QUEBEC CITY, Canada (VN) — Saxo Bank’s Michael Morkov won the inaugural Challenge Sprint Pro Thursday evening in Québec City, besting Enrique Sanz (Movistar), Simon Clarke (Astana) and Robbie Hunter (RadioShack) in a final four-man heat at the crowd-friendly warm-up event held prior to Friday’s WorldTour one-day race.
The 26-year-old Danish rider was the fastest man over the 1,050 meter out-and-back course along Québec’s famous Grande Allée, registering a finishing speed of 29.8 mph.
The format of the event was simple and straightforward — each of the 22 WorldTour teams racing in Friday’s GP Cycliste de Québec sent one rider to contest the eight qualification rounds.
As the top two men from an earlier street sprint competition held only for Canadian riders, Rémi Pelletier-Roy and Ben Chaddock also competed, bringing the total starters to 24.
The top two men from each qualification round moved into a quarter final, and again the top two men from the quarters moved to the semifinals.
The entire event lasted approximately 90 minutes and drew an enthusiastic afternoon crowd, particularly along the final 200 meters.
The course was laid out upon Grande Allée’s hilly slant, with different areas for the start and finish lines. Riders started out downhill, passing the finish line, in the opposite direction, after 200 meters. After another 450 meters, riders hit a left-hand 180-degree turn at the St. Louis Gate, where cat-and-mouse tactics often ensued before the return to the finish on an uphill drag averaging 2-3 percent.
Morkov, the 2009 world Madison champion, was impressive from the first round, winning each one of his heats.
In the final round, Sanz was first to break the stalemate at the turnaround, jumping on the left side of the road while the rest of the group watched each other on the right. Sanz’s move caught out Hunter, who appeared preoccupied with marking Morkov and Clarke.
“I was looking mostly at Robbie Hunter, expecting him to be fastest, and to take responsibility for the sprint,” Morkov said. “But when Sanz started his sprint, I went immediately. I had the perfect lead-out for winning the race.”
Sanz salvaged second place, while Clarke made it on the podium despite having been called as a last-minute replacement for his Astana team.
“I just discovered I was doing this today,” Clarke said. “I thought our true sprinter, Allan Davis, would jump at the opportunity, but he’s had knee troubles since the Eneco Tour, and I guess he was not keen to do four standing starts after a seven-hour flight. I was nominated, and I decided to come and enjoy myself.”
Morkov said his background on the velodrome likely contributed to his success, as road sprinters generally have to put out one major effort in a race, versus the repeated sprints required in an event like the Madison.
“My track background was important, given the short recovery time between heats,” Morkov said. “I’m used to doing a few sprints in a Madison race.”
Though he’s not a field sprinter in the traditional sense, Morkov recently finished second in a Steamboat Springs sprint at the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, behind stage winner Elia Viviani of Liquigas-Cannondale.
Asked if the event was tailored towards true sprinters, Morkov answered, “You have to be fast. But I don’t consider myself a real sprinter. I’m not in the bunch sprint, I tried in Colorado last week and got second place. I have a good start in the sprint, but I’m not that good in a mass sprint. But the uphill finish was good for me. I’m a light sprinter, not a heavy sprinter.”
Clarke said the uphill effort, and repeat efforts, required fitness as much as speed. “I don’t compare myself to sprinters like Robbie Hunter or Gerald Ciolek, even though I may have finished ahead of them today,” Clarke said. “It’s not just about the sprint but also the recovery. Maybe the fitter guys, who are in better condition at this time of the season, might be the guys who ended up succeeding at the end of the day.”
Morkov said the combination of an uphill finish and a slight headwind meant that riders couldn’t start their sprint from a more traditional distance to the line, such as 250 meters.
“When I saw the course, and I saw that it was uphill and a headwind, I knew it was almost impossible to do a sprint of 200 meters. I always waited to the very end to start my sprint, and I think I only ever sprinted for 100 meters.”
Asked to comment on the race format, Hunter said it was a great idea, and much better than the standard team presentation held before many races.
One thing all riders agreed on is that the effort, just one day before the GP Cycliste Québec, would likely take its toll.
“The format is a great idea, and judging by the turnout tonight, you could see that there were a lot of people,” Clarke said. “A night event is more convenient for people who have to work the next day. But one thing that could be better is to do this event one day earlier. If you look at the three of us on the podium, we may not be the best sprinters in the hunt for the win tomorrow. Maybe the favorites, the guys that could go well tomorrow, decided to rest, and instead sent a teammate. If this had been held two days earlier, instead of one day earlier, we might have had a different outcome.”