Five long months after the team’s last races at the GP Jean-Pierre Monsere and Dorpenomloop Rucphen on March 8th, Canyon dhb p/b Soreen took to the mountains of Provence in the South of France for the Mont Ventoux Denivele Challenge on Thursday, 6th August.
This was only the second edition of the race which aspires to become ‘the Climbers Classic’ and attracted a top class field including six World Tour teams who were tuning up for the Tour de France which commences on 29th August, as well as nine Pro Teams and just three Continental level teams including Canyon dhb p/b Soreen. The favourites for the race included double-Grand Tour winner Nairo Quintana (Arkea Samsic), multiple stage-race winner Richie Porte (Trek Segafredo) and last year’s winner on Mont Ventoux, Jesus Herrada (Cofidis).
Mont Ventoux has been nicknamed the ‘Giant of Provence’ and also the ‘Bald Mountain’. The peak of the mountain is bare limestone without vegetation or trees and from a distance this makes the mountain’s barren peak appear to be snow-capped all year round, though its snow cover actually only lasts from December to April. Its isolated position overlooking the Rhône Valley ensures that it dominates the entire region and can be seen from many miles away on a clear day.
The 179km route commenced in Vaison-la-Romaine, and as well as an assortment of smaller climbs, it included two climbs of Mont Ventoux. The first 13km ascent reached Chalet Reynard after 102km before circling back via Sault and Bedoin; the second 19km ascent brought the race to its climax at the summit of Mont Ventoux. Total vertical climbing was close to 4000 metres!
The Canyon dhb p/b Soreen riders competing were Mark Christian (making his race debut for the team), Callum Macleod, Dan Pearson, Jacob Scott, Rob Scott, Max Stedman and Rory Townsend. Directeur Sportif was Simon Holt. Many of them were racing their new Canyon Aeroad CF SLX and Ultimate CF SLX bicycles with the frame elegantly painted in the team’s colours of three shades of blue and sporting the latest Hunt 50 Carbon Wide Aero wheels fitted with Maxxis High Road tubeless tyres.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the team members each had to produce two negative Covid-19 swab tests during the week prior to the race and strict social distancing practices were imperative during the lead-up and through the race period.
With the combined challenges of a top class field, the expected heat and altitude, and the team riders’ lack of access to long mountain climbs during the lockdown period (with even Wales being out of bounds!), the opening race of the second part of the season was surely going to be a baptism of fire.
The race plan was to send a rider into the expected break to minimise the amount of the chasing the rest of the team were expected to contribute and to protect the recognised climbers who were thought to have the best chance of success, Christian, Pearson and Stedman. The first part of the plan was readily accomplished with Rob Scott making a determined effort to get into ‘the break of the day’ which consisted of eight riders. However, the second part of the plan was not so easily executed as Christian and Pearson were caught up in an early crash after just 8km which took down about 15 riders with Pearson having the additional handicap of having to change his bike.
Macleod (who also required a bike change just prior to the first ascent of Mont Ventoux), Jacob Scott and Rory Townsend helped keep the team in contention throughout the first 89km of the route to Bedoin at the foot of Mont Ventoux which was reached in sweltering heat of 36C.
The chasing peloton swept up most of the breakaway riders including Rob Scott when the Astana World Tour team ‘put the hammer down’ with the intent of dispatching as many riders as possible from their competitors’ teams as they climbed the steep ramps to Chalet Reynard. This had the effect of shattering the peloton and also put the Canyon dhb p/b Soreen riders, many struggling with fluid depletion, under pressure and losing ground to varying degrees as the climb progressed.
Although distanced from the reduced leading peloton at the top of the climb, Christian and Macleod were able to work through the pursuing cars and regain contact on the descent from Chalet Reynard to Sault. For those viewers who were fortunate enough to catch the closing stages of the race which was broadcast on Eurosport 2, the action was joined with about 41km remaining with Christian and Macleod appearing comfortable holding positions towards the rear of the remaining peloton which numbered less than 70 riders from the original 124 who took the start-line.
With less than 30km to go to, Christian suddenly disappeared from view, the apparent victim of a second crash of the day for him. Macleod hung on gamely with his race number ‘166’ clearly visible towards the rear of the peloton, hopefully providing the team’s sponsors with some long-awaited valuable airtime. As the peloton reached the lower slopes up of Mont Ventoux, riders were coming adrift at regular intervals with Macleod finally succumbing on the steeper ramps with less than 15km to go. At this point he decided to avoid going too far ‘into the red’ and paced himself up the rest of the climb past Chalet Reynard and onto the exposed limestone slopes of the peak of Mont Ventoux.
The action at the front of the peloton was gripping with first Pierre Latour (AG2R La Mondiale), then Guillaume Martin (Cofidis) dictating the pace and making significant breaks away from the peloton. Finally it was the Russian Aleksandr Vlasok (Astana), winner of the ‘Baby Giro in 2018, who made the final decisive break and reached the finishing line after 4hr 56min of high intensity, high temperature racing. Porte was 18 seconds behind in 2nd place and Martin third at one minute. Macleod came home in a highly creditable 49th place 16min 6sec down. Christian and Stedman came home 20 minutes later in what were initially given as 71st and 72nd places, but they were then deemed to be ‘OTL’, outside the time limit. Jacob Scott also reached the summit of Mont Ventoux, three minutes and a couple of places further down, but he was also deemed to be OTL.
Following the race, Callum Macleod commented:
“It was the hardest and longest race I have ever done. With a combination of hitting that climb four and a half hours in, the heat and the level of competition, it really took it out of me. I had to nurse myself up that final climb without going into the red too much because if I had of done to stay with it, I probably wouldn’t have seen the finish because I would have starting cramping. It was a really brutal day out with the conditions as well as the competition we faced.”
Written by Paul & Marina Stedman
Photos 3-7 – Karine Junique-Chastanier