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Race Preview - Gracia Orlová

That's the hard core of the Classics season over, so now we move on to stage racing proper, with the 27th edition of Gracia Orlová, four days of time trials and mountains in the far eastern end of the Czech Republic. Well four days plus a prologue, to be precise. And one really really nasty day with two, ahem, half stages. That ahem will make more sense as you read on. SO I make that six stages, which isn't a bad way to kick off the season.

Orlová is one of those areas that are perfectly placed to hold bike races. The town sits on the edge of the flattish plains just to the north of the Carpathians - head north for flat races and south for the mountains. And luckily for us, north doesn't seem to be in the race organisers' vocabulary. Or if it once was, it was on the same page as flat, and that page got lost somewhere along the way. A couple of years back one stage had to be rearranged at the last moment after a heavy snowstorm blocked the intended route. That's how close this race runs to the edge. Time to bring out those climbing legs. And what other race has a page on their website specifically listing the phone number for all local hospitals.

Things start off easily enough with a evening prologue time-trial on Wednesday around the park in Havířov (a real Cheryomushki sort of new town), but that's just a tease. This race uses time-trials the way a matador uses his red cape; there's usually something nasty hidden right behind.

On stage 1 that something is a bit of a false pass, heading into the foothills of the Carpathians to a maximum of 500m above sea level (which isn't so much, as the whole area is around 200m high anyway) and 105km of road.

But that just prepares you for Friday 26th, so called because it's twice as nasty as Friday 13th. In the morning there's stage 2, a 26km flattish time trial out and back along a main road. For most of the peloton that is no problem, but if you're here to win then you expect to dig deep, and 26km is at the longer end of individual time trials in the women's calendar. And then after lunch there's another of those oh so crucial for GC contenders sort of stages with the 58km climb from Orlova to the mountain top finish at Visalaje. OK, it's not really a 58km climb. The first 28km are flat. Well not really flat but lumpy. The last 30km however are uphill all the way.

So then you wake up Saturday morning thinking that the weekend starts here. And it starts with one climb to 1000m two to over 800m and a host of other little bumps on the 122km circuit starting and ending in Lichnov but heading into the deep south. Anyone who thought that they had done enough on Friday to win the race could easily lose it all today.

Sunday at last is a day for the sprinters. Well any sprinters who bothered to turn up in the first place. And didn't miss the time cut somewhere along the way. Six laps of a flattish circuit through the centre of Orlová for 100km total race distance. Although there's always some bastard ready to drop in a last minute obstacle.

It's very much a climbers' race. Gracia-Orlová is classified 2.2 on the UCI calendar which tends to mean some big teams turn up and stomp all over the more numerous local ones. There's a start list up, (which I believe lists those who have actually turned up, rather than who was planning to three months ago) but the big battle is likely between Fabiana Luperini of Faren-Let's Go Finland, Specialised lululemon's Evie Stevens taking her new teeth for a test drive, and Bigla's is-she-a-doctor-yet, Emma Pooley. Will we be learning any new hand gestures along the way?

In the past we've had excellent video coverage from here (as in a half hour of highlights every day), even if we had to wait a week or so, but last year that was cut down to just a few short news reports. I'm hoping that the old way will return, but time (and some careful Googling) will tell. There are a couple of other English previews courtesy of Cyclopunk and Velofocus, and one in French from Le Derailleur, plus lots of stuff seems to be appearing on Twitter under the #graciaorlova hashtag. If you find anything else good then please add it to the comments.