In the world of U23 racing, the season begins with a lot of one-day races that are considered “baby” events to the ones used on the WorldTour, like the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Eschborn-Frankfurt and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, as well as the ZLM Tour, which is a one-day event at U23 level, but a stage race in the pros.
The middle of the season features a number of smaller stage races and Italian one-day races, as well as the U23 Giro, before the season ends with Worlds, Tour de l’Avenir and two more of those pro races who offer a similar parcours to the U23s.
First up is the Piccolo Giro di Lombardia (the second is Paris-Tours Espoirs), a mini Il Lombardia. The race features the iconic Madonna di Ghisallo climb the pros tackle, and although the mighty Sormano is not on the profile, there are a few more tough climbs that make the race difficult and always one of the most aggressive on the calendar
The opening 100km take place on very rolling roads, but this is ideal for helping establish a break in what can often be a very tactical race, where teammate up the road can be very helpful in the hard final.
The first climb on the menu is the aforementioned Ghisallo. The climb is slightly over 8km long and averages 5.7%. however, the climb is very uneven, with the first 3km averaging around 9.5% and has a maximum grade of almost 15%. The next kilometre is much easier at 6% average before the next 3km are easy, with two of those 3km averaging 2% and the other kilometre being downhill. The road then ramps up towards the summit, with the last kilometre featuring 12% ramps and averaging 10%. The summit arrives with 60km to race.
Things do settle after the Ghisallo and there is actually a chance for dropped teammates to get back on after the descent to help their leaders in the valley roads the follow the downhill from the iconic climb.
Colle Brianza is the second climb the riders do, and it tops out with just 20km to go. The 6.2km climb is again very irregular. The first kilometre averages 9.3%, the second 1% and third 5%. Kilometre four averages 9% but features the steepest point on the climb, the tough 19% gradient. The final two kilometres average 5.6% and 1.1% respectively.
The riders don’t have a lot of recovery time as just 14km later they summit the Marconaga di Ello, the last climb of the day. Crucially, this short 1.8km climb leaves just 6km from the top to the finish line in Oggiono. The first 500m of the climb average 4.4%, but the next two blocks of 500m average 7.6% and 8.6%, with the latter featuring a 14% gradient that could prove decisive after a hard day in the saddle. The last 300m of the climb average 6.5%.
Looking at the run in to the line, it starts off very technical but eases towards the end. There are two hairpin bends just before 3km to go and four tight turns in the first 700m after the 3km to go sign. The next 1.3km is virtually arrow straight and then there is a sharp right-hand bend just after the 1km to go kite and another sharp right hander with around 300m to go.
***DISCLAIMER: This Preview was very hard to write as there were no complete startlists available.***
Winner Candidates: Bjorg Lambrecht (Lotto-Soudal), Harm Vanhoucke (Lotto-Soudal), Patrick Muller (BMC)
Podium Contenders: Steff Cras (BMC), Mark Padun (Colpack)
Outsiders: Marc Hirschi (BMC), Filippo Zaccanti (Colpack), Filippo Rocchetti (Zalf)
Lotto-Soudal arrive at this race with two of the riders who finished on the podium last year, with Vanhoucke the defending champion. However, he hasn’t raced much since he returned from a broken collarbone in the Tour of Alsace, whilst Lambrecht is on hot form, attacking at the Worlds last week after finishing runner up in l’Avenir. Both are amongst the best climbers in the U23 division and, coupled together, they present a really nasty mismatch for other teams. Furthermore, the final is not just hard, but mostly uphill and downhill, meaning if one escapes the terrain is not favourable for bringing them back. Hanhoucke is likely to attack first as Lambrecht is the in-form rider and will wait as late as possible on the final climb. Both are great climbers and can hold on for the final 6km downhill and are the biggest favourites in this race.
Patrick Muller is racing for the last time as a BMC Devo rider, and he has a bone to pick with this race after he made it into the front group last year but he and then teammate Killian Frankiny had to settle for fourth. Muller hasn’t had the strongest season but he has looked stronger since he began his internship with BMC’s pro team and has proven he can race well in the one-day events, with fourth in Flanders and a great ride at the Worlds, showcasing his shape. He has also shown a turn of speed, meaning he will believe he can go better than fourth if the same small sprint scenario arrives like in 2016. If anyone can stop the Lotto duo, it is Muller.
Muller’s teammate Steff Cras has had a strong year riding for GCs in stage races, but the Belgian hasn’t done much one-day racing, just two one-day races for BMC this year outside of Nationals. He has the form and talent to win this race, but he isn’t Plan A in his team and lacks the knowledge and instinct for one-day races. However, he is a strong teammate and may be asked to attack from afar. He has a chance at winning, especially if the race gets aggressive, but it will be a shock if the 21-year old’s last U23 race sees him win.
Bahrain-Merida stagiaire and U23 Cycling Zone’s first ever interviewee Mark Padun has been recalled by his trade team so that he can ride this race. He was strong in the early season and won GP Capodarco, but since then he has been slaving away for Bahrain-Merida and it is unknown how the stress of pro racing has affected him. There is a chance his form is not so high, and he is in a strong team with UAE stagiaire Seid Lidze and another rider we mentioned below, so it isn’t known if he will lead. But if he is in shape, the Ukranian is very strong and this course suits him perfectly. He won a selective sprint in the U23 Giro from a climber group, so unlike a few of the riders above, he can win by this method. His form is really unknown so I can’t make him a winner candidate, but he has the skills to win here.
BMC may lack the sheer climbing talent Lambrecht and Hanhoucke have, but they have numbers and Marc Hirschi is another strong climber they have for this race. The teenager has climbed well all year and, unlike Cras, has been racing one-day events, even winning the Tour du Jura less than a month ago and, like Lambrecht and Muller, he was strong in the Worlds, showcasing the Swiss talent’s shape.
Colpack have won this race in each of the last two odd calendar years, with Davide Villella and Fausto Masnada. Antonio Belivacquia, team manager, told the race organisers a few days ago that he was bringing a very strong team here to see if he can keep the pattern going. We mentioned the brilliant Padun above, but Belivacquia actually said Zaccanti would be the leader for the team. He has started 2017 slowly but has slowly built his form and looked better in the Giro, Valle d’Aosta and GP Capodarco. Furthermore, the climber is 22, so he knows his chances of impressing a pro team and getting a contract are beginning to run out. I don’t believe his shape is good enough to stop the stronger international devo team riders, but his motivation may just will him to another strong result.
Having mentioned one of the most historic and best teams from Italy in Colpack, it is only right we mention a rider from the other powerhouse in U23 racing; Zalf. They are led by Filippo Rocchetti, who just finished 2nd in the Ruta d’Oro around a week ago, so his form is good. However, that race is a little easier than this one, meaning he isn’t as high on the list as favourites, despite his good shape. The 21 year old is quite quick though, so if he can make the front group and stay over the climbs, his sprint may carry him to a famous win for the Green, Red and White squad.