By David Hunter
The first of 4 massive races, over the next 11 days, in Belgium. Like most of them, this race is all about the helligen, all 12 of them!
The first thing to check is the weather forecast and it doesn’t look great. We will get some rain but hopefully we should also get some sun. A typical day in Belgium! If the conditions are poor, this race is going to be very difficult.
For me, this race is all about 3 climbs: the Taiienberg, Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg.
The Taaienberg, or Boonenberg, is a little far out to see a major selection but it does allow some riders to test the legs of others. As Boonen is injured, it’ll be very interesting to see who wants to fill his role as the attacker.
At this point, the elastic will stretch but it won’t break. We’ll get a regroupment and a massive fight for position, as we approach the Kwaremont. This cobbled climb is a belter. Not the steepest climb in the world but it’s a real leg breaker, especially on the cobbles.
Straight after it, we head out onto the wide, open highway and this is where big moves can go. The strongest riders usually attack just after a climb, as this is when their rivals are at their weakest. Crucially, the Paterberg is only 3km away and this is steep, with a maximum of 20%.
Last year, Niki Terpstra, made the crucial move at the top of this climb. He then soloed all the way home. We had the novelty of watching Alejandro Valverde in the chase group. The Spaniard surprised a few with his excellent performance but not me! This year, Movistar send Nairo Quintana to the race. He’s not here to win it but gain crucially experience for the Tour de France.
In 2013, a large group escaped from distance and Tommy Voeckler was just pipped by Oscar Gatto. It was heartbreaking stuff for Voeckler, as he was caught with around 50metres to go.
In 2012, Terpstra won again. Just like in 2014, he made the move on the Paterberg. As much as Boonen is associated with the Taaienberg, Terpstra loves the Paterberg. Without Boonen, all eyes will be on Terpstra and it’s going to be interesting to see how he copes with the pressure.
Etixx love to dominate these races. In the recent Ronde Van Zeeland, they managed to finish 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th. They are the team to beat, that goes without saying! Terpstra will be their leader but they also have good options in Van Keirsbulck, Keisse, Kwiatkowski, Maes, Trentin and Lampaert.
Their usual sparring partners are Lotto Soudal. They have a few injuries but that should allow Tiesj Benoot a shot at the title. He might be a neo-pro but the 21 year old is a sensational talent. He was 4th in Le Samyn, when working for Boeckmans, 3rd in the Handzame Classic and 6th in Zeeland. He knows these roads very well and is capable of taking a landmark win. They also have the in-form options of Debusschere and Ligthart. Both went well in Omloop and will be delighted if we get a bunch sprint between 20 riders.
It’s about time, Jens Keukeleire, won a big race. He was able to follow the attack of Boonen, on the Taiinenberg, last year. He didn’t ride a good tactical race and it cost him. He should have learned from this and be better in 2015 but will find it difficult without Hayman to position him.
Most teams arrive with a rider capable of challenging for the win:-
Astana – Boom
Tinkoff – Breschel
Trek – Devolder, Steegmans
BMC – Drucker
Lotto Jumbo – Teunissen
IAM – Devenyns
MTN – EBH
Cofidis – Senechal
Europcar – Voeckler
Wanty – Leukemans
Androni – Gatto
Southeast – Finetto
Topsport – Wallays
This is a talented group of riders and a case could be made for all of them. Jelle Wallays went close in 2012, when Terpstra distanced him on the Paterberg. He is a gifted and dangerous rider. I expect to see him challenge for the win.
As usual, having numbers is very important in the closing stages of the race. Team tactics play a large part in the race but so does raw power. If you want to win this race, he need to be able to follow the attacks on the Kwaremont and the Paterberg. Not many riders will be able to do that.
Yet again, this race will be all about Etixx. Without Boonen and Vandenbergh they are slightly weaker than usual but they still possess enormous power. Expect a Terpstra attack on the Paterberg and looking at the other riders only Keukeleire is capable of matching him. Orica need to play this clever and not waste energy early in the race. Their sole focus should be trying to stop Etixx from sending riders up the road and try to let Jens go toe-to-toe with Terpstra. If they can do this, they have a great chance, but it’s going to be hard. Terpstra is in brilliant form and I think he’ll win.
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