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Will Rohan Dennis win his first WorldTour stage race in a star-studded edition of the Eneco Tour?

Photo: Sirotti

ENECO TOUR

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18.09.2016 @ 19:20 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The spring and autumn are dominated by the classics while the middle of the season is loaded with big stage races. Those two different kinds of races come together in the Dutch/Belgian stage race Eneco Tour which combines a number of stages in well-known classics terrain with a couple of sprint stages, an individual time trial and a team time trial to form a race for the one-day and time trial specialists. Having initially been criticized for its less exciting and sprint-heavy courses, the race has now found its format and this year it plays a hugely important role as the big preparation for the World Championships for sprinters, time triallists and teams.

 

Racing in Belgium is loaded with history but the emphasis has always been placed on one-day races and the country's many esteemed classics. Held for the first time in 1908, the Tour of Belgium has struggled to gain the popularity that national tours have had in the southern part of Europe and stage racing has mostly been neglected in one of cycling's most important areas.

 

When the ProTour was introduced in 2005, the well-established Tour of the Netherlands was deemed too easy to make it onto the sport's finest calendar and so the organizers sought help from the Tour of Belgium and the Tour of Luxembourg in an attempt to create a Tour of Benelux that could be included in the newly-founded race series. The cooperation with the Luxembourgish organizers never materialized but the Belgians and Dutchmen found together in a collaboration that allowed the Dutch tour to develop into a two-country race that made it onto the ProTour calendar. Suddenly, the Belgians not only had classics but also a stage race in the highest echelon.

 

During its first years, the race had difficulty finding its right format and many criticized the courses for being too easy and the event for having too many stages for the sprinters. Often the race was loaded with bunch sprints and only a single hilly stage and the crucial time trial decided the GC. The Dutch and Belgian geographies mean that the race will always have numerous opportunities for the fast finishers but the organizers have since toughened up the race by including more stages in the hard classics terrain and the race has now found its right mix between sprint stages and more difficult days for the one-day specialists.

 

What makes the race exciting is that it takes the riders back onto the roads that have been the scene of some dramatic racing in the spring season but that are rarely used in the second part of the season. Usually the event has a stage that includes many of the Flemish hellingen from the Tour of Flanders, a stage held in the hilly Limburg province known from the Amstel Gold Race and a stage in the Wallonian Ardennes, the scene of Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Those classics stages are combined with a number of days for the sprinters and a time trial to form a race for the versatile riders and classics and time trial specialists. As usual, the weather plays a crucial role in this part of the world and there is always the preeminent danger of crosswinds that can blow the race to pieces.

 

Despite the more difficult stages, the terrain is not hard enough to produce big time gaps and bonus seconds often play a crucial role. The most decisive stage is always the rather short time trial. No one will win the Eneco Tour without having the ability to race against the clock and the winners' list is a testament to that. The inaugural edition was taken by Bobby Julich and since then Stefan Schumacher, Jose Ivan Gutierrez (twice), Edvald Boasson Hagen (twice), Tony Martin and Lars Boom have all won the event. However, with a tougher course, the door is now open for more versatile riders as well and during the last three years the race had its first winners from outside the ranks of the time triallists as Zdenek Stybar and Tim Wellens (twice) have used strong rides in the hills to take the victory. The overall winner is usually a versatile rider who can stay in contention on the hills, manage the battle for position and the crosswinds, potentially pick up a couple of bonus seconds in some sprints and finish it off with a high-level time trial.

 

Due to its traditional scheduling close to the Vuelta, it has often been the comeback race for the sprinters after the Tour de France and they have used the race to gear up for the late-season classics which have become the centerpiece of the autumn season due to the tougher course in Spain. At the same time, the Eneco Tour has evolved into a major target in its own right. For the time trial specialists, it represents a rare chance to pick up some WorldTour points without having to overcome enormous mountains while the classics riders relish the chance to race in their preferred terrain at a time when those opportunities are limited. With the growing importance of points, more and more teams see the Eneco Tour as a great opportunity to increase their tally in a race that is not overly difficult.

 

This year the race plays a different and more important role than ever. When it was announced that the Worlds would be held later than usual and that the usual date coincided with the Olympics, the organizers were quick to grab the opportunity to move their race to September. With the Worlds held on a flat course in Qatar, the flat, windy roads in Belgium and the Netherlands are the perfect way to prepare for the battle for the rainbow jersey and a date a few weeks before the race in Qatar makes it the ideal preparation race. At the same time, the inclusion of the traditional time trial makes it a great final test for the TT specialists too and to make things even more complete, the organizers have given the course an extra twist by including a team time trial, turning the race into the perfect dress rehearsal for the Worlds TTT too.

 

The move has paid off to an extent that the organizers had never dared to dream off. It is hard to find a single top sprinter that won’t be riding in Belgium and the Netherlands this week. Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel, André Greipel, Peter Sagan, Alexander Kristoff, John Degenkolb, Arnaud Demare, Nacer Bouhanni, Giacomo Nizzolo, Elia Viviani, Fernando Gaviria, Caleb Ewan, Dylan Groenewegen, Tom Boonen, Danny Van Poppel, Michael Matthews and Sacha Modolo are just the biggest names in a formidable list of fast finishers that won’t be found in any other race on the WorldTour. Time trial specialists Tony Martin, Rohan Dennis, Tom Dumoulin, Taylor Phinney, Bob Jungels and Vasil Kiryienka will all be fine-tuning their form for the Worlds too and BMC and Movistar have assembled almost their entire team for the World TTT Championships.

