Just like in the pros, where despite the season starting in January, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne signals the real start of the season in Europe, the same applies for U23 racing. Plenty of U23s have begun their seasons already racing with their trade teams, but the arrival of the Gent-Wevelgem/Kattekoers signals the beginning of the Nations Cup and the rest of the top U23 events. While races like the U23 Giro and the Italian Classics allow riders to race in their trade teams, the Nations Cup dictates you ride for your country.
Startlist & What Happened Last Year
While some riders are missing from the startline due to racing commitments elsewhere, like defending champion Jacob Hennessy of Great Britain and Matteo Moschetti of Italy, and other due to their nations not being invited, like Serbia’s Dusan Rajovic, the Oliveira twins from Portugal and Australia’s Robert Stannard, this year’s race has attracted a stellar field with some of the favourites in red-hot form.
Last year’s race was predictably unpredictable. The racing was very aggressive and riders finished the race in small groups. In the end, a group of 7 sprinted for the win, with Hennessy beating USA rider Ian Garrison and Norwegian Rasmus Tiller in the sprint. Both of those riders are on the startlist once again for the 2018 race.
The race has a lot of very strong teams here and as mentioned earlier, a lot of top U23s have made the trip to Ypres for this race. However, some squads do stand out from others while it feels like one man shows for some other teams. The Danes and Norwegians always have strong U23 teams here and this race is no different. Tiller returns for Norway and is paired with Syver Waersted, who recently won a stage in the Tour of Rhodes. Despite Mikkel Bjerg being injured, Denmark still bring Andreas Kron (6th last year), Andreas Stokbro, Mathias Norsgaard and Mikkel Honore, 4th on GC at the Istrian Spring Trophy. Belgium arrive with probably the two biggest favourites in Jasper Philipsen, who has been smashing it at pro races so far, with 3rd in De Panne in midweek proof of his form, and Gerben Thijssen. The Dutch lack a sprinter but arrive with plenty of Classics firepower with Nils Eekhoff, Maikel Zijlaard, Ide Schelling, Marten Kooistra and Harrthijs De Vries. The Swiss bring Vital Concept neo-pro Patick Muller (10th last year), as well as attacking trio Reto Muller, Gino Mader and Marc Hirschi (5th and a stage win at Istrian Spring Trophy). Pit Leyder, Kevin Geniets, Luc Wirtgen and Michel Ries headline a surprisingly strong Luxembourg team. Slovenia have wonderkid Tadej Pogacar at this race, supported by Ziga Jerman, Ziga Horvat and Jaka Primozic. France have Simon Guglielmi (7th last season, but Alexys Brunel and Pierre Barbier are also names to watch. Italy have on form sprinter Giovanni Lonardi, but can send Mattia Bais and Edoardo Affini on the attack. Finally, the USA pair Garrison with Sean Bennett and sprinter Michael Hernandez.
Britain, and Germany have brought younger teams, but all three have strong leaders in Gabriel Cullaigh (two stages at Volta ao Alentejo) and Max Kanter (strong results in Croatian races) respectively. GB have a few riders from the track, as well as young talents Fred Wright, Jake Stewart and Joe Nally. Germany’s Niklas Markl is one of the highest rate first year U23s in cycling, but is too young to be expected to go well here, although Johannes Schinnagel was 6th overall at the Tour of Antalya a month ago. The Russian team features all three of Gazprom-Rusvelo’s neo-pros, but this is not a parcours suited to them.
Speaking of the parcours, the race is 188km long and starts and finishes in the town of Ypres, made famous by World War II. It features seven cobbled sections and six bergs. The weather at the minute is forecasted to be dry and sunny, although not especially warm at between 8-11 degrees Celsius. There are winds of around 12mph (20kph) in a South East direction, meaning the rides may face a cross-headwind on the way home after they are off the cobbles and bergs.
The first cobbled section comes at 27.5km in and is the Beauvordestraat and this is repeated again at 70.5km into the race. There is a lull in the action until 117.5km raced, when the Baneberg is tackled for the first time. The climb is just 1.3km at 5%, but maxes out at 9%. Just 8km later and it is on to the Kemmelberg, the climb synonymous with the elite edition of Gent-Wevelgem. The riders tackle this climb from the South, which is the shortest side at just 1.4km. However, it averages 7.8% and maxes out at 22%. The feed station has, rather harshly, been placed at the foot of this climb too in the town of Kemmel that lends its name to the berg. There are just 4km from the top of the Kemmelberg to the top of the Monteberg, which is a 900m long climb at 4.9%, maxing out at 7%.
