For most, Thibaut Pinot’s victory at Il Lombardia on Saturday brought the curtain down on the 2018 cycling season, but the WorldTour continues with an encore in China this week, as the peloton gathers for the second Tour of Guangxi.
The UCI would undoubtedly like the Tour of Guangxi to serve as a sort of grand finale to the WorldTour but in its second year in existence, the race still has the feel of an addendum to the calendar rather than an integral fixture.
All 18 WorldTour teams will participate in China this week, though at this late stage in the campaign, the line-ups are a motley combination of inexperienced youngsters, seasoned pros still in search of contracts for 2019, established stars serving penance for low-key seasons and riders feeling their way back into competition after injury.
Rigoberto Uran (EF-Drapac) and Gianni Moscon notably make the trip to China riding Il Lombardia on Saturday, while Richie Porte lines out in his final race for BMC Racing Team and Fabio Aru is included in the UAE-Team Emirates squad at the end of a difficult season.
Philippe Gilbert rides for Quick-Step Floors with an eye already to 2019, while Pete Kennaugh (Bora-Hansgrohe) has been racing like a man making up for lost time in recent weeks. Elsewhere, Sepp Kuss (LottoNL-Jumbo) will look to finish a fine neo-pro season on a high, while Søren Kragh Andersen (Sunweb) will want to make the most of his fine run of late-season form.
A year ago, Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) sealed overall victory on the lone uphill finish to Nongla Scenic Spot, and the corresponding stage should again decide the overall honours here. Wellens is not back to defend his crown, preferring to take the long way home from Il Lombardi, but a number of climbers and puncheurs are on hand with designs on pulling out a performance in the last major blow-out of the year.
The route and riders
Last year’s inaugural Tour of Guangxi produced five bunch sprints out of six stages, and a cursory glance at the parcours suggests that a similar outcome is very possible this time around. Stage 1 starts and finishes in the coastal resort of Beihai, and though there are two short climbs on the agenda, the 107km leg lends itself to the fast men.
The sprinters will expect another opportunity on stage 2, which brings the race on a flat 145km trek to Qinzhou on the Gulf of Tonkin. The slightly uphill finishing straight will require the winner to gauge his effort carefully. For stage 3, the caravan transfers northwards to the regional capital of Nanning for a 125km circuit race around the so-called Green City that should again favour the sprinters.
The pivotal day is likely to come on stage 4, where the short climb to Nongla provides the Tour of Guangxi’s one and only summit finish. A year ago, the whittling down process started even before the climb began in earnest, and there was a tense scramble for positions on the approach the climb proper. The ascent is not tough enough to provoke enormous time differences but given the rest of the parcours, the time gaps at the top should suffice to decide the final overall standings.
Stage 5 from Liuzhou to Guilin is, at 212km, the longest of the race and takes in some rugged roads in the north of Guangxi, with four classified climbs on the agenda. The route is, in theory at least, tough enough to break up the peloton, though with some 33km from the summit of the final climb to Jinzhu Hill to the finish in Guilin, the sprinters’ teams have room for manoeuvre.
The race concludes on Sunday with a 169km leg around Guilin. The category 2 Yanshan Hill is the prime difficulty but it is probably too far from the finish to change the complexion of the race. Beyond the terrain, weather conditions in Guangxi could have an impact on proceedings this week, with scattered heavy thunder showers forecast through the opening days of racing.
A year ago, Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) helped himself to four stage wins, and in the Colombian’s absence Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) – also a stage winner in 2017 – and Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) are the pick of the sprint field. Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe), Dan McLay (EF-Drapac) and Phil Bauhaus (Sunweb) also feature, while Ben Swift (UAE Team Emirates) is still seeking to secure a contract for 2019.
It remains to be seen if some of the marquee GC names are in China with designs on anything other than finishing out the season safely and quietly, although Gianni Moscon has been riding like a man with a point to prove since returning from the ban that followed his ejection from the Tour de France. The Italian will expect to be to the fore on stage 4’s uphill finish at Nongla.
Some other young riders striking a rich seam of form will also be looking to take full advantage of their condition. Soren Kragh Andersen (Sunweb) already capped a fine 2018 with Paris-Tours victory and could be prominent again here, while Sky’s new signing Eddie Dunbar has impressed in his early outings with the team.
The race is also liable, of course, to throw up its share of surprises. At this point in the season, motivation is nine-tenths of the law.