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Will Kittel confirm his return to the highest level by winning the biggest autumn classic in Belgium?

Photo: A.S.O.




05.09.2015 @ 00:03 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

For the third year in a row, one of the world's oldest cycling races will be take place in a revamped edition when the Paris-Bruxelles autumn classics is held under the name of Brussels Cycling Classic. A UCI request forced the organizers to change the format of the race and shorten its distance but it didn't change the kind of racing that will be on offer. Known as one of the most important sprint classics, this is a race for the fast finishers and despite a route change, all is set for a big bunch sprint in the Belgian capital.


The series of European classics continues on Saturday when the sprinters and classics specialist gather at the start line in Brussels to set out for a 200.8km ride in the area south of the Belgian capital. The autumn is loaded with prestigious one-day races that suit the tough sprinters and following the Vattenfall Cyclassics and GP Ouest France-Plouay, the Brussels Cycling Classic is the third race in the series of late-season classics that suit a certain type of rider.


Held first in 1893, the race known as Paris-Bruxelles is one of the oldest races on the international cycling calendar. Originally an amateur event running over 397km between the two European capitals, the race wasn't held between 1894 and 1905 but returned in 1906 as a two-day event. The following year it was back as a one-day race and until the 1960s, it played a major role as one of the major spring classics with a date at the end of April, between Paris-Roubaix and Gent-Wevelgem. However, the race was beset by traffic problems and so lost its prestige, ultimately losing its calendar date to the far younger Amstel Gold Race and leading to the cancellation of the race from 1967 to 1972.


The race returned in 1973 as a midweek event in late September, offering perfect preparation for Paris-Tours. In 1996, it was switched back to being run on a Saturday and is now held in early September. Instead of being an inferior race in an already loaded spring schedule, its long history now turns it into one of the most important autumn classics, being a clear target for most of the best sprinters in the world.


In 2013 the race faced a makeover. A UCI request to shorten the length has forced the organizers to cut the race's French ties. Due to the shorter distances of modern-day cycling, the race hasn't departed from Paris in recent years, instead starting somewhere in Northern France and finishing in Bruxelles. This wasn't be the case in 2013 when the race both started and finished in the Belgian capital, offering the riders a shorter 197km ride in the area close to the major city. As a consequence, the race was renamed and is now known as the Brussels Cycling Classic. The format was repeated in 2014 on an almost identical course and even though it has undergone a few modification for the 2015 edition, it should be a similar affair.


The new format hasn’t changed the characteristics of the race. This has always been a race for the sprinters and will remain so in the future. As in the past, the route includes a number of hellingen - short, Belgian climbs - but they won't be enough to challenge the fast finishers and as the last one is located 39.4km from the finish, it would be highly unexpected not to see a big bunch sprint in the end.


In that sense, the race fits perfectly into the anatomy of the cycling calendar. While the climbers battle each other in the Spanish mountains, the classics specialists and sprinters race their separate schedule which is loaded with a number of autumn classics that suit them well. It kicks off with the Eneco Tour in the middle of August, continues with the Vattenfall Cyclassics and the GP Ouest France-Plouay and this week it's time for the Brussels Cycling Classic and Sunday's GP Fourmies in France. The remaining part of September and early October is loaded with one-day races in France and Belgium before it all comes to an end with Paris-Tours in France and the Belgian Nationale Sluitingprijs in the middle of October. All races are characterized by aggressive racing and often end in a final bunch sprint. Some are more selective than others but they all share the characteristic that a fast finisher usually prevails.


That's also what's in store on Saturday. Some years ago, the organizers tried to make the race a bit more selective by including hellingen closer to the finish. That wasn't enough to prevent a bunch sprint and with the new format, the idea seems to be abandoned. The final hellingen are now so far from the finish that the sprinters have plenty of time to get back on.


Hence, it is no surprise that the honours list is dominated by sprinters and the most successful rider in the race's long history is one of the fastest riders of this millennium. Having first won the race in 2002, Robbie McEwen completely dominated the race from 2005 to 2008, taking an impressive 4 victories in a row. An injury prevented him from racing in 2009 and his two final attempts at adding to his tally were both unsuccessful.