There isn’t much time to settle after that, as just 13m after the bergs are dealt with for the first time, the riders tackle three sections of cobbles between 142.5km and 146km raced. They are all known as Plugstreet and each sector is periodically broken up by tarmac before the next begins. The sectors are 2km, 1.3km and 600m long respectively. After that, there is just 42km left to race.
The riders then make their way back to the climbs again, tackling the same three bergs as before in the same order: Baneberg with 25.5km to go, Kemmelberg with 18km to go and Monteberg with 13.5km to go. After the final descent from the Monteberg, the road back to Ypres ranges from slightly downhill to flat roads.
Winner Candidates: Jasper Philipsen (Belgium/Hagens Berman Axeon), Gerben Thijssen (Belgium/Lotto-Soudal U23), Gabriel Cullaigh (Great Britain/Wiggins)
Podium Contenders: Nils Eekhoff (Netherlands/Sunweb Devo), Max Kanter (Germany/Sunweb Devo), Mikkel Honore (Denmark/Virtu)
Outsiders: Marc Hirschi (Switzerland/Sunweb Devo), Alexys Brunel (France/C.C Etupes), Rasmus Tiller (Norway/Joker)
While it is very true that U23 racing is almost impossible to predict, Jasper Philipsen is without a shadow of a doubt the man to beat here. The Belgian is simply flying. He was fifth in a smaller Dutch race to start his season, before he impressively made the move with all of the big Classics riders in Nokere Koerse before it came back together and he was 14th in the sprint. However, just four days before this race, he was third in the sprint at the De Panne one-day race, with only Elia Viviani and Pascal Ackermann faster. Philipsen is, being honest here, a WorldTour calibre rider already despite only turning 20 three weeks ago, and is cut above his rivals, as his results in 2018 have shown so far. It is also not just a flying sprint that helps Philipsen. The Belgian is great on the cobbles (he was 2nd in Flanders last year) and has a strong support team with him in the shape of Rune Herregodts (2nd in that same smaller Dutch race) and Lionel Taminiaux (17th Le Samyn). In fact, his strongest rival may even be his own teammate…
While Philipsen has been smashing pro races over the last fortnight, Lotto-Soudal U23 have kept Gerben Thijssen much quieter. He has been mostly racing kermesses and local races in Belgium, but did produce fifth in the sprint at Paris-Troyes two weeks ago against established pros to showcase his form. His chances may be hampered by Philipsen’s presence, but DS Kevin De Weert will want more than one option in this race, as Belgium seek their first win in this race since it became an U23 only event. Thijssen also lacks experience in these races, after his team deemed him not ready for the Classics in 2017. However, he does have the speed to win if a group comes to the line and his obvious talent is undeniable. He will hope he has as successful a debut Classics campaign as Philipsen had last season.
Gabriel Cullaigh has a much weaker team than the Belgians, with three first year U23s in Joe Nally and Fred Wright, as well as track stars Adam Hartley and Mathew Walls. However, he is absolutely flying at the moment, winning two impressive uphill sprints in the Volta ao Alentejo. Furthermore, this is Cullaigh’s final season at this level, meaning he has extra motivation, as well as experience that other riders just don’t have. He also haa experience with this race, finishing 3rd in the 2016 edition behind Mads Pedersen and Anders Skaarseth, which proves his qualities as a rider are suited to the Flandrian Classics. While he may not be as purely fast in a sprint as the Belgians, a hard race and his tactical nous make the Brit a rider to fear in this race for sure.
Nils Eekhoff doesn’t have an amazing record in Flemish races, but he is still only 19 and is already a big name in the U23 Classics, although that is what usually happens when you win Paris-Roubaix. Furthermore, he is in great shape, with 14th in his first race at Trofej Porec followed by the prologue win in Istrian Spring Trophy and 4th place on the final day’s sprint. Winning small group sprints is a talent of Nils, as he won Roubaix last year from a group of riders. While he is no sprinter, a hard race and reduced finish does suit the Dutchman, making him a big player in this race.