 

Last year the race was given an extra twist with the inclusion of the concept of a golden kilometre. It made its debut at the Tour of Belgium and the Eneco Tour organizers liked the idea which they adopted. In every road stage, there were three intermediate sprints within just a single kilometre where the riders could score a total of 9 bonus seconds, with 3, 2 and 1 second being on offer for the first three riders across the line in each sprint. In addition to the golden kilometre, there were 10, 6 and 4 bonus seconds on offer at the finish. Like the Tour of Belgium organizers, they were content with the debut and so the concept will be in place again in 2016. 

 

Last year Tim Wellens proved that his first win in 2014 fluke as the Belgian made it two in a row in almost identical fashion. Having lost quite a bit of time in the time trial, he went on the attack in the queen stage in the Ardennes and like he had done 12 months earlier, he crushed the opposition with an impressive solo ride. He defended his lead on the final stage in the Flemish Ardennes and took the overall win with an unusually big 59-second advantage over Greg Van Avermaet, with Wilco Kelderman completing the podium. This year Wellens will try to make it three in a row and he will again be up against Van Avermaet and Kelderman who are still in search of a maiden win in the Eneco Tour.

 

The course

As said, the Eneco Tour is usually a race for classics riders that can time trial. However, while the first editions of the race clearly favoured the time triallists, the most recent editions have been a lot harder and the classics riders have had a bigger chance, culminating with Zdenek Stybar’s and Tim Wellens’ victories in the three latest editions of the race.

 

In recent years, the organizers seemed to have found a fixed formula with three sprint stages, one time trial and mini Amstel, Liege and Flanders stages. However, this year they have changed things dramatically. The desire to turn it into a key preparation race for the Worlds has made them include a team time trial that will be the big dress rehearsal for Qatar, and less climbing. Hence, it will be much harder for the climbers and classics riders to make a difference and instead the two time trials will be the key stages.

 

First of all, the queen stage in the Ardennes and the Amstel Gold Race stage in Limburg have been amalgamated into one stage which comes on the penultimate day. On paper, the course seems to be harder than the usual Amstel stage but it is significantly easier than the traditional queen stage which has often include relatively long climbs for Liege-Bastogne-Liege. The total amount of climbing is far less than usual and the climbs come more farther from the finish, meaning that it could very well be a day for the strong sprinters. Instead, the key stage for the classics riders will be the mini-Flanders stage which again includes the well-known circuit with the finish halfway up the Muur in Geraardsbergen. However, history shows that the gaps here have often been a matter of seconds and that it is hard to make any major differences.

 

While the main climbing challenges come in the final two stages, the first part of the stage is relatively flat. As it has become a bit of a tradition, the race starts with a potentially windy stage in the flattest part of the Netherlands. On the second day, the riders face the first key test, the individual time trial which is just 9.6km long and so shorter than usual. Another sprint stage follows on the third day before the terrain gets slightly hillier on the fourth stage which includes cobbles from Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and climbs from Brabantse Pijl. On Friday, the crucial team time trial will be held before the race heads into the Ardennes on Saturday and the Flemish Ardennes on Sunday.

 

Stage 1

Since the organizers decided to abandon the idea of an opening prologue in 2012, the Eneco Tour has usually started with a flat stage for the sprinters. 2016 will be no exception and for the third year in a row it will be the Netherlands that sends off the peloton. Like last year it will again be the windy area near the North Sea and the city of Bolsward that is the scene of the opening ride and there is little doubt that the organizers hope for some tough conditions for the opener.

 

The riders will start their race in Bolsward in the completely flat part of the country where they will do a 184.7km circuit race around the city. It can be divided into three parts. First the riders will tackle a 38.8km circuit on the northern outskirts of the main city. Like the rest of the stage, it is completely flat and doesn’t include too many technical challenges. The first Primus sprint comes at the 33km mark just before the riders cross the finish line for the first time.

 

The second part of the stage consists of one lap of a much longer 112.2km circuit on the southern outskirts. It is pretty similar to the opening challenge both when it comes to technical challenges and terrain. There will be a Primus sprint at the 144.2km mark where there will be points on offer for the sprints classification. A big part of the circuit is held close to the coast which should make things pretty nervous if the conditions are right.

 

The riders will cross the finish line again after 150.1km of racing and will now end the stage by doing two laps of a 17.3km circuit around Bolsward. It doesn’t offer any real technical challenges and as it is also completely flat, only the wind and crashes can do some damage. The golden kilometre starts with 20.3km to go when the riders approach the end of the first lap. The finale is very easy as the riders will take the final left-hand turn with 4.6km to go and then they will follow a long, straight, flat road all the way to the finish.

 

Usually, it is not too windy in the summer and so this stage is most likely to be a straightforward sprint stage where the fast guys will get the chance to go for the first leader’s jersey. However, there is always the risk of splits in the crosswinds and if there is just a small danger, we should get some nervous racing that could potentially split the field. However, the most likely outcome is a big bunch sprint and with lots of sprinters at the start, there will be plenty of teams to do the chase work. Unlike most of the Eneco Tour finales, this one is very easy which means that the technical challenges are unlikely to create any gaps between the overall contenders who will be looking to the golden kilometre as their best chance to potentially gain some time on the opening day.

 

Bolsward also hosted a very similar opening stage at last year’s race. Back then, it all came down to the expected bunch sprint where Elia Viviani beat Danny Van Poppel and Jempy Drucker.

