By David Hunter
The week leading up to Flanders can be a quiet one, but that’s only for riders that decide to skip this race. Those that are here, get last minute race action to help fine tune the engine ahead of the big one.
The organisers have decided to continue with a very demanding opening stage. That means we have two laps of the Muur, with the final ascent cresting with just 16.6km remaining. The opening stage is the big day for the GC riders.
The second stage is traditionally one for the sprinters, unless the wind blows. The five climbs around the 100km slims down the bunch, but the peloton can regroup, as long as the front group doesn’t contain all the GC riders. The outcome of the stage is also heavily influenced by the weather.
The morning stage is the usual sprint, with the crazy right hand corner with around 300m to go. There will be crashes, as usual!
The afternoon stage is a 14.2km ITT. With a small group of riders likely to be close on GC, this will determine the winner of the race.
We might have some rain on the opening stage, but we don’t have a huge amount of wind around all week.
Alexander Kristoff – this is a race the Norwegian usually does well in. He was 8th on GC in 2014, 1st in 2015(plus 3 stages) and 2nd in 2016(plus 1 stage win). He arrives here looking to reach top shape for the Tour of Flanders, expect to see him test his legs in the opening stage. Then he will try and win stages, picking up bonus seconds, before trying to hold on in the TT. He starts with a good chance of another title.
Philippe Gilbert – flying just now! After finishing second in both DDV and E3, the Belgian champion is enjoying his return to QuickStep. He arrives with a strong squad to support his overall ambitions, but they got it wrong here in 2016. Expect to see lots of his tricolour this week.
Luke Durbridge – one of the form riders of the last week. Durbridge performed very well in both DDV and E3, he seems to have taken a big step forward this season. This is a race he consistently does well in, he hasn’t been out of the top 7 since starting to ride here in 2012. Considering his TT, he starts the race as one of the big favourites.
Edward Theuns – was impressively strong in E3. After things not quite working out for him in the recent races, he looked as good as the very best on Sunday. Trek arrive with a very strong squad, both Theuns and Pedersen provide realistic options of finishing on the overall podium. As most know, I have a huge soft spot for Eddy, I really hope to see him taking a few wins this week.
Sylvain Chavanel – won this race in 2012 and 2013, but it’s been a while since we’ve seen him challenging for race wins. He still possesses a huge amount of talent, but now at the age of 37, it’s only natural for him to have lost some of his power. He will hope for a good week and a top 5 finish on GC.
Guillaume Van Keirsbulck – the big Belgian has been looking back to his very best. He took the step down to Wanty, but it could be one step back, two steps forward. He won this race in 2014, and it certainly suits his characteristics. His win in Le Samyn was hugely impressive, although against weaker opposition, so he would have been very happy with his performance in Gent-Wevelgem. To look strong against the best in the world would have been very good for his confidence. Expect to see him attacking on Tuesday.
Alex Kirsch – was good here in 2016 and the Veranclassic boys have had a good start to 2016. He lost out to Van Keirsbulck in Le Samyn and could surprise here.
Lukas Postlberger – 15th in DDV and 5th in E3, that was an outstanding return for the Austrian in the last week. I’ll be honest, it came as a huge surprise to me. Given his form, you would expect him to be challenging in this race too. Not one of the big names, but that might not be for much longer.
Pim Ligthart – moved from Lotto to Roompot in the winter, a move that surprised many. Ligthart is a very strong rider and really belongs in the World Tour. He likes these types of races and packs a sprint faster than most. That could be crucial when trying to pick up bonus seconds.
Tony Gallopin – crashed out of E3, I seriously doubt he’ll have recovered enough to challenge here.
Given his current form, it really has to be a race for Philippe Gilbert. Looking at the TT ability of his rivals, the one man he’ll be worried about is Durbridge. QuickStep will need to ensure they start the final stage with a lead of around 25 seconds. Expect a very attacking opening stage.
Stage 1 Preview
De Panne – Zottegem 206.2km
The race begins with a very exciting stage, featuring the legendary climb of the Muur of Geraardsbergen.
Once over the opening 80km, the riders tackle a very challenging lap circuit featuring the well known climbs: Berendries, Ten Bosse, De Muur and Klemhoutstraat. This is a brilliant stage!
The final lap sees the climbs coming at crucial points:-
Berendries, 936m at 7.1%, crests with 33.3km to go.
Ten Bosse, 450m at 6.9%, crests with 28.3km to go.
De Muur, 1075m at 9.1%, crests with 16.6km to go.
Klemhoutstraat, 720m at 2.9% , crests with 5.2km to go.
Looks like it should stay dry, but there is a small chance of rain. The wind is only expected to be around 18km/h, but it is coming from the south-west. That means crosswinds for almost the whole day. That should make life very interesting!
Philippe Gilbert – I’m excited to see what he can do on the Muur, given his current form. Gilbert has transitioned back onto the cobbles with great ease and starts the stage as the favourite. After two very good performances last week, he will be confident of a win on home soil. He will also want to take as many bonus seconds as possible, knowing that there are better TT riders here.
Dries Devenyns – provides QuickStep with a good second option. He is a rider that is very good on home roads, he won both the Belgium Tour and Tour of Wallonie in 2016. He has a quick TT in his locker too, but he will only get away if Gilbert fails to do so.
Tony Gallopin – crashed hard on Friday, but his team say he is doing well. I need to be convinced!
Alexander Kristoff – won this stage in 2016, even managing to beat two Astana riders in the finale. As the Tour of Flanders is on Sunday, he will hope to have good legs in this stage. A poor performance on the Muur and Kristoff will face some serious questions ahead of the big race.
Luke Durbridge – going very well just now, but his lack of a sprint makes it hard to win the stage. All his main rivals have a fast kick, that means Durbo needs to go long. He is sure to feature heavily, his form is very good just now.
Edward Theuns – given his form in Gent-Wevelgem, I have high hopes for Theuns in this stage. He will be backed up by a very strong Trek team, they will ensure he is put into a good position. Once we hit the Muur, we will have to wait and see what his legs are like. As he packs a fast finish, the others won’t be very happy about bringing him to the line.
Pim Ligthart – fast finish, loves attacking, explosive on the hills. There is a lot to like about Ligthart’s chances in this race. Roompot might be at PCT level, but they are good at attacking races and getting men away in moves. He will hope to make the front selection and sprint for glory in Zottegem.
Just like last year, I see a small group coming to the line together. I was seriously impressed with him on Sunday, so I’m going with Edward Theuns.
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