When Eekhoff was fourth in the last day sprint in Croatia, teammate Max Kanter was third. Kanter is a faster sprinter than Eekhoff and the German already has some pedigree in one-day races. 6th in Trofej Umag this year adds to 18th in Flanders last year, as well as 7th in both the Worlds RR and Paris-Tours. What Kanter lacks in top cobbled results he makes up for with his one-day racing ability. He told U23 Cycling Zone last year he dreams of winning Milan-Sanremo, and this race has a similar parcours and difficulty level. This is an ideal place for the German to shine.
Back in January, we proclaimed Mikkel Honore to be one of the most versatile riders in the U23 peloton, and we have not been disappointed. Equally as good in one-day races and stage races, Honore is the on-form rider in a Danish team that is probably the strongest in the race, with Mathias Norsgaard and Andreas Stokbro rounding into shape, as well as having Andreas Kron, 6th here last season. Honore himself was 13th here last season, as well as 8th in both Flanders and Liege, before he rounded out 2017 with 10th in Lombardy. Despite working for teammate Kasper Asgreen in Istrian Spring Trophy, Mikkel still finished 4th overall, showcasing his great shape. He lacks a sprint, which is his big weakness, but the Danes are sure to ride an attacking race in an attempt to spring someone solo, and Honore has the best form for that.
Just like trade teammate Cullaigh, Mark Downey was flying at the race in Portugal last weekend. 4th in Classica da Arrabida days before Alentejo and 9th in last year’s Worlds RR show he has one-day pedigree, and the fact he finished every one of the five road stages in Alentejo prove just how good the Irishman’s form is. As mentioned above, his team is not very strong, with just teammate Matt Teggart as a notable name. but Teggart knows what he is doing, as he was part of the Irish team that helped Eddie Dunbar win Flanders last season. Downey may find himself isolated early, but his form is so good it is hard to see him as a non-factor in this race.
Marc Hirschi is another man who can claim to be the most versatile rider in the U23s, and like Honore, he has plenty of form and a strong team behind him. After taking a stage and fifth overall in Istria, he arrives back at the one-day scene, where he thrived last year as an 18 year old, with 12th here, 7th in Flanders and 16th in Liege. While his form is about the same as Honore, his team is very interesting. Pro rider Patrick Muller, himself 10th in this race last year, is back to race here, and IAM rider Gino Mader is another good one-day racer after taking third in Lombardy and 6th in Eschborn-Frankfurt last year. Reto Muller will be option four on another strong team. Crucially, Hirschi and the Mullers know each other very well, after being teammates last season on the now defunct BMC Devo Team. Could that extra knowledge of each other bring the Swiss a famous cobbled win in a cobbled Classic Fabian Cancellara never even made the podium at?
19 year old Alexys Brunel has a skillset that really reminds me of Fabian Cancellara. the current U23 French ITT champion isn’t quite as strong against the clock as Spartacus was, but after making his U23 Classics debut at just 18 last year, his results were very promising. In this race, he was 15th and came home with the likes of Hirschi, Patrick Muller, Neilson Powless and Damian Touze, for a very impressive performance. He followed that up with 11th in Flanders, coming in with the group of ten behind the solo winner Dunbar, before taking 6th in Roubaix, finishing in the front group. Brunel should be even stronger now than he was a year ago and has got experience in riding these races. He lacks a sprint, but he should be aggressive in the final and will seek a top result at this race to kickstart what he hopes will be another successful Classics campaign.
Rounding out our list of favourites is the bronze medallist from last year, Rasmus Tiller. The 21 year old has been a little quiet so far this year, with only one UCI race day so far. But his skillset is hard to ignore: a talented one-day racer who possesses a mean sprint ensures he is perfect for this race, and his knowledge of how to race the final is just another bonus. The elite Norwegian National Road Race champion has a few strong guys to help including Hans Kristian Rudland and the aforementioned Waersted. Tiller should be allowed to attack, knowing full well Waersted is in the bunch to sprint if he is caught. Given his lack of UCI races compared to his rivals, Tiller would probably accept another podium, but if anyone can upset the odds, he can