UCI Road World Championships 2017 Bergen: France, a puncheurs paradise

 After a summer of cycling resurgence for France, the team now travel to Bergen with one of the best chances at bringing home the rainbow bands in years. Alaphilippe leads an attacking side that will look to shatter the race on tough Norwegian roads…

Alaphilippe travels to Bergen with leadership of the French team hanging over him. CREDIT: GettyImages

With close to a decade gone by since France’s last ‘successful’ Grande Boucle, 2017 was about time that the home nation got what they deserved. Five stage wins from four separate darlings of France with a King of the Mountains jersey thrown in for good measure.

Whilst the Tour may have been an impressive one for young Warren Barguil, it marked a month to forget for Julian Alaphilippe, the young Frenchman forced to skip his debut race due to a niggling knee injury. Both men travel to Bergen in France’s impressive nine man squad, the two main attacking options for when the race hits Salmon Hill.

Making up the rest of the nine man squad are, Alexis Gougeard, Lilian Calmejane, Oliver Le Gac, Cyril Gautier, Tony Gallopin, Julien Simon and Anthony Roux. No Arnaud Demare to speak of, but with such undulating parcours, this is surely going to be a race for France’s most talented puncheurs…

A 2017 of ups and downs

Alaphilippe was a rider on many people’s radar come the start of the 2017 season, but his rise to the top of the WT was just something extraordinary. After beating Alberto Contador on an uphill TT in the early season Paris Nice race, Alaphilippe went from strength to strength, having a spell in yellow whilst also claiming the youth and points classifications.

Just one week later, the Frenchman appeared once more, this time on the podium of one of the most prestigious classics of the year, Milan San Remo. Alongside Michal Kwiatkowski, he was the only rider strong enough to follow Peter Sagan on the Poggio climb, an impressive move for such a young rider.

Alaphilippe rides to an impressive podium spot in an action packed Milan San Remo. CREDIT: RoadCyclingUK

His whole season was geared at the Ardennes classics and an appearance in his home Grand Tour, using his characteristic uphill acceleration to claim some prestigious victories. However, a knee injury in training soon spelt the end of the Frenchman’s dreams for 2017, forcing him to set his sights on other goals.

After taking four months away from racing, Alaphilippe returned for the Vuelta a Burgos before going onto make his Grand Tour debut of the year at La Vuelta. It took him eight stages to claim his stage win, a magnificent breakaway attempt alongside Rafal Majka and Jan Polanc across some tough mountainous terrain.

He continued to hunt stages throughout the race but soon saw his quest flat-line as he failed to deliver the killer blow from within his breakaway attempts. The Frenchman was visibly tired come the final week of the race and may have just started to feel the after affects of a lack of racing since his knee injury.

A shot at the World Championships may have always been something on the mind of Alaphilippe, but certainly not with as much seriousness as an attempt at the Ardennes crown and a breakthrough Tour de France performance. After his knee injury, however, his whole season has been re-assessed and he’s had to quickly adapt to new parcours.

Alaphilippe takes four months off from WT racing after a knee injury setback. CREDIT: CyclingToday

The World Championships is never an event that can be won off the back end of some good form, it requires a whole season, possibly even more, of preparation. With his racing schedule changed so abruptly this year, is Alaphilippe prepared to lead France to the rainbow stripes? Both physically and mentally…

Tour de France Breakthrough

After a decade of waiting, the home nation finally got the rider they’ve been asking for since the eccentric climber, Richard Virenque. Warren Barguil soon became the darling of France even before he’d managed to win a stage. Stage 9’s photo finish between himself and Rigoberto Uran was enough to shoot the young Frenchman straight into both the media’s eye and French hearts.

With a healthy tally of mountain points, Barguil soon assumed ownership of the coveted spots, a jersey he would go onto take all the way to Paris. On his way to the infamous capital, he took two stage wins, his style of victory in each more disparate than the colours on his jersey…

One was in a reduced sprint for the line, showing off his incredible acceleration after a tough day in the saddle, and the other was a heroic solo battle up the famed Col d’Iozard. France had found it’s next Grand Tour hero, a stellar climber with an edge in both his sprint and bubbly personality, a true character to get behind.

Barguil on his way to a mythical Col d’Iozard stage victory. CREDIT: RoadCyclingUK

Barguil went from one Grand Tour to the next, his eyes set on a handful of Vuelta stage wins. Unfortunately, a miscommunication between himself and his team directors saw him axed from the race as early as stage 8 (coincidentally the stage that his countryman, Alaphilippe, later went onto win).

Since then, the Frenchman hasn’t raced and will come to Bergen with a redemption ride on his mind. Moving to Fortuneo for next season, he can put his Sunweb years behind him, hitting these World Championships fresh in the knowledge that he could take the rainbow stripes down to pro continental level next year…

GT legs

Alaphilippe and Barguil will head France’s main spearhead of attack come Sunday’s road race, the two almost going into the race as co-leaders. Both have had similar build ups to the Worlds in Bergen, La Vuelta being their main race for preparation.

As well as riding a third of La Vuelta, Barguil also endured a tough three weeks through France at Le Tour. Whilst his form was electric for the most part, it cannot have continued all the way into September, he will surely be feeling the fatigue now.

Alaphilippe may also experience a similar fatigue set in, especially after having gone stir breakaway crazy in the final week of the Vuelta. The three week Spanish Grand Tour isn’t renowned for it’s preparation pedigree for the worlds, the heat and mountains combining to create one tortuous ordeal for the riders. Races like the Tour of Britain and Canadian classics are much better for building much needed worlds form.

