Another big week in the under-23 category as the high mountains arrived for the European-based riders, and the Tour of California was the focus of Stateside attention.
After a year away from the race, Hagens Berman Axeon proved that they can compete with the WorldTour teams in their ‘home’ race. Anyone in Europe who was awakened by a loud knocking on Sunday night learned the next morning that it was Jasper Philipsen cracking his head into Fernando Gaviria during the Stage 1 sprint. Barging into the Quickstep leadout train is a good way for them to learn who you are, and the whole point of sprinting is to put your front wheel where it isn’t wanted, but since Gaviria won the stage anyway, Philipsen’s enthusiasm could have been better focused elsewhere.
Looking for young riders in the mountains was easy – Egan Bernal is 21 and currently on a different level to any other rider his age. Outside the WorldTour, though, 20-year old Brandon McNulty (Rally Cycling) was the pick of the bunch. Over a minute ahead of the Hagens Berman pair of Will Barta and Sean Bennett on the climb to Gibraltar Road, McNulty would go on to finish 7th overall at the end of the week. Mikkel Bjerg had his day in the time trial, finishing 6th, ahead of Jack Bauer, Neilson Powless and Maciej Bodnar. The ability of so many of the riders in the team to navigate to the top 10 of a WorldTour bunch sprint is unusual – Ivo Oliveira, Michael Rice and Bennett all following Philipsen’s example (other than the barging).
Bennett’s story is well known – a late addition to the Hagens Berman team following Adrien Costa’s decision to pursue other interests – and he was nearly the missed talent of the winter as his consistency in different types of racing this season and 2nd place on Stage 3 at California demonstrates.
Back in Europe, the Ronde de l’Isard was the biggest story of the week. The four day stage race in the Ariege Pyrenees is the first serious visit to the high mountains of the European under-23 season. Stage 1 set the tone, with the Col du Portet d’Aspet and a short but steep finishing climb to Eycheil. Stevie Williams (SEG Racing Academy) also started as he would go on, winning the stage from Lotto Soudal’s Julien Mertens.
As has been common this season, Lotto placed several riders high up the rankings on Stage 1 but without taking the win, this time putting 4 in the top 10. Similarly, Mertens has quietly picked up several decent results so far in 2018 without a win (top ten at Liege, Eschborn-Frankfurt and Flèche Ardennaise) and was consistent again at Isard, eventually finishing 3rd overall. His two 2nd places came in very different terrain – the uphill finish at Eycheil and a 60-man sprint on stage 3. Placing 5th at the ski-station finish in Goulier Neige shows his wide-ranging talent.
Who is Siarhei Shauchenka? The Belarusian, who spent 2017 riding with the UCI Mondial team, now rides with French DN2 squad Cycliste Team Azureen. He surprised everyone, including most likely himself, to win stage 3’s rolling stage into Boulogne-sur-Gesse.
Stevie Williams (SEG Racing Academy) won Stage 1, Stage 2 and the final GC. He nearly lost it to a puncture on the last day, though, which gave Aurelien Paret-Peintre a chance of taking back his 28-second overnight deficit. With no teammates left in the group, Williams’ race was saved by hard work from Lotto Soudal, protecting 2nd place overall for their man Mertens.
In the end, Paret-Peintre took back only 8 seconds and moved into 2nd overall, ahead of Mertens. How the judges arrived at that will be lost in the mists of time, as the timestamp on my camera has the groups closer to 3 seconds apart. Gaps in the group? Shots taken at different distances? Could be either, but it was as tight a finish to four days of mountain racing as you’re likely to see.
A full Ronde de l’Isard photo-story will follow and is probably getting written during tomorrow’s travel day…
Elsewhere, Julius van den Berg added to SEG Racing’s ballooning win record with a victory at the 1.2 Profronde van Nord-Holland. He beat teammate Cees Bol into second place, Bol then following the result up with another second place today at GP Marcel Kind (1.2). After what looked like a slow start to the year, it turns out that the team was just coming into form for when it matters.
Marc Hirschi (Development Team Sunweb) continues his good run of results in hilly races at the 2.1 Tour de l’Ain, including 3rd place on Stage 2 and 4th overall. Matthew Walls (Great Britain Academy) backed up his two stage wins at the Flèche du Sud with another stage win at the 2.2 Trophee Paris-Arras Tour.