By David Hunter
3 days, 4 stages and lots of wind is about to welcome the riders to De Panne. Remember the wind on Sunday? Well, it’s stayed around and it’s worse! We have a wind of 43km/h, gusting up to and beyond 80km/h. This is going to be a hard few days.
Stage 1 will see a tailwind for most of the stage, expect a very fast average speed. That’s until we get towards Oudenaarde, where we get vicious crosswinds.
Added to the “wind calamity” we have a very demanding profile, similar to 2014, but not the same. If you’ve been watching the recent races from Belgium, you’ll already know some of these climbs. The peloton also have to tackle the 2km of pave section of the Haaghoek, on multiple occasions. This is a hard day in the saddle.
Stage 2 is a strong headwind, all day long. Expect a long, long day! The riders do tackle the Kemmelberg, but it’s a long way from the finish and the headwind should help the sprinters and their teams. That being said, there will be sections of crosswinds, that could blow the race apart.
Stage 3a is the normal “sprint” stage. Anything but a sprint finish would be a big surprise.
Stage 3b is the normal ITT course. A day for big, strong riders.
The weather is going to play a huge part in this race. The conditions on stage 1 means that the GC battle could be over for most riders, after just a few hours of the race. Look to the usual teams to try and exploit these conditions.
Naturally, we have to consider Etixx. In a strange turn of events, they don’t arrive with the strongest team. They have Van Keirsbulck, Keisse, Lampaert, Sabatini, Renshaw and Vermote. That’s just 6 men, compared to the 8 from the other teams. Van Keirsbulck is defending champion but doesn’t arrive in great form. They lack their normal star riders but do have exciting prospect, Yves Lampaert, with them. When I recently interviewed him, he came across as a great guy. He knows these roads really well and with his fast finish, he really should be a protected rider. Etixx are used to picking up bonus seconds, in this race. This is an important part of the overall picture, so watch for Lampaert at the sprint points.
Lotto have the strongest team. They’ve got Boeckmans, Bak, De Bie, Debusschere, Dockx, Greipel, Ligthart and Vallee. This is very strong and features an in-form Jens Debusschere. It’s always important for the Belgian champion to show off his national jersey. He was outstanding in Gent-Wevelgem and will look to continue with this form. Lotto will look to expose Etixx’s lack of riders and put people up the road. A downside for Lotto is the lack of TT skills. This could cost them the title.
It is essential to be a good TT rider, in this race. The last winner, who was a non-expert, was Frederik Willems, back in 2009. Since then the winners could all hold their own in the final stage. They were David Millar, Sebastien Rosseler, Sylvain Chavanel(twice) and Guillaume Van Keirsbulck.
Looking through the field, most teams have a contender for the title: Boom, Le Bon, Demare, Durbridge, Keukeleire, Quinziato, Kristoff, Devolder, Jerome, Gatto, Brammeier, Thwaites, Finetto and Wiggins.
What Bradley Wiggins will we get? He didn’t ride E3 and was quick to pull out of GW. His big focus is Paris-Roubaix and that gets every closer. The TT is a huge plus for him but the wind isn’t. I don’t see him risking any sort of danger and for that reason he’ll lose time in the first stage.
Oscar Gatto is in fine form. He’s enjoying a good run with new team, Androni. Last year, he was 2nd after 2 stages but withdrew from the race, to focus on Flanders. I don’t see this happening this year. His TT ability will mean it’s hard to win the title but Gatto should be targeting a top 5 result.
Durbridge is a rider I like. He’s an enormous engine and goes well in this race. This guy doesn’t mind hills, he finished 17th in Strade Bianche. The hills here aren’t as brutal as in the other Belgian races, so it’s possible for a rider like Durbo to stay in contention. His last 3 results here have been 7th, 7th and 2nd. This is a rider that loves the course and the conditions. He’s a massive threat to the locals and would be the first Australian to win the race and only the 2nd non-European, after George Hincapie.
In order to support him, Orica send a strong looking squad: Blythe, Howson, Hepburn, Howard, Keukeleire, Mouris and Cort. This is a good team and with one main target, the GC!
Watch out for lots of riders dropping out of the race, as thoughts turn to the Tour of Flanders. Hopefully, not too many take this option, as it devalues a very good race.
Expect massive time gaps on stage 1 as the wind plays havoc with the peloton. A strong TT performance is a must and for that reason I’m going with Turbo Durbo.
Stage 1 preview
De Panne – Zottegem 201.6km
The race begins with a day the riders will want to forget about. The wind will be coming from the West and gusting up to 80km/h. This is going to be brutal. If that wasn’t enough, they have to contend with the lap circuit featuring 5 challenging climbs. The most challenging is the Berendries, 940m at 7% with a max of 12.3%. In the circuit they also have to tackle the Haaghoek, a challenging 2km section of pave.
Last year, a select group of riders escaped with Sagan taking the win, despite him trying to brake and let Gatto take it. Sagan exploded on the final climb, the Klemthoutstraat. He took Gatto and Terpstra with him and Steegmans eventually got across. It really was an explosive attack and just 10 seconds of a gap is required to make the finishing line.
The wind makes this stage a lottery. The strongest teams will look to keep numbers at the front and try to force the weaker teams out of the echelons. If that’s the case, expect Etixx, Lotto, Sky and Orica to be up the front. Most teams have a sprinter, but the weather just about ensures we won’t get a big sprint. Stage 1 will be a battle of the fittest. Some sprinters are certainly tough enough to last the pace. I like the look of Debusschere, Cort and Gatto. Cort might be a little, left field, but he’ll be used to the conditions(he’s Danish!) and loves a sprint after a hard day in the saddle. The more experienced riders shouldn’t underestimate him.
The condition of Kristoff will be interesting. The climbs won’t be a problem, but after Sunday and with one eye on Flanders, the Norwegian might not be 100% committed. The other star sprinters are Greipel, Demare and Lobato. Of these riders, Demare is the best bet to survive the horrible conditions.
If we don’t get a sprint, then look towards the experienced hardmen of the peloton: Boom, Finetto, Keukeleire, Wallays, Van Keirsbulck, Steegmans, Jerome, De Vreese, Ligthart and Thwaites are all in with a shout.
I particularly like Yves Lampaert for this stage. He loves the conditions and has a fast finish from a small group. He won a similar stage in West Flanders and in a weakened Etixx team, he should have protected rider status. Even with 6 men, it’s hard to imagine that Etixx will miss the important selection.
A small group will sprint for the win. It’s a toss up between Lampaert and Debusschere but I’ll go with the Belgian champion.
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