By David Hunter
Kuurne – Kuurne 202km
After the fun of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, time for some more action from Belgium.
It’s a route we all know very well, one that hasn’t changed for a while. It’s the first time the peloton climb the Oude Kwaremont, my favourite climb in the world, this season. The action really kicks off just before that, with Côte de Trieu, 1.26km at 7%. That leads into the cobbled climb of Oude Kwaremont, which is incredibly difficult, and sees the first selection of the day. This makes me consider the big question of the day.
Break or Sprint
The tough central section of the race always sees a big group escape the bunch, but they don’t always survive. If teams organise a slick chase, it can be relatively straightforward to close down the gap, with the wind also playing a large part. If we get difficult conditions, the race becomes incredibly selective and most sprinters don’t stand a chance. Calm weather usually means we get a sprint.
Previous races tell us we’ll get a front group of 10-20 riders after the Kwaremont. The chase from the bunch can’t get organised straight away, as the Kluisberg interrupts the flow. After this climb is when we start to see the bunch getting organised. With the front group being large, we often get riders missing turns and it’s difficult to get the front group riding through. If Jumbo-Visma get a rider in the move, they won’t work as they want a sprint finish for Groenewegen. For the front group to stay away, it needs to have a number of riders from a couple of the big teams and this will mean they go full gas.
If the break doesn’t succeed, the lap circuit also offers some chances for escapees. It is a race where the sprinters can’t be confident of it all coming back together until the final kilometre. It’s not always a pretty race to watch, but it does offer enough to keep a lot of riders interested.
It will be wet, with rain forecast for the whole day. The wind is coming from the South-West and could reach 30mph. That will help the break establish a gap, as it will be a tailwind for a long section until the Nokereberg. After this point, it will be a cross/headwind, and this will clearly slow the break down. This wind direction isn’t great for the attackers, but if the wind is really strong, the race will be blown to pieces anyway.
QuickStep were due to arrive with Fabio Jakobsen as their leader, but he is ill and won’t race. This means they don’t have a sprint option and have to ride for a breakaway. In the same boat are CCC, Lotto Soudal and Sky. That gives us a lot of riders who want the break to succeed. Hoping for a sprint are Jumbo-Visma, Bora and Mitchelton-Scott, although the Aussie will want a tough day in the saddle to slow the sprint of Groenewegen.
The weather conditions are also good news for those wanting to stop the sprinters. If it is a wet and windy edition, the breakaway should stay away. Most teams will play the same tactic, hit the Kwaremont hard and see how many riders you can get in the front selection. Having multiple riders will be very important as the closing stages will be very difficult to control.
QuickStep – got it spot on today, with Štybar taking a well-deserved win. Moving into this race, their plans have been altered after Jakobsen had to pull out, that means they go attacking with Štybar, Jungels and Lampaert. Wet and windy conditions will be good for them, they’ll hope it helps make the race very selective. All three of these riders are currently in good form and will have a huge say in the outcome of the race, but be aware that no rider has ever won Nieuwsblad and Kuurne in the same season.
Oli Naesen – wasted some energy today by attacking too early, which meant he struggled to follow the moves at the crucial points. That disappointment will only fuel Naesen to push on and challenge in this race. Oli has developed into a hugely consistent rider, but he would swap that for a win in one of the classics. AG2R do have Clement Venturini for a sprint, but that won’t be plan A for the French squad. Expect to see them making the race hard for the sprinters.
Matteo Trentin – was a little unlucky today, he was caught behind the Benoot crash, but he had already been dropped on one of the climbs. The Italian started the race as one of the big favourites, but he just wasn’t at the same level as the top riders. Looking at this race, I fully expect him to be present in the front group after the Kwaremont. This will worry some of his rivals, it would be good if Trentin had a few teammates to help. He won’t win a bunch sprint against Groenewegen, they need to ride an attacking race and hope for a reduced sprint.
Alexey Lutsenko – looked awesome today, but should have been alert to Štybar’s move. Last year Astana went all in for Magnus Cort, but that didn’t work out well for the team. I wonder if they will change their approach and send a few riders in the big move. Lutsenko would be their best option, but he needs to learn quickly from his mistakes when competing against the QuickStep riders.
Niki Terpstra – didn’t work out for him today, but he doesn’t have a good record in Nieuwsblad. He’ll be looking forward to this race, especially if the wind picks up. Terpstra is the best echelon rider in the current peloton, he is hard to beat in windy conditions. The big problem for Niki is the lack of a sprint, he needs to arrive solo to take the win.
Dylan Groenewegen – can Jumbo-Visma hold the race together for a sprint? That will be incredibly difficult, but if they do manage it, Groenewegen will win the sprint and defend his crown.
The wind to blow the race to pieces. QuickStep look strong, but so do some of the other teams and riders. After a disappointment today, I’ll take Oli Naesen for a big win.
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