By David Hunter
The peloton roll into town with a heavy heart, the tragic events of last week still loom large over all of us, but the juggernaut that is professional cycling continues to rumble on.
On paper this is a standard sprint stage, but a mix of narrow roads and exposed sections could see it turn into something slightly different. If the wind blows, this stage will turn out to be quite selective. If not, it’s a big sprint, but look out for the golden kilometre as it comes inside the final 10km.
Classic finish in Ardooie, one of my favourite sprint stages in the whole year. We have a very technical finish, which should give us a sprint, but beware the late attacks that have seen Stuyven and Renshaw win here in the past.
With 1.5km of cobbles ending with around 16km to go, this stage isn’t a guaranteed sprint finish. The cobbles aren’t that difficult, but the width of the road almost guarantees a selection will be made, especially with the bonus seconds on offer in the golden kilometre. This one falls into the “interesting” category.
96km of chaos! The organisers have decided to follow the lead set by the grand tours and introduce their own short stage of hell. We have a lap circuit that features the hellishly difficult Mur de Saint-Roch. This stage should have a big impact on the battle for the overall title, in fact, it should be the big GC day.
It should be one last stage for the sprinters, but a narrow lap circuit will make for a nervous bunch. Again, we have a late golden kilometre, which will interest some of the GC riders.
The organisers have decided to cut the length of the TT down to just 8km, meaning gaps will be small, which is good news for those that struggle on the TT bike.
The classic final stage, featuring lap circuits of the Muur. This year the stage is shorter than usual, and the organisers have included some climbs before we reach the circuit, in an effort to make things a little harder. Like me, I think they’re fed up of a large bunch approaching the line together.
QuickStep – the Belgians arrive with the strongest squad in the race, which is common when we hit Belgium. They have Gilbert, Štybar and Jungels as their GC options, which puts them in a strong position, especially with the short stage in mind. Gilbert and Štybar aren’t always the best on their TT bike, but they’ll be confident of limiting losses with just 8km against the clock. We also have some bad weather expected to affect quite a few stages, something QuickStep will be happy with. What does surprise me is that QuickStep don’t have a brilliant record in this race, they only have two wins from that last six editions, something I think they’ll be wanting to improve upon.
Tim Wellens – won this race in 2014 and 2015, but arrives after an energy sapping Tour de France. We’ll have to see how he has recovered from chasing the polka dot jersey, as he looked very tired towards the end of that race. He’ll be one of many riders hoping for lots of rain, he always performs better in tough conditions. Lotto arrive with a weak looking squad; he’ll be very concerned about QuickStep being able to outgun him.
Mike Teunissen – what a season he’s enjoyed after going back to Jumbo. A solid classics campaign was followed up with wins in 4 Days of Dunkirk and the ZLM Tour. He then won the opening stage of the Tour and had the yellow jersey for a couple of days. Jumbo will sense an opportunity of landing another big result, especially as the 8km ITT is good news for Teunissen. He also packs a fast sprint; we should see him trying to take bonus seconds in the golden kilometre.
Greg Van Avermaet – despite starting the season with a bang, much of the season we’ve seen Greg not quite at his top level. He would have been pleased with his Tour de France, where he achieved a high level of consistency, and he followed that up with an impressive second place in San Sebastían. This is a race he performs well in; he hasn’t been outside the top 6 in the past 6 editions, but only has one podium spot to his name. Can he use his race craft to eventually win this race?
Dylan Van Baarle – no longer a classics man, the Dutch rider can now be classified as a mountain domestique. He was the man stepping up in the Tour when others were failing, he really has been magnificent this year. Now that the yellow jersey has been defended for another year, he can start to focus on taking his own chances. The route looks very good for him, he’ll be looking to show off his climbing skills in the short stage and he can produce an excellent TT when he needs to. Ineos don’t look particularly strong, something which will be a concern.
Alberto Bettiol – after winning the Tour of Flanders, his performances have dropped off the edge of a cliff. I don’t see it changing any time soon.
Oli Naesen – he’s been knocking on the door all season, but is yet to take a win. I would point out that he loves racing in the second half of the season, this is where he normally takes his big results. He arrives with a solid looking team, but he needs to ensure he limits his losses in the ITT, an area that he doesn’t always perform well in.
QuickStep have the strongest team by a country mile, which puts them into a strong position. Their true leader will be decided by tactics on the road, which makes predicting the winner very difficult indeed. I’ll go with Bob Jungels, who will have got a lot out of the recent Tour of Poland.
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