo Zoidl strike a good blend of raw speed and experienced time trialling prowess, but Fränk Schleck was likely to be the rider to drag them downwards with his lack of relevant skills. However, without the opportunity to concede time now eradicated on Stage 1, the more powerful riders may decide to give it everything in the name of victory and let Schleck limp home solo.
Reigning World Champions of this discipline are USA/Swiss outfit BMC, arriving at this race with the hope of remedying leader Tejay Van Garderen’s Tour de France disappointment with an impressive showing at his Vuelta a España debut. Of course this team is not the same as the one which earned them their shared rainbow bands, but they still retain a realistic chance of winning here. TVG, Peter Velits and Samuel Sanchez are no slouches against the clock, nor is classics and prologue specialist ‘Jempy’ Drucker. Regardless of the team not possessing their specialist line-up for this contest, they still know their way around such a test and should be present in the final top five at the very least.
Weather they intended to target a win on day one is unclear, but Giant-Alpecin have arrived with a strong selection for this team time trial; inadvertently or not. Tom Dumoulin obviously catches the eye immediately, the young Dutchman cementing his place as one of the world’s finest against the clock in the last year or so. Given that John Degenkolb is the lead man for the German squad, this means a supporting cast for the targeted sprints brings along with him Luka Mezgec, Koen de Kort and Tom Stamsnijder who bolster the team’s chances of winning with speed and prologue experience.
Lotto Soudal enter today’s stage as dark horses for the win and could see the possibility of them sneaking a victory increase rapidly in the wake of the time neutralisation decision, which is bound to quell the interest of general classification focused teams originally worried about performing well here. Kris Boeckmans, Thomas De Gendt, Jurgen Van Den Broeck and Maxime Monfort are all represented in the ranks of the Belgian outfit and offer a solid foundation to launch a bid for a surprise win on Stage 1.
Beyond those mentioned above, the teams aimed towards general classification goals should now be able to breathe a sigh of relief thanks to the neutralisation of all time gaps. Instead of having to achieve a difficult balance of calculating their risk taking on a dangerous myriad of surfaces, while trying to limit any losses, such teams can now pace their way around the course however they see fit. Sky, Tinkoff-Saxo, Astana, Katusha and Movistar are all likely to do just that; conserving energy ahead of the following day’s difficult Alto de la Mesa finale.
1st Lotto Soudal 2nd Trek Factory Racing 3rd BMC
The inaugural Tour de Yorkshire opens its doors to a strong peloton of WorldTour and ProConti squads today; as well as the plucky British teams aiming to cause an upset during the three days in the county. As was seen during Le Tour de France’s excursion to Yorkshire last year, the terrain and course could prove more testing than the European riders expect; being caught short on day one could prove costly. Glancing upon Stage One’s profile for the first time gives the impression of a sprint finish being a guarantee, but with a rolling day in the saddle which includes 5 nasty climbs, this could prove a banana skin for many.
Exiting from the costal town of Bridlington, the peloton will then travel 174km en route to the finish at the seaside resort of Scarborough. The riders will have 51km under their belt before they are tasked with the day’s first climb; this being Cote de Dalby Forest. Though only 600m in length, the average gradient of 8.9% is likely to give some riders an idea of what shape they will be in come the finish in Scarborough. A touch over 40km will separate the bunch from the second ascent of the day which comes at Rosedale Abbey in the North York Moors National Park; Cote de Rosedale Abbey to be exact. It is the longest of the day at 2.8km and possesses and average gradient of 7% over its entirety.
A drop down the other side will offer the peloton a certain level of recovery as they approach a potent double header of climbs in under 10km; beginning at 123km with Cote de Grosmont. A length of 400m might induce a scoff from some, but Grosmont is sure to get the blood pumping as they haul themselves up its ferocious gradient of 16.9%. It is here we could see a few riders have their doors blown off by the tempo and slip out the back of the peloton as the bunch reorganises itself for the following ascent of Cote de Briggswath. An average of 6.2% over 1.3km will ensure any recovery found between the two climbs is short lived, rolling onwards through Whitby and onto the day’s final climb. If a breakaway has been swallowed up already by this point, the Cote de Robin’s Hood Bay could act as a solid springboard for anyone fancying a late attack for the line with approximately 27km remaining. The climb itself is 1.5km long and offers up an average of 10% in order for anyone wishing to spoil the sprinters’ day by launching a bid for home; a move Robin Hood would surely endorse.
The remaining ride into Scarborough should prove a more comfortable affair for many and the finish itself looks distinctly flat on paper. A sprint does seem likely, but the size and representatives present in such a bunch will vary greatly depending on the attrition rate apparent in the preceding hours of racing through Yorkshire. If a breakaway proves troublesome to catch, or the county displays its knack for four seasons in one day, the peloton could find life much harder if they hope to keep their sprinters happy come the seaside finale in Scarborough.
