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On-form climbers aiming to stay hot in Arctic Race of Norway

The four-day Arctic Race of Norway kicks off Thursday, and the climbers in the field are targeting the second half of the event.

HARSTAD, Norway (VN) — Fresh off his first ever grand tour top 10 at the Tour de France, Mathias Frank (IAM Cycling) is making his first career start at the Arctic Race of Norway, with an eye on the lumpier second half of the race. He’s not alone among the strong climbers coming in hot to the four-day event above the Arctic Circle: the likes of Ben Hermans (BMC Racing), Rein Taaramae (Astana), and Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) have all flexed their muscles with strong results in big races of late.

This season has been a mixed bag for Frank. After being forced out of the Tour de France by a bad crash for the second time in his career in 2014, Frank was looking to finally turn in a big result in cycling’s biggest race in 2015. Things didn’t get off to a very good start: a 12th-place finish in the Tour de Romandie was his highest GC result in the first six months of the year. Illness kept him from racing at his best, and that kept him from racking up results. However, with a return to health, and not a moment too soon, came the big performance he’d been hoping for: Frank finished eighth overall in the Tour de France.

But while his season’s main goal was achieved, Frank is not satisfied with how things have gone in 2015, and that has left him very much interested in squeezing a little more success out of his energy reserves on the heels of the good form he showed in France.

“Really, I haven’t had a good season until the Tour,” Frank said after the Arctic Race team presentation in the small harbor town of Harstad, Norway. “Everything except for the Tour wasn’t great. All the focus [was] on the Tour, to be there at 100 percent — but before that I didn’t have anything, any results, and it wasn’t good. I wasn’t feeling good, I was sick many times, just before the Tour with the Dauphiné, I had to abandon … a lot of things didn’t go as planned. So I’m still hungry to get some results and do some good racing.”

While some riders may find it difficult to get back into gear for competition after the frenzy of the Tour de France, Frank has had no trouble preparing himself for a renewed search for results. After spending a bit of time with his family in the few weeks that followed the Tour, he makes the start in Harstad energized and focused.

“By now I’m motivated again. After the Tour I’m normally very tired. It was three really intense weeks. It’s good to have races like this that are a bit less stressful, but you can still do something,” Frank said.

The Arctic Race opens with a few stages that may favor the faster finishers, but the pack will have to take on one of the many climbs that dot the northern Norwegian landscape for the summit finish of stage 3. That is where Frank is hoping to make his mark.

“There’s one mountaintop finish on stage 3 that looks quite hard, and there will be the good climbers going for the win,” Frank said. “And it could be that this is going to be the stage that decides the GC. So it could suit me well.”

The fourth and final stage also includes several ascents that could offer escape opportunities to the GC hopefuls. However, unfortunately for Frank and the rest of the climbing-oriented riders in Norway, a few flatter stages and a bevy of bonus seconds on the line could keep some of the faster finishers involved even in the battle for the general classification. For the pure climbers, the challenge will be opening up enough of a gap on the uphill stretches to hold off the GC campaigns of those riders who can pad their overall ambitions with bonus seconds. For the fans, that challenge should make for an exciting race.

“It’s always about how much time a climber can take out of a sprinter,” Frank said. “That’s what’s going to keep this race interesting until the last stage.”

2013 winner and Arctic Race ambassador Thor Hushovd passed over speedy countrymen Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), second last year, and Edvald Boasson Hagen (MTN-Qhubeka) to name climbers, like Frank and Hermans, as his overall favorites prior to the first stage. Hermans is coming off podium performances at the Tours of Austria and Poland.

Hermans sees the tougher final two stages of the Arctic Race as the place to put up a GC fight, but he knows it’s important not to overlook the unpredictable conditions in the first two days of racing.

“If we can survive the first two stages without time loss, I see myself with a good chance, but we still have to survive without crashes, without illness. We’ll see,” Hermans said.

Though crashes are sometimes a game of chance, Hermans has certainly had the luck so far in 2015. He stayed upright to finish high in several one-week races to go with a victory in April’s Brabantse Pijl, helping him achieve what he sees as his best season yet.

Hermans is taking plenty of optimism into the Arctic Race, especially given the opportunities for uphill success that await in the second half of the event — though he’s not underestimating the other climbers coming into the race having recently shown excellent form.

“I think I have a good chance. The parcours suits me, but there are a lot of other guys who are really strong also like Zakarin, Taaramae, Frank … It will not be easy,” Hermans said.

Taaramae just took the overall victory at the Vuelta a Burgos less than a week ago. And if the Arctic Race does prove too tough for Kristoff, Zakarin’s presence guarantees the GC hopefuls will have their eyes on Katusha no matter what. The 25-year-old-Russian won the Tour de Romandie earlier this season and just notched a fourth overall in Poland. He will be a dangerous man for the climbs of stages 3 and 4.

“[Zakarin] did a great [Tour of] Poland. For sure he’s in good shape,” Kristoff noted after getting a warm welcome from the many Norwegian fans gathered at the team presentation. “So we will try to save him if it’s possible. Then we have two cards to play when the climbs come. On paper it’s too hard for me, so it’s better to keep him, but I always climb quite well in Norway. I have better motivation for the climbs here!”

Even before the summit finish in stage 3, surviving stages 1 and 2 will be the first order of business for anyone with GC aspirations in Norway. With rain and wind forecasted for the long days on the bike along the Norwegian coastline, no one is guaranteed a free ride to a bunch finish.