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With a month to go until the 2016 world road championships in Doha, Qatar, time is ebbing away for the main contenders to hone their form ahead of the road race and time trial.
Traditionally, the place to tune up for a run at the rainbow jersey has been at the Vuelta a España, but in recent years more and more riders haven taken the alternate route of heading to the Tour of Britain and the Eneco Tour instead.
Riders have also chosen to prepare in North America, at Utah, the USA Pro Challenge, Alberta, and Quebec/Montreal, although that program lost much of its appeal when the Pro Challenge disappeared this year.
This year the Vuelta arguably hosted just one rider capable of challenging for a medal in Qatar, Movistar’s Jonathan Castroviejo.
CyclingTips caught up with some of the favourites for the October 12 time trial, and the October 16 road race, to gauge their form and their goals, and to get the lowdown on what they view as the best way to prepare for the world championships.
The Tour of Britain has found its niche catering to those targeting the world championships in recent years. This year it attracted a strong field of sprinters, though the tough parcours only gave us two true sprint showdowns.
On the other hand, the Eneco Tour, with its three sprint days, looks tailored for those with an eye on Doha, and the majority of the world’s top sprinters are in the Low Countries for the race.
For several of the teams — Italy and Germany spring to mind — it’s one of the final chances to sort potential leadership quarrels on the road. Those involved seem to be keeping their cards close to their chests, though.
“We have a few options, yes,” said Trek-Segafredo sprinter Giacomo Nizzolo. “Nothing is decided yet. My goal is just to try and be 100% in October, and then we will decide.
Nizzolo’s sprint rival, and potential national teammate, Elia Viviani (Team Sky) is sitting out the Eneco Tour with a fever, but his opinion was largely similar.
“We don’t know what will happen with us. I want to feel really good off the road first, then we decide,” Viviani said. “In Britain, the problem was with recuperation, so I needed those kilometres for good condition.”
Australia’s Caleb Ewan could find himself in competition with Orica-BikeExchange teammate Michael Matthews for the leadership role in Qatar. He won the final stage of the Tour of Britain, but noted that plans for the world championships are still up in the air.
“I don’t know exactly what the plan is for the team,” Ewan said. “Obviously we’ve got Michael Matthews as well, so he’ll be a strong option for Australia.”
Meanwhile Lotto-Soudal’s German sprinter André Greipel wouldn’t be drawn on whether he or Marcel Kittel would lead the team next month, despite earlier saying he wouldn’t accept co-leadership. Greipel won the opening stage in Britain but was nowhere in the Eneco Tour’s corresponding stage in Bolsward, on Monday.
“We can speak about this race, not the worlds,” Greipel said after his win. “I can’t make thoughts about that [team leadership], because it is not up to me.”
LottoNL-Jumbo neo-pro Dylan Groenewegen, winner of the Eneco Tour’s first stage, has had a successful first year with the team, taking 10 victories. The 23-year-old Dutchman was diplomatic about his worlds chances, though.
“I think for the sprints maybe [I will be leader],” he said. “Maybe it will be a hard day though, so then it’s Danny Van Poppel or me. We will see.”
THE TIME TRIALISTS
With the Tour of Britain and the Eneco Tour offering up an opportunity for the world’s time trial specialists to measure their form against one other, it’s no surprise that many of them have chosen the two races over the Vuelta.
The time trials may be short (15km in Britain, and 10km in the Eneco Tour) but with the Vuelta’s sole time trial coming after 18 tough days, the choice is an understandable one.
Dutchman Tom Dumoulin has, Olympics aside, been the pre-eminent time trialist of the season with wins at the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France. In Britain he could only manage third, followed up by 14th at Eneco, but he’s happy with his progress so far.
“I had a good test for sure, and I’m happy with where I’m at now. I had an easy three weeks after Rio but now it’s hard training every day,” he said. “The Olympics was a bit of a disappointment, but now I’m actually more proud than disappointed.
“As for the worlds, sure I’m aiming for the win, but I don’t think the course really suits me. It’s flat, and not a lot of corners, so that’s not to my advantage, but I’ll give it a good shot.”
German Tony Martin (Etixx-QuickStep) won Britain’s TT, and after an off-period (he was seventh at worlds last year, and finished 12th at the Olympics) will be looking to add to his three world championship jerseys.
“The Tour and Olympics were pretty disappointing for me, but the win [in Britain] is the first daylight I see,” Martin said. “In the peloton there was Tom Dumoulin, Rohan Dennis, Alex Dowsett — it’s quite strong, and winning against these guys means a lot to me. So close to the worlds it gives me a lot of morale.”
