As we enter the final two months of the U23 season, we still have the two races that the whole world pays the most attention to: the Tour de l’Avenir and the Worlds. The Tour de l’Avenir, literally translated as Tour of the Future, is seen as a mini Tour de France.
While some previous winners have failed to live up to the hype, some of the races most recent conquerors have really begun to impose themselves in the WorldTour peloton, led by Colombian trio Nairo Quintana, Esteban Chaves and Miguel Angel Lopez, as well as Marc Soler from Spain.
This year’s race features a lot of sprint stages, like last year, as well as some very short mountain stages (including one 35km long day), and a team time trial. The favourites list is stacked, but sadly with most stages being either flat or mountainous, it will be hard for breaks and riders who are not sprinters or climbers to win stages.
We will delve into the GC favourites at the end of the preview, but here are some of the top sprinters competing at this race. Damian Touze (France) and Max Kanter (Germany) are the headline acts, but riders like Kaden Groves (Australia), Gerben Thijssen (Belgium), Jake Stewart and Mat Gibson (Great Britain), Szymon Sajnok and Alan Banszek (Poland), Mark Downey (Ireland) and Ziga Jerman (Slovenia) are all in with a shout, while riders like Andreas Stokbro (Denmark), Rasmus Tiller (Norway) and Julian Mertens (Belgium) and not known as sprinters but have very fast finishes if things get selective.
While there are two big name sprinters missing in Jasper Philipsen and Matteo Moschetti (although both have won pro races at the events they are riding instead of l’Avenir, so perhaps a justifiable call), almost every single top GC name is here, with the excpetion of Will Barta, who is still out injured, and Xuban Errazkin, who has tested positive, subject to proving his innocence we must add.
For breaks in the mountains, here are a few names who could go stage hunting, but we don’t believe will be in the final GC battle: Zahiri Abderrahim (UCI), Daniel and Cristian Munoz (Colombia), Thomas Vereecken and Victor Verschaeve (Belgium), Markus Wildauer and Felix Gall (Austria), Fernando Barcelo (Spain), Jonas Gregaard and Jonas Vingegaard (Denmark), Gino Mader (Switzerland), Michel Ries (Luxembourg), Kevin Inkelaar (Netherlands), Tiago Antunes (Portugal), Samuele Battistella (Italy), Tobias Foss (Norway), Eddie Dunbar (Ireland), Johannes Schinnagel (Germany).
Finally, we have three first year U23s in Italy’s Andrea Bagioli, Poland’s Filip Maciejuk and Norway’s Andreas Leknessund who have excelled this season. We think this race will be a little too long and hard for them this year, but we will be keeping a very close eye on them both to see how they do. Both will return here as top winner candidates next year, that is for sure. There is one other first year we want to discuss, but given he has been tested over ten days before, and has a strong team for the TTT, you can read more on him later…
Before we start the stage preview, we will only show the profiles of the sprint days, as we simply do not have time as we have a lot of mountain days to discuss, as well as the GC favourites. We hope you can forgive us!!!
This stage really will suit Sosa, who will have his strong team of climbers burn riders on the first climb before lighting the fuse himself on the last climb. This stage feels like a real test of who is up for the challenge of beating Sosa.
If Stannard can get over the Saisies, he would be the favourite on the short final climb, but this climb is also very similar to the one Williams took his first Isard stage win atop, and also suits Hirschi and Pogacar. The shorter climb may punish engines like McNulty and Almeida. If they are on a good day, look for riders like Mertens and Battistella, they may be well down on GC and allowed to win this stage, either from the break or the front group.
This stage promises so much, but the final climb is a bit of a let down. The bunch will be whittled down by the two climbs in the first half of the stage, but the last climb is simply not steep enough to force huge gaps. There was a similar stage to Asiago in the Baby Giro this year that saw a lot of action, but to be honest every stage in that race saw action. Here, things are more controlled. An ideal stage for the break to win, and as we detailed earlier, there are plenty of climbers who may not fancy the GC battle but would love to win a stage like this.
The queen stage. Again, it has been designed a little strangely, what with the long descent from the Iseran, but the two climbs in the last 45km are very hard, with the Chaussy designed to rip the legs of the GC favourites apart, and the Glandon to decide who is strongest. A day for the pure climbers, after which we will know who inherits Bernal’s throne of “King of France”.
The GC Battle:
Winner Candidates: Ivan Sosa (Colombia), Aleksandr Vlasov (Russia), Brandon McNulty (USA)
Outsiders: Tadej Pogacar (Slovenia), Robert Stannard (Australia), Alejandro Osorio (Colombia)
Jokers: Harm Vanhoucke (Belgium), Mark Donovan (Wiggins)
Thank God for the TTT, as without it I fear Ivan Sosa would have won this race by minutes. The tiny Colombian has a savage final kilometre in his legs, and he just demolished Vuelta a Espana bound Miguel Angel Lopez at the recent Vuelta a Burgos. He may lose a lot of time in the TTT, as his squad is mostly climbers, but it will be a shock of epic proportions if the rider reportedly contracted to Trek-Segafredo for 2019 manages to finish this race in any position other than on the top step of the podium. Probably the biggest favourite (his former teammate Egan Bernal from last year aside) in a good few years.
