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Will Tom Boonen add the Belgian Strade Bianche to his palmares?

Photo: Sirotti




05.08.2016 @ 15:05 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The months of August and September are loaded with typical Belgian one-day races that suit a mix of sprinters and classics riders and this year the series kicks off a bit earlier. After a four-year absence, Dwars door Het Hageland is back on the calendar in a new format and with a stronger field and a course that includes all the best of Belgian racing – hellingen, cobbles and gravel roads – the scene is set for a fantastic return to spring classics conditions in the middle of the summer.


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 rider. 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.


This year even sees one of the relatively new races make a welcome return. Dwars door Het Hageland was first held as a 1.2 race in 2001 but it had a difficult time right from the start. It was cancelled in 2004 and 2005 and then returned in 2006. It was held as a minor Belgian race until 2012 when Timothy Stevens won the latest edition of the race.


Unfortunately, the organizers were unable to keep the race alive and as it was cancelled in 2013, 2014 and 2015, it looked like it had disappeared for good. However, this year it is back and it will even make its return in a much stronger and more prestigious version. It has been moved up to the 1.1 category and has been added to the calendar of the new 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 kicks 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. Dylan Groenewegen is the current leader.


As a new event, it is no surprise that Dwars door Het Hageland has failed to attract the same number of pro teams as more established races like Le Samyn and Halle-Ingooigem but with both Belgian WorldTour teams, Etixx-QuickStep and Lotto Soudal, both at the start, the level will be high. Like the others races in the series, it will be broadcast by Eurosport and so has a good chance to establish itself as a regular feature on the calendar and gradually attract more top teams.


What will make the race unique is the course. The race is regarded as some kind of a Belgian Strade Bianche as it mixes the usual ingredients of a Belgian semi-classic – hellingen and cobblestones – with gravel roads, some of them even very close to the finish. In total, the riders have to tackle 12 climb and 20 unpaved sectors, meaning that the scene is set for a great race that has the potential to become a real highlight on the late-summer calendar.


The course

As said, the course is what will make the Dwars door Het Hageland a unique event. Hellingen and cobbles are part of almost every Belgian one-day race but Schaal Sels is the only other major one-day race that makes use of gravel roads. The decision to spice things up with unpaved roads in the finale should certainly distinguish this race on the long list of Belgian semi-classics.


The race will be held over 194.1km between Diest and Aarschot. The first 50km are easy and flat but then the challenges come in quick succession. After 54.9km of racing, the riders will hit the pave, a 5-star section of great difficulty. During the next 50km, the riders will tackle another six unpaved sectors of which the final two are even uphill. Two are on dirt road and four are cobbled. Then the riders will hit another 5-star gravel section at the 112.9km mark before heading to two hellingen in quick succession.


During the next 40km, there are another three hellingen of which two are cobbled but the real finale is expected to start with 27.9km to go. Here the riders will hit the first of three gravel sectors that come in quick succession. With 20.3km to go, there is a pave on the menu and then the riders will go up one of the climbs 2.8km later. The next gravel sector comes with 16.8km to go and is followed by three gravel roads between the 182.1km and 183.3km mark. The riders will be back on tarmac with 10.8km to go and then there is one final gravel sector with 7.8km to go. From there the riders will head up a small climb which summits with 4.9km to go and then they get to the cobbled Allerheiligenberg helling, 1km climb that ends just 300m from the finish. From there it is a downhill run to the line.


In total there are 20 unpaved sectors of which 9 are on gravel roads and 8 are pave. Three of the sectors include a mix of both. The 11 hellingen all come inside the final 100km.


The favourites

Dwars door Het Hageland is a new race and so it is hard to know what to expect from a course that looks very promising. The hellingen are not among the famous one in Flanders and don’t seem to be very tough but the huge amount of gravel roads in the finale should make the race selective. Things will be made slightly easier by the good weather that is forecast for Friday but gravel roads almost always split the field when they are included in a race. The cobbles are unlikely to play the same kind of role as they don’t seem to be among the most difficult in Flanders.


With the gravel road set to have the biggest impact on the race, the event could be very similar to Tro Bro Leon which also includes several dirt road sectors. That race is usually decided by a small group after an aggressive elimination race and we are very likely to see the same scenario here. With only two WorldTour teams in attendance, the field isn’t every strong either and this means that Etixx-QuickStep and Lotto Soudal should be able to make it a pretty tough and selective affair. Things will only be made harder by the small climb in the final kilometre which means that a real bunch sprint is not an option for this race.


On paper, Etixx-QuickStep have by far the strongest team for this kind of race and they will be able to dictate proceedings. However, it will be very interesting to see what kind of tactics they apply. Tom Boonen is in great form at the moment and the team may choose to ride 100% for their leader. However, they usually opt for an aggressive approach to these races and they may choose to send some of their strongmen into the breaks too.


Lotto Soudal probably don’t really believe in their chances in a sprint so they definitely want to blow the race to pieces. Wallonie and Veranda’s Willems want a sprint but they don’t have the teams to control things. However, their leaders are strong enough to follow the best in a selective race so that is probably their preferred tactic. Cofidis is the only team that will ride fully for a sprint but as this is not a standard course and Nacer Bouhanni is not yet in peak condition, we doubt that they will take that much responsibility.


If a strong group goes away early in the race and Lotto Soudal and Etixx-QuickStep are both comfortable with the situation, there is a big chance that it will make it to the finish, especially if Boonen is there. However, we expect the race to be more of the usual very aggressive affair where the big names will mark each other firmly. Hence, we expect it to be a gradual elimination race that will culminate in the final gravel sectors where Etixx-QuickStep will try to blow the race to pieces. In the end, a small group will probably decide the race on the final climb.