The German sprint ace Marcel Kittel attends this race as a marked favourite for the bookies, but many will be surprised by this factor given his recent struggles with form and condition during 2015 thus far. Had this opening day been a flatter affair it may have been possible to make a case for the ‘be-quiffed’ sprinter, but with five climbs present likely to build fatigue Kittel has not experienced for sometime now, doubts are well founded that he might not even be present to contest the finish.
As a Yorkshire lad himself, Ben Swift is likely to be eager to give the locals something cheer about during this three day spin around his home county. The harder nature of Stage 1 certainly leans towards a stronger sprinter such as Swift, but the flat finish negates this enough to place him back at square one. Team Sky are registered a British team and would certainly like to put Yorkshireman Swift in the first leader’s jersey of the Tour de Yorkshire and will work hard to do this. The finish itself should mean the purer sprinters go speeding past him, but a day ‘blessed’ with typical Yorkshire weather and motivation stoked by home pride are factors not to be ignored.
A sprinter who started the 2015 season well was Matteo Pelucchi of IAM Cycling, but heading into the first day in Yorkshire, his form has been absent for sometime now. Having won his opening two races in the shape of Trofeo Santanyi-Ses Salines-Campos & Trofeo Playa de Palma-Palma, he then proceeded to finish on the podium twice in Oman before a solid 10th place at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in March. Since then his placings have been far from impressive, averaging between 150th – 170th during his time at Tirreno-Adriatico and Catalunya; as well as a few DNS or DNF along the way. His lack of recent competition could be interpreted fairly as a positive or negative; is he race fit or lacking race fitness for example? Regardless, Pelucchi has not offered much for a while now and Stage 1 does not suggest he will change this in Scarborough.
Though Bradley Wiggins makes his debut for his eponymously titled team here, attention on Stage 1 will be better focused upon the performance of their strongman sprinter Owain Doull. He is young still, but has shown encouraging form during the season so far with solid performances at Tour de Normandie, Le Triptyque des Monts et Châteaux and ZLM Roompot Tour for Great Britain. A win would be a dream result for the promising Welshman, but he should certainly feel comfortable aiming for a top ten placing; beyond that is hard to say.
BMC offer up Greg Van Avermaet, Jean-Pierre Drucker and Rick Zabel as viable options for the opening day’s ride to Scarborough. The Belgian Avermaet has had an impressive Spring campaign, charting in the top 5 at Amstel Gold, Paris-Roubaix and Tour of Flanders thanks to his great form. He certainly enjoys a hard day’s racing and often benefits when attrition leaves a reduced bunch to duke it out for the stage win. Teammate Drucker enjoys a testing day too and could secure himself a top ten if allowed the space to ride for it, though yet to take a win this year, he should see this as a chance to open his account. Zabel is still learning the ropes, but much is still expected of him due to his surname, a quick finisher who will benefit on the simple run into Scarborough; remaining in contention will be his major challenge.
Though JLT-Condor will fancy their chances of a good overall placing, this has not stopped them from bringing Ed Clancy, Tom Moses and Graham Briggs to Yorkshire in hope of a stage win. Clancy has not done a great deal in 2015, but such a naturally talented sprinter can never be ruled out from causing an upset. Moses and Briggs on the other hand have had more convincing openings to the season, the former finishing 11th in the testing Melton CiCLE Classic on Sunday and the latter displaying promising form during his only outing so far this year at February’s Herald Sun Tour.
Tom Scully had a great time during the Tour of Normandie, eventually finishing third overall having sustained a great level of form after his second place on the opening day’s prologue. Having spent several seasons racing in Britain now, he is certainly not adverse to a bumpy day of riding, but he is yet to capitalise on his domestic results when it comes to races such as the Tour of Britain for example.
NFTO will look to former WorldTour rider Steele Von Hoff as their man for the sprints here in Yorkshire. On Sunday he emerged as the champion of the arduous Melton CiCLE Classic and has form at the Tour of Britain in 2012 & 2013 where he had to settle for podium places behind the winner. He is evidently in good form right now and will be motivated to demonstrate that he still has what it takes against the best quick-men in the bunch as he eyes a move back to the top tier.
1st Ben Swift 2nd Steele Von Hoff 3rd Matteo Pelucchi
Spokenforks predicted that the peloton would have to be on high alert in order to prevent the Volta a Catalunya being lost on the first day; they very nearly let exactly that happen. With a breakaway of Bart De Clercq, Pierre Rolland and eventual stage winner Maciej Paterski going clear early on to establish a advantage in excess of ten minutes over the bunch of title favourites. Whether or not riders are correct in blaming inaccurate updates from motos for allowing danger man Rolland to gather so much time during the day, they came agonisingly close to haemorrhaging enough time after the first three and a half hours of racing to render the following six days redundant. Eventually crossing the line only 2′ 40″ down on the three man breakaway, the favourites will be confident of overturning this deficit, but will have to up their focus and ensure this does not happen again.
