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Polish off your Polish!

The World Tour barely takes a break after reaching Paris, with the week-long Tour of Poland starting on Saturday

Wellens wins in the wet. Last year’s decisive attack
LC/Getty Image

Inevitably, there’s going to be something of “after the Lord Mayor’s Show” about the Tour of Poland, now firmly established as a World Tour event and fitting into the gap immediately after the Tour. It is the warmup race for the Grand Tour that most big names don’t ride a full tune-up for. It comes when most self-respecting cycling fans, and plenty of cyclists, are putting their feet up after Paris. Plus, of course, it clashes with San Sebastien, a more prestigious race and in a location closer to home for much of the peloton.

Still, I like this race. I’m a sucker for week-long stage racing, as you have probably picked up, and I especially like races that aren’t “just a tune-up”, but have their own character. I particularly like the fact that ToP (that’s what the kids aren’t calling it, but I’m not typing the whole thing, and Tour de Poland just sounds idiotic) brings us World Tour cycling from Eastern Europe. Along with the Canadian classics, this move into Eastern Europe seems the least forced of the UCI’s globalisation plans.

The number of good cyclists coming out of the region made it an obvious choice, and it is logistically manageable for the teams. Poland has recently produced Rafal Majka, Michal Kwiatkowski and Maciej Bodnar, among others, and is a growing force in the cycling world. Watch out for Alan Banaszek in coming years, too. The Tour of Croatia is a great race of increasing significance, but this is the most prestigious event in the region and it is nice to see it attracting good startlists.

Something else I like is the course, which has been experimented with over the years to bring competitive racing without climbing enormous peaks. The list of previous winners (including Jens!, Izagirre, Dan Martin, and Sagan) speaks to classics-style racing. Time trials have been included sometimes, but I associate ToP with hard sprints, tough hilly circuits and an Ardennes-y feel. With the Vuelta on the distant horizon, there’s always a question of how good the racing form will be for some of the big names turning up, but that just adds to the fun. Let’s have a look at the course and some of the big names competing.

The course – consistently tough

You can find the full summary of stages here, which is slightly easier to navigate than the official site. Three things to note. First, there isn’t a time trial. What we get instead are seven road stages, which are mostly shortish, and mostly bumpy-ish. Some get longer, and some get positively hilly. Second, the Queen stage is the final stage. This is a shorter version of last year’s stage 6, which was cancelled owing to awful weather. I don’t want to get too optimistic, but with nine days to go until that stage, there’s no sign of it being anything like so dreadful in 2017 - though some rain is expected. Third, the y-axis stretch on those profiles is ridiculous. It is hilly, yes, but they’re not going to be roped together on any of the climbs.

The whole race is being held in the south of the country, around the cities of Krakow and Katowice, towards the Slovak and Czech borders.

Stage One is a 137km loop beginning and ending in Krakow. This one has bumps aplenty but has a flat finish and is about as good as it gets for the sprinters.

Stage Two runs for 142km and again finishes on a flat after a downhill, but there are two steep climbs in the last 10km and anyone looking to contest the finish will have to hang on tight to the peloton.

Stage Three is 161km long and has four category one climbs – twice each up Salmopol and Zameczek. The field then climb almost all the way to the finish in Szczyrk, a beautiful town but one that could helpfully buy a vowel. This is a really tough stage and will go some way to determining the overall. The second half of this stage is in the beautiful Beskid Śląski mountains, which is ski-jumping country.

Stage Four is the longest of the race at 238km, and gets most of the bumps out of the way early. It finishes with three 14km loops around Zabrze and the sprinters will expect a bunch gallop.

Stage Five is short and climby, finishing after 130km with a category two climb 10km or so from the finish. Again, it is downhill and fast from there and will be a fast finish from whatever group is together after the climb – which is the last of four categorised ascents.

Stage Six takes us back to the hills, and is a bit of a brute. 189km long and with five category one climbs, and an uphill finish in Zakopane, it is the second stage that will be circled by all of the GC contenders. The finish here isn’t as steep as that in stage three, but anyone making it to the foot of that climb in the lead group will already have worked pretty hard.

Stage Seven is, as I’ve said, the Queen stage. It finishes atop the climb into Bukowina, something of a ToP mainstay. The final climb is short but has a tough first kilometre.

Through the stage, the riders complete two loops of a 66km course, and through their 132km will suffer six category one climbs before that final ascent. The corresponding stage was cancelled last year, but a longer version of the same stage was won in 2015 by Sergio Henao, with Izagirre (who won overall), Aru, Nieve, Formolo and Ullisi among the top ten. Selective, you’d have to say.

