I don’t think there’s much debate that the most successful bike race introduced since years started in a 2 has been the Strade Bianche. In an era of modernisation, gloablisation and crowd-friendly sports, the event that we all flock to is held on dirt roads in cycling’s heartland, with riders virtually carrying tubulars over their wool-clad shoulders. All utterly beautiful, tremendous fun and exactly what the fans want, but you can’t believe it was the UCI’s ideal. Ask for other successful races, though, and thoughts turn quickly to the Province of Quebec, and the two one-day circuit races held in the heart of the province’s largest cities, with big crowds and great racing. This is the best world tour racing in North America, and probably the best Worlds prep going. For those of us in Europe, it is a chance to watch classics-style racing in the evening. What could be finer?
The teams and riders
As you’d expect, very similar startlists for both events, with few riders making the trip who won’t take part in both races. We’ll get into the (small) differences between them, but there will be similar lists of favourites. All 18 WT teams are taking part, together with a Canadian squad headlined by Antoine Duchesne of Direct Energie, and the Pro-Conti Israeli Cycling Academy, who bring their pair of Canadians and are led by 2015 national champ Guillaume Bovin. To finish the home-team analysis, the Maple-leaf jersey will be worn with pride by Ottawa native Matteo Dal-cin, riding for the Canada team.
Among the WT teams, there is the usual muddle of strong sprinter types, classic puncheur types, and “guys who weren’t injured, or riding in Spain or Britain” types. Both courses broadly favour strong all-rounders who can climb, maintain a fast pace on narrow roads, and finish quickly on an uphill sprint. Breakaways have a chance and there are few riders here who have a better chance of winning solo than from a small group.
Peter Sagan has won both races and headlines a strong Bora team, and renews rivalry with his old foe Greg van Avermaet, who has Dylan Teuns as a more than useful foil in a good team. The two riders shared the prizes between them last year and will go into 2017 as favourites. Both will be aiming to peak in Bergen but were riding nicely in the BinckBank and should be on good form here. It’ll take a good rider on good form to get in among them.
One who might is Michael Matthews, who will benefit not only from the Faustian* pact Sunweb appear to have struck to win every race going, but also from Tom Dumoulin, who has a great record in these races. Both riders will expect to be on top form in Bergen and will ride hard. Matthews’ 2nd in Quebec in 2015 is, surprisingly, his best result in Canada so far.
*the literary Faust, not our own FCH.
As you’d expect, QuickStep, Orica and Sky have all brought teams of strong riders though without a clear leader. Expect to see them in disruptive mode. Diego Ulissi and Tim Wellens are among those who’ll be looking to jump clear on some of the steeper pitches late in the race and both have chances. Bauke Mollema has a sneaky-good record here and can’t be discounted, whilst nobody will want to drag Arnaud Demare with them to the finish. As his career progresses, he’s getting harder and harder to drop, too. Oliver Naesen can do no wrong this year and he has to be included in any list of classics studs. Tiesj Benoot is here and this is yet another pair of races where he could finally grab a first pro win. Finally, I’m now paranoid about not mentioning Rigoberto Uran, particularly given he somehow won in Quebec in 2015.
The Quebec course
A few people have told me that Boston is the most European city in America (whatever that means). When I hear this, I assume that they either haven’t been to Quebec City, or they haven’t been to Europe. This is a race I’d love to watch, partly because I really like Quebec City and partly because the course is very accessible and you can watch the riders several times whilst seeing the whole course.
On Friday, the riders are faced with sixteen laps of a tricky 12.6km course, for 201km in total. There are a few short sharp climbs on each lap, the toughest of which is on the aptly-name Cote de la Montagne, leading up from the St Lawrence River/ Seaway/ Estuary/ Fleuve to the old town. The finish is on a long, steady drag up the Grande Allee. It isn’t easy for breaks to stay clear on the run-in but nor is it a straightforward sprint. This one is finely balanced and decision-making on the last lap will be key.
The Montreal course
The second race in three days takes place in the Mount Royal section of Montreal (and if you’re thinking that’s a coincidence, you’re an idiot) and is a 12.1km loop of the Universite de Montreal, which will be taken 17 times to create a 206km race. The climbs in Montreal are tougher but come earlier in the lap, with the 1.8km, 8% Cote Camillien-Houde the hardest climb of the weekend.
Although the second half of the circuit is mostly downhill, the finish is up a steeper kick than is the case in Quebec and riders will need to time their sprint well to keep anything in their legs for the last 100m. This is also the only detail of either race I don’t enjoy, as there is a u-turn 500m from the finish on the Avenue du Parc that can really string out the field and create chaos. If you want more details, our own Mathieu G produced the best course recon I’ve come across, and the route is unchanged.
Picks and things
Before we get to the embarrassing bit where I make predictions, it is worth pointing out that the TV coverage of both races is pretty good. As ever, there’ll be more in the live threads, but have a look at the (impressively slick) website for details. Startlists are here and here. There isn’t a betting market yet, but I’m shouting at some people and we’ll see what happens.
I think this one comes down to a smallish bunch sprint and I see Arnaud Demare upsetting the biggest names for the win. Sagan in second and GVA in third. As a wildcard, Bauke Mollema has raced this three times and has been in the top 10 each time.
I’m going out on a limb and saying we’ll see a particularly aggreived Peter Sagan finishing second again, this time to Michael Matthews, who has a style perfectly suited to this race and is my pick. I’ll put my wildcard on the podium for this race and say that Gianluca Brambilla, riding in Canada for the first time, takes a small step towards rescuing a bitterly disappointing season late on.