Well, here we are – the finale of the 2019 WorldTour is upon us as the Tour of Guangxi draws the top tier of racing to a close nine months after the Tour Down Under.
It's the third edition of the six-day Chinese race, which has been in the WorldTour since its inception, though it still feels like something of an afterthought on the calendar after the far more prestigious UCI Road World Championships and Il Lombardia.
Only 15 of the WorldTour's 18 squads will be present in the southern region of China, with AG2R La Mondiale, Groupama-FDJ and Movistar having ended their WorldTour campaigns in Lombardia on Saturday. Israel Cycling Academy, Total Direct Energie and Wanty-Groupe Gobert bring the start list up to 18 teams.
Total Direct Energie and Wanty-Groupe Gobert will be battling for UCI points as the season draws to a close, with the pair currently in a battle, along with Corendon-Circus, to top the 2019 Pro Continental rankings. According to new UCI rules, the top Pro Continental team will gain an invite to every WorldTour race for next season.
Given it’s the final outing of a long season, few stars have turned out to make the race, with team line-ups largely consisting of young riders, domestiques, and those still looking for a contract for 2020.
Defending champion Gianni Moscon (Team Ineos) doesn't return, with the departing duo of David de la Cruz and Diego Rosa to lead the British team's challenge here. Meanwhile, last year's runner-up, Felix Großschartner (Bora-Hansgrohe) is racing, as is fourth-placed Rémi Cavagna (Deceuninck-QuickStep).
Cavagna's teammate Enric Mas will ride his final race for the Belgian team before moving to Movistar, while it's the same situation for Ilnur Zakarin, who moves on from Katusha-Alpecin to CCC Team in 2020. Großschartner's teammate Max Schachmann is another name to consider for the general classification fight, which should be decided by the uphill finish on stage 4.
Frenchman Guillaume Martin leads Wanty-Groupe Gobert into the week, while there are a number of other interesting names for the overall, including Davide Villella (Astana), Mark Padun (Bahrain-Merida), Carl Frederik Hagen (Lotto Soudal), Laurens De Plus (Jumbo-Visma) and Valerio Conti (UAE Team Emirates).
With five out of the six stages usually culminating in bunch sprints, there's some stiff competition among the fastmen too. Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe) will look to end his best season yet – 11 wins and counting – in style. Meanwhile Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates), a four-time stage winner in 2017, would be happy to see some success after a testing, injury-hit campaign.
World Championships silver medallist Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott) will look to repeat his stage win from last year. German duo Nikias Arndt (Team Sunweb) and John Degenkolb (Trek-Degenkolb) will also be up there, while EF-bound Kristoffer Halvorsen is Team Ineos' sprinter of choice.
The organisers have taken an 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' attitude to the six stages that make up the 2019 Tour of Guangxi, with the route almost identical to the first two editions of the race.
Stage 1 is lengthened, up from 107km to 135.6km, as two long laps around the port city of Beihai turn into three shorter laps, with three small climbs along the way, too. Still, a sprint is surely on the menu once again.
The second stage from Beihai north to Quinzhou is slightly elongated, too, up 7km to 152.3km. It'll give the sprinters another opportunity to fight for a win, though the uphill finish means riders will have to gauge their efforts.
After a two-hour transfer north to the regional capital of Nanning, stage 3 sees a circuit race around the city, with the stage once again longer than the 2018 equivalent. Five laps of a circuit featuring a small hill is up from four of a slightly easier circuit last year, though the end result – a third sprint in as many days – should remain the same.
As it was in 2017 and 2018, stage 4 should be the GC decider, with an uphill finish at the Mashan Nongla Scenic Spot sure to shake up the overall standings as the puncheurs and climbers get a chance to show what they can do. Time gaps at the top aren't huge – around ten seconds cover the top three or four riders – but they'll be enough to decide the race outcome.
The penultimate stage is the longest of the race, a 212.2km run from Liuzhou to Guilin. It's a more testing route than some of the previous stages, with four classified climbs dotting the day, and those with tired legs will suffer. Still, though, with Trentin and Dylan Groenewegen winning here the last two years, expect sprint number four of the race.
Sprint number five will come on the final stage, which runs from Guilin out to the south of the city before heading back north to draw the race to a close in the city. Two categorised climbs en route will decide the mountain classification, while the dash to the line in Guilin offers one final WorldTour victory before the big show draws to a close for another year.
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