In a busy week of racing, from America to Belgium and Spain, the Arctic Race of Norway takes us above the Arctic Circle for the northern-most race in professional cycling.
It is surely among the most picturesque, too, and this year the headline act is the all-new summit finish on Storheia, which is being dubbed 'the Norwegian Mont Ventoux'.
At 3.5km in length, and 504m above sea level, it's some way short of 'The Giant of Provence', but shares an exposed mountainside with panoramic views and a susceptibility to strong winds, not to mention a weather station tower at the top.
With gradients that average 11.8 per cent, it will be decisive in terms of the race as a whole, appearing on the third of the four stages. In keeping with the traditional format, there is one other 'hilly' stage – replicating the 2017 stage in Narvik won by Dylan Teuns – along with two flatter days for the sprinters at the start of the race.
In terms of location, the race returns to its roots for its seventh edition, with a return to the Lofoten archipelago that was used for the inaugural edition back in 2013.
"This seventh edition of the Arctic Race of Norway will again be spectacular and undecided just until the last day in Narvik," says race ambassador Thor Hushovd.
"The first two stages will be an open-air show. In 2013, when I won stage 2 at Svolvær, I rode the most beautiful stage of my career on that day. The finishes at Storheia Summit, the 'Mont Ventoux' of the Vesterålen Islands, and at Narvik will certainly be won by the strongest riders."
One name stands out above all others on the start list: Mathieu van der Poel. The Dutchman won two stages last year, but that was back when he was predominantly a mountain biker and cyclo-crosser. He returns with his Corendon-Circus teammates having taken the road by storm in his debut spring Classics campaign, where wins at the Amstel Gold Race and Dwars door Vlaanderen announced him as an extraordinary talent.
Such was the precociousness of those performances in the spring that many count Van der Poel among the top favourites for the UCI Road World Championships in September. Having ridden – and won – on the mountain bike this summer, the Arctic Race of Norway is his first road race since Amstel Gold, and as such is a key part of his preparation for Yorkshire next month.
French champion Warren Barguil leads Arkea-Samsic and will be among the favourites on Storheia, having finished 10th overall at the Tour de France. Another climber who has won mountain stages at the Tour is Ilnur Zakarin – a late addition to Katusha-Alpecin's squad. The Russian had a subdued Tour this year but won at Lago Serru at the Giro d'Italia, and this will be one of his last races for Katusha after signing for CCC Team for 2020.
Storheia, however, is not a mountain of Grand Tour proportions, and the door is open to the punchier climbers. Among them, Alexey Lutsenko (Astana) looks perfectly suited to the parcours, with his dominant display at the Tour of Oman this year showing he can win punchy sprints and steep summit finishes. Rein Taaramae won this race in 2015 and is part of a Total Direct Energie squad that also includes Lilian Calmejane. Krists Neilands leads the line for Israel Cycling Academy and Brandon McNulty for Rally-UHC ahead of his 2020 move to WorldTour outfit UAE Team Emirates.
In terms of sprinters, Bryan Coquard (Vital Concept) is the most successful this year, with seven wins to his name, and will once again go up against his compatriot Christophe Laporte (Cofidis). Danny van Poppel (Jumbo-Visma) still needs his first win of the season, while others who could be in the mix include Magnus Cort (Astana) and Sondre Enger (Israel Cycling Academy).
The race begins on Thursday with a 181km stage on the Lofoten archipelago, starting in Å before heading north and then looping back round into Leknes. The riders reach Leknes after 60km and cross the finish line for the first time before hitting the first of the three category-2 climbs on the parcours, with the climb at Hagskaret measuring 1.8km at 5.1 per cent. After a long loop north, taking in a climb at Torvdalen (1km at 7 per cent) after 128km, they return to Leknes and climb Hagskaret for a second time. There are still some 20km to go and so, despite a sharp uncategorised rise with 11km to go, the sprinters should be battling it out on the slightly downhill run to the line.
Stage 2 constantly hugs the coastline as it winds up the north-eastern reach of the Lofoten archipelago, and there are no climbs whatsoever on the 164km route to Svolvaer. Another bunch sprint is a near certainty.
Stage 3 is the 'queen stage' and finishes atop Storheia – the 'Norwegian Mont Ventoux'. The 176.5km stage takes place on the Vesterålen archipelago and winds its way north before heading down to the finish on the southern-most island of Hadseloya. The stage climbs from the off, with the category-2 ascent of Storvatnet (1.7km at 7 per cent), followed soon after by another category-2 climb at Storeidet (1.9km at 4.1 per cent). The riders climb Storvatnet for a second time at the half-way mark before making the trip to the foot of Storheia, which should form the scene for the most spectacular drama of this year's race.
The race concludes on Sunday with another hilly stage that could provide a further shake-up to the general classification. The race heads to Narvik – scene of a Dylan Teuns victory two years ago. This time, the stage is tougher, with three ascents – rather than one – of the category-1 Skistua climb in the finale. The 165.5km stage heads east from Lodigen and takes in three climbs ahead of the half-way mark, before the riders head into Narvik to take on three laps of a 10.5km finishing circuit, at the centre of which is Skistua (2.3km at 6.6 per cent). As was the case two years ago, it will be an uphill sprint to the line from what will be a reduced group.
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