By David Hunter
Antwerpen > Leuven 268.5km
When I first looked at the route, I thought it was relatively easy, then I compared it to the Tour of Flanders, and was surprised to see that it has 80m more climbing. Is it really harder than Flanders? As we don’t have the cobbles of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg, the world championships isn’t as hard as Flanders, but it could still be quite selective.
The race is a mix of two local circuits, one in Overijse and the other in Leuven. I suppose the bad news for us fans is that the circuit in Overijse is the harder one, the loop in Leuven is considerably easier, and that’s the one they finish on. The organisers will hope that the cumulative effect will make the race a selective one, we’ll have to wait and see.
Without doubt the hardest of the two circuits, this is where the damage needs to be done. The hardest climbs are the Smeysberg (600m at 7.2%) and the Moskesstraat (600m at 7.3%). The Smeysberg is perfect for an Alaphilippe attack, the Moskesstraat is one for van der Poel. The final time up the Smeysberg comes with 50km to go, which is a long way from home, but it needs to be attacked.
Okay, we have lots of twists and turns, but this isn’t a hard circuit. The hardest climb is the Wijnpers (300m at 5.3%) but it’s not long enough to do serious damage. The final turn comes with 800m to go, then the road kicks up before levelling off in the final metres. If we end up with some kind of sprint, timing your launch is incredibly important.
It looks like a nice day for a bike ride. The bunch will have comfortable temperatures and the wind will gradually increase throughout the day. Crucially it will be a nice tailwind as the riders head from Overijse to Leuven, perfect for those wanting to attack from distance.
How hard do the teams want it to be? The opening kilometres are incredibly important for the Belgian team, it is vital the break is weak, they don’t want to use more than one rider to chase it down. Luckily for the team they have Tim Declercq, a master in ensuring the right move gets away. Once it does, he’ll settle down for the day, expect to see lots of him in the opening 200km!
All eyes will be on the Belgians, they have the big favourite and the strongest team. I’ve heard some people say they don’t have the strongest team, that is utter nonsense. They have Declercq to patrol the first half of the race, then they have Campenaerts and Teuns for the tricky middle section, which leaves Evenepoel, Stuyven, Lampaert and Tiesj for the finale of the race. Not only are these riders incredibly strong, but they can also all handle the distance, a crucial factor in a race of 270km. They have strength, but they also have a clear hierarchy within the team, this is crucial. No one will be looking at each other wondering who does the chasing, everyone knows their role, it’s all about protecting Wout deep into the race.
Looking to upset them will be Denmark, Italy, Netherlands, Slovenia and France. Looking at these teams they don’t have the strength in depth to match the Belgians, but they do have dangerous finishers. Much has been made of the Danish team, as they do arrive with multiple riders in great form. They don’t have a clear hierarchy withing the team, multiple riders have freedom to chase personal glory, so who does the chasing? This is my issue when teams have multiple protected riders, I just don’t like it.
So, what’s going to happen in the race? Belgium will control from the start, the opening 200km of the race will be relatively boring, but it should all kick off with 70 to go. This is when we head back to Overijse, a crucial point in the race. We’ll see big moves at this point, the likes of Alaphilippe and van der Poel will be keen on making the race tough in the hope of hurting the Belgian domestiques. At this point no one really knows how Belgium will respond, which is the beauty of the race. They won’t be scared of a hard race, weirdly it could play into their hands. If a group escapes before we head back to Leuven, I would be amazed if they didn’t have multiple riders in the move. It will be very difficult to control the race for a reduced sprint, we could see the team riding like Deceuninck – Quick Step, get multiple riders up the road and put the pressure on the other teams.
If the race is still altogether as we head back into Leuven then we’ll see an elimination race, with riders getting dropped as the pace increases in the closing laps. If this happens it will be hard for riders to escape the bunch, as long as Belgium still have multiple riders to chase. Put simply, beating Belgium is going to be very difficult.
Wout Van Aert – the overwhelming favourite, and deservedly so. You could call him the best all round cyclist in the world, you could also say he currently has the best form in the peloton. If you put those two things together you can see why he’s the name on everybody’s lips. The weight of that expectation will be heavy for him to carry, especially as he is racing at home. Everybody expects him to win, that means his rivals will look to him to control the race. We saw earlier in the season that Van Aert can sometimes work too much early in races, he needs to take full advantage of his team, they look incredibly strong to me. If the race opens early, he’ll follow the moves and take his chances. If we get a negative race, he can sit in the pack and wait for the sprint. Van Aert can win this race in many ways, but will he land the dream win on home soil?
Julian Alaphilippe – his form doesn’t seem to be quite where he needs it to be. Now, we’ve seen in the past that Alaphilippe can suddenly burst into life, but this isn’t a route that suits him that well.
Mathieu van der Poel – he’s only just returned to racing following his crash in Tokyo, that must count against him. This is a brilliant route for him, but he’ll need to be 100% to challenge Van Aert for the win. With so little recent racing I do have my doubts.
Matej Mohorič – he’s been on stellar form since June, possibly the best he’s ever been. We’ve all been waiting for him to reach this level; he was a hugely talented junior and the expectation was that he’d someday become one of the best in the world. Now that he’s at that level, winning the rainbow jersey becomes a real possibility. The route is okay for him, but he’d prefer harder climbs. Winning won’t be easy, but he’s one of the few who could do it solo.
Sonny Colbrelli – he’s in the form of his life, but it still might not be enough to win the rainbow jersey. The problem Sonny will face is there is likely to be a couple of faster men with him at the finish, and I’m not sure he’ll take the risk of attacking before the finish. Getting any type of medal would be huge for him, risking it all for gold is tough to do.
Kasper Asgreen – the winner of the Tour of Flanders lines up with a strong Danish team. Asgreen will love the distance, he seems to excel in long, difficult races. He would like the climbs to be harder, it means he’ll need to be a little creative when attacking. As we all know, if he gets a gap, he’ll be very hard to bring back.
Michael Valgren – another of the hugely talented Danish squad. It was great to see him return to the top step of the podium, his two wins in Italy would have given him a massive confidence boost. Michael is one of those riders who always seems to peak at this time of the year, and he also likes demanding races. He’ll be hoping for a tough day in the saddle.
Michael Matthews – he’s normally up there challenging in races like this, but he rarely wins. Matthews has turned himself into a brilliant climber, but the emergence of riders like Van Aert and van der Poel makes it very difficult for him to win races this like this. It’s a real shame for Matthews, he can’t win from a big sprint, and he can’t win from a reduced sprint, I hope this changes the way he races. There is no point holding back and waiting for a sprint, he should go on the attack and take the race to his rivals.
Jasper Stuyven – all eyes will be on Wout and Remco, but Jappy is in brilliant form. Leuven is his hometown, that extra motivation will give him some extra watts. I think he’s a brilliant back-up option for the team, he should not be underestimated.
Two plus two does equal four, it’s a win for Wout Van Aert. He can win solo; he can win from a small group, and he can win from a slightly bigger group.
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