Will the Grand Tours have taken a little too much out of France’s two leaders? CREDIT: rmcsport

Hopefully the few weeks rest that both riders have had should do them some good, if not only to survive the 270km long ordeal through wind-swept Norway. We’ll only know their true capabilities come crunch time, but maybe by then it’ll all be too late…

Rouleurs-a-plenty

France is renowned for it’s hardy, strong classics men, the kind that excel in races like Paris Roubaix and other cobbled brutes. Joining the likes of Alaphilippe and Barguil to provide some much needed rolling road assistance are Alexis Gougeard, Anthony Roux and Oliver Le Gac.

All three are incredible breakaway riders, Gougeard animating many daily escapes in the recent Vuelta a Espana. Their hardened nature will be perfect for the windy Norwegian route, crosswinds and further chaos expected for this Sunday’s road race.

Le Gac is a competent time trialist and will prove essential if one of France’s leaders finds themselves distanced behind a split. Roux is one of the most experienced riders in the peloton, a multiple national champion and designated road captain for the French national team. He will orchestrate France’s race from the ground, drawing upon his year’s of experience in the pro peloton.

As well as some much needed Rouleur support, France will also be taking Lilian Calmejane and Cyril Gautier to bolster their uphill attacking contingent. Whilst the three rouleurs will be entrusted with protecting Alaphilippe, ferrying him to the final hill unscathed, Calmejane and Gautier will act as support riders for Barguil, the three of them France’s likely attackers when the road goes uphill.

Calmejane takes the biggest win of his career at this year’s Tour de France. CREDIT: VeloNews.com

One rider in the French side that will be on a relatively loose leash will be Tony Gallopin. The Lotto Soudal rider recently rode to an impressive second place in the GP Wallonie, a race won by his teammate, Tim Wellens. He’s an expert at these kind of lumpy races and will excel on the short punchy ascents such as Salmon Hill.

Gallopin is known for his prowess in the San Sebastian classic, a race that mirrors this year’s World’s route quite well. France will be keen to use him as a dangerous foil, turned Plan A, depending on which teams allow him to gain ground. Not only is the Frenchman a credible attacker, but he also packs a punch in the sprint; if he’s allowed to come to the finish in a small group, expect him to challenge for the win.

That leaves Julien Simon, an excellent attacker that spends the majority of his time playing leadout man for Nacer Bouhanni. With the sprinter not making the cut for this World’s selection, Simon should experience some freedom to go on the offensive. A podium result at the GP Wallonie indicate that the Cofidis rider has some stellar end-of-season legs…

How will the French race?

Much like the Belgians, the French come to this World Championships with a whole host of attacking options. Whether it be on the flat in the crosswinds, or on the steeper percentages of Salmon Hill, they have it covered.

There’s no hiding the fact that Julian Alaphilippe is their outright leader, he’s the man that can truly do anything, a pure dynamic rider tipped as the next ‘Bernard Hinault’. But that certainly shouldn’t lead France into creating a boring race where all they do is protect their main interest; this is a route where controlling the race will be incredibly difficult, attacks are going to fly and teams will need to follow.

Early attacks will inevitably fly. CREDIT: SkySports

With following attacks in mind, France have a number of options for when the race is still in it’s early stages. Alexis Gougeard will be their man for the early breakaway, slotting into the move to allow France to have an easy ride on the front of the bunch.

As the race hit’s the repeated ascensions of Salmon Hill, it’ll be the turn of Cyril Gautier and Lilian Calmejane to light up the race, drawing out the second tier attackers from the other nations. Meanwhile, Anthony Roux and Oliver Le Gac will guard Julian Alaphilippe and Warren Barguil, saving them for later on in the race.

Julien Simon and Tony Gallopin will serve as great foils as the race reaches it’s final 60km, both of them too dangerous to simply be ignored. Drawing out a chase is what the French will need to do, they don’t have the strength to take the race to the final sprint and will rather need to sap the energy from the other nations.

Barguil will act as the one two rider for Alaphilippe, a move on the final ascent of Salmon Hill looking likely. As Barguil solos up the road and forces the other main favourites to chase, Alaphilippe can sit in the wheels and bide his time for the final 10km.

Gallopin will play a crucial role in France’s plan of attack. CREDIT: PhotoNews

Whether it be in the sprint, or a late attack on one of the innocuous lumps into Bergen, Alaphilippe will commit 100% in the finale. He won’t beat the likes of Sagan in the sprint and if the Slovak makes it into Bergen in the front group, Alaphilippe will be forced to attack further out than first planned…

So, will we see a French World Champion in Bergen?

InsideThePeloton: Potentially, and if there’s one of the French team that will wear the rainbow stripes it will certainly be Alaphilippe. However, I do think that GT legs may play a big role, especially considering how long and arduous the Bergen route is. This will sap the strength from many riders and drop all those not on tip top form, Alaphilippe and Barguil two riders that I don’t think are quite feeling 100%.

JustProCycling: Alaphilippe has to be France’s leader. And I genuinely believe he’ll be the next World Champion. He’s got my money!

As some of you older followers may know, the join series between me and @JustProCycling is back, an anniversary edition of UCI World Championships Rider Spotlight! For the next installment, head to @JustProCycling for a look at the Australian’s chance at a world title! Did you enjoy reading this article? Feel free to leave a comment down below…