By David Hunter
Harelbeke – Harelbeke 204km
Time for some serious action.
You can forget about Milan-Sanremo, this is proper racing. The peloton are back in Belgium for the 62nd edition of this race, one that includes some of the iconic climbs we know and love.
This is when the race kicks off. We’ll see a huge battle to see who can hit the climb first. The reason is that the riders ride up the gutter, which means single file. If you start too far down the bunch, your race could already be over. 1.4km at 3.7% doesn’t sound like much, but this is a seriously tough climb. Once over the initial steep section, crosswinds can have an impact on the false flat.
400m at 13.1% just doesn’t do it justice. After a tough race, the riders hit one of the hardest climbs in Flanders. Similar to the Taaienberg, the organisers allow the riders to climb in the gutter, something that isn’t allowed in the Tour of Flanders. This is another hugely important moment in the race and a selection will be made.
2.5km at 3.7%, but just look at the opening 1.25km. On rough cobbles, this is where the front group will blow to pieces, with many riders looking to attack. Once over the steepest section, the climb flattens out as we head through the village, but just like many of the climbs, this is where the crosswinds can catch you.
Sun and no wind, are we really in Belgium? The conditions give the quick men a glimmer of hope.
You need to take the race to QuickStep, not just wait for them to destroy you. As we have the Taaienberg with 80km to go, it presents a great opportunity for teams to slim down the QuickStep options. If you hit that climb hard enough, you might be able to cut QuickStep down to two riders, that’s about the best you can hope for.
The rest of the race could well be a battle between the favourites. If we don’t see a selection on the Taaienberg, we’ll have to wait until the Paterberg. This is the only race where we see the Paterberg come before the Kwaremont, something I do like. The Kwaremont is one of those special climbs, only a few riders can actually cope with the mix of climbing and cobbles. This is the point where Naesen will hit the accelerator, who can follow? Back in Kuurne, it was Lampaert who could match his move, with Stannard, Stybar, De Vreese, Asgreen and Doull not too far away.
QuickStep – after dominating this race in 2018, the Belgians again start with multiple options: Lampaert, Štybar, Gilbert and Jungels. Last year they got their tactics spot on, I wonder how they’ll attack this edition? After dominating all the one-day races so far, they’ll approach it with the confidence winning breeds. Lampaert has now moved his way up the hierarchy at the team, helped by Terpstra leaving, but what role will he fulfil? Gilbert seems happy attacking early in races, this will probably continue. Jungels is one who cannot be underestimated, he was 16th in Het Nieuwsblad and won Kuurne, brilliant results considering his relative lack of experience in this type of racing. If QuickStep end up with three riders in the front group, it’s going to be very difficult for the other teams to win the race. Which one of them would win? A lot depends on luck.
Tiesj Benoot – he’s started the season in good form, impressing in Strade Bianche and Tirreno Adriatico. Now back home, I can’t wait to see how he approaches this next block of racing. Lotto Soudal aren’t the strongest team in the race, but Tiesj is one of the strongest riders. He will hope for an attacking race, one that becomes man against man, but QuickStep won’t be happy with this. How will he go about beating QuickStep? Attack, attack, attack!
Greg Van Avermaet – started the season with a morale boosting win in Valenciana, then came very close to winning Nieuwsblad. Since that point, things have taken a little downturn, with 6th place in Strade and not really looking like winning a stage in Tirreno. CCC don’t look the strongest team on paper, but they do have enough strength to make the race difficult and put GVA into a strong position. When the finale of the race begins, I think we’ll see Greg at the front, looking to make life difficult for his rivals. He has one of the fastest sprints of the main stars, but it’s not easy bringing the race back together.
Oli Naesen – wow! 2nd in Milan-Sanremo was a sensational result, his current form is his best ever. Heading back to Flanders, his rivals should be worried about him. Bad luck ruined his 2018 classics campaign, he’ll use that as extra motivation. AG2R aren’t the strongest team, that means they’ll need to try and split it early to eliminate all the domestiques. Not only is Oli climbing well, but his sprinting speed also seems to have increased. If he gets his tactics right, this could be a huge moment in his career.
Peter Sagan – won here in 2014, but he’s also made some mistakes in other editions. Despite what some people have said, I thought Sagan looked good on Saturday. He managed to follow the move of Alaphilippe, but made a mistake by getting stuck on the front as the sprint started to unfold. In previous years, I’ve often thought that he uses this race as training, without much care about the result, I wonder if he’ll actually try and win this time! Bora arrive with a strong team, they should be able to support Sagan deep into the race, particularly Oss and Drucker. Will he give us a performance to remember?
Wout Van Aert – after a strong showing in Milan-Sanremo, Jumbo-Visma will be very excited to see what he can do in this race. The cyclo-cross star is still learning his trade on the road, but he is an exceptional athlete. His Dutch team look very strong, with riders like Jansen, Van Poppel and Teunissen to help in the finale of the race. As his sprint isn’t as fast as some of his big rivals, I do wonder how he’ll go about winning the race.
Matteo Trentin – Saturday continued his exceptional start to 2019. He might only have three wins to his names, but the Italian is back to his best. He didn’t quite get his tactics right in Milan-Sanremo, but making the right choice in that situation isn’t the easiest thing in the world. If you cast your mind back to Het Nieuwsblad, he wasn’t able to follow the big moves late in the race, can he in this race? If he makes the front selection, I wonder if we’ll see him back his sprint instead of trying to go solo.
Michael Valgren – the opening weekend of his season was ruined by illness, which also impacted his performance in Tirreno. Enough time has now passed for him to be back to full strength and he’ll be looking forward to testing his legs against the very best. After a sensational 2018, where he won Het Nieuwsblad and Amstel, he’ll be keen to register a big result for his new team, Dimension Data. His team might not be as strong as some of the others, but if he has good legs, he’ll be one of the best in this race.
Niki Terpstra – 3rd in Kuurne and 3rd in Le Samyn are signs that Terpstra has some decent legs. We all knew that riding with Direct Energie would make it hard for him to win big races, but he’ll still hope to successfully defend this title. Looking at his team, I just don’t see how he’ll win this race, especially considering his lack of a sprint. Life for Terpstra isn’t going to be easy, but he knew that when he left QuickStep to join Direct Energie.
QuickStep have dominated all the one-day races in 2019, but that could be about to change. With riders like Naesen and Benoot getting closer all the time, this is a much harder race for them to bully. Throw Sagan and Van Avermaet into the mix and I start to get excited about what we’re about to watch.
I think we’ll see an aggressive race and things will split quite early, with QuickStep unable to dominate as they have in previous races this season. When the dust settles, that man, Greg Van Avermaet, will remind everyone just what a special talent he is.
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