This year’s pro road season has all the makings of one that will focus our attention on racing excellence and a new generation of athletes, rather than the doping sins of the past. In the first two parts of this guide, I took a detailed look at the spring classics and the first two Grand Tours. This final part highlights the Vuelta a España, a growing series of important North American races, the world championships, and the season-ending races in Europe and Asia.
Although the Clásica San Sebastián takes place on the final Saturday in July, this popular Spanish one-day race kicks off a hectic post-Tour de France period of events. San Sebastián is the first in a trio of European classics that also includes the Vattenfalls Cyclassics in Hamburg, Germany (August 25) and the GP Ouest-France at Plouay, France (September 1). The hilly Spanish race usually results in wins for men who have come out of the Tour with rising form, as was the case the past two years with Luis León Sanchez and Philippe Gilbert. The other two races are usually the property of sprinters, despite the organizers’ efforts to insert short, steep climbs on their mainly flat courses. The fast, young Frenchman Arnaud Demare of FDJ won in Hamburg last year, while Sky’s Boasson Hagen is the defending champion in Plouay.
Besides those three classics, the UCI WorldTour August calendar features two weeklong events leading in to the Vuelta. The first is the only major bike race in eastern Europe, the Tour de Pologne (July 27-August 3), which has been one of the world’s elite stage races since only 2005. Riders from the new generation have won it for the past three years: Ireland’s Dan Martin of Garmin-Sharp in 2010, followed by Slovakia’s Peter Sagan and Italy’s Moreno Moser (who are both on the 2013 Cannondale team). Coincidentally, this year’s Polish national tour starts with two stages in Moser’s home region of Trentino in northeast Italy, featuring summit finishes at Madonna di Campiglio and the Passo Pordoi in the Dolomites before a 1,000-kilometer transfer to Poland—where the race will end with a 42-kilometer time trial in Krakow.
Europe’s other August stage race is the Eneco Tour (August 12-18), which last year saw Alberto Contador make his return to racing after his doping suspension before going on to win the Vuelta. Named after sponsor Eneco, an energy company, the race was created in 2005 as a Tour of Benelux, but has yet to establish a true identity. That’s partly because it resembles the much older Tour of Belgium, rather than combining that’s race’s characteristics with those seen in the Tours of the Netherlands and Luxembourg.
There have been no such problems for two much younger stage races on this side of the Atlantic. The Tour of Utah (August 6-11) is living up to its claim as America’s Toughest Stage Race, and, after only two editions, Colorado’s USA Pro Challenge (August 19-25) already has crowds rivaling those more common in Europe. This year, the Challenge sees the return of the uphill Vail time trial that will likely decide the outcome, with BMC’s Colorado local, Tejay Van Garderen, the favorite to win.
Because the Vuelta a España (August 24-September 15) starts on the same weekend that the Colorado race finishes, there’s unlikely to be much of a U.S. contingent in Spain. But on a just-announced course that contains 13 mountain stages (including a record 11 summit finishes) and 41 categorized climbs, there’s no current American rider who could challenge for the Vuelta’s G.C. (Team Sky neo-pro Joe Dombrowski might shine on a course like this, but he’s already penciled in for the Giro d’Italia in his rookie year.)
The organizers are hoping that the repeated hilltop and mountaintop stage finishes will produce as frenetic and spectacular race as last year’s Vuelta, when Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) ended up winning from rival Spaniards Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha). But if one of this trio doesn’t start or another drops out early, the race could be decided after the only time trial (a hilly 38 kilometers!) is held midway through the three-week race—though the conventional wisdom calls for a final showdown for the winner’s red jersey at the top of the fiercely steep Alto de L’Angliru, the day before the finish in Madrid.
Besides the defending podium, other contenders could include Valverde’s teammates, climber Nairo Quinziato or 2011 Vuelta winner Juanjo Cobo; Rodriguez’s teammate Dani Moreno; Team Sky’s Chris Froome (if he doesn’t podium at the Tour de France) or one of his Colombian teammates Sergio Henao or Rigoberto Uran; Garmin’s Martin; or Euskaltel’s Spanish veteran Samuel Sanchez.