Martin’s 13th at the Eneco Tour will be a cause for concern, though. The man who won in Breda was BMC Racing’s Rohan Dennis. The Australian also had a strong TT in Britain, finishing second behind Martin. He’s another man looking to avenge his Olympic disappointment, missing out on a medal in Rio only due to a mechanical issue that required a bike change.
“Of course I’m still annoyed about Rio, but nothing can change the result,” Dennis said. “I never go into a race that I’m planning to go well into other than [aiming for the] win. I’m there [in Qatar] to win, and if I don’t, I won’t be happy.
“My performance [at Eneco Tour] was good for confidence when it comes to Qatar,” Dennis said. “I was a little bit worried before coming here. I thought that maybe because I’ve lost weight since Rio, maybe I’ve lost that raw power that I had when I was a couple of kilograms heavier. It’s flat, there’s corners here in the time trial, and it was all about who had the most power today so that’s a good indication for Qatar, considering that’s going to be 100% flat.”
Dennis’ BMC teammate Taylor Phinney crashed during the time trial in Britain, finishing 40 seconds down, and had a bad day in Rio, finishing 22nd, five minutes behind Fabian Cancellara, but the American is still positive about his chances going forward; he finished seventh in the Eneco TT.
“I think I would’ve been up there fighting for the real top spots if I hadn’t have crashed [in Britain], but for me it’s a real good motivating result going into Eneco and the Worlds.
“Eneco Tour will put me on another level for the worlds,” he added. “I feel good about the worlds but I feel like I kinda have some secret form you know? I’m trying to be quiet about it.”
Alex Dowsett of Great Britain was another rider taking part in both races in the lead-up to Qatar, registering top-10 finishes in both TTs. The Movistar man was pragmatic about what he could do at the worlds, a race where he hasn’t cracked the top 10 for five years.
“I’ll just go as fast as I can and see what happens, basically,” he said. “I’m not trying to think about the opposition too much. There are some big names and it’s a big race, so I’ll just go and do what I do best, and hopefully it’s good enough.”
THE VUELTA VS. THE BRITAIN/ENECO COMBO
One topic that comes to light each September is the comparison of various races as preparation for the world championships. For years, riders have raced a week or two in Spain only to drop out and focus on the worlds. But this year, tailored routes for the Eneco Tour and a calendar move, forced by the Olympics, has seen the tables turned.
Last year Peter Sagan chose the Vuelta to prepare for what would be his winning ride, but he was forced to abandon after a motorcycle collision. In 2014, Michal Kwiatkowski rode the Tour of Britain prior to his worlds triumph, while the year earlier Rui Costa took part in a handful of one-day races, including Quebec and Montreal, before his big win.
It seems that there’s no tried-and-true method for success at the worlds, but what do some of 2016’s main contenders prefer?
Both Dowsett and Dumoulin talked up the Vuelta, but both see the merits of the Britain-Eneco program.
“Save probably for the heat, the Vuelta is better,” said Dowsett. “But I think they’re both good. A lot of us are on the same program — Britain, Eneco, then worlds — so I think that’s a good run-in. It’s a nice little build-up.”
“The Vuelta is a three-week race, and I think it might be the best preparation,” said Dumoulin. “For the TT, it might be better to do Britain and Eneco, rather than the Vuelta. But for the road I think the Vuelta is the best.”
And for Phinney, racing the Vuelta has a far-reaching effect, though he said he likes the Britain-Eneco run-in this year.
“The Vuelta is something that prepares you for the end of the season, but it also sets you up well for the next year. Those kind of races just change your body,” Phinney said. “Qatar will be shorter [than the Olympics TT]; it’s 40km. And it’s going to be tailwind on a highway so it’ll be really fast and flat. So these races should set me up pretty well for that.”
For Dennis, the answer comes with caveats. “It depends. If you’re doing the Tour de France and then doing the Vuelta, it’s probably going to be detrimental for the worlds, just because you’re sort of running on fumes. Whereas with Britain and Eneco, I’ve still had a bit of time after Rio to sort of chill out and train. I can come back a little bit fresher and just do the top end stuff at these races.”
“Yeah, for sure this preparation is different,” said Viviani, who won a gold medal in the omnium at the Olympics. “We worked a lot after the Olympics on the road, and the Tour of Britain was the first step. I’m confident that I came out of the race with already a good condition.”
The final word, from Martin, goes in favour of Britain and the Eneco Tour. “I prefer races like these, it’s easier for the head,” he said. “These types of races also suit me better. I think it’s also better preparation than going three weeks all day on the limit.”
So there’s no general consensus, but in 2016 at least the riders have voted with their feet and the overwhelming opinion is firmly in favour of the Tour of Britain and the Eneco Tour.
It’s no guarantee that it will always be the case, but this year at least it seems certain that the next rainbow jersey wearers will have honed their form at these weeklong stage races.