Last year it was a very controlled race and even though we had the usual attacks on the climbs, there was never any doubt that it would be decided in a bunch sprint. Lotto Soudal rode surprisingly aggressively but still managed to set up André Greipel for a second consecutive victory as he beat Elia Viviani and Arnaud Demare into the minor podium positions. With an eye on the World Championships, Greipel won’t try to make the hattrick and as Sky are not at the start, Viviani will be absent too. This could open the door for Demare who will try to win another big classic after he triumphed in the 2012 Vattenfall Cyclassics.


The course

The 2013modification saw the race skip its French ties and now the entire event takes place in Belgian Brabant region. This has made it possible to skip the long, flat opening section and make a hillier race but with a finish in Brussels, the final hellingen are bound to be located pretty far from the finish.


The organizers are still searching for the optimal course for the race’s new format and so it is no wonder that they have made several modifications since 2013. In 2013 and 2014, they used the same circuit on the southeastern outskirts of Brussels. In 2013, the riders did two laps there while they tackled it five times in last year’s race, meaning that the number of hellingen went up from 11 to 19. However, with the addition of a flat finishing circuit in Brussels, they gave the sprint teams more time to bring it back together.


This year the race has faced a new makeover as the course has been completely changed. The old circuit is gone and there will be no circuit format at all. Instead, the race is made up of a journey through the hilly terrain south of the capital known from the Brabantse Pijl semi-classic and with a total number of 13 hellingen, there will be plenty of challenges. No climb will feature more than once in this year’s edition and the finishing circuit has been removed. However, the finish in front of the Atomium in Brussels is the same, meaning that it will be the usual uphill sprint. Compared to last year, the number of hellingen has been reduced from 19 to 13 but the final climb is located closer to the finish.


At 200.8km, this year’s course has roughly the same length. It starts in the Jubelpark in Brussels and heads on slightly rolling roads in a southeasterly direction. The Vossemberg which played a key role in last year’s race is the first challenge and comes after 12km of racing. It is quickly followed by the Smeysberg seven kilometres later, and then the riders head into flatter terrain as they travel further south. This relatively easy start will be the scene of some early action as it will allow the breakaway to be formed and they will probably get an advantage of five to ten minutes before the sprint teams start to chase.


In Court-Saint-Etienne, the riders will turn west and go up the Grande Route climb after 53km of racing. Avenue des Boignees is the next challenge twenty kilometres later before the mostly flat roads lead to the city of Nivelles.


The riders will now head into the hillier terrain northwest of that city as they follow a sinuous system of roads that will see them tackle several climbs in quick succession. Plan Incliné de Ronquieres and Rue d’Henripoint are the warm-up challenges at the 92km and 108km marks respectively but it is the trio of Rue Charles Catala, Rue des Rabots and Rue Haute after 123km, 129km and 132km respectively that will offer the first real chance to test the sprint teams.


History shows that the desire to make the race hard means that the early break is often caught relatively early and this means that this late section of climbing is usually highly entertaining with lots of attacks. The sprint teams have to be on their toes but as the climbs are not too hard, it is usually possible to prevent a big group from getting clear.


The riders will get a small chance to recover as they head north to approach the climbs that were once decisive in Brabantse Pijl. The final opportunity to prevent a bunch sprint comes with the four climbs of the Chausee d’Alsemberg, Alsemberg, Brune Put and Menisberg with 53km, 48km, 43km and 39km to go respectively.


Based on recent history, a new break is likely to be formed at this point – or maybe on the flat roads after the final climb – and from there it is usually a fierce pursuit as the riders continue their northern journey back towards Brussels. Instead up following the direct road, the riders will make a small deviation to go to the city of Lennik and this will increase the distance to the finish. The riders won’t go back to the city centre and instead they will ride to the northern outskirts where the finish is located in the suburb of Heysel in front of the famous Baudoin Stadium. The finale is uncomplicated as there is a left-hand turn just before the flamme rouge and from there it is a long straight road. There is a small climb with 5km to go and from there it is slightly descending until the riders get to the final two kilometres. They are slightly uphill, with the roads getting steeper and steeper and the final kiloemtre averaging around 2.5%. The finishing straight will be remembered by some of the riders as the scene of one of Alessandro Petacchi's stage win in the 2010 Tour de France. This finale is perfectly suited to a sprint finish and it will be a surprise if a bigger group won’t decide the race in a sprint.