 

 

 

Stage 2

Time trialling has always been a key part of the Eneco Tour and of course it will be no different in 2016. The TT has often been the single most decisive stage and with no stage in the Ardennes, it will be even more important than it has been in 2013, 2014 and 2015. On the other hand, it has been shortened a bit and with an important team time trial also coming up, it won’t decide the race entirely. Like last year, there will be plenty of flat, straight roads and so it should offer lots of terrain for the specialists to make a difference. The stage is an identical copy of the time trial that was used in 2014.

 

This year the time trial comes earlier than usual as it will be held already on the second day, and like in the last few years it will be held on Dutch soil. The city of Breda will host the stage where the riders will tackle 9.6km. The course is very straightforward as the riders will travel south along flat, straight roads before they do one lap of a flat, technically uncomplicated on the southern outskirts of the city. Finally, they will head back to the start-finish area along the same road that was used for the opening part of the course. In the finale, the riders will take a turn with 1800m to go and then follow a long, straight road until they get to the final bend just 200m from the line.

 

It’s hard to design a flatter course for a time trial than this short test in Breda. There will barely be any elevation gain and the stage is also technically uncomplicated. It’s a stage tailor-made for the most powerful specialists who will be ready to battle it out on the straight, Dutch roads. Usually, sprinters can do well in short time trials but they would have preferred a shorter and technically more difficult course and will have a hard time against the specialists. Of course the time gaps will be small in a short stage like this but in a race that will be decided by seconds, the gaps created in this stage will be crucial in the fight for the overall win.

 

Breda last hosted a stage in 2015 when André Greipel won a bunch sprint on the second day. It also hosted a stage in 2014 when Tom Dumoulin took a time trial victory on the exact same course. One year earlier it played host to the first stage of the Ster ZLM Toer where Theo Bos powered to one of the biggest wins of his career by beating the sprinting titans of Marcel Kittel, André Greipel and Mark Cavendish.

 

 

 

Stage 3

The sprinters that were left disappointed will get a chance to strike back and the GC riders will return to survival mode in stage 3 which is a typical Eneco Tour stage. For the 9th year in a row, the peloton will return to the Belgian city of Ardooie where they will again tackle the tricky finale that has been the scene of some exciting bunch sprints in the past.

 

After two days in the Netherlands, the race is in Belgium for the third stage which brings the riders to the traditional finish which has become a fixture in the WorldTour race. The stage covers 186.0km from Blankenberge to the city in the southwestern part of the country. Again it can be split into three parts.

 

As it is often the case in the Eneco Tour, the riders will first do a lap of a circuit around the starting city. The opening circuit is 18km long and brings the riders through the flat terrain on the southern outskirts of Blankenberge, with part of the circuit including coastal roads. The first Primus sprint comes near the end of the circuit after 17.3km of racing.

 

The second part of the stage consists of a long southerly and easterly journey from Blankenberge to Ardooie and again the terrain is completely flat. There will be no sprints along the way and the roads will be completely flat. With 42.7km to go, the riders will reach the finishing circuit and then they will do almost a full lap before the get to the finish for the first time. Before they get there, they will do the final Primus sprint when 34.0km remain.

 

Moments later, the riders will cross the finish line to start the first of two laps of the 15.4km circuit. It is the same circuit that was used in 2013, 2014 and 2015. It is completely flat and has a pretty technical final part with lots of traffic islands. With 1.4km to go, the riders do three sharp turns in quick succession before they hit the 1.1km finishing straight. The golden kilometre starts with 24.9km to go at the midpoint of the first lap.

 

As the terrain is completely flat, this stage is destined to end in a bunch sprint. The only potential danger is the wind and the crashes but there won’t be too many changes of direction which means that we are unlikely to get a big drama. However, the GC riders have to stay attentive in the technical finale where splits can occur and this will make the final part very nervous.

 

Ardooie has hosted a stage finish every year since 2008. Tom Boonen was the first rider to win a bunch sprint and Tyler Farrar took the win one year later. In 2010, André Greipel was the fastest rider and he repeated the feat in 2011. In 2012, the city hosted the time trial which was won by Svein Tuft while Belkin used the late turns to open a gap behind their lead-out man Mark Renshaw in 2013, with the Australian holding off the sprinters all the way to the line. In 2014, Nacer Bouhanni won a bunch sprint but the stage is mostly remembered for the dramatic finale that saw defending champion Zdenek Stybar crash out of the race on the finishing straight. In 2015, Tom Boonen beat Arnaud Demare and Elia Viviani in a bunch sprint.

 

 

 

Stage 4

One of the characteristics of the Eneco Tour is that it may be regarded as an amalgamation of mini versions of the big classics. That means that the race always includes a stage in the Flemish Ardennes as racing over cobblestones is a key aspect of every kind of racing in Flanders. This year the amount of pave has been increased as there will be two stages in the heartland of Flemish cycling. In addition to the traditional mini Flanders stage on the final day, the riders will already have their first taste of cobbles on the fourth stage which includes well-known challenges from Brabantse Pijl and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and even though it is expected to end in another bunch sprint, it will be indication of what is to come in stage 7.

