By David Hunter
Harelbeke – Harelbeke 215km
After a great race in DDV, the peloton rolls into Harelbeke. It’s another race dominated by hellingen and cobbles.
You will notice plenty of familiar climbs and expect the race to really kick off, once we get to the Taaienberg. This is where the pace will start to lift but it’s too far out for a real selection to be made.
That happens once we get to the Kortekeer. In quick succession, the riders are faced with a number of challenging climbs, including the Kapelberg, Paterberg and Oude Kwaremont.
2014 was a crash filled race and Thomas attacked on the Kwaremont. He took with him, Terpstra and Degenkolb, before Vandenbergh and then Sagan joined them. Out on the open road, the group swelled before Sagan made the final selection, on the last climb. Only Thomas, Terpstra and Vandenbergh could follow. As we approached town, the two OPQS riders tried their luck but Thomas and Sagan cooperated well to shut them down. Sagan took the win, Thomas was second and Terpstra third. It was a great race.
There are too many climbs to have a bunch sprint. This race is all about the strongest men attacking each other and teammates help. It’s not essential, as OPQS found out last year, but it does help.
Friday is the only dry day in Belgium, all week long. Most riders will be very pleased to hear that. The wind is relatively strong and it’s a crosswind for most of the day. The conditions seem good for the riders.
Simply put, this race is all about in-form riders. I’ll start by looking at those with good form:-
Peter Sagan – defending champion and this race is good for double wins. Both Boonen and Cancellara have managed it.
Niki Terpstra – won Qatar, 2nd in Omloop and Zeeland. Huge form!
Zdenek Stybar – won Strade Bianche, went well in MSR. A brilliant double option for Etixx.
Fabian Cancellara – TT win in Tirreno and 7th in MSR. Not outstanding but solid form.
Greg Van Avermaet – 6th in Omloop, 2nd in Strade Bianche, stage win in Arezzo and top 20 in MSR.
Luca Paolini – not got great results but amazing in MSR.
Sep Vanmarcke – 5th in Omloop and 4th in Strade Bianche.
Geraint Thomas – won the Algarve, 5th in Paris-Nice and strong attack in MSR.
Ian Stannard – won Omloop.
It would be a massive surprise if one of these riders didn’t win the race. I will throw in one other: Stijn Vandenbergh. At 30 years old, he’s still not taken a big win. A selfless rider but one with huge potential. He’s a massive card for Etixx to play.
Just like in Omloop, it seems that Etixx and Sky have the strongest teams. This allows them to chance to play tactics and keep riders in reserve. Etixx are lacking the Boonen option, he’s a big miss, tactically. When he’s there, he can be left to win the sprint but without him, they have to be more creative. Stybar does give them a sprint option but he’s unlikely to beat Vanmarcke. Etixx need to go on the attack and have the team to do so.
Etixx have Kisse, Lampaert, Vermote, Stybar, Terpstra, Trentin, Van Keirsbulck and Vandenbergh.
Sky have Eisel, Fenn, Knees, Puccio, Rowe, Stannard, Thomas and Viviani.
The other teams don’t really compare to these two, expect them to dominate the race and the attacks. Every attack will contain an Etixx rider, this is standard tactics from them. Sky can counter with form riders, especially Luke Rowe. The Welshman, is going to be a very important rider for the team. He’s going to have to get through a lot of work, but he is capable. Bradley Wiggins was a late withdrawal from the race and a big loss to the team. This makes it much harder for Thomas to win the race.
Of all the other teams and riders on the start list, Jens Keukeleire, has to be the biggest threat. Orica have some big engines with them and if they play their cards right, the Belgian could be dropped off into a strong position.
The Paterberg is often a decisive climb but with the Oude Kwaremont coming after it, riders do need to think about saving their energy. This is usually a race for cobbled climb experts. It’s no surprise that Boonen has 5 wins and Cancellara 3. This is their type of race, with added importance on the Paterberg and Kwaremont.
For me that reduces the list a bit. I see Thomas, Terpstra, Stybar, Vandenbergh, Cancellara and Vanmarcke as the main men for this race. That would again leave Etixx with superior numbers, something they don’t always cope well with. Both Stybar and Terpstra are looking as strong as ever just now. Either man is capable of winning the race and adding to, an already good start to 2015. Stybar’s attack on the Poggio was effortless, the other day.
However, Fabian Cancellara can often by so strong, it doesn’t matter how many teammates others have. Despite good signs, I don’t think he’s quite at that level…yet!
It would be wrong of me not to mention Lotto Soudal. Despite not having one of the big favourites, they have three strong riders: Roelandts, Boeckmans and Benoot. A lot of you will have read my interview with Benoot, before the start of the season. He certainly has delivered as one of the riders to watch in 2015. He was 4th in Le Samyn, 3rd in the Handzame Classic, 6th in Zeeland and 6th in DDV. With Roelandts being here, he’ll probably have to play the role of teammate, but it does give Lotto options. The pressure is on Roelandts to deliver after a poor 2014. Can he surprise?
Long shots for the title include Van Baarle, Hayman, EBH and Boom.
The wind could be decisive in the race. It looks like being a strong headwind for the closing kilometres. This makes it incredibly difficult for a lone break and increases the chances of a small sprint. Having a fast finish is a big advantage but numbers is also important. If we get a group of 5 and Etixx have 3 riders, they should take the win, just don’t think of Omloop! Sagan, Stybar, Cancellara, GVA and Vanmarcke all have a good sprint. Thomas and Terpstra are lacking in that department. For that reason, I go with Stybar! I picked Thomas in my video preview but the wind and omission of Wiggins tips it back in the favour of Etixx.
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