By David Hunter
Beveren – Hulst 167.5km
We begin with a sprint stage, but it’s far from boring.
Nothing much to see here, apart from the location of the cobble sections.
Some of the quick men might just take a look at the profile and expect to see a big bunch sprint, but if you look a little deeper, you’ll begin to see opportunities for many riders. The first issue is that much of this race is one narrow roads, especially from the 90km mark until 108km. The peloton head onto a one lane road and it stays this way for a long time.
During this section of the race, we have a couple of cobble sectors too. Given that it’s likely to be raining, you can imagine just how nervous the bunch will be. There is still along way from the finishing line, which could see some teams not wanting to push things on, but surely someone will sense an opportunity to upset the sprinters?
Rain is predicted for the afternoon, which some will be happy about. The wind is coming from the west and will gust up to 20km/h, which is certainly strong enough to split the bunch. The problem is that there is a lot of headwind as the riders head back towards Hulst, which could put some teams off splitting things early on.
This is the 20km lap circuit, which the riders cover around two and a half times. Most of it is fairly straightforward, apart from a kilometre section as they turn right in Halfeind. This leads the bunch onto a very narrow section of road, which lasts for a kilometre. It is also very exposed to the wind coming from the west, which could see some riders put into difficulty. The little cobble sector is nothing to worry about.
We have a few twists and turns, but nothing that will worry the sprinters, it will actually help keep things nice and safe. The roads aren’t particularly wide, but there should still be some space for some riders to move up the bunch in the closing kilometres. Teams with longer sprint trains will look to dominate from the 4km mark. Those who only have a few men, will have to take their chances and try a late rush.
Dylan Groenewegen – didn’t hit the heights I expected in the Tour de France, which will have been a massive disappointment for him. He raced today in the Euro RR, but was never a feature, despite huge work by his Dutch teammates. It’s a big ask for him to immediately recover from the Tour and win this opening stage, but you cannot write off a man with his speed.
Sam Bennett – after a break in racing, he was 2nd in Ride London and looks to have maintained his early season form. Bora have a strong team to support him, but he lacks his usual lead out men: Pfingsten, Archbold and Schwarzmann. It will be interesting to see how he adapts to new men ahead of him, but the Irishman is also good at surfing wheels, if required. He is soon heading to the Vuelta, which means he might not be at 100%, but he’ll be much fresher than the sprinters who come here after the Tour de France.
Arnaud Démare – doesn’t arrive with as long a sprint train, but he’ll still expect to be put into a good position. A recent win in the Tour de Wallonie will have given him encouragement, but he has struggled against the big sprinters this season. If the stage ends up being difficult, it will increase his chances of winning.
Álvaro Hodeg – the young Colombian arrives full of confidence, thanks to two recent wins in Italy. QuickStep don’t have their recognised sprint train at this race, but riders like Jungels, Gilbert and Štybar can easily move into these roles. Can Hodeg takes his first world tour win of the season?
Jasper Philipsen – the young Belgian has posted some impressive results in his first season in the big time. UAE have a team fully behind him in this race, he can count on the help of Marcato, Ferrari and Molano in the closing stages. He is a rider with a fast kick, but does prefer a tough stage. Looking at his rivals, he should be aiming for a spot on the podium.
Edward Theuns – after a season with few opportunities, this is his week to shine. He’ll have his fingers crossed the weather makes it a tough day, something that plays to his strengths. In the sprint, he might not have the maximum speed to challenge Groenewegen and Bennett, but he should be targeting the podium.
Late Attack – the placing of the golden kilometre means that teams will have to be on their guard in the closing stages. Riders who contest these sprints could find themselves ahead of the peloton and they’ll try to take advantage of that. Expect to see the usual suspects: Gilbert, Van Avermaet, Naesen and Wellens looking to see if they can sneak a stage win.
The outcome of this race depends a lot on the weather. If the rain is heavy, it will end up being a selective day, but we’ll have to see if the forecasters are correct or not. I think being the first stage of the race, there will be enough teams looking to ensure we have a sprint finish. Looking at the sprinters at this race, and where they are in terms of their season, I think this will be a day for Sam Bennett.
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