 

The 202km stage will bring the riders from Aalter to Sint-Pieters-Leeuw just south of Brussels. As usual, they will kick things off by doing a lap of a small circuit in the starting city before they get to the first Primus sprint already at the 9.4km mark. From there, the main part of the stage will see them travel through the Flemish heartland in a southeasterly direction. They will stay north of the main climbs so the course is mainly flat but the riders will still face some of the key challenges from the Flemish classics. First up is the famous Paddestraat pave at the 67.3km mark which is followed by the equally famous Lippenhovestraat just 1800m later.

 

The race will then continue along flat roads through some of the most well-known Flemish cities until the riders get to the next challenge, the 300m Repingestraat pave after 107.9km of racing and the 1600m Schavolliestraat 4.5km later and then flat roads will lead to the finishing circuit which they will hit at the 134.4km mark. Here they will face a 100m cobblestone section before they will cross the finish line for the first time after 138km of racing.

 

The race ends with two laps of a 32km circuit. Right after the passage of the line, there’s a 1900m pave sector and there’s another 800mof cobbles 4.8km after the passage of the line. Then the riders will tackle the Alsemberg (1200m, 4%) and Bruine Put (900m, 8.2%) which once played a key role in Brabantse Pijl. The latter comes with 13.7km to go and will be the last key challenge of the stage. In the end, the riders will again tackle the 100m pave sector that they did earlier in the stage before they get to the final 3.4km of flat roads. The final turn comes with 2.8km to go and then it’s an almost straight road to the finish. The final 4km are slightly uphill. The final Primus sprint comes two kilometres from the end of the first lap while the Golden kilometre starts 100m after the second passage of the Bruine Put climb.

 

For the first time in this year’s race, there are some climbs on the menu. However, neither Alsemberg nor Bruine Put is very hard and they come pretty far from the finish. The cobblestone sections also come too far from the finish to play a major role but as the classics riders have few chances in this race, they are likely to give it a shot when they hit the climbs for the final time. Two years ago, a similar stage created more damage than expected and if the weather conditions are bad, it’s not impossible that a well-working group can make a difference. However, the most likely outcome is another bunch sprint but with the slight rise in the finale and a harder stage overall, we may see a different outcome than in the first sprint stages.

 

Sint-Pieters-Leeuw has not hosted the finish of a major bike race for more than a decade.

 

 

 

 

Stage 5

In 2012, the organizers gave the course a new twist when they added an 18.9km team time trial to the individual race against the clock. Orica-GreenEDGE won the stage and put Jens Keukeleire in the leader’s jersey but the idea was again abandoned for the 2013 edition. However, with the 2016 edition set to serve as the big preparation event for the Worlds, it was an obvious idea to again add a team time trial to the course, meaning that the race serves as a warm-up for every discipline at the big event in Qatar. This year the 20.9km collective ride in Sittard-Geleen will be the key indicator of form for the World TTT Championships and with a relatively long distance, it will be a key day in determining the overall winner of the Dutch-Belgian race.

 

Like in 2012, the stage will take place in Sittard-Geleen but with a length of 20.9km, it is longer than it was four years ago. The stage consists of one lap of a circuit on the southeastern outskirts of the city which is located in the Limburg region. This means that it is not a flat affair and while the course is not very technical, the cohesiveness will be tested by the lumpy terrain and the small climbs.

 

From the start, the riders will travel east and head into Germany where they will turn south to again cross the border and get back into Dutch territory. From there, they will continue in a southwesterly direction to the city of Schinnen where they will turn around and head north to the finish in Sittard.

 

Sittard-Geelen is the only city to have hosted a stage finish in every edition of the race. In 2005, Simon Cadamuro won a bunch sprint while Manuel Quinziato narrowly held off the sprinters one year later as Cadamuro had to settle for second. In 2007, Sebastien Rosseler took a time trial win and Jose Ivan Gutierrez won the opening prologue in 2008. In 2009, Lars Bak held off a select group after a hard day in the Limburg province while Jack Bobridge was the strongest from a breakaway in 2010. In 2011, Edvald Boasson Hagen won a bunch sprint while Orica-GreenEDGE won the only team time trial in the history of the race in 2012. In 2013, the city hosted the time trial which was won by Sylvain Chavanel. In 2014, Guillaume Van Keirsbulck emerged as the strongest from a breakaway as he rode away for a solo victory and last year it was Johan Le Bon and Dylan Van Baarle who managed to hold off the peloton, with the Frenchman winning the two-rider sprint.

 

 

 

Stage 6

As said, the Eneco Tour can be regarded as an amalgamation of the major classics and this means that it always includes a day in the Limburg province where a lumpy stage can be regarded as dome kind of a mini Amstel Gold Race, and a stage in the Liege area, a mini Liege-Bastogne-Lege. This year those two stages have been merged into one stage that is far less testing than it has been in recent years. In the past, the stage in Limburg often not been hard enough to create any major differences while the stage in the Ardennes in GC has been the big day for the climbers. This year there will be far less climbing in the combined stage and even though it is the best chance for the climbers, it is unlikely to be a big day for the GC riders.

 

The 197.2km stage will bring the riders from the Riemst to Lanaken and even though it is mostly held in the Limburg province, it will take place on Belgian soil. The start and finishing cities are neighbours so the riders will get to Lanaken already after 7km of racing. At the 10.6km mark, they will cross the finish line for the first time and then they will tackle a lap of a big circuit on the southern outskirts of the city. The first part is mainly flat but the terrain gradually gets more testing. The first challenge is the Muizenberg climb (650m, 6.5%) which comes after 62.7km of racing and it is followed by the first Primus sprint at the 65.3km mark. Another flat section leads back to the finish where the riders will cross the line after 80.4km of racing.