Several riders will be using the Vuelta as preparation for the upcoming world championships—as Philippe Gilbert of BMC did last year, and as men such as Contador, Rodriguez, Valverde plan to do this year for the very hilly worlds course in Florence, Italy. Others rainbow jersey contenders may choose the Canadian option, which now consists of the inaugural six-day Tour of Alberta (September 3-8) in the Canadian Rockies, followed by the well-established UCI WorldTour classics, the GP de Québec (September 13) and GP de Montréal (September 15). Look for likely worlds contenders such as Sky’s Eddy Boasson Hagen, Cannondale’s Sagan and Garmin’s Ryder Hesjedal to contest the Canadian races and be ready for Florence.
The 80th UCI World Road Championships take place in Tuscany (September 22-29), with road and time-trial courses starting in various cities around the region, but all finishing outside the Nelson Mandela Forum in Florence. With no Olympics this year, we can expect Brad Wiggins and Froome to spearhead Team Sky in the second edition of the trade teams time trial, challenging last year’s initial champion Omega Pharma-Quick Step and runner-up BMC Racing. The British team’s horsepower will be a major factor on a 50.3-kilometer course that uses straight, flat roads for the most part. The 55.5-kilometer individual TT is on a similar course, with some added loops on the run-in to Florence, and this will also favor Wiggins or Froome, who will both be trying to win this title for the first time, versus Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara (should he decide to shoot for a fifth TT crown), Germany’s defending champion Tony Martin and America’s 2012 runner-up Taylor Phinney—who lives close to the course and trains on these roads for most the year.
The elite men’s road race is one of the toughest in world championship history. It’s just short of 280 kilometers, starting from Lucca and climbing four challenging hills in the first 70 kilometers before reaching Florence. The remaining 166 kilometers will be over 10 laps of a circuit that scales the Fiesole hill to the north of the city, climbing about 1,000 vertical feet in 5 kilometers. After a long twisting descent, the peloton will face two short, steep hills of 12- and 10-percent grade respectively, the last one just 2.5 kilometers from the finish line.
Such a severe test clearly favors classics specialists who do well in races such as Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Il Lombardia, so Belgium’s defending champion Gilbert has a good chance of repeating, while other former champs, Cadel Evans of Australia and BMC teammate Alessandro Ballan of Italy, are also possible protagonists. Two-time bronze medalist Valverde will likely spearhead the Spanish challenge with Contador, Rodriguez and the two Sanchezes; the home crowd will be hoping to cheer home national hero Vincenzo Nibali; and the outsiders include Cancellara, Australian Simon Gerrans, Irishman Martin, Luxembourger Andy Schleck, Colombia’s Uran and Frenchman Thomas Voeckler. But the course layout favors a small group contesting the finish on a long, straight, flat boulevard. So if there’s not a solo winner, fast finishers such as Norway’s Boasson Hagen or Slovakia’s Sagan may end up in the rainbow jersey.
A week after the worlds, the champion will have a great chance of winning again in Italy at Il Lombardia (October 6), the former Tour of Lombardy, which was won last year in a torrential downpour by a solo Rodriguez. This semi-mountainous classic also offers a chance of revenge for all those beaten in Florence—see the names above. And though Paris-Tours (October 13) is not on the WorldTour circuit, the 107th edition of this French classic again offers field sprinters a chance of victory over recent race winners such as Gilbert, Greg Van Avermaet and Marco Marcato.
After a season that opens this coming Tuesday in Australia with stage 1 of the Santos Tour Down Under, the UCI WorldTour ends in China 10 months later with two five-day stage races. The inaugural Tour of Hangzhou (October 9-13) promises to have a more challenging course than the Tour of Beijing (October 16-20)—which is now in its third year after two GC wins by Omega Pharma’s Martin. It will take a few more years before such new events grab the attention of cycling’s traditional fans, but the sport needs to attract a wider audience if it is to become more popular globally, and races in the world’s most populous country aren’t a bad place to start.
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