If you're not familiar with the format by now, where have you been? The Hammer Series continues in Limburg from June 1 to June 3, and series leaders Mitchelton-Scott will be hoping to hammer their rivals once again.
Limburg, in the Netherlands, hosts the second of the three rounds of the 2018 Hammer Series, and is the place where it all began in 2017. This time, following the first round in Stavanger, Norway, and this second round in Limburg, a third round will take place in Hong Kong, with the format of that one-day event on October 14 still to be announced.
For this second round, from June 1 to June 3, 16 teams will battle it out across three very different 'stages' in Limburg. The seven-man teams, from which five riders are selected for each of those three races, will have to be carefully assigned to the terrain or style of racing that suits them best. But, like in the UK's Tour Series crits, individual winners are not celebrated: it's all about the team and their points total in both the first race – the Hammer Climb – and in the Hammer Sprint, which is the second race the next day.
Then, on the third day, when it's time for the Hammer Chase, it's all about gelling as a unit in what is effectively a team time trial pursuit, if you can conceive of such a thing, in which everyone tries to catch the leading team and a winner of that round is crowned.
Race organisers Velon couldn't have hoped for a more exciting finish in Limburg last year, with Team Sky just beating Sunweb on the finish line as the two teams came together in the closing stages of the Hammer Chase, and Sky's Tao Geoghegan Hart, as Sky's fourth 'counting' man, managed to sprint home just ahead of Sunweb's fourth team member.
If you watched, or read about, Hammer Stavanger, you could be forgiven for thinking that, with three similar races to again come in Limburg, Mitchelton-Scott would be a shoo-in to repeat their clean sweep. However, the addition of recent runner-up at the Giro d'Italia, Tom Dumoulin, to Sunweb's squad, and with strong all-rounder Greg Van Avermaet joining his BMC teammates, their respective teams – currently second- and third-placed overall – will be considerably bolstered, and hopefully give Mitchelton-Scott, who truly dominated in Stavanger in the first round from May 25-27, a run for their money.
No – not a new MC Hammer song. Hammer Climb is the first race of the three across the weekend, and in Limburg takes place on Friday, June 1.
Each team's five riders – climbers, naturally, or the best five climbers out of the seven riders at their disposal – start together, as in a normal road race, and then the top 10 riders across the line score points at the conclusion of each of the hilly 7km laps, of which there will be 11. On the third, seventh and 11th – and final – lap, double points are awarded.
In Stavanger, Mitchelton-Scott's Michael Albasini hoovered up many of the big points available. And while Sunweb's Søren Kragh Andersen 'won' the race, taking the points on the final two laps, it's not about the individual riders, remember: it's all about the team's total points, and consistent riding by Mitchelton-Scott netted them the Climb win with 1,498 points to Sunweb's 645.
Extremely similar to the Hammer Climb in format, the Hammer Sprint is a race for the sprinters and lead-out men, taking place on Saturday, June 2 in Limburg, obviously on a considerably flatter course than the Hammer Climb.
The five riders from each team again race as a peloton, and the first 10 riders score points at the conclusion of each of the eight 12.4km-long circuits. Again, there are double points available on certain laps, and this time they come at the conclusion of laps two, five and eight.
Mitchelton-Scott came out on top again in Stavanger with a total of 2,555 points, with Sunweb again taking second place with 1,629 points after some exciting sprint action.
Here's where it all gets a bit complicated, although it's not that difficult really: the leading team after the first two races starts this team time trial first, and they're chased by the second-placed team, and so on.
Except the leading team doesn't actually start first – and this is slightly more difficult to get your head around – as the Chase is set off in two waves. First of all, the bottom-eight-ranked teams, or 'runner-up group', starting with ninth place and going through to 16th place, duke it out.
And only then, a little later in the afternoon, does the actual leading team set off, 30 seconds ahead of the second-placed team, which in turn starts 28 seconds before third place, with ever-reducing gaps down to the eighth-placed team.
This is all done, according to the organisers, for safety – and by that they appear to mean the fact that the 12.4km circuit, in Limburg's case, would potentially descend into chaos if all 16 teams were on it at once. Less than three minutes separate the start times of the leading team and the eighth-placed team, though, with little chance of anyone catching anyone – or, rather, lapping anyone, as ideally there will be some catches, and Mitchelton-Scott won't have it all their own way again.
The first team across the line on Sunday, June 3 – with the clock stopping on the fourth rider out of five, meaning that teams can tactically eschew a rider along the way if it takes their fancy – is the winner of the Limburg round of the Hammer Series.
The lower-ranked teams that started in the first 'runner-up' wave can win the Hammer Chase if they record a faster time than any of the teams in the second 'finalist group' wave, but they're not eligible to win the Limburg round overall, as they won't have had the opportunity to catch any of the top-eight-placed teams.
In Stavanger, Mitchelton-Scott easily held off Sunweb, who in turn only just held off BMC, while Team Sky had a nightmare of a Hammer Chase with three riders crashing on the exit of a roundabout on their first lap, with the video of that available here on the Hammer Series website. They still hobbled home to finish fifth.
Mitchelton-Scott of course head the overall standings following the three races of Hammer Stavanger with 100 points, ahead of Team Sunweb with 81 and BMC Racing with 66 points.
But, as they say, there's still all to play for.
Worldwide, the events enjoy live coverage on various countries' networks, but if yours isn't among them, then the Hammer Series' own website is the place to watch live – or on their Twitter, YouTube or Facebook pages.
If you're anywhere near Limburg this weekend, though, we suggest you take a look in person as, besides being able to see some of the world's top men's teams in action, you could well be witnessing the future of professional bike racing.
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