By David Hunter
Gent – Ninove 197km
For many fans, this still marks the start of the season.
The organisers have decided to rip up the road book and redesign this wonderful race. The big omission is the Taaienberg, maybe they felt that without Tom Boonen they should retire this great climb.
In place, we have plenty of the familiar climbs as the riders head out from Gent, but instead of heading back there, they head for Geraardsbergen. You all know what that means… the Muur! The organisers have decided to borrow the old finish from the Tour of Flanders and gone with the double of the Muur and Bosberg, this will please most cycling fans. The peloton crest the Bosberg with around 13km remaining.
New Route v Old Route
I think I prefer the old one. Last year we got huge attacks with around 60km to go. The Taaienberg encouraged this. This was quickly followed by the Eikenberg, another climb that encouraged attackers to have a go. The new route lacks these opportunities.
Some teams could try and attack on the Haaghoek, coming at 151km, but I doubt it. With the Muur on the horizon, it will dominate the whole race. I think most teams will be happy with a controlled race, allowing the team leaders to attack on the Muur. That means a relatively boring day, but I could be wrong!
Already this season, we’ve seen a number of riders deliver some big performances. Here’s my form guide:-
Greg Van Avermaet – TTT win in Valenciana, a stage win and 2nd place in Oman. Already looking good.
Alexey Lutsenko – a 2nd place, two 3rd places and the overall win in Oman. Incredible start to the season.
Tim Wellens – a win in Mallorca, a stage win and GC win in Andalucía. His best ever start to a season.
Fernando Gaviria – a win in San Juan, a crash, 3 wins in Colombia and the sprint jersey. As expected, a dominant start to 2018.
Sonny Colbrelli – big win on the Hatta Dam. A strong performance.
Dries Devenyns – 5th in the TDU and 6th in Oman. That’s a solid start to the season.
Stefan Küng – TTT win in Valenciana, 3rd in Algarve ITT and 4th on Malhão. A very promising start to the year.
Magnus Cort Nielsen – two 2nd places and 2nd on GC in Dubai, followed up by a win in Oman. Great start to his Astana career.
Philippe Gilbert – 3rd in Murcia, plus strong attacks in the Algarve.
Niki Terpstra – two strong attacks in Oman. Promising.
Doing Some Honest Work
Instead of chasing personal glory, some other riders have taken to the front of the bunch, doing their duty for teammates. This hard work, will stand them in good stead for this weekend.
Daniel Oss – incredible in the Cadel Evans race. Without him, McCarthy would not have won.
Oli Naesen – he’s been working as a lead out man for Venturini. Good honest work.
Michael Valgren – he’s been spotted eating headwind in Andalucía. That was after a good start to the year in Australia.
Sep Vanmarcke – lead out man for Modolo and strong breakaway work in Andalucía.
Dylan Van Baarle – tempo man in Andalucía. Got lots of good kilometres in the legs and nearly surprised in the ITT.
Jasper Stuyven – got though some huge work in the Malhão stage in Algarve. Worked incredibly hard to chase down the move of Stybar and co.
Timo Roosen – the main man for Groenewegen! Turning himself into a magnificent lead out man, but also managed to surprise with 3rd place on the Hatta Dam.
Sunny, cold and a little windy. We have wind of 16mph coming from the east. We could see some echelons, but the direction means more of a headwind as the riders head for home. That’s bad news for the attackers.
Will anyone be brave? 2017 was the year of the long range attacks, I was hoping this would continue. A change of route usually sees fairly negative racing, the placement of the Muur encourages this. I think we’ll see a big bunch enter Geraardsbergen together and then the fun should start.
Greg Van Avermaet – with no Sagan, GVA will be licking his lips. Already in great form, he arrives with a strong team, especially Küng and Roelandts. He’ll be happy with a controlled race and then an explosion on the Muur, which should see a small bunch sprint for glory. He can become the first ever rider to win this title on three consecutive occasions. Will the big drop in temperature from Oman to Belgian stop him?
Oli Naesen – ended up getting a little nose break in Andalucía. He says that it won’t bother him, just as well really. After a sensational 2017, we are all excited to see what he can do this season. He looks in brilliant physical condition, but is he really ready to beat the very best?
Tim Wellens – I’m so happy to see him riding this race. As a two time winner of the Eneco Tour, he can certainly handle this finish. He will form a strong partnership with Tiesj Benoot, but he knows that Van Avermaet needs to be dropped and this will be hard to do. Wellens does have a quick sprint, but not good enough to beat GVA. That leaves Lotto in a difficult position.
