While most of the cycling world has full focus on the Vuelta a Espana, some of the best sprinters in the world prepare themselves for one of the top races in the Netherlands. Arnhem-Veenendal Classic has had a tumultuous history with numerous different spots on the calendar but has now established itself as a key test for some of the best sprinters that can use it as an important test for the second part of the season.
It is somewhat of a paradox that a country with an extremely rich cycling history, a big ProTeam, a host of some of the most exciting talents and a very well-developed cycling infrastructure only has very limited opportunities to showcase its finest riders in a head-to-head battle with the world elite. Nonetheless, the Netherlands are left with only very few top races where their stars can take on their international rivals.
The lack of real highlights on the Dutch cycling calendar is a reflection of the country's late inclusion in the list of cycling powerhouses. While the tradition of competitive cycling in France, Belgium and Italy goes back to the late 1800s and the early 1900s, Dutch cyclists only entered the world elite much later. Belgium won their first Tour de France title in 1912 but their northern neighbours had to wait until Jan Janssen's 1968 triumph before they finally took home a victory in the world's greatest cycling race.
At the same time, the country’s geography is not really made for cycling. Most of the country is almost completely flat and it is hard for organizers to design diverse and exciting courses. Unsurprisingly, the country’s only top level race, Amstel Gold Race, is held the only hilly region, Limburg, and the two top stage races, Ster ZLM Toer and Eneco Tour, both have their queen stages in Belgium.
The Amstel Gold Race is not really indicative of what Dutch racing is really about as it takes place in a region that is completely different from the rest of the country. However, the country has a few one-day races in the flat parts too. In March, there is a real cycling festival in Drenthe where one or two 1.1 races have been held for the men in addition to a World Cup race for the women and in August, the sprinters usually battle it out in the Arnhem-Veenendal Classic.
The race was first held in 1985 under the name of Veenendal-Veenendal. After consultation with the national federation, the organizers designed it as preparation event for the Worlds. They couldn’t have asked for a better start as Joop Zoetemelk won the first edition and then went on to become world champion.
In 1994, the race changed its status as it was moved to April where it was held as a spring classic. However, it failed to compete with the bigger races and so the organizers again searched for a new spot on the calendar. In 2006, 2007 and 2008, it was held in the middle of June but that position didn’t work well either. In 2009, they tested a mid-May slot before they opted for its current position as a mid-August event. In recent years, it has been held on the Friday before the Vuelta and Vattenfall Cyclassics. At the same time, it has changed its name a few times. From 2007 to 2013, it was known as the Dutch Food Valley Classic before it got its current name in 2014.
Arnhem-Veenendal classic is held in a flat part of the Netherlands and even though there are a few small climbs on the course, they have usually not been enough to challenge the sprinters. Hence, the race has usually been decided in bunch sprints unless the wind had played a role. In recent years, it has been won by riders like Tom Boonen, Robert Förster, Kenny van Hummel, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Theo Bos and Elia Viviani which clearly shows what kind of riders excel here. With its current position on the calendar, it has become a solid chance for the fast finishers to test their legs before the big classics in Hamburg and Plouay and for many it marks the start of the second part of the season and a chance to get back into the rhythm after the Tour de France.
Last year the race was decided in the expected bunch sprint and it was Dylan Groenewegen who finally claimed his first pro win by holding off Yauheni Hutarovich and Roman Maikin.
The 2016 edition of the race will be held on a classic 198.5km course between the cities of Arnhem and Veenendal. First the riders do six laps of a 13.7km circuit around the starting city, every time tackling the small climb of Beekhuizenseweg. Then they head along relatively flat roads towards the finishing city while passing the Grebbeberg with 83km to go.
With 52.4km to go, the riders will cross the finish line for the first time before tackling one lap of a 28.5km circuit that includes the small climbs of Cuneraweg and Bergweg. Having returned to the finish, they will end the race by doing one lap of a 23.9km circuit which includes the climbs of Defensieweg and Bergweg. The final ascent comes with 9km to go and after the descent, it is a flat run to the finish.
History shows that it is very hard to avoid a bunch sprint in Veenendal and it usually takes pretty tough conditions to do so. Yves Lampaert managed to take a surprise win from a breakaway after an aggressive finale in the 2014 edition but apart from that, the race has been dominated by the sprinters.
This year the weather forecast predicts Friday to be hot and sunny but rain is forecasted for the evening. The race will finish late so we could very well get a wet finale. However, there won’t be much wind, with just a light breeze from a sourtherly direction, and so it will mainly be a head- or a tailwind in the finale.