 

The final part of the stage consists of one lap of an even bigger circuit which partly incorporates the first circuit. That means that it’s another flat start before the riders again get to harder terrain. The Helambaye climb (1100m, 6.6%) comes with 68.5km to go and is followed by Cote Bois Le Dame (900m, 12.2%) just 13.9km later. Rue Saivelette (900m, 5.0%) is the next challenge, with the top coming with 51.4km to go. Rue Trois Fontaines (700m, 8%) comes 3.4km later and then it’s time for Route de Blegny (400, 5%) whose top is located 45.4km from the finish. From there, it’s back into flat terrain until the riders will tackle the Helambaye climb (800m, 8.6%) from a different side, with the Golden Kilometre starting exactly 1000m from the top. From the summit, there are still 24.1km to go and they include another passage of the Muizenberg (650m, 6.6%) just 18km from the finish. The final Primus sprint comes 2.9km later as the riders follow flat roads back to Lanaken. The finale is a bit technical as there are numerous turns in the third last kilometre and then there are two sharp turns in the penultimate kilometre. The final corner comes with 1100m to go and then it’s a straight road to the finish. The final kilometre is slightly uphill at around 3%.

 

The stage is far from flat but it is much easier than the Ardennes stages of the recent editions. Some of the climbs in the final 70km are hard but the toughest challenges come way too far from the finish to play a major role. It takes a very strong and cohesive effort from a small group to make it to the finish in a stage like this and it seems that we will have another sprint finish. The amount of climbing will be too hard for the pure sprinters but several fast finishers can handle a stage like this and the uphill finish is perfect for riders like Peter Sagan, Michael Matthews, John Degenkolb, Giacomo Nizzolo and Alexander Kristoff who will all hope to sprint for victory in Lanaken.

 

Lanaken has not hosted the finish of a major bike race for more than a decade.

 

 

 

 

Stage 7

Nothing will be decided until the final day of the race as the organizers have saved the hardest road stage for the very end. With the only uphill finish in the race, the final stage may even offer the best chance to create differences between the best riders after the two time trials.

 

Naturally, the race has usually included a stage in the Flemish Ardennes but in 2012 the organizers decided to make it a lot harder by making it finish on the famous Muur van Geraardsbergen. When it was announced that the famous climb would no longer be part of the Tour of Flanders course, the city of Geraardsbergen made an agreement with the Eneco Tour which ensured that the stage race would include a stage on the wall in 2012, 2013 and 2014. In the first two years, the stage came on the final day but in 2014 it was held before the mini-Liege and mini-Amstel stages. Last year it was back at the tail end of the race and in 2016 it will again bring the curtain down on the race.

 

The organizers haven’t changed much of what is now a classic in this race. At 197.8km, it is a bit longer than it has been in the last few years but it still doesn’t have the length of a classic. However, apart from the distance, it has all the ingredients of one of the major Flemish one-day races. The riders will tackle several famous hellingen in the Flemish Ardennes and as they go up some of them multiple times, numerous climbs are spread throughout the entire course.

 

Like last year, the stage doesn’t start in Geraardsbergen. Instead, the riders will take off from Bornem from where they will travel south along flat roads. As they get closer to the Flemish Ardennes, the terrain will gradually become harder, with the first challenge being the Hurdumont climb (550m, 8%) after 92.8km of racing. The D’Houppe climb (1900m, 2.8%) comes just 1.8km later and then it’s time for the famous Tenbosse (500m, 7%) at the 103.7km mark. The riders are now travelling in a westerly direction straight towards the most famous climbs in Flanders.

 

After 112.5km of racing, the riders will hit the well-known 25.6km finishing circuit which has been used every year since 2012. First they will do the final 8.5km which means that they will tackle the Denderoordberg (700m, 8%) before they descend down to the bottom of the Muur (1100m, 8.7%). The finish line comes 600m up the climb and signals the start of the final three laps of the 25.6km finishing circuit.

 

The circuit a very tough affair with no less than 4 climbs. Having descended from the Muur, the riders go straight up the famous Bosberg (1000m, 6%) which is another climb no longer featuring on the Ronde course. It is followed by the easiest section of the circuit before the riders will hit the Onkerzelestraat (1500m, 3%). At the top, there are still 11.2km to go, with the first part made up of a descent before the riders again reach the final section with the Denderoordberg and the Muur whose first 600m lead directly to the finish at the end of the third lap. The riders do two right-hand turns just after the flamme rouge before heading onto the climb where there’s a left-hand turn just 200m from the line. The golden kilometre starts halfway up the Bosberg on the final lap when 20.8km still remain while the first Primus sprint comes at the top of the Muur 500m after the first passage of the line and the second one comes at the same place at the end of the first lap.

