By David Hunter
Aalter – Aalter 167km
Another day, another lap circuit, and another sprint stage, or is it?
Just like on stage 1, the organisers have tried to spice up this sprint stage by adding in some cobble sectors, but will it stop a mass sprint?
The riders have to cover the 33km circuit on three occasions, as the organisers have decided to start and finish in the town of Aalter, something that doesn’t usually do in a sprint stage.
The circuit includes some narrow roads and two cobble sectors, although the first one is incredibly short, and the riders will hardly even notice it. The first main difficulty is just after this point, once the riders turn right, as they head onto a narrow section of road. This bit of road lasts for 4km and heads directly into the main cobble sector of the day, which means the battle for position will start much further down the road.
The cobbles are quite well pronounced and last for almost 2km, which is a considerable section, but I am worried about a path that runs along the right of the cobbles. I really hope the organisers have looked at this and put a barrier over this section to stop the riders from taking the easy option. In the last lap, there will be 16km to go once off the cobblestones.
This section again leads directly onto narrow roads, this time for a further 2km. At this point the bunch will return to normal road and they only have 14km left, which also includes the golden kilometre. It should still be a sprint, but the organisers are trying to tease out attacks from the classics experts.
The first couple of stages had a wind coming from the west, but it’s now switched round to the south and will gust up to 20mph. This means the section just after the cobbles will be fully exposed to crosswinds, which could have a huge impact on the race, if the wind does actually blow. Sunweb seemed interesting in splitting things today, hopefully a few teams try in this stage.
Edward Theuns – we’ll have to see if he wins the rock, paper, scissors contest on the team bus to decide if he gets to sprint! After a brilliant sprint in the opening stage, he was asked to lead out Pedersen today, a decision I simply cannot become to comprehend. As the Dane finished outside the top 10, I trust the team will see sense and turn back to Theuns for this one. Fast Eddie will enjoy the cobble section, especially if it forces some of the sprinters to waste some energy.
Jasper Philipsen – was very close to a big win today, but started his sprint from too far back. The talented young Belgian will also like the look of this stage and he certainly looks to be enjoying some Tour legs just now. UAE have a team fully dedicated to him, but that still wasn’t enough to get him into a good spot today. If he’s going to beat Bennett, his lead out men need to do much better.
Sam Bennett – two from two, without even looking like he’s trying! Given the way he’s riding, without a train, he must have got a few tips from Peter Sagan. To ride like this requires a huge amount of skill, plus a little luck. Will the luck of the Irish run out soon?It’s clear that he’s significantly faster than the other sprinters here.
Dylan Groenewegen – looks tired.
Arnaud Démare – doesn’t seem to be at his usual level.
Zdenek Štybar – tried with a long-range attack today. With Hodeg not looking competitive in the sprints, I think it’s time for the Belgians to blow the race apart during the final lap. If enough teams show an interest on the cobbles, the crosswind section just after could become very selective. Štybar has shown on many occasions that his sprint is now up there with many fast men, making him a prime candidate to win from a small group.
Oli Naesen – as AG2R don’t have a sprinter, it makes that they’ll try and split the race, if the conditions are suitable. Naesen has a sprint that’s capable of getting him in the top 10 during flat stages, there won’t be many of the classics men capable of beating him from a small group.
I’m keeping my fingers crossed the wind blows, as I sense a real opportunity for teams to split the race. We have 4km of narrow road, followed by 2km of cobbles, then another 2km of narrow road, which ends with 14km remaining and the golden kilometre is still to play for. If a team doesn’t split the bunch, I’m quitting!
As QuickStep have the strongest team, I’ll go with a win for Zdenek Štybar.
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