When we last checked in from the France Desk, near the Spanish border for ease of conversion back to the Spain desk in about 48 hours, we spoke briefly of important subjects, such as the weather and Nacer Bouhanni's, um, outfit. Those were indeed simpler times...
Bouhanni Out of MSR
Yes, it's MSR Week! The Italy Desk will be along shortly, while I will be moving to the Spain Desk because... it's Volta a Catalunya Week!
But back to MSR... everybody's favorite endless parade route got a little less intriguing last week when the list of people who could theoretically stop Sagan from winning shrunk by one. Nacer Bouhanni, stylish swashbuckling sprinter and Champion of France, horrifically crashed on his face, suffering... well, you do the math. It's ugly, but basically he'll be OK before long. But long is well after MSR, so no Bouhanni in Milano this weekend.
De Temps En Temps
One of the bigger pluses to take from an otherwise upbeat Paris-Nice was the fact that, for once, the race to the sun included some sun! Or, well, more than they had in Italy. Tirreno-Adriatico has emerged as the Middlemarch Week-long Stage Race of the Stars in the last few years, largely because of its reputation for better weather than Paris-Nice. [And better food and hotels.] At least one of those problems was addressed this year, when Italy got a good drenching on the one day it couldn't afford one, with that 230km stage 6 over some video game-like gradients turned into a memorably epic slog. Did the Cycling Gods decide RCS were flirting with a Hubris Problem designing such a stage on the theory that it never rains in Italy, at least not as bad as in France? Even Acquarone had to walk that one back Monday.
Paris-Nice shouldn't get cocky though. The point is, weather is weather. Outside of the Sahara or the Pacific Northwest, assumptions are for suckers, especially in March.
Andy Schleck Race-Finish Watch
I think I'm going to discontinue this feature for now. No, Andy Schleck did not finish any races this week, departing Tirreno-Adriatico during the Saint LPDO stage. But the rumorworld is alight today with bigger problems for Andy. Personally I don't take a Facebook allegation as anything much, but since the question of him having a real problem has been raised, I won't pile on. Hopefully he's just slowly coming around and will be right as rain by Liege.
Race of the Week: Cholet-Pays de Loire!
Oh, you thought this designation could go to another race? Whatever. I'm not certain MSR will even happen, now with all of Italy in OMFG WE HAVE A POPE!! mode. Also, after Lionel Messi's performance yesterday, there could be some trouble with an Argentine Pontiff. So let's stick to France.
And not just any part of France, but the Loire Valley. Not, like on the river, and no, the peloton won't be rolling through the courtyards of any famous chateaux. But the Pays-de-Loire is apparently a rather lovely, and not-at-all flat department of France with plenty to get excited about in the cycling realm. Situated between two velo-mad areas of Bretagne and the Vendee, surely the sport does quite well in this part of old Anjou.
The race itself consists of a men's and women's event, both utilizing a 29km circuit running south from Cholet and containing two climbs, La Tessoualle-Puy-St-Bonnet and La Seguiniere. The former has about 80m of vertical, the latter maybe half as much. The entrance to Cholet and dash to the line looks to be a false flat. In other words, it's no straight sprinters' affair.
The men's circuit begins not on the finishing circuit but on a long 170-km loop to the Loire and back, taking in ten rated climbs totaling 2500 meters worth of climbing. In fact, there's a competition-within-the-competition, the Challenge des 10 Bosses, or the Ten Bumps. Atop each bump is a line, where the race will award 5 points to first, 3 to second and one to third. Sadly, Ursula was asleep at the switch during the FSA DS Rules Committee meeting, so this comp isn't part of the scoring for us. But it's likely to enliven things a bit, at least for the non-Pro Tour teams.
Ultimately there is likely to be a sprint, in the same way that MSR or Paris-Tours ends in a sprint: one populated by sprinters with a little extra moxie in them. Past winners include Arnaud Demare, Thomas Voeckler, Leo Duque, JJ Haedo, and so on. Nice to see Marc Madiot on the Palmares too. That should tell you that either there are some cobblestones around, or at least that for some reason this race favors powerful riders, not temperamental thoroughbred sprinters.
Arnaud isn't back to defend, not with a real shot at a monument on
Saturday, though with Cholet on Sunday I suppose you could see some late substitutions. In theory. Assuming people enjoy driving halfway across France at night. [IOW, no.] [Ed: Nope, MSR has finally moved to Sunday as of this year. Forgot that.] Bouhanni can't make it either, leaving Pierrick Fedrigo in the #1 dossard for FDJ. Nor is former second-place Tony Gallopin, a perfect rider for this event, taking the start, since his Shackopard squad is nowhere near a Coupe de France event. [Full startlist here.]
Aside from Fedrigo, Yahueni Hutarovich comes in as a favorite. Bryan Coquard, second in the U23 Worlds race last year (so a guy who can survive a few climbs) and winner four times already for Europcar, has to be watched. Justin Jules of La Pomme Marseilles counts as a dark horse for sure, after winning a stage of l'Etoile de Besseges earlier this winter. After that, there's a long list of guys with experience and pedigree, plus a million ways to win the race, making your guess as good as mine. Oh, and I'll take Gadret, Coppel and Taaramae for the Ten Bumps.