This makes it a perfect race for Tom Boonen. Since he renewed his contract, he has already won two races, the first stage of the Tour de Wallonie and RideLondon Classic, and he worked tirelessly for Gianni Meersman in the hardest stages in Wallonia. He is still not in peak form which is evident by the fact that he was dropped in London but he has been sprinting extremely well.


This race is at a much lower level than the one in London and the climbs are easier. This is the terrain where Boonen really excels and he will be one of the best on the unpaved sectors. He will probably try to create the selection himself and then use his strong team to set him up for a sprint from a small group. The uphill sprint is not ideal for him as there may be stronger riders for this kind of finale but Boonen is very hard to beat at the end of a hard race. He could very well be the only sprinter left in the end and with the way he has been sprinting recently, we doubt that anyone will be able to beat him. Boonen is our favourite to win the race.


Baptiste Planckaert will probably be his biggest rival. This kind of uphill sprint is tailor-made for the strong Belgian who is enjoying a bit of a breakthrough season. He seemed to slow briefly down in the middle of the summer but last Sunday he was back to his best when he won the tough La Polynormande in an uphill sprint. He is a strong ride who can cope with gravel roads and small climbs as he proved by featuring prominently in the cobbled classics stage at the Belgium Tour and at Tro Bro Leon where he was set back by bad luck. He is maybe even stronger than Boonen in an uphill sprint so if he can make the selection, he could very well win again.


Nacer Bouhanni is clearly the fastest rider in this race and this kind of uphill sprint is tailor-made for him. However, he has never really done well on cobbles and dirt roads and this race could very well be too hard for him. Furthermore, his form isn’t great after he was injured in a hotel altercation and had to skip the Tour. He was there in the finale of La Polynormande but ran out of power in the sprint. He needs an easier race to be there in the finale and even if he survives, his form may not be good enough to win. However, you can never rule Bouhanni out in a finish like this.


In addition to Planckaert, Timothy Dupont is the other big revelation of the 2016 season and he is in excellent form at the moment. He won three stages at the Tour Alsace last week and won Grand Prix de la vlle de Perenchies less than two weeks ago. By winning the queen stage at the Three Days of West-Flanders, he has proved that he is more than just a sprinter and that he can be up there in hard races too. This kind of uphill sprint is good for him and with the form he has, he can beat the likes of Boonen and Planckaert.


Etixx-QuickStep have such a strong team that it would be stupid to focus fully on Boonen. Riders like Niki Terpstra and Stijn Vandenbergh are really strong in this terrain and they will probably ride aggressively in the finale. If Etixx-QuickStep are the only team with strength in numbers, it is hard to imagine than anyone will be able to bring them back if they get away on the cobbles. Both riders are strong enough to claim solo wins here. However, Terpstra has just come back from injury and he is clearly not at 100% yet. Lukasz Wisniowski, Davide Martinelli and Nikolas Maes are alternative plans but they don’t have the same strength in this terrain. On the other hand, they are all pretty fast in a sprint.


Bouhanni may be the leader of Cofidis but Florian Senechal could be the best card. The Frenchman is a huge talent for these races and he showed that he has returned to form by riding very well at the Tour de Wallonie. He has been up there in the Flemish classics and Paris-Roubai so this is a race that suits him well. He should be able to make the selection and is fast in this kind of uphill sprint.


Wanty have two good cards to play in Marco Marcato and Dimitri Claeys. The Italian showed good form by finishing third in the Tour of Denmark queen stage and the Belgian won a reduced bunch sprint on one of the hardest stages in Wallonia. Both are cobbled classics specialists and should excel if this race becomes tough. Marcato is no longer as fast as he once was but in an uphill finale like this he has a chance. Claeys proved his speed in Wallonia but he probably needs to get rid of most of his rivals to win the race. The team has Kenny Dehaes for a sprint finish and he should find the uphill finale to his liking. However, he hasn’t been in his form recently.


Dries De Bondt delivered a major surprise by winning a tough edition of Halle-Ingooigem and this course should suit him well too. He is probably no longer in the same condition though and he can no longer play the role of underdog. On the other hand, he beat Jens Keukeleire in the sprint in Ingooigem so he has a fast finish to win from a small group at the end of a selective race.


Lotto Soudal have a strong team but they probably miss the rider that can win. It’s a perfect race for Kris Boeckmans who excels in uphill sprints. He is clearly showing signs of improvement but he is probably not good enough to win yet. Their best card is likely to be Pim Ligthart who seems to be in good form and is strong in this kind of finale. Unfortunately, he hasn’t had much success on the cobbles. Jelle Wallays is a back-up plan but he is not fast in a sprint.


***** Tom Boonen

**** Baptiste Planckaert, Nacer Bouhanni

*** Timothy Dupont, Niki Terpstra, Stijn Vandenbergh, Florian Senechal

** Marco Marcato, Dimitri Claeys, Dries De Bondt, Pim Ligthart, Lukasz Wisniowski, Nikolas Maes

* Kenny Dehaes, Davide Martinelli, Kris Boeckmans, Rudy Barbier, Jerome Baugnies, Jelle Wallays, Wout Van Aert, Julien Vermote, Sebastien Delfosse, Filippo Pozzatto, Sean De Bie, Amaury Capiot, Frederik Backaert, Olivier Pardini



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