Offering a terrain which fails to favour that of general classification riders or sprint teams, stage 2’s 191.8km run from Mataro to Olot will be another day which the peloton will need to keep a close eye on the breakaway’s composition. Yesterday was considered to be the only guaranteed day for a sprint finish, having blown this in quite spectacular fashion, it seems likely that many teams will work much harder to make stage 2 worthwhile for the breadth of sprinters assembled at this year’s Volta a Catalunya. Any such breakaway will be kept on a tighter leash; if only to buy insurance against the inconsistent time checks received during stage 1. The day’s riding will be a rolling affair, with the decisive moments likely to come in the final 15 kilometres as the peloton approaches the finish in Olot. Life will begin heading skywards before the bunch begin ascending the concluding category 3 climb of Alt de Montagut, once they are on the slopes of the climb, they will face 2.1km at an average gradient of 4.5%; maximum ramps of 7%. This will be summited with less than 15km left to race, but an uncategorised 3.8km section at an average of 5.2% will also need to be tackled before Olot’s finish line comes into view. Once completed, the bunch or breakaway will find only 6.2km separating them from a possible victory, the finish is extremely simple with few bends; the concluding 1300m being one far stretching boulevard to contest the win upon.
Though the first day offered nothing of great interest to suggest the form of any of the fast men, it equally failed to dismiss the chances of those originally fancied for stage one. Assuming the peloton will still be smarting from failing to control the previous day’s breakaway, the teams which possess a sprinter will do their upmost to make their presence here worthwhile. Fancied once again will be José Joaquín Rojas, predominately due to the much increased amount of climbing in the finale compared to that of the previous day’s stage final kilometres; something which will play into the hands of this sprinter who climbs so well. The last 1300m’s straight nature will be a negative for the Movistar rider however, benefiting the likes of Bryan Coquard more so if he manages to stay in contention. The young Frenchman can climb well and will be the fastest man left from a reduced bunch if able to represent his Europcar team at the finish. His compatriot Julian Alaphilippe might invest the most effort of all of the sprinters in order to contest the finish, especially given the support he is likely to find from his Etixx-Quick Step team. Despite being young, he is beginning to show the ability to endure these tougher conclusions in order to sprint for the win, but he might find this finish too close to his abilities’ limits right now. A man previously known for his support of Coquard is FDJ’s Kevin Reza, a rider who is bound to fancy the day’s rolling terrain given his noted ability to climb on such rolling terrain. Considering he left his support role as leadout man to Coquard, he will see this stage as a solid opportunity to prove why it was worthwhile; likely to be one of the fastest left after a testing day’s ride to Olot.
In terms of outsiders for the day, perhaps it is worth watching out for Alejandro Valverde and Dan Martin in the final 15km of racing. The latter showed intent to stay in contention when sprinting for a bonus second at the intermediate sprint on stage one and could find the concluding moments vaguely reminiscent of his recent win at Lombardia. With that in mind, Valverde is another quick finishing puncheur who would be able to cope with the climb of Alt de Montagut; before going on to contest the finale with his notoriously quick finish.
1st José Joaquín Rojas 2nd Kevin Reza 3rd Julian Alaphilippe
With the year’s first classic out of the way, attention will once again turn to a battle royale amongst the major names in stage racing. Alejandro Valverde, Alberto Contador, Chris Froome, Richie Porte, Tejay Van Garderen, Rafal Majka, Romain Bardet, Dan Martin, Fabio Aru, and Rigoberto Uran are on the bill for what is likely to be a difficult to predict edition of the Volta a Catalunya. The week’s racing bears no time trial for the likes of Froome, Porte or Contador to hammer home an adavtange, nor does it offer their favourite types of climb to demonstrate their talents. Often here, those with a knack for short anaerobic efforts over sharp gradients will gain time on the pure climbers; meaning puncheur style riders are capable of causing an upset on the general classification with one well timed attack during the week.