 

As said, the tricky finishing circuit has been used for the final stage of the 2012 and 2013 editions of the race, in stage 6 of the 2014 race and on the final stage last year and so it is now well-known by most of the riders. In the first edition, the peloton exploded to pieces on the Muur and in the end, Alessandro Ballan and Lars Boom emerged as the strongest. While the Italian took a rare victory on the famous Muur, the Dutchman gained enough time on then race leader Svein Tuft to win the race overall. In 2013, Zdenek Stybar took the jersey off Tom Dumoulin’s shoulders by finishing off a perfect display of team tactics. After Sylvain Chavanel had put the rivals under pressure, Stybar launched his own attack on the final lap to bridge the gap to lone escapee Ian Stannard. Accelerating hard from the bottom of the Muur, the Czech dropped his companion and soloed across the line to take both the stage and the overall victory. In 2o14it was Greg Van Avermaet who made the difference as he accelerated hard to fly past a fighting Pavel Brutt who had attacked a little earlier. He put one second into Tom Dumoulin, Brutt, Matti Breschel and Lars Boom which allowed Dumoulin to take the leader’s jersey off Boom’s shoulders by virtue of bonus seconds. Last year the early break made it and it was Manuel Quinziato who dropped Bjorn Leukemans to take the win. When the peloton arrived, Greg Van Avermaet beat Julian Alaphilippe and Tiesj Benoot in the uphill sprint as small gaps were created. Nonetheless, 19 riders finished within four seconds of the Olympic champion.

 

The stage may be held in classics terrain and have a pretty tough finale but due to the shorter distance, it is of course not as selective as the Tour of Flanders. In 2013, 31 riders finished within a minute of the stage winner while in 2012 47 riders managed to reduce their time loss to less than 60 seconds. In 2014, no less than 32 riders finished within 6 seconds of Van Avermaet while 41 riders limited their losses to less than a minute. As said, the gaps were equally small last year.

 

As in any classic, the weather will play a crucial role and team tactics will be equally important. It’s a day for the riders that excel in the cobbled classics and due to the finish on the Muur, punchy sprinting skills are of utmost importance. However, history shows that the time gains are pretty small if it all comes down to a final uphill sprint and so riders that have lost a bit of time in the time trials will have to make their moves a bit further out. As it is the final stage, there is no reason to hold anything back and so the race is likely to be aggressive. The classics riders will hope for bad weather and will try to make the race as hard as possible before making their moves on the final lap. Stybar and Boom have proved that it is possible to turn the GC around in this stage but a strong team can control things and if the leader is part of one of the best classics teams, the time gaps are likely to be small.

 

 

 

 

The weather

The weather always plays a huge role in the Netherlands and Belgium as it can make the difference between a straightforward sprint stage and a crosswinds drama. Much can change before we get to the end of the race but as things stand now, the riders will have nice conditions. Monday will be sunny with little wind and Tuesday will be very calm and cloudy. Wednesday and Thursday will be like summer while there is a risk of rainy on a windier and mostly sunny Friday. Saturday and Sunday are likely to offer a mix of sun and rain with little wind.

 

The favourites

Usually, the task of selecting the favourites for the Eneco Tour mostly consists of picking out the strongest time triallists and deleting those of them that are unable to handle the harder stages. In recent years things have been a bit more complicated as the amount of climbing has been significantly harder which made it easier for the classics riders to make a difference and made team tactics a lot more important. That was evident in the queen stage in 2014 where an isolated Tom Dumoulin was unable to control all attacks and this allowed Tim Wellens to ride away with the overall victory. Last year Wellens again managed to turn things around with a big attack in the queen stage.

 

This year the race almost returns to what it was in the early years. The amount of climbing has been significantly reduced and it will be virtually impossible for anyone to make a ‘Wellens move’ in any of the road stages. Stage 6 has the most significant climbs but they all come far from the finish. The race will be a lot less selective and unlike in the last few queen stages, the main riders will have teammates at their side. This will make it much easier to control and we are very likely to get a reduced bunch sprint.

 

Stage 7 is a tough affair in the Flemish Ardennes but even though the riders will do an extra lap in 2016, we all know what to expect. The gaps in this stage are usually a matter of seconds between the best riders. Stage 4 has a few climbs but they won’t be enough to create much of a separation so it should be another day for the sprinters. Finally, the lack of wind means that it will be impossible to wreak havoc in the flat stages so overall the road stages so should only separate the best riders by seconds.

 

This means that the race will almost exclusively come down to the two time trials and they will both be important. The individual test is relatively short but the best time triallists can gain enough time to get rid of the non-time triallists. The team time trial is long enough to eliminate riders from the weaker teams. The only other time gaps will probably be made in the uphill sprint on the final stage and due to bonus seconds so the race is likely to be won by a good time triallist that is also part of one of the best teams for the TTT.

 

This puts Rohan Dennis in pole position to go for the win. The Australian has proved that he is one of the four best time triallists in the world and when it comes to a short power course, he is maybe even the very best. Last year he beat all the greats on a similar course at the Tour de France and he recently confirmed his class by taking a close second place behind Tony Martin in a slightly hillier time trial over a similar distance at the Tour of Britain.

 

Dennis’ form is excellent as he proved in Britain where he finished second overall and if he had gauged his effort in stage 2 a bit better, he is likely to have taken the overall win. He was one of the very best on the climbs and his time trial was solid too.

 

However, Dennis’ main asset is his team. BMC have proved to be the best TTT team in the world and as this is their big dress rehearsal for the Worlds, they go into the race with a team made up solely of good time triallists. They are the clear favourites for the TTT and as Dennis is maybe even the favourite for the TT too, the Australian will be the man to beat. With his good climbing skills, he should do well in the road stages. He doesn’t have much experience in Belgian racing and is not fond of the fight for position. However, he is backed by a formidable team of classics riders and they should be strong enough to control the race and keep Dennis protected. If he can get into a good position for the Muur, he will only lose seconds there and that should be enough to take the overall win.

