Another thrilling year of racing on the UCI WorldTour draws to a close this week as the peloton heads to Beijing to bring the curtain down on the 2013 season.
Now in its third year, the Tour of Beijing has developed since its 2011 debut when Tony Martin, then of HTC-HighRoad, won the opening day’s time-trial, which ultimately shaped the GC for the rest of the week.
The German won again last year without a time-trial however, building an unassailable lead on the second day with a superb solo attack on the descent of Dong Gang Hong Tunnel.
More changes to the route this year however means Omega Pharma-Quickstep’s leader faces an uphill battle to defend his crown, something he readily admits.
So what lies in wait for the riders over their five days in the Red Dragon? Here’s a preview of the route and the riders likely to shape the final event of the 2013 UCI WorldTour.
Stage one – Shunyi to Huairou Studio City: The 190.5km opening stage of the Tour, which rolls out at the host city of the 2008 Olympic rowing and canoeing events, is certainly one to favour the sprinters.
Expect Alessandro Petacchi (Omega Pharma-Quickstep), Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEDGE) and Elia Viviani (Cannondale) to feature in a bunch sprint after the peloton races along very flat roads into Studio City.
A technical start to the stage, with some sharp turns, could suit riders hoping to make an early break and gather time bonuses at the intermediate sprints, but save for a lone category-three climb the route is flat and will encourage a fast pace in the bunch throughout.
Stage two – Huairou Studio City – Yanqing: Climbing on this 201.5km route starts almost immediately with an ascent of the category three climb of the He Fang Kou Tunnel, followed by a higher, category two slope.
An early break could well stick, and would provide a good opportunity for any King of the Mountains hopefuls to snaffle some early points, particularly with two category two climbs to follow, both with average gradients 5.5 per cent.
After cresting Shan Tianchi there is a long, largely straight 51km run to the finish, following the path of the river, setting up what could well be another bunch sprint, albeit one reduced by the rolling parcours.
Stage three – Yanqing to Qianjiadian : The punchy 176km route from Yanqing to Qianjiadian could be the breaking of some of the fringe GC contenders.
A very flat opening 17km soon gives way to an astonishing seven categorised climbs, with little room for respite in between.
Three category-three summits are followed by a pacey, technical descent towards Changling and a category-two climb to Shaling before a long, 7.4km category one climb (at 5.1 per cent) which, if it is not already, could tear the bunch to shreds.
Two more tough ascents – the category two climb to Cangmi Village and the category three Huangtu follow before a steep descent towards Qianjiadian.
It was on a similar descent Tony Martin attacked to move top of the GC last year, so look out for any similar moves from the noted descenders this year’s race.
Stage four – Yanqing to Mentougou Miaofeng Mountain: The 150.5km route has the potential to dictate the final destination of the red jersey, thanks to a 12.6km climb to the summit of Mentougou Miaofeng Mountain, one that unfolds at an average gradient of 5.7 per cent.
Stage four offers a scenic route south from Yanqing, as the peloton speeds down towards the Great Wall, but the views will be of little consolation to the riders as they tackle the category-one climb to Xianrendong Village, followed very quickly by the category-two Gaoyakou – brace of climbs with potential to split the bunch.
Those still in contention face a fast, technical descent towards Nanyan and two intermediate sprints before the category-three climb of Chenjiazhuang makes way for the monstrous finish.
Do not be fooled by the generous average gradients – twisting bends and sharp walls litter the climb with the first man up likely to move top of the GC in the process.
Stage five – Tiananmen Square to Bird’s Nest Piazza: An exact replica of the crit stage which opened last year’s Tour, the final WorldTour race of the season draws to a close with a circuit of Beijing’s Olympic Park.
Having gone around Tiananmen Square, it is largely straight roads to the Olympic Park, before they enter the circuit after 17.5km of riding.
From there it is thirteen laps of the site of the 2008 Games, and having won the stage last year, and finished third on its debut in 2011, Elia Viviani will start the stage as heavy favourite.
Richie Porte (Team Sky): The Paris-Nice winner has confirmed he will lead what is expected to be a strong Team Sky line-up in Beijing as they bid to cement their spot at number one in the World Team Rankings.
Currently 118 points clear of second-placed Movistar, a maximum haul for the Australian would seal first place and after a tremendous year. Porte certainly is the calibre of rider to achieve just that.
The Tasmanian will be backed by the tireless Bernhard Eisel and David Lopez, with Josh Edmondson and Matthew Hayman – in his last Sky race – also expected to feature in a fearsome line-up.
And having earned plaudits for his superb support riding for Chris Froome this year, Porte has certainly shown he has the talent to compete on the climbs with the leading contenders.
A punchy route and the stage four summit finish certainly suit him, and with podium finishes at the Criterium International, Tour of the Basque Country and Criterium du Dauphine also under his belt, success for Porte would be the perfect way to cap a brilliant year.
Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp): Just as a stunning year for the Birmingham-born Irishman looked set to draw to a quiet close, Martin bounced back to bag fourth at the Giro di Lombardia last weekend.
But for a crash on the final bends, it would have been a podium finish too and the Volta a Catalunya and Liege-Bastogne-Liege winner will arrive in Beijing to lead Garmin-Sharp with renewed confidence.
Confident enough to attack solo on the tough climbs, Martin’s fearless style has already earned him a stage win at the Tour de France.