With small six-rider teams, the organizers have tried to make it harder for the sprint teams to control the race but usually that hasn’t been enough to prevent a bunch sprint. With this kind of nice weather, it won’t be easy to change the script in 2016 either. As everybody knows that it is a sprint race, most teams go into the race with a fast finisher on the roster and this makes a sprint finish even more likely.
This year LottoNL-Jumbo go into the race with defending champion Dylan Groenewegen who is the overwhelming favourite. This means that everybody will be looking at the Dutchman to control the race and this could potentially make the race a bit more aggressive. Everybody knows that it will be hard to beat the Dutchman and so more teams may be keen to avoid a sprint finish. On the other hand, the field is not very strong and LottoNL-Jumbo should usually be strong enough to keep things in check, especially as alliances are always formed when different teams have missed out.
With a sprint finish on the cards, it is hard to look beyond Dylan Groenewegen as the big favourite. The Dutchman has had a fantastic first year at the WorldTour level, winning no less than 7 races and beating some of the fastest sprinters in the world. His Tour de France debut was less successful but that was more due to less experience in the lead-outs than a lack of speed. Furthermore, he surprised himself by reaching the finish.
Groenewegen hasn’t raced since the Tour so his form is uncertain but he has done nothing to hide that he targets a repeat win here. On paper, he is the fastest rider in the race and with Maarten Wynants, Dennis van Winden, Robert Wagner and Tom Van Asbroeck he has the best lead-out. The big problem is that LottoNL-Jumbo will have to do most of the work and with six-rider teams he may not have much of his train left in the finale. However, there aren’t any big trains here so one rider should be enough. As he is also very good at positioning, Groenewegen should make it two in a row.
Only one rider can match Groenewegen when it comes to top speed. Jakub Mareczko is a pure sprinter with an incredible pace and he has proved that he can beat the very best. That’s what he did at this year’s Tour of Turkey where he won two stages and at the Coppi e Bartali. He has just returned from China where he won three stages at the Tour of Quinghai Lake so his form should be good. The problem is that he is bad at positioning and doesn’t have the best train. However, Liam Bertazzo is getting better and better as a lead-out man and if he can bring his captain to the front, Mareczko is fast enough to challenge Groenewegen.
Wanty are here with Kenny Dehaes who has returned to his best in 2016. He won three races in May and June where he beat the likes of Bouhanni, Coquard and Boonen. However, he has not been at the same level in the second part of the season and he doesn’t seem to have his best form. On the other hand, he is still one of the fastest here and with Tom Devriendt and Robin Stenuit for the lead-out, he has one of the best trains.
Veranda’s Willems are here without the in-form Timothy Dupont but they still have a good shot. Aidis Kruopis is getting closer to his former level and was very strong in May and June. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to be in his best form now but if the race turns out to be easy, he should still be up there.
Topsport Vlaandeen go into the race with Bert Van Lerberghe as their sprinter. The Belgian is reasonably fast but he doesn’t have the speed to match the best. He didn’t do very well in the Arctic Race of Norway but with Jarl Salomein for the lead-out, he should have a better chance here. To win the race, he needs the perfect position but that’s not impossible in this field.
Roompot won the race with Groenewegen in 2015 and want to defend their title. They have two sprinters in Barry Markus and André Looij but it is the former who is the best card. He has had a difficult first year with the team after breaking his collarbone in February but he has shown signs of progress. He has never turned into the top sprinter that many hoped but he still has the speed to do well here.
Last year Yauheni Hutarovich finished second in this race but he has had a disastrous 2016 season. He has barely been up there in a single sprint so it is unlikely that he will be able to match the fastest. On the other hand, he is a bit stronger than some of the other sprinters so if the race becomes tough, he has a chance.
CCC have Grzegorz Stepniak who did very well at the Tour of Estonia earlier this year but he has failed to achieve any top results in the bigger races. Roth have Dylan Page who had some promising results at the start of the year but in the last few months he has failed to confirm his potential.
Finally, there are several sprinters from the continental teams. They are unlikely to win but Johim Ariesen, Marco Zanotti and Coen Vermeltfoort have all shown that they can challenge the WorldTour sprinters.
***** Dylan Groenewegen
**** Jakub Mareczko, Kenny Dehaes
*** Aidis Kruopis, Bert Van Lerberghe, Barry Markus
** Yauheni Hutarovich, Grzegorz Stepniak, Dylan Page, Johim Ariesen, Marco Zanotti, Coen Vermeltfoort
* Andre Looij, Remco Te Brake, Cees Bol, August Jensen, Mitchell Docker, Tom Devriendt, Nicolas Vereecken, Fabio Jakobsen, Jetse Bol, Yanto Barker, Karol Domagalski, Christopher Latham
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