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Will Tom Boonen win the iconic uphill sprint on the cobbles in Binche?

Photo: Sirotti




03.10.2016 @ 22:01 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The months of August, September and October are loaded with typical Belgian one-day races that suit a mix of sprinters and classics riders and now we are reaching the end of the series. After Sunday’s Tour de l’Eurometropole, there are only two chances left and the first of those has one of the most iconic finales of the Belgian autumn races. Usually a chance for riders to benefit from their Worlds condition and prepare for Paris-Tours, Binche-Chimay-Binche will be an important final test for the World Championships for riders that will battle it out in the beautiful cobbled finish in Chimay.


While the spring offers a mix of stage and one-day races and the first part of the summer is all about stage racing, the second half of the year is for the one-day riders. After the Tour de France, the Vuelta a Espana is the only big race for the grand tour and stage race specialists while the late summer and the autumn are loaded with lots of one-day races throughout Europe. The highlight is Il Lombardia and Clasica San Sebastian, Vattenfall Cyclassics, GP Plouay and the Canadian races also offer important WorldTour points. The list also includes historic races like Paris-Tours, Giro dell’Emilia, Tre Valli Varesine and Milan-Turin and the calendar offers a wide variety of terrain for sprinters, classics specialists and even climbers.


In addition to the bigger races, there are a number of smaller races. Traditionally, the two key countries for one-day racing, Belgium and Italy, have both had a rich calendar of small semi-classics but nowadays most of the Italian events have disappeared. Things are different in Belgium where the economic crisis hasn’t hit as hard and most of the fascinating list of typical Belgian races is intact.


The series of semi-classics started earlier than usual with the return of the Dwars door Het Hageland in the first week of August and intensified with four races in a week in the second half of August. It culminated in early September at the Brussels Cycling Classic, the biggest event in the series, and after a small break, it continued with GP de Wallonie, Kampioenschap van Vlaanderen and Primus Classic Impanis-Van Petegem. Last Sunday, the Tour de l’Eurometropole kicked off the final block that also includes Tuesday’s Binche-Chimay-Binche and the finale at next Tuesday’s Nationale Sluitingsprijs.


The final races in the series have traditionally been a chance for sprinters and classics riders to make use of their good form following the World Championships and keep the legs going ahead of their final big goal at Paris-Tours. In 2016, however, things are different. The late date for the Worlds means that the races are a perfect final chance for Worlds contenders to test their condition ahead of Qatar. Arnaud Demare, Tom Boonen and Fernando Gaviria are all set to play leading roles for their countries in the Middle Eastern desert and they have opted for these Belgian races to put the final touches to their form. In fact, most of the Belgian team was in action last Sunday in Tour de l’Eurometropole and most of them will be at the start of Binche-Chimay-Binche too.


Binche-Chimay-Binche is a unique race as and is one of the hardest and most iconic races of these late-season Belgian classics. It has had a very tumultuous past and even though it was first held all the way back in 1911, 2016 will only mark the 29th time that the race has been held. After just two editions, it wasn’t held from 1913 to 1921 and after a brief return to the calendar, it again disappeared from 1930 and 1983. After a 53-year break, an attempt was made to revive the race and it seemed to thrive in the following years when riders like Adrie van der Poel, Jelle Nijdam, Wilfried Nelissen and most notably Frank Vandenbroucke won the event.


Unfortunately, the race was again cancelled from 1997 but after Vandenbroucke died, the decision was made to put the race back on the calendar as a 1.1 race under the name of Memorial Frank Vandenbroucke. Sincen then it has been held every year, first as Binche-Tournai-Binche and now as Binche-Chimay-Binche – Memorial Frank Vandenbroucke.


Many Belgian semi-classics have flat finales and are suited to sprinters but Binche-Chimay-Binche is different. A very special finale with an uphill finish and some cobbles has turned it into one of the most exciting late-season races and it suits both sprinters and puncheurs. After three editions that were suited to the fast finishers and won by Elia Viviani, Rudiger Seliger and Adam Blythe, the stronger guys have come to the fore in recent years when Reinardt Van Rensburg, Zdenek Stybar and Ramon Sinkeldam have taken the wins.


This year the race has been added to the Napoleon Games Cycling Cup which is a series of 10 of these typical 1.1 races. The first four events were held in March and June and Dwars door Het Hageland kicked off the second half of the season for the series which is set to reward the most consistent ride in these small Belgian semi-classics. This is the penultimate event and Dylan Groenewegen is the current leader.


Last year Ramon Sinkeldam won the uphill sprint ahead of Pim Ligthart and Tom Van Asbroeck.


The course

The 29th edition of Binche-Chimay-Binche will be held on the same course that has been used since 2014. The 194.5km race will bring the riders from Binche to Chimay and back to Binche where the race ends with a few laps of a circuit. The first 129.9km constitute the trip between the cities that make up the name of the race. The terrain is rolling and the main challenge is the famous Petit Poggio climb which comes after 84.8km of racing.