The weather

For riders that want to avoid a bunch sprint, the weather will play a huge role. Sunny and calm conditions will make it easier for the sprint teams to control the race while rain and wind will make the race more selective.


This year we could get a wet edition of the Brussels Cycling Classic. Throughout the entire race, there is a 25% risk of showers so it would be a bit of a surprise if there is not rain at any point of the course. Furthermore, it won’t be very hot as the maximum temperature will only be 16 degrees.


There will be a moderate wind from a westerly direction which means that the riders will first have a tailwind, then a crosswind and finally a headwind as they approach the hills. In the final part of the race, it will mainly be a crosswind or a cross-tailwind. There will be a cross-headwind on the finishing straight.


The favourites

The organizers may have changed the course but it is hard to imagine that the 95th edition of the Brussels Cycling Classic won’t be taken by a sprinter. In the last two years, the climbs were not even close to putting the sprint teams under pressure. This year there may be a shorter distance from the final climb to the finish but 39km of flat racing still offer plenty of time to organize a chase. Furthermore, the number of climbs has been reduced, meaning that the race will probably be less hard.


What has the potential to change the script is the weather. The rain will definitely make things harder for the sprint teams but what can really cause and upset is the wind. On Saturday, there will only be a moderate wind though and even though there will be lots of crosswinds, it is unlikely to be enough to split the field.


Finally, the reputation as a sprint race often impacts the outcome. Looking at the start list, almost all teams have lined up dedicated sprint teams and they will go into the race with the plan to set up a bunch sprint. Some of them may also want to ride aggressively but as several teams will always be missing from the moves, there will always be plenty of firepower in the chase. Unlike in stage races where some teams don’t have a sprinter, almost all teams will be confident in a sprint finish and this will make it very hard for the escapees to stay away. Of course some teams, especially the smaller ones, will have dual strategies and we certainly won’t miss aggression. However, big teams like Giant-Alpecin, FDJ, Trek, Lampre-Merida and Astana are here for the sprint and Etixx-QuickStep and Lotto Soudal will also be confident in a sprint finish if they miss out on the breaks. Among the WorldTour teams, only LottoNL-Jumbo don’t have a sprinter in their team and this will make it hard to prevent a sprint finish.


Nonetheless, we can expect lots of attacks in the hilly zone. Everybody knows that Marcel Kittel is the man to beat and that he has had troubles on the climbs in recent races. There is no reason not to try to put him under pressure by riding aggressively in the hilly zone and wear Giant-Alpecin a bit down. The German team is expected to do much of the chase work, with Trek, FDG and Astana also likely to control the early part of the race.


LottoNL-Jumbo, Etixx-QuickStep and Lotto Soudal have the keys to make the race hard. In-form riders like Sep Vanmarcke and Julian Alaphilippe and world champion Michal Kwiatkowski will probably try to stir things up. However, the main purpose will be to tire out Kittel more than it will be to prevent a bunch sprint finish. Hence, it is very unlikely that the race won’t be decided in a sprint.


With a bunch sprint on the cards, it is hard not to put Marcel Kittel at the top of the list of favourites. The German has had a disastrous season with a virus taking him out of contention for most of the year. He had another major setback when he wasn’t selected for the Tour de France and it looked like he would lack the motivation to get back into condition. However, he had a solid comeback in the Tour de Pologne where he won a stage and would have taken another win if the hadn’t been set back by a crash in stage 2.


Since then, he has been riding the Vattenfall Cyclassics and the GP Ouest France Plouay but both races turned out to be too hard for him. The French race was always going to be a challenge but the fact that he was unable to survive the Waseberg is a clear indication that he is not at the same level as he was in 2014. However, the Tour de Pologne proved that there is nothing wrong with his speed.


Brussels Cycling Classic is easier than the two WorldTour races which have climbs much closer to the finish so this race should be manageable for the big German. The uphill finishing straight doesn’t suit him perfectly but he has won much harder sprints in the past.


