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Will Marcel Kittel add the oldest classic to his impressive palmares?

Photo: Sirotti




02.09.2016 @ 20:30 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

For the fourth year in a row, one of the world's oldest cycling races will take place on a revamped course as the Paris-Bruxelles autumn classics is now 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 will continue on Saturday when the sprinters and classics specialist gather at the start line in Brussels to set out for a 199.3km 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 Bretagne Classic, the Brussels Cycling Classic is the third race in the series of late-season classics that suit this 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 underwent a few modifications for the 2015 edition, it was a similar affair. For 2016, the course is virtually unchanged.


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 against 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 usually kicks off with the Eneco Tour in the middle of August (this race is held later than usual in 2016), continues with the EuroEyes Cyclassics and the Bretagne Classic 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.


This year the race plays an even more important role than usual. With the World Championships suiting the pure sprinters, the fast guys are currently very active to prove themselves worthy of team leadership and building their form. This has had a big effect on the Brussels Cycling Classic which has gathered an unusually strong field of sprinter for the 2016 edition.


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. In the end it came down to a photo finish where Roy Jans was initially declared the winner. However, a closer look at the photo showed that Dylan Groenewegen had pipped him on the line to take the biggest win of his young career just a few weeks after opening his account. Tom Boonen completed the podium. Groenewegen won’t be back to defend his title but Jans and Boonen will both return, hoping to do better than they did 12 months ago.


The course

The 2013 modification 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 have still been 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 one year later, 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.


Last year the race faced a new makeover as the course was completely changed. The old circuit was gone and there was no circuit format at all. Instead, the race was 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 were plenty of challenges. No climb featured more than once in last year’s edition and the finishing circuit was removed. However, the finish in front of the Atomium in Brussels was the same, meaning that it was the usual uphill sprint. Thenumber of hellingen has been reduced from 19 to 13 but the final climb was located closer to the finish. This year the course is virtually unchanged as only some minor modifications have led to a reduction of the distance by 1500m.


At 199.3km, this year’s course has roughly the same length as it has had since 2013. 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 previous years is the first challenge and comes after 12km of racing. It is quickly followed by the Smeysberg six 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 52.8km 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 92.1km and 107.5km marks respectively but it is the trio of Rue Charles Catala, Rue des Rabots and Rue Haute after 122.8km, 128.7km 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 53.7km, 49.3km, 43.4km and 39.4km 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 kilometre 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 doesn’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 the riders will have cloudy conditions but there is no real chance of rain. The maximum temperature will be 24 degrees and there will only be a light wind from a westerly direction. This means that the riders will mostly have a crosswind. After the final climb, it will first be a headwind and then a cross-tailwind in the final part. It will be a cross-headwind of the finishing straight.


The favourites

The organizers changed the course for last year’s race but it didn’t change the outcome. In 2013 and 2014, the climbs were not even close to putting the sprint teams under pressure and last year they failed to do it too. 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 is less hard.


What has the potential to change the script is the weather. This year the riders will have excellent condition with very little wind. This will make it much harder to change the script and 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. Lotto Soudal probably also want to ride aggressively but Etixx-QuickStep, FDJ, Direct Energie and Cofidis all want to sprint. With Marcel Kittel at the start, everybody will of course expect Etixx-QuickStep to control the race but if there is a dangerous situation, there wil be enough help to make sure that it ends in a sprint.


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 Etixx-QuickStep a bit down. However, the Belgians have a very strong team here and the likes of Iljo Keisse, Stijn Vandenbergh and Guillaume Van Keirsbulck have the engine to control the race, even when the Lotto Soudal punchuers like Tiesj Benoot and Jelle Vanendert go on the attack.


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 been back to his best all year and proved that he is again the fastest sprinter in the world. He dominated the first sprints in the Giro d’Italia and even though the Tour wasn’t as successful as hoped, it was more due to chaotic lead-outs than a lack of speed.


Kittel has only done one race since the Tour. In the EuroEyes Cyclassics, he showed that he is back on form as he made it over the Waseberg with the best. Unfortunately, he punctured in the finale and didn’t have time to get back to do the sprint. However, he must be in great form as the next few weeks will determine whether he or Greipel will lead Germany at Worlds and this race is his first chance to prove himself.


On paper, Etixx have the best lead-out here. Nikolas Maes, Tom Boonen and Matteo Trentin form a very powerful block and even though they have to take the responsibility, they should be fresh enough to dominate the sprint. The long power sprint suits Kittel down to the ground and he has proved that he can win in uphill finales too. Kittel is the big favourite to win the race.


His biggest rival will be Nacer Bouhanni. It has been a difficult season for the Frenchman as he missed the Tour de France after he injured his hand in a hotel altercation. His return to racing was difficult but now he seems to have found his best sprinting legs. The Frenchman was the fastest in the sprint at EuroEyes Cyclassics but was relegated due to irregular sprinting. He bounced back with two stage wins in the Tour du Poitou-Charentes which had a very strong field of sprinters and looked on form for the Bretagne Classic. Surprisingly, he was dropped in that race and he doesn’t seem to have his best climbing legs. However, he has proved that he has the speed and he finds this uphill sprint to his liking. It’s a chance to prove himself against Demare and Coquard in the battle for leadership at the Worlds and he has his entire lead-out at his disposal. They may even be able to do better than Etixx in the finale and Bouhanni has the speed to challenge the German.


