By David Hunter
Harelbeke – Harelbeke 206.1km
The fun in Belgium continues, with the only race in the world named after a motorway.
The organisers have decided to mainly stick with the traditional route, no wonder! This is a race that never disappoints and always seems to come up with new ways of winning. Last year, we witnessed a long range attack by Gilbert, Van Avermaet and Naesen. This trio stayed away until the end, despite making the move with 68km remaining.
The race really begins with the Kortekeer, after 128.3km. This climb is 1km at 6.4%, which isn’t too difficult, but the Taaienberg is just around the corner. The battle to be at the front for this climb is fierce and lines out the peloton. Once on the climb, we have 650m at 9.5%, but all of this takes place in the gutter. This means we have a long line of riders and the elastic always snaps. As it was removed from Omloop, this is the first time we’ve seen the Taiienberg in 2018.
Next on the menu is the Boigneberg, 2180m at 5.8%, which is quickly followed by the Eikenberg, 1200m at 5.5%. With no more serious climbs for the next 20km, this can be a very tactical section of the race. It normally deters long range attacks, but not last year.
Usually the most important part of the race is the Paterberg/Kwaremont double. This is the only race where we do the climbs in this order, usually the Paterberg is climbed last. The Paterberg is 700m at 12%, but you can use the gutter, unlike in the Tour of Flanders. This is quickly followed by Oude Kwaremont, which is 2200m at 4.2%. As most of you will know, this is my favourite climb in cycling. The bottom half is steep and very demanding, once through the village, the top section is relatively flat but exposed to the wind.
The last two climbs are the Karnemelkbeekstraat, 1530m at 4.9%, and the Tiegemberg which is 1100m at 6.5%. The final climb always gives a last chance for riders to attack, it comes with 20km remaining. The run for home is flat and it is possibly to bring back the front group and set up a sprint. That is one of the interesting things about this race, but it’s been a long time since we had a sprint.
Some rain in the afternoon, but the main concern is the wind. With gusts of 30km/h, coming from the south, it will be possible to split the race. That is music to the ears of some teams.
Normally, the Kwaremont is where the race explodes, but last year didn’t follow the plan. If teams want to, it is clearly possible to make an early selection. This was the trend in 2017, but it might not be like that in 2018. Will the team leaders risk it all with an attack from distance?
As I mentioned in previous previews, we have a huge number of riders now reaching their top level. In previous years it’s all been about the battle between Van Avermaet and Sagan, but they now have some serious competition. If these two get involved in a game of poker, it will give opportunities to those up the road.
Greg Van Avermaet – the defending champion hasn’t started the season with the bang he would have liked. He performed well in Omloop, but Astana had the numbers to win. He made the front split in Kuurne, but Astana brought the breakaway back. He wasn’t anywhere to be seen in Strade Bianche, he failed to threaten in Tirreno and rolled with the bunch in Sanremo. This is not the Greg I love! Back on home soil, I think the stories of his weakness have been greatly over exaggerated. His tactics will be interesting, I’m really not sure how he will approach the race. To win the race, he knows that he can’t win a sprint with Sagan present in the front group. Last year he managed to escape with Gilbert and Naesen, that was perfect for him. Can he manage to pull it off again?
Peter Sagan – At the last minute, Bora have decided that Daniel Oss will ride here. No wonder, the team was looking fairly weak as Pöstlberger is still out with injury. The team still doesn’t look overly strong, but Oss should be there for a long time. Will that mean Sagan rides a defensive race?
Oliver Naesen – the sensation of 2017. He took huge steps forward, but was very unlucky not to take a big result in Flanders. He’s not yet at the level of Sagan and Van Avermaet, this means he spends a lot of time working for others in other races. There is nothing wrong with that, in fact, it is great preparation for these big races. Naesen was unlucky in Omloop and Kuurne, he will be hoping for better luck in this race. AG2R have strengthened their team and Naesen should have help throughout most of the race. He is a rider that is becoming faster in a sprint, some could underestimate this.
Tiesj Benoot – the man of the moment! Huge win in Strade Bianche, followed up by a jaw dropping performance in Tirreno. To go from winning on the white roads, to finishing 4th in Tirreno was a sensational performance. Don’t forget that he was ridiculously strong in Omloop and made the front group in Kuurne. The next few weeks might just see him taking some pretty big results.
Zdenek Stybar – I’m a little unsure about the QuickStep leadership. Gilbert seems to be building towards later goals, so I think Stybar could be their man. The Czech rider is very strong on the Paterberg and Kwaremont climbs, something that goes a long way in this race. I have been quietly impressed by his performances in Omloop and Strade Bianche, I get the feeling he could be on the verge of a big result. Then again, Gilbert can never be discounted. This is a huge race and he’ll want a big performance.
Michael Valgren – another one of the “hot” riders. His win in Omloop was a massive result in his career, having turned 26, he is ready to make the next step. Astana have been one of the teams of the season and they should have a big say in this race. If they can place multiple riders in the front group, they could pull off another big result. Can the Gatto/Lutsenko/Valgren trio deliver another huge performance?
Sonny Colbrelli – another rider who has greatly impressed this season. Despite not taking the big result, he impressed in Omloop and Kuurne. He then finished 9th in MSR after having to abandon Tirreno. He should have fully recovered from his illness and ready to challenge in this race. Despite being a fast man, Colbrelli is very good in the Belgium hills. However, I’m not sure he’s quite worked out his tactics for these races. Being a fast finisher, does make life much harder when they others don’t want to carry you to the line.
Arnaud Démare – needs it to be a sprint.
Sep Vanmarcke – possibly the best rider in Omloop, but no result, sounds like the story of his career. If he doesn’t take a win soon, I think his confidence will quickly disappear. Vanmarcke needs to continue to believe in himself, he is good enough to win this race. If he can avoid bad luck, he has every chance of taking the win.
Dylan Van Baarle – been a very good domestique, since joining Team Sky. He endured the opening weekend of the season, he’ll be hoping for better luck in this race. Van Baarle is often a rider that flies under the radar, but he is very strong. He’ll be hoping for a good performance to give him confidence as we head towards his big target races.
Jasper Stuyven – 4th in Omloop was a decent start to the season. He missed the split on the Muur, because he was caught behind the Michael Matthews crash. Before that point, he was looking strong. In MSR, he stayed in the wheels and waited for the sprint, taking home 10th place. As we now approach races that suit him, Trek will need to make a decision about team leadership, but is Degenkolb fully recovered?
If a long range attack is going to stick, it really needs to have representation from BMC, QuickStep and Astana. These are the strongest teams in the race.
Despite losing Daniel Oss to Bora, it is the Van Avermaet’s team that arrive looking good. In Roelandts, Bettiol, Drucker and Küng, they have riders capable of going deep into this race. That gives Van Avermaet a tactical advantage over some of his opponents.
As usual, QuickStep are also strong. Gilbert, Stybar, Terpstra and Lampaert, that’s a team with a lot of power. After dominating the smaller Belgian races, this will obviously be more of a challenge. Team leadership could well be decided on the road, something that these riders are used to.
He might not have been on top form yet this season, but I think Greg Van Avermaet will take the win. His team is incredible strong and he is a different beast in this part of the world. I think the winning move will come on the Kwaremont, I can’t see another attack winning from 70km. BMC will use their numbers to put pressure on Sagan and I think Van Avermaet will escape with a few other elite riders and take the sprint victory.
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