In the absence of a time trial, the last stage is clearly the most significant of the race, though the overall winner will have had to stick in the right groups on all of the stages (which may not be easy) and in particular, climb well on the third and sixth stages. Finding a winner is somewhat easier as we don’t have to weigh up chrono skills against climbing abilities. We’re looking for an Ardennes type with sufficient climbing stamina for some of the longer (though far from alpine) climbs. We’re also looking for a rider in form.

The main contenders

The full startlist isn’t quite set yet, but we’re getting there. There are lots of riders taking part who’ll have some kind of chance, and getting this list down to something digestible isn’t easy - apologies if I end up not even mentioning the winner.

Beginning with the stage winners, there are opportunities for sprinters, though it isn’t a race for the pure flat men, and sure enough, most of them haven’t turned up. Tyler Farrar is always the man to watch on these stages. Sorry, I briefly lost control of my keyboard to a Seattle-based hacker there. Peter Sagan is here and we must assume he’s pretty angry after the Tour. He’ll have a good chance in several stages, in particular two and five, but one and four will be on his radar too. I see him winning a couple of stages and waltzing away with the sprinters’ jersey (which is white, incidentally).

Against him, Danny van Poppel is improving in races like this and he’ll have chances. Niccolo Bonifazio took a stage last year and could easily repeat. Jens Debusschere is another who will enjoy the tough sprints. On the flatter stages, Caleb Ewan is the likely favourite, a fast man with a decent amount of support from Orica.

The other stages will be contested by those in with a shot at the overall, you’d think. There are lots of big names, but plenty of them are coming off injuries, or long periods of training post-Giro. Vincenzo Nibali looks ideally suited to this race, but on the rare occasions he’s raced it before he’s been a long way off the pace and deep in Vuelta-prep mode. Hard to see that approach changing this year.

Others returning after a break and unlikely to be fully fit are Jungels (who’d love a time trial), the below-par van Garderen, Kelderman, who was last seen injured in a moto crash in the Giro, and Poels, who’s been struggling with injuries this year but would enjoy this course if fully fit. As ever, Sky bring great support including local riders Golas and Wisniowski.

For AG2R, Dominico Pozzovivo comes back after a break since the Swiss Tour and is definitely one to watch. Ben Hermans is perhaps more of a threat for BMC than is van Garderen; he finished third in this in 2015 and will enjoy the parcours.

Ilnur Zakarin has already blown the cobwebs off, with a return to racing in Austria. He continues his tune-up to the Vuelta here and it ought to suit him – he’s been in the top ten before and can attack short climbs with the best of them. He’s probably Katusha’s main man, as Simon Spilak, the King of the weeklong race, hasn’t finished this race since 2011, when he was very anonymous. He was one of many to abandon in awful weather on stage five last year.

Another double-headed team is Canondale, who bring Dombrowski and Formolo, two extremely promising young climbers. Davide Formolo is coming off a break, but that’s been true in the previous two editions as well, in both of which it was the time trial that knocked him off the podium. Expect him to go better in the absence of a race against the clock. Dombrowski’s not ridden this before but there’s no reason he can’t go well. You have to think Canondale will be flying after Uran’s Tour performance.

One name that keeps cropping up on the ToP podium is Izagirre. It has always been Ion, who isn’t here this year as he continues to recover from his injuries. Upholding the family name will be Gorka, who might just get a rare chance to ride for himself as part of a comparatively weak Movistar team. Unlike Ion, Rafal Majka has recovered sufficiently from his Tour injuries to take part, and will be the home favourite, but it’d be a surprise if he was riding well enough to take high order.

Adam Yates is coming back from a long break and picked up a top ten in a weak field Spanish semi-classic this week. He could use a decent performance to secure his place in Orica’s Vuelta pecking order. This is the sort of race Reichenbach should enjoy and he needs to show some improvement after a tough season.

Lots of potential winners, then, but my pick for the overall prize is Rui Costa. Oddly, he’s never ridden this before, but he’s a hardy climber, goes well in the Ardennes type races, and copes well with bad weather. He was riding nicely in the Swiss Tour before he took a break and, although he’s using this as a Vuelta tune-up, I have a feeling he’ll be ready to perform. He’s got adequate support in the UAE team, with Polish veteran Niemic and young climber Valerio Conti to the fore.

Wet weather warrior: Rui wins in Switzerland
Tim de Waele/Getty Images

This is a wide-open race and I suspect I’m not picking in line with mainstream opinion, which means there may well be some fake bets included in the comments. In absence of betting markets, for now I’ll just take a guess at a top five overall:

  1. Costa
  2. Zakarin
  3. Formolo
  4. Pozzovivo
  5. Poels

I’m sort of hoping that’s wrong, because Majka is on both my VDS and draft team. On the latter, he’s joined by Wisniowski, whilst on the former he’s joined by Ewan, Oomen, Enger and Bonifazio. Some points chances but I don’t think I’ll be winning the GC battle. Who’s representing you, and who are you tipping for glory?