After the first passage of the finish line, the riders will end the race by doing four laps of a 16.2k circuit. The first 4km are all slightly uphill while the second half of the circuit is descending. However, it has a nasty sting in its tail as there are two cobbled sections inside the final 2km. The final pave comes on the uphill finishing straight.




The favourites

Binche-Chimay-Binche is one of the most unpredictable Belgian semi-classics as the special finale means that it is open to a wider range of riders than most of the other races in the countries. The finale is so hard that the puncheurs have a chance to make a difference like Stybar did two years ago but it is not enough to rule out the strong sprinters. Both types of riders can realistically hope to win the race in the final 2km and this sets the scene for a thrilling race.


This year the field is very strong. The dates for the Worlds mean that a lot of riders are still in very good form and it is much less of a late-season race than it has traditionally been. At the same time, the line-up is a very interesting mix of strong sprinters like Tom Boonen, Fernando Gaviria and Jens Debusschere and excellent puncheurs like Greg Van Avermaet, Zdenek Stybar and Tiesj Benoot.


History shows that the race is usually decided in an uphill sprint but the finale is usually very aggressive and late moves have been close to making it in the past. Unlike last Sunday, the riders will have excellent weather as Tuesday will be a day with bright sunshine. The wind will pick up late in the race were there will be a moderate wind from an easterly direction but we doubt that it will be enough to split the field. The nice conditions will make the race less selective.


Etixx-QuickStep always have a very aggressive approach to these races and as they have multiple potential winners, they will probably ride another very attacking race. The same goes for Lotto Soudal while BMC will probably go all in for Greg Van Avermaet. The Belgian can both try to join some of the moves or wait for an uphill sprint. He will probably opt for the latter but his team will undoubtedly try to make the race hard. That should set the scene for a very aggressive and animated finale. In the end, however, the fact that BMC, Direct Energie and FDJ want to sprint and that the major Belgian teams all have solid sprint options too mean that it is most likely to come down to a battle between the strong sprinters and the puncheurs in the final 2km.


Etixx-QuickStep are almost always the strongest in these races and this time it is no different as they have three strong cards to play in Tom Boonen, Fernando Gaviria and Zdenek Stybar. While Stybar will probably ride an attacking race, the team will save their two fastest riders for the sprint. The question is who’ll be the protected rider as both are suited to this kind of uphill finish.


We expect the team to go for Tom Boonen. The Belgian hasn’t had many chances to ride for himself recently. He worked for Kittel at the Eneco Tour and he is expected to lead Belgium at the Worlds. Gaviria has had lots of sprint opportunities recently while Boonen hasn’t had any since he won the Brussels Cycling Classic one month ago. He had another opportunity last Sunday but as he suffered in the cold, the team opted to ride aggressively. Unlike Gaviria, he has a long history on cobbled climbs and he is much more tested in such a finish. It’s a Belgian team and they have the leader of the Belgian Worlds team. Boonen has a special position in the team and so we expect the Belgian to be given the nod.


We were not totally convinced by Boonen’s ride last Sunday and it seems that his crash at the Eneco Tour has cost him some strength. However, he has still been riding very well since July. He won a stage in the Tour de Wallonie and took an impressive sprint win at the RideLondon Classic. However, it was his marvelous sprint at the Brussels Cycling Classic that really showed how well he is going. That sprint showed how powerful he is in an uphill sprint and the cobbles will only suit him even more. This time he won’t have to deal with the cold conditions and in the sprint he can count on a great team to lead him out. We will put our money on Boonen to win the race.


Greg Van Avermaet was a late addition to the start list and he will be keen to go for victory in a race that suits him well. However, his form no longer seems to be at its very best. He was good in Canada but he was clearly not at 100% in the Eneco Tour where he did a bad TT and suffered massively in the hard final stage. Nonetheless, Van Avermaet is one of the most consistent riders in the peloton and he is always riding at a very high level. In a flat sprint, he would have no chance against the stronger riders but in an uphill sprint on cobbles, he is one of the best in the world. If the race becomes hard, Van Avermaet will be hard to beat here.


As said, we expect Etixx-QuickStep to go for Boonen but Fernando Gaviria may also be given the nod. After all, the Colombian is usually faster than the Belgian and he excels in uphill sprints. His performances in the spring showed that he is very strong on the cobbles and he has clearly been riding very well recently. He has been aggressive in all his races and has still had enough left in the tank to sprint to a win in GP Impanis and second places in Kampioenschap van Vlaanderen and Gran Piemonte. However, we were a bit surprised that he suffered in the end of the Tour de l’Eurometropole and in general he has a tendency to waste too much energy. Nonetheless, he is one of the best in a finish like this and he will be one of the big favourites if he gets the chance to sprint. Furthermore, he can also go on the attack in the finale and he is strong enough to win from a late move.