A major issue is the question of lead-out. Kittel doesn’t have the best train in this race. Roy Curvers and Bert De Backer have lots of lead-out experience but they usually don’t play the roles as the final lead-out men. De Backer will have to slot into that role for this race and Giant-Alpecin are unlikely to dominate the finale like they have so often done. However, Kittel has proved that he knows how to position himself and if he can find a gap, no one is going to match his speed. With a little less team support, a Kittel win is far from guaranteed but the German is definitely the man to beat.


Giacomo Nizzolo is always extremely strong in these late summer and autumn races. He didn’t do too well in Poland and the Eneco Tour but he sprinted to a fine third in Hamburg. In that race, he looked very strong on the climbs and he confirmed that in Plouay where he was always up there on the ascents. He was in the perfect position for the sprint until he got swarmed. He left the race without a result but proved that the condition is there.


Nizzolo doesn’t have the strongest lead-out but he didn’t have so in Hamburg either. Among the sprinters, he is one of the best riders when it comes to positioning and this makes him hugely consistent. In Plouay, he was the rider to have latched onto Kristoff’s wheel until he made a mistake of moving to another position. However, the fact that he had the most coveted wheel shows how strong he is in this fight. Furthermore, he is one of the fastest riders in this field, especially in an uphill finish like this one.


When it comes to lead-out, Etixx-QuickStep seem to be the strongest team. There is no doubt that Tom Boonen is no longer the fastest sprinter but in the Eneco Tour he proved that a good position can still allow him to win this kind of sprint. With Yves Lampaert, Julian Alaphilippe, Michal Kwiatkowski and Fabio Sabatini, he has some fast guys to put him into position. There is a solid chance that Boonen will have the benefit of getting the best possible position for the sprint.


Furthermore, Boonen will benefit from the uphill finishing straight which is tailor-made for his powerful sprinting style. His performances in the Eneco Tour, Hamburg and Plouay confirm his good condition and he will only get stronger as we get closer to Worlds. He won this race in 2012 and even though he is clearly not the same rider, a good lead-out could allow him to take another win.


Last year Arnaud Demare finished third in this race and now he wants to do better. This year the situation is actually much better for the fast Frenchman. In 2014 he had a poor Tour de France but now he has come out of the French race much better. He got well through the race even the lack of lead-out made it impossible for him to have a big impact in the sprints. Most recently, he confirmed that his condition is very good when he rode strongly in the cobbled stage of the Eneco Tour and finished in the top 10 in Hamburg despite again paying the price for a poor lead-out. With a second place in a stage in the Belgian/Dutch stage race he proved that he still has the speed and it all comes down to positioning.


Demare will benefit from the fact that there are no very strong lead-outs in this race. In fact, it looks like the combination of Marc Sarreau and Sebastien Chavanel should provide him with ample support to have him near the front at the start of the sprint. If that’s the case, he will be hard to beat as he likes these uphill finishes.


When it comes to pure speed, Andrea Guardini is probably the only rider that can match Kittel. However, the uphill finish is not made for Guardini who usually suffers even on the smallest ascent. Furthermore, he is usually not very good at positioning himself and even though he has improved a lot, his results in Poland and the Eneco Tour confirm that. Again he will be pretty isolated in the finale as only Arman Kamyshev and Lars Boom have the speed to keep him up there. This will make things difficult but if he can overcome that challenge and start his sprint from a good spot, he has the speed to win.


Sacha Modolo had a fantastic Giro d’Italia but since then he has not had much success. He rode poorly in both the Tour de Pologne and the Eneco Tour where he partly played a support role. Furthermore, he wasn’t selected for Vattenfall Cyclassics and GP Plouay and as he is rumoured to be leaving the team, it is likely that he has been blacklisted a bit. That could open the door for Nizzolo Bonigazio to get his chance in the sprint but if Lampre-Merida want to win the race, it would be wise to play the Modolo card. He likes this kind of uphill sprint and with Bonifazio and Roberto Ferrari at his side, he will have one of the best lead-outs.


