By David Hunter
Essen – Geraardsbergen 191km
After a great couple of stages, the riders prepare for the final stage and the Muur.
A stage that most of the GC riders know well, with three laps of a circuit that contains the Muur, Bosberg and Denderoordberg. After an easy opening 140km, the final 50km is brutal. This stage is incredibly hard to control, as we witnessed last year. The attacks can come at any point, riders also have to been on guard as crashes are likely.
As we all know, the Muur is one of the hardest climbs in Belgium. The riders climb up towards the finishing line, but this is different to a race like De Panne, as the barriers force the riders to be on the cobbles and off the pavement! Once through the line, the riders turn to the right and head up the hardest part of the climb. At this point, the cobbles are very difficult and riders really struggle to cope with the mixture steep gradient and huge cobbles.
This is where Gilbert has dominated this season, in Flanders and De Panne. He seems the best on this section, but only when at 100%. I’ll just whisper this, Sagan is not at his best here. Now, I love Peter Sagan like we all do, but he struggles a little on cobbled climbs. Think back to he Oude Kwaremont, he always struggles on the lower half(the climb), but does much better as it flattens out, although seems to do much better on the Paterberg.
The Bosberg is much more his style, this is where Sagan can use his power to put the others into difficulty, but what will his plan be, after today? Not far enough down on GC to think about the morning break, he is sure to attack during the last lap. The others don’t have to chase him, as he isn’t really a threat on GC, but will some try and go with him? He certainly would be a great partner on the run for home, especially if you are going to take the GC title and Sagan the stage.
Wellens, Dumoulin and Sagan were clearly the strongest today. It is up to Lotto and Sunweb to control the race. With just four seconds separating them, the race is still all to play for. Not only do we have nine seconds in the golden kilometre, we also have the bonuses on the finishing line.
Lotto certainly have the strongest team, especially with Tiesj Benoot. He destroyed the peloton today, including some of the biggest names. No doubt, he will be set to work tomorrow. Can he keep the pace high enough to put Dumoulin into trouble?
Then we have the group of riders challenging for the podium:- Naesen, Valgren, Van Avermaet and Stuyven. They will want to attack and take a stage win, but cannot be allowed too much freedom. This is going to be a very hard stage for all concerned.
The rain is over for the week. This will be a huge relief to some riders, especially those not from Belgium.
A great finish! After a tough race, riders need to save some energy for the sprint on cobbles. The approach is steep, but the finish is relatively flat.
Peter Sagan – cycling can be such a cruel sport, Sagan already knows this. Remember back to Paris-Roubaix, a puncture took Sagan out of contention, when he was in a strong position. Setbacks like these are all part of cycling and I’m sure we’ll see Sagan ride with extra fire in his belly. Free from having to worry about the GC, he’s going to be very attacking, this, I cannot wait to see. With a little freedom, he has to start as the overwhelming favourite.
Tim Wellens – two stages in a row he’s looked in super form. The only surprise today was that Dumoulin managed to bridge across to him. I loved the way he handled the sprint, get on the front and ride as hard as possible. He knew that Dumoulin wouldn’t be able to pass him. Going into the last stage, he has a deficit of four seconds to the Dutchman, how will he go about taking this time back? I think of the three GC stages, this is the least suited to Wellens, winning the title will not be easy. Lotto will have to decide how they ride the race, but I think he needs to look to take seconds in the golden kilometre.
Tom Dumoulin – I was seriously impressed today. When he bridged across to Wellens, he simply rode the others off his wheel. Going into the final stage as race leader has pressure, but his team are looking strong. With Van Avermaet sitting forty six seconds back, Dumoulin can focus nearly all of his attention on Wellens. Can he follow the moves? It would make his life easier if the bonus seconds on the line were taken by other riders, maybe even Sagan!
Greg Van Avermaet – these are his roads, his home ground. Van Avermaet knows every inch of this route, but he doesn’t look as strong as he was back in the Spring. Without those super legs, it’s going to be hard for him to win this stage. He’ll be worried about beating Sagan in a sprint, but I’m not sure Wellens will give him much freedom. The approach of BMC will be very interesting, he certainly give it his all.
Oli Naesen – same as GVA, these are his roads. Oli was disappointed not have won this stage last year, but appreciated that he simply couldn’t outsprint EBH. He comes into this day looking to impress and he will certainly try attacking from distance. That tactic didn’t work for him today, but he’ll keep trying, that’s what I love about him.
Jasper Stuyven – finished 3rd today and continues to impress. He will have his eyes set on finishing on the overall podium, he currently trails GVA by just six seconds. This is the strongest I’ve ever seen Stuyven, I really hope to see him do well in this stage. A podium spot would be good reward for his current form.
Michael Valgren – what can I say about my big Danish friend? Super impressive again today, he’s another rider that would dearly love to take a stage win away from this race. He was even better today, than on Friday, something that should worry the other riders. He’s sure to attack, that’s his style.
The problem for everyone is Sagan! Angry, annoyed, motivated and with some freedom. It’s very difficult to see anything else but a commanding win for Peter Sagan. Back in the GC battle, Tim Wellens seems to be on a different level and I think he’ll take his third title.
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