U23 Giro winner Ale Vlasov is such a consistent rider, and was third overall as Sosa won the Sibiu Tour in Romania last month. He will pray Colombia remain true to their stereotype and perfume horribly against the clock. Vlasov has great pedigree and is also a very good all-round rider, and he is one of only two other contestant here who has had the benefit of some WorldTour racing this season, thanks to turning pro with Gazprom-Rusvelo last year. It has been decades since the U23 Giro-l’Avenir double was done, can Vlasov topple Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin’s attempts?
Brandon McNulty is the other rider with WorldTour racing in his legs, and he excelled at it, taking 7th overall at the Tour of California. Given Sosa is a terrible individual time trialler, McNulty would perhaps have liked this race to feature an individual effort, since the American is a former junior world champ against the clock and was second in the U23 event last season. His USA squad will be a big favourite for the TTT, and his 3rd place on GC at the Tour Alsace show his legs are very good. Expect big things from the Rally man. He can genuinely win this race.
Swiss star Marc Hirschi almost made the winner candidate list, especially after scoring a stage win and 2nd overall in Alsace, but we opted to list the current U23 European RR champ below McNulty. Why? Marc has been good all year, winning three stages in stage races, yet he has not been able to convert a single one into a GC win. He possesses a very fast sprint for a climber, which is why he has also been a success in one-day races, but just seems to always finish off the top step in the stage races. He is a much better rider than the man who was 14th overall here last year, but I just feel like another podium could be his destiny. It would be a surprise if he doesn’t win a stage though.
Bahrain-Merida bound Stevie Williams had an injury and illness-hit season last year, but he has more than made up for it this year. The Brit won two stages on route to the overall title at the Ronde de l’Isard, before spending a day in the lead and winning a stage at the U23 Giro, before he eventually finished 5th. Perhaps the best pure climber here outside of Sosa, Williams will be hugely motivated to end his time as an U23 on a high, and another top GC ride is doable here, especially given the Brits will be one of those teams, like the Russians, Swiss and Americans who will look forward to that TTT.
Joao Almeida is another rider who will lament the lack of an ITT. The Portuguese climber from Hagens Berman Axeon has had a very consistent season and was 2nd overall at the Baby Giro, with his ITT hauling him onto the podium. His Portuguese team will be far from awful in the event, but perhaps he may have fared better on his own. But with trade teammates Ivo and Rui Oliveira to protect him in the flat and SEG Racing’s new recruit Tiago Antunes to provide support in the high mountains, this year’s Liege winner is in with a very good shout of at least making the podium.
Despite winning the previous round of the Nations Cup at the Peace Race, Tadej Pogacar enters this race as an outsider. The Slovenian, who will probably enter the WorldTour after this year, has had another brilliant season, including 4th overall at the Tour of Slovenia. However, he too is untested past the week marker, and his team is not as strong as some of the others here, which may cost him valuable time to some riders who he may struggle to distance in the mountains. Another fast finisher and a man not afraid of a long-range move, he is another strong candidate to win a stage.
Despite Australia being one of the favourites for the TTT, Robert Stannard may struggle to feature at the pointy-end of the GC. He was 3rd in the Bay Giro, but he made a break that took almost a minute on the GC men and gained a lot of time in the ITT, where he was actually the stage winner. However, he lost almost 3:30 atop the first summit finish of that race. If he has a similar ‘jour sans’ here, his GC bid will be dead for good. Probably the best one-day racer in the U23 scene on hillier parcours, he is the fastest climber here without question and some stage wins will be expected for a man many believe is the U23 Worlds RR favourite.
Alejandro Osorio was the revelation of the Bay Giro and normally, the Colombian would be much higher up this list. An extroadrinary climber, the man linked with Astana is likely to play more of a team role here. While in the Elite Worlds the Colombians have often struggled with leadership disputes, the U23s have a clear hierarchy, with Sosa serving Bernal dutifully last year, so Osorio will do the same this year. However, he is so good that he is likely to still finish very high up if he avoids a bad day and doesn’t crack too much in service of Sosa.
Now on to our two jokers. Harm Vanhoucke, now racing for Lotto-Soudal, would have been a massive favourite here under normal circumstances, but a bout of glandular fever destroyed the first half of his season with the U23 team and he has only just returned with the pros, racing the Tour de Pologne, finishing brilliantly in 65th considering his recent health and the fact it was his WorldTour debut. If he can keep getting stronger, he can win a summit finish, but a GC bid would be a very big surprise.
Valle d’Aosta stage winner Mark Donovan is the final first year we wanted to discuss. Another rider who may need to work for a leader, Williams in Mark’ case, Mark has great ability both against the clock and in the mountains. After leading for a day and taking 4th overall in the Baby Giro, he scored a stage win in Valle d’Aosta but was disappointing overall. Some wondered if he was starting to fatigue, but 7th overall in Alsace indicate his form is still trending upwards. A second ten day race might be too much at age 19, but given his talent and Giro ride, we needed to include him on this preview, even if it is in the joker role.