Lotto Soudal will be supporting Jens Debusschere who is always extremely strong at this time of the year. That was evident in the hard Tour de l’Eurometropole where he was clearly one of the best in the tough conditions. He also rode well at the Tour of Britain but that race revealed that he isn’t sprinting very well at the moment. In fact, he hasn’t done many good sprints this year. On the other hand, he has clearly stepped on his level in the harder races and so this finish should suit him very well.


LottoNL-Jumbo are without Dylan Groenewegen and this means that they will be supporting Moreno Hofland and Tom Van Asbroeck who can both do well in a finish like this. Van Asbroeck has been in outstanding form in the second half of the year and has taken his first win in LottoNL-Jumbo colours. However, we doubt that the Belgian is strong enough to win here and the Dutch team’s best chance is to go for Hofland. The Dutchman has also been riding very well recently where he has been very aggressive. Furthermore, his sprinting has been at a higher level than usual and in general he prefers uphill sprints. This finale suits him really well and he will be back by a strong team. It is about time that he gets a win.


Zdenek Stybar is a former winner of this race and the finale obviously suits him down to the ground. Nonetheless, he is likely to support Boonen or Gaviria if it comes down to a sprint so his only real chance is to go on the attack. It’s definitely not impossible for Stybar to win this race by moving from afar and he is fast enough to win a sprint from a small group. His form is clearly solid even though the Eneco Tour showed that he is not at 100%.


Speaking about form, Oliver Naesen is the in-form rider of the moment. Since he won Bretagne Classic in August, he has been absolutely flying. He was clearly the strongest in the hard final stage of the Eneco Tour and in the Tour de l’Eurometropole which he had deserved to win. An uphill sprint on cobbles suits him pretty well as he is both brutally strong and very fast. However, the finale may be a bit too easy for him if he wants to beat the sprinters so his best option is to blow the race to pieces.


Baptiste Planckaert has had a fantastic season and he is tailor-made for this kind of tough finish. He is very fast in an uphill sprint and at the Belgium Tour he proved that he is strong on the cobbles too. He has been strong late in the season too but the Tour de Vendee indicated that he may no longer be firing on all cylinders and that a long year is starting to take its toll.


On paper, Bryan Coquard is one of the best in the world when it comes to an uphill sprint but he has less experience on the cobbles. He is a relatively light guy so he is not ideally suited to the rough surface. Furthermore, he has not been at his best since the Tour de France and his third place in the Tour de Vendee last Sunday was another indication of that. On the other hand, you can never rule the Frenchman out in an uphill sprint.


Arnaud Demare is much more experienced on the cobbles and he is another specialist in the uphill sprints. However, the Frenchman is no longer the rider he once was and apart from his Milan-Sanremo win, his results in 2016 have been pretty bad. He is clearly riding solidly but he hasn’t been sprinting very well at the moment. On paper, he is one of the fastest but we doubt that he is strong enough to win.


Timothy Dupont is one of the big revelations of the year and the Veranda’s Willems rider has proved that he is able to beat the best sprinters in the world. He has also shown that he can be up there in the hard races but this finale could be a bit too tough for him. Furthermore, he did a poor Tour de l’Eurometropole so he may finally be getting a bit tired.


Jonas Van Genechten was in the top 5 in last year’s race and he excels in uphill sprints. Many will remember his great in in the Vuelta and it seems that he still has pretty good form. The cobbled finish is less ideal for him but in an uphill sprint he will always be one of the best.


The finale is tailor-made for Jempy Drucker but with the late addition of Van Avermaet to the start list, he may have to ride in support of his teammate. Furthermore, his performances in GP Beghelli and Gran Piemonte indicate that he is no longer in top form. On the other hand, he claims to be feeling well so if he gets the chance, he can’t be ruled out.


Finally, we will point to the Lotto Soudal pair of Jurgen Roelandts and Tiesj Benoot. Both are specialists on the cobbles and the finale suits them well. Roelandts showed in Tour de l’Eurometropole that the form is good but he will have to work for Debusschere in a sprint. However, he is definitely strong enough to attack in the finale. Benoot will also ride aggressively but the Eneco Tour showed that he is far from his best form.


***** Tom Boonen

**** Greg Van Avermaet, Fernando Gaviria

*** Jens Debusschere, Moreno Hofland, Zdenek Stybar, Oliver Naesen, Baptiste Planckaert, Bryan Coquard,

** Timothy Dupont, Arnaud Demare, Jonas Van Genechten, Tom Van Asbroeck, Jempy Drucker, Jurgen Roelandts, Tiesj Benoot

* Sep Vanmarcke, Huub Duyn, Enrico Gasparotto, Marco Marcato, Martin Elmiger, Heinrich Haussler, Amaury Capiot Florian Senechal, Tosh van der Sande, Jelle Wallays, Yoann Offredo, Michael van Staeyen, Maurits Lammertink, Thomas Sprengers, Pieter Vanspeybrouck, Jerome Baugnies



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