Sonny Colbrelli – the Italian enjoyed a strong classics campaign in 2017 and has started the season with a bang. His performance on the Hatta Dam was hugely impressive and he’ll start this race full of confidence. His team aren’t the strongest, which means securing a sprint will be very difficult, but not impossible. His win from a breakaway in De Brabantse Pijl showed that he’s not scared to attack.
QuickStep – the Belgians are the only team with lots of options. Amazingly, they last won this race in 2005 through Nick Nuyens. In previous years, we’ve seen them throw away very promising positions. To have Gaviria, Gilbert, Terpstra, Lampaert, Stybar and Devenyns is a ridiculous show of strength from the Belgians. They are the team that could destroy the peloton, it all depends on the type of race they want. Gaviria will win a sprint from any number, as long as he’s present, but will he suffer in the cold? If Gilbert is going to win, he’ll need to drop GVA. The rest of their squad could all win with an attack on the Bosberg. Having such strength in depth gives them a wonderful chance of victory, but they’ll need to think carefully about their tactics.
Alexey Lutsenko – after a brilliant performance in the 2017 edition of DDV, this is certainly a race that he’ll think he can win. Most were surprised by his performance on the Green Mountain, he clearly has enjoyed a good winter. Astana arrive with multiple options, it will be interesting to see how they tackle the race. “Luts” isn’t scared of attacking and putting his rivals under pressure.
Jasper Stuyven – 2017 was another good year for the Belgian. Stuyven is a rider that has made steady progression, year after year, this continued in 2017. He came up just short in the classics, but took a strong win in the Muur stage of the BinckBank Tour. As I mentioned, he’s spent the first weeks of the season looking after others and now he gets the chance to be team leader. 2018 could be the year he becomes one of the best in the world.
Sep Vanmarcke – 2017 was another year full of bad luck. The Belgian always seems to be dogged by misfortune and this continues to ruin his chances in big races. EF Drapac have a solid looking team, but it’s now six years since Vanmarcke took a notable win, when he won here. He has never lived up to that promise.
Matteo Trentin – from August 2017, he was one of the best riders in the world. Trentin has taken the brave decision to move away from QuickStep, joining the Aussies of Mitchelton-Scott. He is now team leader in races, rather than plan D. He should relish this extra pressure, but he will find it harder riding for his new team. The Aussies have struggled in Belgium, always seeming to misjudge these races. Trentin’s winter was disrupted by a broken collarbone, but 4th place in Murcia was an impressive start to the year. We shall see if he copes with the pressure.
Michael Valgren – I’m expecting a big year from the Dane. Astana are spoiled for choice in this race, they should have Valgren and Lutsenko in the front group, after the Muur. This will give them an advantage over some teams, but not all. Valgren enjoyed a good start to the year over in Australia and will no doubt relish the cold weather that has been forecasted. Like Stuyven, I think he could be ready to move into the elite category of rider.
Dylan Van Baarle – now riding for Team Sky, I love that he’s straight into team leader. He was a sensational rider for Cannondale, always seeming to be in contention in the classics. In 2017 he achieved top 10s in DDV, E3 and Flanders. I think riding for a better team will inspire him to become a better rider. He is the dark horse in this race.
How Will The Race Unfold?
Over to QuickStep. They have the numbers to split the race. Van Avermaet is the big favourite and Gaviria is the only QuickStepper who can outsprint him. Will they ride slow? Will they try and split the race early and outnumber all the other teams? One thing is for sure, this is going to be an awfully difficult race for Van Avermaet to win.
You would think that no Sagan is great news for Greg, but I think it makes it harder for him. When Sagan races, you can count on him blowing the race to bits and GVA has benefitted from this. No Sagan is bad news for Van Avermaet.
I think the race will be fairly boring until the Muur, this is when QuickStep move. A group of 15 should be left after the iconic climb, QuickStep will hope to have 4 or 5. Then we will get attack after attack, until the elastic splits. It is impossible for a move to go without a QuickStep rider, but the win might not be theirs. We have so many elite riders here, we could well see an slight upset.
In all the action, I think we’ll see Jasper Stuyven taking the win from a small group of elite riders. He is good enough to follow the moves on the Muur and faster than most other favourites.
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