 

The biggest threat for BMC in the team time trial, are Movistar that go into the race with a team made up mostly of time triallists. That gives Ion Izagirre an excellent shot at another top result in a week-long stage race. After his stage win at the Tour, the Basque showed that he is back on form in Canada where he was one of the very best on the climbs in Montreal. Furthermore, he is one of the best time triallists in the world. Usually, he prefers hillier and more technical courses but this year he has done good flat time trials too, especially over short distances.

 

Izagirre and Movistar have never excelled in Belgian racing but on paper there is no reason that the Basque can’t do well here. He may lose a few seconds to the best on the Muur as he is not that explosive compared to the best classics riders. However, his time loss in the road stages should be a matter of seconds so if Movistar can win the TTT and Izagirre can do a good TT, this is a race that he can win.

 

Greg Van Avermaet finished second in last year’s race but he will be missing some harder road stages. On the other hand, he will find the team time trial to his liking as a BMC victory here will give him a solid buffer. Last year he suddenly turned into a solid time triallist, especially on short courses, and even though he will lose time to the likes of Dennis, Tony Martin and Tom Dumoulin in stage 2, he should be able to limit his losses. A good TTT will bring his close to the top of the leaderboard and if he can win the stage on the Muur and go for bonus seconds in the Golden Kilometres, it may be enough to leapfrog teammate Rohan Dennis and win the race that he is destined to win at some point in his career. At least, everybody knows that his form is excellent as he proved his class by winning the GP Montreal.

 

Tony Martin is a former winner of the race but he has skipped the race in the last few years. Now he returns for an edition that suits him really well. With no hard queen stage, it will mostly be decided in the time trials and after two years of disappointments, he suddenly returned to his best by winning the TT at the Tour of Britain ahead of Dennis and Dumoulin. This automatically turns him into one of the favourites for the TT here and Etixx-QuickStep are always among the best in the TTTs too. However, the Belgian team is probably not as strong as BMC and Movistar so Martin has to win the TT to take the overall win. The road stages should be no problem as he is climbing really well this year and has plenty of classics experience.

 

Orica-BikeExchange have Michael Matthews who should found the race to his liking. Orica-BikeExchange are always good in the TTTs and even though they don’t have their best team here, history shows that they are always competitive. At the same time, Matthews has developed into a bit of a specialist in short time trials as he proved by winning the Paris-Nice prologue. This may be a bit too much about power to suit him perfectly but if he and his team can limit their losses in the two TTTs, two good results in the sprints on the final two days and a few bonus seconds in the intermediate sprint could elevate the Australian to the top of the leaderboard.

 

 

Almost every single BMC rider can win the race and Taylor Phinney also stands out as a solid candidate. The American has always found the race a bit too hard but this year things should be different. He hasn’t returned to his best in the time trials since his bad leg injury but at the Tour of Britain he showed clear signs of improvement. He was on track for a great performance until the hit the deck on the slippery roads. It shows that his form is good and that he has the power to do good in short TTs. He is a more skilled classics riders than Dennis but doesn’t climb as well. He is very likely to be the second best BMC rider in the TT and if something happens to Dennis, a TTT win for BMC will put him in pole position.

 

Almost every single Movistar rider can win the race. Nelson Oliveira also has an excellent shot at victory. The Portuguese has developed into one of the best time triallists in the world as he proved with his third place in the long TT at the Tour and with a great TT in Rio. His form seemed to be getting worse but his fourth place at the European Championships TT shows that he still has something left in the tank. This year he rode very well in the cobbled classics so he has the experience to limit his losses in the road stages. A Movistar win in the TTT will set him up for a top result.

 

The same goes for his teammate Jesus Herrada. The Spaniard has taken a massive step up in 2016 and confirmed his huge class when he won a tough stage at the Dauphiné. His fantastic TTs on short courses in the Dauphiné and Paris-Nice show how much he has progressed in the race against the clock. He would have preferred a hillier course for the TT though. On the other hand, he is fast so he can pick up bonus seconds in the road stages. Unfortunately, he didn’t look brilliant in Canada so his form is uncertain.

 

Usually, this race has been too hard for Alex Dowsett but this year the easier course will give him a shot at victory. The Brit is part of the strong Movistar team and one of the best time triallists in the team. He is very inconsistent in the TTs and hasn’t really been at his best in Poitou-Charentes and Britain. However, he did a fantastic TT in Poland and if he can repeat that performance, he will be close to the best at the end of the first five stages. Then it’s a question of whether he can avoid any losses in the harder stages.

 

Peter Sagan is finally making his debut in a race that suits him really well but he has probably chosen the wrong year. The inclusion of a team time trial doesn’t do him any favour. Tinkoff are good but they won’t be able to match the best. Furthermore, the Slovakian will lose more time in the ITT. He is an excellent prologue rider and is strong in short TTs but in such a power test, he will always lose time to the best. He has to pick up all the bonus seconds he can find in the road stages. The final two stages and many of the intermediate sprints suit him well but he will lament the very strong field of sprinters which will make it hard for him to make it into the top 3 in the flat stages.

 

Tom Dumoulin is destined to win this race at some point but 2016 is probably not the year. The inclusion of a TTT is a huge setback for him as Giant-Alpecin will lose quite a bit of time. He could very well win the time trial and he should also be one of the best in the hilly stages where he can even go for bonus seconds. His form is pretty good as his third place in Britain shows but it will be hard for him to erase his deficit from the TTT.