And furthermore he has already beaten the best on a tough summit finish this year in Catalunya – attacking solo to beat notable rivals including world number one, Joaquim Rodriguez, Tour de France runner up, Nairo Quintana, and Bradley Wiggins.
However, since his early season victories, stage racing has brought little further joy for Martin, with the notable exception of a perfectly judged victory on stage nine of the Tour de France. The Irishman was forced to withdraw from the Vuelta through illness and failed to make any lasting impression at the Tour of Britain.
Indeed, after a number of attempted attacks had come to nothing at the latter, he instead turned his hand to supporting Jack Bauer, and with the New Zealander also picked for Beijing, Bauer could well become Garmin-Sharp’s plan B again.
Rui Costa (Movistar): The World Champion made his debut in the rainbow jersey at last weekend’s Giro di Lombardia and will end the season leading Movistar’s charge in the Red Dragon.
Still in contention to top the world team rankings, Movistar have opted to back the Portuguese ace with a strong support squad containing, among others, Andrey Amador, Jesus Herrada, and Giro d’Italia stage winners, Benat Intxausti and Giovanni Visconti.
Costa enters the race on the back of a superb year too – crowned of course by his World Championship success.
His two victories at the Tour de France – courtesy of long-range solo attacks and boosted by his phenomenal descending speed – will earmark him as a favourite for stage three and he is certainly capable of success on the summit finish too.
His predecessor as world champion, the Belgian, Philippe Gilbert, endured an almost entirely barren year in the rainbow stripes, so Costa will be keen to make an early statement and Beijing represents a perfect opportunity.
Robert Gesink (Belkin Pro Cycling): The 2013 World Tour kicked off with a Blanco rider taking overall victory in a stage race, and a sponsorship and subsequent name-change later, the team now known as Belkin would love to end it the same way.
With GP de Quebec victory already added to his steadily growing palmares, the Condor of Varsseveld will lead the pale green machine’s charge in Beijing and could be a dark horse for overall victory.
A former winner of the Tour of California and Tour of Oman, Gesink is certainly capable of winning stage races – not least highlighted by top-ten finishes at the Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana, on three occasions in the case of the latter.
The Dutchman may not enter the race as a firm favourite, but is likely to feature at the sharp end of the GC. A bit of luck and good timing on the key stages could swing things his way.
Christophe Riblon (Ag2r-La Mondiale): If, as expected, the stage four summit finish proves to decide the final general classification, who better to back than the Tour de France’s Alpe d’Huez stage winner?
Riblon conquered a double ascent of the famous climb, finding a second wind when his early attack faded to bridge to then leader Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), before bursting past the American and soloing to victory.
A repeat of such a performance on the much less fearsome Mentougou Miaofeng Mountain will stand Riblon in very good stead, and backed by a support team with climbing aces Blel Kadri and Carlos Bentacur in tow, it is certainly not beyond the Frenchman.
Furthermore, on the back of a stage win and third overall at the Tour of Poland, Riblon has already proved he can mix it with the best in shorter stage races.
Steve Cummings (BMC Racing) Although not a contender for the overall, the British former Commonwealth Games gold medallist has enjoyed Beijing in the last two years.
A strong time trial in 2011 helped him to fourth overall, while he prevailed in a two-up sprint against Ryder Hesjedal to win the final stage last year.
Although he is likely to be riding in support of Thor Hushovd on the sprinter-friendly stages, unless BMC harbour any surprise GC hopes, Cumming may be allowed to chase some individual glory.
And with stage two featuring a very similar profile to the stage he won last year, look out for the former-Sky man in any late breaks.
Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil-DCM): The popular Spaniard rider will call time on his career after Beijing.
The 36-year-old is known more for his success on the cobbles – not least eight top-ten finishes at Paris-Roubaix – than in the stage-races, but this being his swansong, keep a close on the Spanish Flandrian.
Flecha was no stranger to the breaks at the Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana this year, having been released from the shackles of the Sky train with his winter switch to Vacansoleil-DCM.
And with one final chance to get his name out there, expect more of the same over the five days in Beijing as he looks to end his career on a high.
Friday October 11
Stage one live – British Eurosport – 07:45-9:45
Stage one highlights – Eurosport 2 – 16:30-18:00; Eurosport – 22:00-23:00
Saturday October 12
Stage one highlights – British Eurosport – 07:30-07:45
Stage two live – British Eurosport – 07:45-9:45
Stage two highlights – British Eurosport 19:00-20:00
Sunday October 13
Stage two highlights – Eurosport 2 – 01:00-02:00; British Eurosport – 07:30-07:45
Stage three live – British Eurosport – 07:45-9:45
Stage three highlights – Eurosport 2 – 12:30-13:15; 20:00-21:00
Monday October 14
Stage three highlights – Eurosport 2 – 02:00-04:00; 06:30-07:30
Stage four live – British Eurosport – 07:45-9:45
Stage four highlights –Eurosport 2 – 11:00-12:30; 19:40-20:40; British Eurosport – 22:15-23:15
Tuesday October 15
Stage four highlights – Eurosport 2 – 06:45-07:45
Stage five live – Eurosport 2 – 07:45-9:45
Stage five highlights – Eurosport 2 – 11:00-12:30; British Eurosport – 21:00-21:10