By David Hunter
Zottegem – Koksijde 198km
A day where the bunch can split.
With three challenging climbs coming very close to each other, this marks a very important point in the race. A move featuring some of the GC favourites will go, but will it survive to the end?
It all depends on who is left in the bunch to chase. We have six big teams here: QuickStep, Lotto, Bora, Katusha, Orica and Trek. If they all feature in the move, it’s very hard to see another team bring them back.
On the plus side for the chase, there is the 80km of flat to organise a response. If we have two motivated teams, they should be able to bring back the escape. It really does depend on who is chasing. Most teams will be very keen on making the break!
An overcast day, with a crosshead wind for most of the opening kilometres. That changes when the peloton turn right and head through Poperinge. At this point, we have perfect conditions for crosswinds and echelons. It stays like that until the lap circuit in Koksijde.
With Gilbert leading Durbridge by 22 seconds, he would still like a few more before the ITT. The 1st intermediate sprint point is at 122.8km, that is 12km after the last climb. Expect to see QuickStep attacking on the climbs and trying to set Gilbert up for the 3 second bonus. They would also like some more riders present, to stop Durbridge from getting any bonus. There is another opportunity for more seconds, with a second sprint when entering Koksijde.
The lap circuit contains some incredibly narrow roads. If we have a full bunch, it can get very sketchy! The sprint teams will look to take control from around the 10km mark. It is much better to be at the front of the race, even if you use up men. It is almost impossible to move up the bunch inside the last 7km.
Alexander Kristoff – expended a huge amount of effort today. Remember, he is here to train for Flanders, so I wouldn’t be too worried about his opening stage. His team will now be looking for a stage win and this is a great day for him. I would hope to see him follow the moves on the Kemmelberg, no doubt he will be joined by a number of teammates. They will then help to drive the bunch and keep the peloton away.
Edward Theuns – said that he didn’t have great legs today, after a huge effort in Gent-Wevelgem. Trek managed to get Brandle and Van Poppel in the winning move, but neither was strong enough to hold onto Gilbert and Durbridge. This is another good day for him, as he should be able to follow the moves on the climbs. He will be hoping the wind blows, he loves tough conditions.
Marcel Kittel – might have to sacrifice his personal ambitions to work for Gilbert. That all depends on the race situation, but if he arrives in a sprint, he starts as the favourite.
Sacha Modolo – won here back in 2014, taking the sprint from a group of 30 riders. That day he beat Demare, Kristoff and Kittel. Sprinters love coming back to towns where they’ve previously won, he is no exception. The Italian has experienced a very strong couple of races in Belgium. If a move of around 20 riders goes clear, I would expect him to be there.
Sam Bennett – superfast Irishman, who will still be walking on cloud nine after a huge win in Paris-Nice. He’s climbing well just now and he’ll have the full support of his team. Has a decent chance of another win.
Philippe Gilbert – after a brilliant opening stage, he goes into this day on the hunt for more. His team will look to split the race on the climbs, crosswinds as we head for home will make any chase incredibly difficult. QuickStep will continue to try and reduce the size of the front group, with more bonus seconds their priority. If they manage to do so, it’s possible he takes another stage win.
Jasper De Buyst – looked good today and packs a fast sprint from a reduced group. Will hope to take advantage of QuickStep’s work, by popping up at the end for the win.
I see the QuickStep team blowing the race to bits, especially as the wind looks in a great direction for some crosswinds. I think they’ll get some help from Katusha and Alexander Kristoff will take the stage win, sprinting from a small group.
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