 

On paper, the race suits, Bob Jungels down to the ground. The Luxembourger is part of one of the strongest teams and he is a great time triallist with solid climbing skills and classics experience. However, his form seems to be pretty bad. He hasn’t raced for a long time and when he made his comeback at the European TT Championships, he rode very poorly, finishing more than four minutes off the pace. If it was just a bad day, he could still be strong here but his form doesn’t seem to be good enough to win.

 

Gorka Izagirre is another Movistar card. The Basque has improved a lot in time trials and while he is still not competitive in the long TTs, he is very good in short ones. This may be a bit too much about power though and he is probably not able to match the best here. On the other hand, a win for Movistar in the TTT will propel him to the top end of the leaderboard.

 

Sky are led by Geraint Thomas who is suited to this race. However, his form doesn’t seem to be excellent as he rode pretty poorly in Canada. On the other hand, a few race days should serve him well and he may be a lot stronger here. He is one of the best classics riders and a solid time triallist and Sky have a decent team for the TTT. However, as they won’t win stage 5 and Thomas is a bit shy of his best form, it won’t be easy to win.

 

Manuel Quinziato and Daniel Oss are the two classics powerhouses in the BMC team and they could both go for GC here if BMC win the TTT. Quinziato is a formidable time triallist on a short, flat course but unfortunately this is his first race since his crash at the Tour of Poland. On the other hand, he claims to have been training well and to be close to his best. If that’s true, he could very well be one of the strongest here. Oss is not as good in the time trials but he can limit his losses well. At the same time, he is one of the best classics riders and if BMC opt to ride aggressively, there is no reason that Oss can’t make a move in one of the road stages to take back some time.

 

Michal Kwiatkowski is making his return after he was forced out of the Vuelta with back pain. The Spanish race indicated that he has returned to his best after a few horrible months and if that’s the case, he should be good here. He is strong in a short, flat time trial and can go for bonus seconds in the road stages with his fast sprint. Furthermore, Sky are strong in the TT so it all depends on what kind of form he has.

 

LottoNL-Jumbo have at least three strong candidates for the win. Wilco Kelderman is probably their best card as he has returned to his best in the TTs. Last year he was second in the TT behind his teammate Jos Van Emden so he should again be among the best. Furthermore, LottoNL-Jumbo have solid firepower for the TTT and even though they are not among the specialists, they should be close to the best. Unfortunately, Kelderman rode poorly in Canada so his form may not be at its best.

 

If that’s the case, Primoz Roglic will be ready to take over. In Rio and at the European Championships, he again showed that his good time trials at the Giro were no flukes and that he is now of the best time triallists on almost every kind of course. The big problem is that he has never ridden in Belgium and the Netherlands so he may lose some time in the fierce battle for position.

 

The best time triallist in the LottoNL-Jumbo team is Jos Van Emden who won the TT last year. Usually, the Dutchman would never have a chance in this race as the climbs are too tough. However, he may have a chance this year where the course is a lot easier. If he can again do a great TT on a course that suits him down to the ground and LottoNL-Jumbo can limit their losses in the TTT, he should be able to do well.

 

In addition to Sagan, Tinkoff can also play the Maciej Bodnar card. The Pole has really improved his time trialling in the last few years and now he is one of the best in the world. His win in the De Panne TT on a short, flat course shows that he should find stage 2 to his liking. The problem is the team time trial as Tinkoff won’t win stage 5. Furthermore, he lacks a bit of explosiveness for the road stage so he may lose a bit of time here.

 

Vasil Kiryienka is the reigning world time trial champion and as Sky also have a good team for the TTT, he will be a contender. However, he has been time trialling poorly in 2016 and he prefers much longer TTs. This one is simply too short for him so to have a real shot at victory, Sky have to deliver a surprise by beating BMC and Movistar in the TTT.

 

Niki Terpstra has always found this race a bit too hard but like so many others he should find this year’s course to his liking. There is no big stage in the Ardennes and he likes the stages on the cobbles. Etixx-QuickStep are among the best in the TTT and Terpstra is a decent time triallist. However, he is not good enough to match the best and his form is a bit uncertain as he didn’t really shine in the Vuelta.

 

Finally, we will point to Andrey Amador who is the final Movistar card. The Costa Rican is a good time triallist but he usually needs longer courses to excel. Furthermore, he hasn’t raced since Rio so his form is a bit of a question mark. There are better time triallists than him for stage 2 but if Movistar win the TTT and he turns out to be in excellent form, a top result is not impossible. After all, he is the strongest classics rider in the Movistar team.

 

***** Rohan Dennis

**** Ion Izagirre, Greg Van Avermaet

*** Tony Martin, Michael Matthews, Taylor Phinney, Nelson Oliveira, Jesus Herrada, Alex Dowsett, Peter Sagan, Tom Dumoulin

**Bob Jungels, Gorka Izagirre, Geraint Thomas, Manuel Quinziato, Daniel Oss, Michal Kwiatkowski, Wilco Kelderman, Primoz Roglic, Jos Van Emden, Maciej Bodnar, Vasil Kiryienka, Niki Terpstra, Andrey Amador

* Lars Boom, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Christopher Juul, Fabio Felline, Andriy Grivko, Alexander Kristoff, Tom Boonen, Dries Devenyns, Martin Elmiger, Matthias Brändle, Dylan Van Baarle, Zdenek Stybar, Nathan Haas, Marcel Kittel, Tom Bohli, John Degenkolb, Tim Wellens

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