Day one starts in the coastal town of Calella and also ends in the same Mediterranean town; making the 185.2km ride an out and back trip for the peloton. Opening with 75km of predominantly flat riding, the Alt de Viladrau will be the first uphill challenge of the week; 11.8km long and with an average of 3.8% (max 7%). This should be summited easily enough by approximately the 110km marker, but they are soon directed upwards once again by Alt de Coll Formic’s 7.8km category 1 climb (avg 5.2%, max 9%); topping out 55.5km from the finish back in Calella. Reward for completing this will be the subsequent long descent back towards the start town; though the day’s racing is not over yet. At 7.4km long with an average gradient of 3% and a maximum of 6%, the Alt de Collsacreu will form the launchpad for any final attempts to escape off the front, or for the day’s already established breakaway to drive their advantage to the line. The 10km descent from the summit will be a hectic affair, eventually levelling out with just 8km of racing remaining before the finish line; the last 500m contested upon a 2% gradient. Assuming a breakaway has failed to keep the peloton at bay, a sprint finish seems guaranteed after this testing opening day in Catalunya; one which should be interesting given the surprising depth of quick men at this year’s edition.
Catalunya has frequently proven to be one of the hardest races to predict from one day to the next; this year appears to be no different on stage one. Given the course’s terrain, the peloton will have to be on reasonable alert to ensure no danger men sneak into the expected breakaway once out of Calella. The queen stage is the only clear cut opportunity to overturn a deficit, so those aiming for the general classification cannot afford to let someone capable of defending a lead make it into a break which sails in minutes ahead of the peloton. This should mean teams will work hard to guarantee a sprint finish come the end, making for fascinating viewing to not only see who has the legs to survive the climbs, but to also have the energy required for a stage winning effort.
Bryan Coquard is deemed the favourite by many for this curtain raiser in Calella, coming here on the back of promising performances at Paris-Nice and he will be eager to finally break his WorldTour duck in Catalunya. There is no question as to his sprinting ability, coming to the race as one of the fastest men in the peloton, but little is said of his climbing ability. The lightweight rider will be confident of making it to the finish in good condition and will benefit from a reduced bunch sprint with no leadout trains. In terms of raw speed, Caleb Ewan is possibly the next fastest man in Spain, but this is a big step up in quality for the young Australian. He travels to the race having picked up two wins at the Tour of Langkawi, where he found a nemesis in Andrea Guardini most days; competition was lacking for Ewan beyond that of Guardini though. Ewan climbs well for a man with such unbridled pace, but is likely to find the depth of talent here too much to overcome in order to win.
Despite abandoning on stage 7 of last year’s race, Luka Mezgec walked away with three stage wins and will have been excited to attempt the same in 2015. However, the Slovenian rider has been sick this year and had a torrid time during Tirreno-Adriatico where he crashed hard on the second day; eventually going home on stage 6. Beyond his win at this year’s Haut Var, it is difficult to gauge his current condition after such misfortune and he might only ride into form towards latter stages of the race. Consistently a few wheels down on Mezgec throughout last year’s sprint finishes in Catalunya was Julian Alaphilippe, riding here again with ambitions of stealing a win. The young Frenchman has not had an opening to the season much better than Mezgec, but appeared to cope well when supporting team leader Michal Kwiatkowski at Paris-Nice. He should be afforded greater freedom in the sprints during this race and is a talent which can only improve year on year; worth watching out for.
Perhaps the man coming to Catalunya with the most consistent sprinting form so far this season is José Joaquin Rojas, starting the race having finished Milan-San Remo less than 24 hours earlier. Often criticised for coming up short when it matters, 2015 is already showing encouraging signs for the Spaniards hope’s of taking a win on stage 1. During Paris-Nice he finished 6th, 5th, 5th and 5th in the bunch kicks; missing out on higher placings when bullied by those bolstering dominant leadout trains. The story will be different in Spain however, with many of the teams in attendance focusing their resources on the general classification, rather than supporting sprinters. He is one of the quickest after the likes of Ewan and Coquard, but his real strength comes in his ability to climb better than the rest of the sprinters. Rojas will be confident of overcoming the day’s climbing relatively easily compared to others and will seize any sprint finish here fervently.
Outcome: 1st José Joaquin Rojas 2nd Bryan Coquard 3rd Julian Alaphilippe
While professional cycling continues to expand across the globe, attracting an increasingly diverse audience, landscapes previously untouched by the technicolour peloton are now becoming a common sight. However, there is a downside (for the riders at least); as along with the tapping of new lands comes the discovery of environments never raced upon for good reason.
The Tour of Qatar returns to 2015 on the back of its 10 years’+ success, having seen the race won by Niki Terpstra last year. Glamourous and exotic, the attraction was evident when drawing a stellar field once again in 2014, but this year has already proven to be a new hell in the opening three days. Vicious crosswinds created an ever shifting silk carpet of sand which slickened the already flawless tarmac; shattering the peloton as riders panicked to join the resulting echelons. It might be a cliché, but echelons do not always mean a race is won in that moment: rather often leaving contenders’ ambitions of winning cast out on the scything gale which etched the diagonal battalions across the road.