If Modolo doesn’t get the nod, Lampre-Merida will do the sprint for Niccolo Bonifazio and Roberto Ferrari. Bonifazio has had a good season and was sprinting well in Poland but he is usually not fast enough to win this kind of pure sprint. Another option will be to back Ferrari who rarely gets his chance to sprint. He is no longer as fast as he once was but he is very good at positioning himself and almost guaranteed to finish in the top 10 if he gets the role as protected sprinter.


André Greipel has opted for the Tour of Britain to prepare for the Worlds and this means that Lotto Soudal will play the Kenny Dehaes card in a sprint finish. The Belgian has had a bad year with numerous injuries but his recent win in the GP Stad Zottegem proves that he is back in good condition. In 2013, he was winning lots of these sprints and if he is back at the same level, he will be a contender in this race. Unfortunately, Lotto Soudal don't have their best lead-out in this race but with Boris Vallee and Tony Gallopin, he will still have solid support.


It took a long time for Roompot to win their first race but with two wins in one day a few weeks ago, they clearly have some momentum. Sprinter Dylan Groenewegen was one of the riders to break the drought. After he had already ridden strongly in the Eneco Tour where he rode aggressively on the harder stages and sprinted to fifth in one stage, he won the Arnhem Veenendal Classic. The result confirms his huge talent that has allowed him to achieve several good results in sprints throughout the year.


Groenewegen will be one of two sprint options as he lines up alongside Raymond Kreder. Usually, Kreder would be the protected sprinter but with Groenewegen’s good form, we expect the roles to be changed. With his fifth place in stage 1 of the World Ports Classic and in stage 3 of the Eneco Tour, he has proved that he has the speed to mix it up with the best and with lots of fast riders to support him, he has the potential to create another surprise.


Earlier in his career, Yauheni Hutarovich was a real specialist in one-day sprint races. The Belarusian has been on the podium in Scheldeprijs and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, two of the biggest races for the pure sprinters, and he was second in this race in 2011. He is definitely no longer the sprinter he once was and he is no longer able to challenge the best sprinters. However, he is still a very capable sprinter and with second places in Arnhem Veenendal classic and on a stage in the Tour du Poitou-Charentes he has proved his good condition. His Bretagne team also includes Daniel McLay and Romain Feillu and the leadership role is likely to be decided during the race. However, Hutarovich is probably their best card for his race.


Edward Theuns has had a breakthrough season with several strong showings during the spring. However, the second half of the year has been a bad one as he has been far from showing the same kind of outstanding condition. He was off his usual pace in the Eneco Tour where he didn’t even do the sprint and he was unable to capitalize from his strong team in Schaal Sels. He is not a pure sprinter but he is good at positioning himself and that allowed him to finish second in Scheldeprijs which is a race for the fastest riders. His ability to position himself has allowed him to achieve a number of good results and as his condition seems to be growing, we won’t rule out another top result.


Cofidis go into the race with three potential sprinters. Jonas Ahlstrand doesn’t seem to be in his best condition and Louis Verhelst is usually not at the top of the hierarchy. Hence, the leadership role is likely to go to Michael van Staeyen who has been very consistent in these races for several years. He is good at positioning himself and he specializes in sprints that are slightly uphill but he is probably not fast enough to win a race at this level. However, he has shown good condition recently.


If anyone has the potential to prevent a bunch sprint, it has to be Sep Vanmarcke. The Belgian is riding extremely well at the moment as he builds condition for the Worlds and the Canadian races. He was very strong in Poitou-Charentes and animated the finale in Plouay. It won’t be easy to prevent a sprint but he will definitely try to do so. With his fast sprint, he has the means to finish off an aggressive ride.


***** Marcel Kittel

**** Giacomo Nizzolo, Tom Boonen

*** Arnaud Demare, Andrea Guardini, Sacha Modolo, Bryan Coquard

** Kenny Dehaes, Niccolo Bonifazio, Roberto Ferrari, Yauheni Hutarovich, Edward Theuns, Michael van Staeyen, Sep Vanmarcke

* Roy Jans, Jonas Ahlstrand, Robert Wagner, Manuel Belletti, Antoine Demoitie, Simone Ponzi, Phil Bauhaus, Davide Cimolai, Raymond Kreder, Daniel McLay, Grega Bole, Maxime Daniel, Romain Feillu, Roman Maikin, Eduard Grosu, Francesco Chicchi



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