On paper, this is a great race for Bryan Coquard as the uphill finish suits him down to the ground. For several years, he has been one of the best uphill sprinters but he reached new heights in the Tour where he was agonizingly close to victory. Unfortunately, he seems to be out of form. After the Tour, he has been riding in both Limousin and Poitou-Charentes but he was nowhere to be seen in the sprints. However, he was better in Bretagne Classic where he only failed to be positioned for the sprint. Positioning has always been his weakness but he has improved a lot. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have his best train here and this will make it more difficult.


Arnaud Demare has been climbing excellently in recent weeks but he has been sprinting terribly. He hasn’t really got much out of his great form and most recently he failed to finish in Bretagne. He failed to shine in Poitou-Charentes and he was out of position in the sprint in Hamburg. However, Demare is a specialist in uphill sprints and he has the speed to beat the best. The problem has always been his positioning but for this race FDJ have one of the best trains with Mar Sarreau, Sebastien Chavanel and Mickael Delage. They did very well in the Giro and if they can get their sprinter into a good position, Demare can win this race.


Lampre-Merida are here with Sacha Modolo. The Italian is usually not fast enough to beat the likes of Kittel, Bouhanni and Coquard but in this race he has a big advantage. Lampre-Merida are here with an excellent lead-out train of Roberto Ferrari, Davide Cimolai and Marko Kump and this should make a big difference. Modolo has some confidence after his win in the Czech Republic and he should find the uphill finish to his liking. He would have preferred a more technical finale but if Lampre-Merida can nail the lead-out, he has a chance.


Fortuneo-Vital Concept are here with Daniel McLay who has had a breakthrough season. The Brit took a memorable win at GP de Denain and at the Tour he proved that he has the speed to challenge the fastest. In that race he paid for the lack of team support but in this race, the fight will be less hectic. Furthermore, he has Steven Tronet, Boris Valle and Yauheni Hutarovich for the lead-out and so he is much better supported. He is not always good at positioning but he is one of the fastest here.


It has been a bit of a nightmare season for Andrea Guardini who hasn’t shown much in Europe. Recently, he managed to achieve a couple of top 10s at the Arctic Race but he was not even close to the best. In the past, the Italian was one of the fastest though and he still has a solid turn of speed. The good weather should make it an easy race and this will make it possible for him to stay fresh. The uphill finish I not ideal but you can never rule him out.


Last year, Roy Jans finished second. Unfortunately, health issues have made it a bad year for him but in Poitou-Charentes it looked like he was back on track. Wanty also have Kenny Dehaes but as he seems to be out of form, Jans should be the man for the sprint. With Dehaes and an in-form Danilo Napolitano for the lead-out he has a great team around him. It won’t be easy to win but he can do well.


We are very curious to see what Timothy Dupont can do here. He has been one of the best sprinters at the continental level and this is his chance to go up against the big names. He has been in great form recently and should find the uphill finish to his liking. Unfortunately, he probably needs a harder race to beat the fastest guys.


Bora-Argon 18 have Phil Bauhaus and Sam Bennett. Usually, the Irishman is number one in the hierarchy but he hasn’t been at his best recently. Hence, the team worked for Bauhaus in the last races after the German took a great win at the Tour of Denmark. Bennett is the fastest and has the only real chance to win but Bauhaus is in better form and with a good lead-out he can finish close to the podium.


Lotto Soudal are here without their fastest sprinters and so Kris Boeckmans should get his chance. Last year the Belgian would have been one of the favourites but he still hasn’t returned to his best after the bad crash in last year’s Vuelta. On the other hand, he will be supported by Jurgen Roelandts, Greg Henderson and Jasper De Buyst and this means that he has one of the very best lead-outs. He is not fast enough to win at the moment but his train can bring him far.


Finally, we will point to Baptiste Planckaert. Like Dupont, he has been one of the dominant sprinters at the continental level and he has also been in great form recently. He specializes in uphill sprints but this race may be a bit too easy for him. He is great at positioning and this means that is very likely to finish in the top 10 but it will be hard to win.


If you are looking for more sprinters, keep an eye on Aidis Kruopis, Dehaes, Jakub Mareczko, Manuel Belletti, Hutarovich, Raymond Kreder, Vallee, Roelandts, Andre Looij, Aamury Capiot, Samuel Dumoulin, Maxime Daniel, Roman Maikin, Eduard Grosu, Benjamin Giraud, Yannick Martinez, Ruslan Tleubayev, Alberto Cecchin and Bartlomiej Matysiak.


***** Marcel Kittel

**** Nacer Bouhanni, Bryan Coquard

*** Arnaud Demare, Sacha Modolo, Daniel McLay

** Andrea Guardini, Roy Jans, Timothy Dupont, Phil Bauhaus, Sam Bennett, Baptiste Planckaert, Kris Boeckmans

* Aidis Kruopis, Kenny Dehaes, Jakub Mareczko, Manuel Belletti, Yauheni Hutarovich, Raymond Kreder, Tiesj Benoot, Jurgen Roelandts, Rui Costa, Pieter Vanspeybrouck, Samuel Dumoulin, Boris Vallee, Roman Maikin, Eduard Grosu



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