By David Hunter
Roeselare – Waregem 182km
We’ve had brilliant racing already this season, it looks set to continue.
The organisers have stuck with the majority of last year’s route, only making changes to opening half. They have continued with the vast majority of the climbs coming in a 40km section, which makes it tough for the sprinters.
The racing should begin with the Taaienberg, everyone’s favourite climb. After closing the gutter for E3, I’m led to believe it will be open for this race. That totally changes the climb and increases the chances of splits. Of course, it makes positioning going into it very important.
Before the riders can draw breathe, the next test is upon them. Berg Ten Houte is 1.1km at 6.1%, but has a maximum of 15.1%. The hardest section is right at the start, making it perfect for an attack. A fast descent follows, before a short section of flat, which leads into the big point of the race, the second ascent of the Knokteberg.
1.4km at 6.8%, this is where Tiesj Benoot almost dropped everyone last year. After an intense period of racing, this is a very demanding climb and one for the riders with real punch in their legs. The crest comes with 33km remaining, meaning anything can happen.
The Run for Home
This is where we can see the race come back together. If a team has enough domestiques left, they can drive the peloton on and catch the front group. It all depends on numbers and the composition of the front group.
The forecast has been changeable over the last few days. It currently says there will be a lot of rain in the morning, but the race doesn’t start until 1215CET, which means they’ll miss the worst of it. It’s to remain overcast, with light rain returning for the end of the race. The wind will be at its strongest towards the start, but it will still be gusting around 15mph in the middle of the day. The wind is coming from the south, making crosswinds very likely in a key part of the day. Riders should beware the approach to the first climb of the Knokteberg, the run from here to Kortekeer and the top of the Paterberg. You have been warned!
If you don’t want a sprint, you need to make this hard once the climbs start. As the race is the easiest of this block, sprinters will be hopeful of making the finale. To stop this from happening, teams must make the racing hard, as early as they can. A headwind will stop anything much happening in the early part, but once the climbing starts, that’s when the fun begins!
As QuickStep, Lotto, AG2R, Trek and Jumbo-Visma don’t really want a sprint, it looks like a tough day in the saddle for the sprinters. There will be constant attacks and I expect to see splits in the crosswinds. The section before the first ascent of the Knokteberg and at the top of the Paterberg are perfect to split the race apart.
Once a front group has been established, it’s all down to numbers. As usual, we’ll see QuickStep with the most riders, but there’s no guarantee they win this race. With some of the big favourites skipping it, there is a real chance of an upset and a big win for a younger rider.
If we do get the predicted rain, the cobble sections will also be difficult, and we’ll unfortunately see some crashes.
QuickStep – they again come to a race with three of the strongest riders: Lampaert, Gilbert and Jungels, which clearly makes them incredibly hard to defeat. Lampaert is the defending champion, he won here in 2017 and 2018, can he complete a terrific treble? Gilbert has been riding as a domestique, happy to help his teammates in most races up until now. His main goals are Flanders and Roubaix, I think he’ll again be looking to help the others. Jungels has been so powerful this season, taking to his new role in the team like a duck to water. Of all the races, you would think this is the best for him, especially as he sat out of Gent-Wevelgem. Like always, they are the team to beat.
Trek – after a tough start to the season, it was great to see them come out swinging on Sunday. They arrive here with their confidence restored and also have three options for the win: Theuns, Pedersen and Stuyven. All three men are full of attacking promise and will want to split the race early, they all have a realistic chance of winning too.
Alejandro Valverde – the world champion was 11th here in 2018. His form hasn’t been at the standard we normally expect, but this won’t be a problem in a one-day race, just look at Milan-Sanremo. The problem with this race is that he’s not an expert in Belgium, something that is a big disadvantage. I don’t see him being far off winning, but quite a few of the contenders have a faster sprint from a small group.
Oli Naesen – still enjoying a purple period of form. After missing out in E3, he bounced back in Gent-Wevelgem, securing another podium spot. His sprinting speed has certainly increased, which is such a valuable commodity in the world of cycling. Oli is now confident sitting in and letting others waste energy attacking, knowing he’ll beat them in a sprint finish. I hope this doesn’t take away from his attacking spirit, we don’t want him to get boring!
Tiesj Benoot – another who’ll be happy about his performance on Sunday. Tiesj will take one look at the weather forecast and have a big smile! His performance level is currently very high and after taking a beautiful win in last year’s Strade Bianche, you can be sure he’s desperate for a win on home soil. Lotto have a strong team; he just needs a little bit of luck to go with his strong legs.
Michael Valgren – after a tough start to the year, his legs are starting to feel better. This period has always been his main target, starting from now and finishing in Liege, just as well as illness ruined the opening weekend. The Dane is another who’ll enjoy the weather forecast, he seems a different rider in tough conditions. Don’t write him off as results haven’t been at the top level, remember that form is temporary, but class is permanent.
Mathieu Van Der Poel – he looked nice and strong in Gent-Wevelgem, but will be slightly disappointed to have missed out on the podium. This race looks like one he’d expect to challenge in, especially as some of the big hitters are not here. He is a special talent and winning would not be a surprise to me, but it certainly won’t be easy. How will he cope with being a marked man?
Matej Mohorič – exactly the type of race he should be winning. We’ve all watched in awe as he’s moved his way up the ladder, he now sits amongst the best riders in the world. His win in the 2018 Binck Bank Tour shows he likes riding in this part of the world, it’s not really a surprise as he climbs and descends well. He starts the race as Bahrain’s captain, and he’ll be disappointed not to finish on the podium.
Pascal Ackermann – the big German was very impressive in Gent-Wevelgem, doing a huge amount of work for Peter Sagan. As this race contains fewer climbs than the other races, it’s much better suited to his style. To remain in contention certainly won’t be easy, but he can climb well and is an outsider for the crown.
Fernando Gaviria – another sprinter who’ll hope to be able to win the race. He was one of many riders to shine on Sunday, but it was his teammate who took the win. The Colombian goes well in races like this and he’ll be expecting to challenge for the win. One potential problem is the strength of his team, I don’t see many riders being left to help in the closing kilometres.
Poor weather conditions and a route suited to the riders who pack a real climbing punch. That screams Tiesj Benoot to me.
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