For the third year running a spectator-friendly street sprint competition took place on the eve of the Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec WorldTour race, and for the third straight year a rider with a strong track racing background prevailed in the four-round elimination event.
Bryan Coquard, the 21-year-old first year pro with Europcar, won the silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics in the omnium and followed in the footsteps of such endurance track luminaries as Michael Morkov (2011 champion) and Zach Bell (2012 champion) to claim a narrow victory Thursday evening in the Challenge Sprint Pro. He's been no slouch on the road this year as well having taken six victories in 2013 and showing form of late with a podium finish in the GP de Fourmies last Sunday.
The event took place on the finishing straight of Friday's Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec, the Grande Allée, with riders heading backwards on the race route for 600 metres, negotiating a 180-degree turn, then returning 400 metres to the finish line for a one-kilometre long parcours. Twenty-four riders took the start, one from each of the 19 WorldTour squads and one Pro Continental squad plus four Canadians in national team colours, and competed in four-rider heats with the top two finishers advancing each round until the field is reduced to a four-rider final.
Coquard faced off against Giacomo Nizzolo (RadioShack Leopard), Moreno Hofland (Belkin) and Alexey Lutshenko (Astana) in the championship round with the young Frenchman coming around Nizzolo in the closing metres to claim victory. Nizzolo finished second, followed by Hofland in third then Lutshenko.
"Obviously my track experience helped with knowing how to position yourself better as well as finishing speed," said Coquard. "I personally didn't do a lot of sprinting on the track, but just having the overall experience was a big plus."
Hofland tried to catch his three rivals off guard by launching his sprint early and Nizzolo was the quickest to close the gap to the Dutchman. As Nizzolo moved into the lead inside the final 75 metres Coquard, however, finally got his bigger gear rolling and came around the 24-year-old Italian metres from the line to win in a last-second bike throw.
"I launched my sprint the same time as Moreno [jumped]," said Coquard. "I was in a higher gear and managed to make it into the lead in the last 15 metres."
Despite coming so close to victory, Nizzolo was in good spirits nonetheless afterwards.
"It's a great show here," Nizzolo told Cyclingnews. "I can say we had fun today and second place is okay. I think it's now 15 times this year that I'm second but better second than third."
Hofland concurred with the sentiment and was pleased to advance to the final round. The Dutchman actually bested Coquard in the quarter finals, but the Frenchman placed second and kept in contention. In the final, however, Coquard did not make the same mistake and allow himself to be blocked in.
"I'm pretty pleased because I didn't know what to expect," Hofland told Cyclingnews. "When I made the final I wanted to get top three because it's nice to be on the podium.
"I knew Coquard and Nizzolo are pretty fast and I wanted to surprise them, but they came back just before the finish. It's too bad but I tried."
Coquard was actually a last-minute replacement for his Europcar teammate David Veilleux, the 25-year-old Canadian who made the surprise announcement on Wednesday that he was retiring from professional cycling after Sunday's Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal.
"David wanted to keep strength for tomorrow and Montréal and I was really keen on doing it," said Coquard.
While Veilleux, who in July became the first Québec native to compete in the Tour de France, will have ample motivation to close out his career in style this weekend Coquard believed he, too, might have a chance, at least in Friday's Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec.
"Tomorrow suits me better than Montréal - the climbs [tomorrow] are short and steep, the kind that I like," said Coquard. "If I'm in front in the finale I might have an edge because I know the final 500 metres by heart now," he joked, having just completed four rounds of sprint racing on Friday's home stretch.
No repeat victory for Bell
Zach Bell, who rode this season for Pro Continental squad Champion System but is competing in Québec and Montréal as part of the Canadian national team, advanced through to the semi-finals with a pair of victories but then came up short, finishing third to Hofland and Nizzolo. It was a bitter pill for one of the crowd favourites to swallow, but the 30-year-old Canadian road champion was pragmatic about his showing.
"It was a bit disappointing because after the first couple of rounds I definitely had the legs," said Bell. "It's a cagey little thing and it is what it is."
Bell made a tactical error in the final surge to the line, finding himself initially in too low a gear.
"I didn't really play to the strength I built up on the road this year," said Bell. "Old habits told me to stay small and I wasn't really thinking about it, but when it was too late it was like 'Oh yeah, I don't have that quick leg speed jump anymore'.
"I should have jumped harder and shifted up right away to keep them from shutting the door on me. If I could keep them on my shoulder then we'd all be in a drag race and I might take that one."