As usual, the Eneco Tour kicks off with a flat, potentially windy stage but everyone hoping for tough conditions and echelons will be left disappointed. The windy Zeeland region welcomes the riders with nice weather and so the scene is set for a big bunch sprint in what will be a bit of a dress rehearsal for the World Championships in Qatar.
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.
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.
The wind is the big danger in this part of the Netherlands and everybody will be watching the weather forecast closely. Those hoping for a hard race will be disappointed to learn that Monday offers a mix of clouds and sunshine, no risk of rain and a temperature of 19 degrees.
More importantly, there will only be a light win from a northeasterly direction which means that the riders will mainly have a tail- or a headwind on the two big circuits. On the middle circuit, it will be a tailwind in the coastal section and a headwind in the final part. On the finishing circuit, it will mainly be a crosswind and it will be a crosswind from the left on the long finishing straight.
Everybody who has been riding in the Zeeland region knows how dangerous this flat part of the Netherlands can be. Most will remember how Nairo Quintana famously lost a lot of time on the second stage of last year’s Tour de France and Cadel Evans is probably still ruing how he lost the maglia rosa here at the 2010 Giro d’Italia.
With that kind of drama usually unfolding in the region, it is no wonder that the Eneco Tour visits the windy plains almost every year. In the Dutch-Belgian race, however, we have never had any big crosswind drama. The race is usually held in August where the conditions are rarely as bad as they are earlier in the year. This year the organizers had certainly hoped that the new September date could make things a bit tougher but the summerlike conditions that have made the early autumn pleasant throughout most of Europe will make the opening stage another relatively calm affair.
This should make for a very controlled start to the race and there won’t be much drama in the opening stage. Of course there will be some nervousness, especially in the coastal section and on the finishing circuit, but very quickly the teams will realize that there is no real danger. Hence, we can expect the opener to be a very straightforward sprint stage.
Everybody knows that this is not a day for a breakaway and so there is no real incentive to go on the attack. Last year Jesper Asselman got a stint in the leader’s jersey by going on the attack in the first two stages and picking up bonus seconds. This year, however, the time trial comes already on the second day and so the white jersey won’t be up for grabs for the attackers. There are some Primus Sprint points and some airtime to go for but otherwise it is much wiser to save energy for later in the race where the chances of success are bigger. Hence, we expect the break to be formed straight from the gun and we can expect riders from Roompot, Wanty, Topsport Vlaanderen and Lampre-Merida to be part of the action.
When the break has gone clear, Etixx-QuickStep and Lotto Soudal are likely to control things. The two Belgian teams are both in a home race – even though the stage is held on Dutch soil – and they have the two best sprinters here. Katusha, Giant-Alpecin and LottoNL-Jumbo may lend a hand but the majority of the work will probably be done by Frederik Frison and Iljo Keisse from the two local teams. That should be enough to make sure that the break is brought back.
The big question is whether they will be caught before the Golden Kilometre. If they are, we will probably see some of the GC contenders go for bonus seconds. Greg Van Avermaet is fast and has no chance in the final sprint so he will definitely go for it. Michael Matthews won’t do the sprint either so he may have similar plans. As he doesn’t have many chances to go for the stage win, Peter Sagan may even try to pick up a few seconds.
In the end, it should all come down to a bunch sprint. The long finishing straight means that it’s a real power sprint and as the stage is likely to be easy, it should be a day for the pure sprinters. It’s a big shame that Mark Cavendish and Elia Viviani both fell ill on the eve of the race as we were set to have the best sprint field for year. Apart from Bryan Coquard whose team hasn’t been invited, all the top sprinters were set to do the race and even though we will be missing Cavendish and Viviani a lot, it is hard to ask for a better line-up. With all the big sprinters gearing up for the Worlds in Qatar, this is the big dress rehearsal.
Everybody will have their eyes on Marcel Kittel and André Greipel who are both vying for leadership of the German team and the two stars will be extremely motivated and fired up for this stage. On paper, they ae the fastest riders here and they both have two of the best trains. At the same time, it’s a power sprint that suits them down to the ground so the scene is set for a big battle between the two Germans titans.
We will put our money on Marcel Kittel. It is hard to deny that the German is the fastest rider in the world and this sprint is simply tailor-made for him. He has been in great form recently which he showed by making it over the Waseberg in Hamburg – a late puncture took him out of the sprint – and by winning the tough GP de Fourmies. Unfortunately, he fell ill during Kampioenschap van Vlaanderen last Friday which he had to abandon due to stomach problems, and it remains to be seen how he has recovered. However, nothing suggests that it was more than just a minor issue and he should be ready to go here.
Surprisingly, Etixx-QuickStep are here without most of their lead-out train and Kittel will have to rely on Tom Boonen and Matteo Trentin for the finale. That’s probably not enough to match Lotto Soudal but it should be enough to make sure that Kittel is close to the front. If he is not too far back, it should all be decided by the legs and in this kind of power sprint, Kittel is the best in the world. Hence, the German is our favourite.
The second fastest rider in the race is of course André Greipel. He may not have Kittel’s speed but he is not far off. At the same time, he has one big asset: his train. The team may have opted to leave Greg Henderson at home but Greipel can still count on Sieberg-Roelandts-Debusschere. That formation has proved to be the best in the world and the Belgian team is likely to dominate the finale.
However, we are not too sure about Greipel’s sprint. He wasn’t sprinting very well at the Tour, he failed in Hamburg and in the Tour of Britain he mainly worked for Debusschere. He still managed to win the first stage but in the final stage he didn’t look too good. He left a gap behind Debusschere in an attempt to give his teammate the win but still tried to do the sprint. He was in a good position but he simply didn’t have the speed to match Ewan and Groenewegen. It remains to be seen whether Greipel has his usual sprinting legs. However, even if he hasn’t, the excellent lead-out may be enough to win.
Nacer Bouhanni hopes to lead France in Qatar and so he hopes to do well here. After he missed the Tour due to injury, he has slowly been building form and his win in Hamburg – where he was later relegated – proved that he is sprinting really well. He was close to the win in both the Brussels Cycling Classic and in Fourmies as he finished on the podium in both races. He doesn’t seem to be climbing very well but his sprinting is great. He is supported by his strong lea-out train Lemoine-Soupe-Laporte and this should make sure that he will start his sprint in a good position. He is one of the fastest here and has the speed to challenge Greipel and Kittel.
Alexander Kristoff didn’t have his best Tour de France but towards the end of the race he seemed to find his best sprinting legs. He has carried that good form out of the race and has been absolutely flying in recent weeks. After a modest start, he showed his class when he won the sprint for third at the Bretagne Classic and he was brutally strong at the Tour des Fjords which he won overall. Surprisingly, the team hasn’t selected Jacopo Guarnieri but with Kuznetsov-Porsev-Haller-Mørkøv he still has one of the best trains. He likes this kind of power sprint so even though he is not as fast as the Germans, a good lead-out can set him up for the win.
The season has been pretty bad for Caleb Ewan but now he has finally found his best legs. After Bouhanni’s relegation, he was declared winner of the EuroEyes Cyclassics in Hamburg and he confirmed his form with some excellent sprinting performances at the Tour of Britain. Most notably he crushed the opposition in the sprint in London. Furthermore, his lead-out with Luka Mezgec worked very well in the British race and if they can repeat that performance here, Ewan has the speed to upset the biggest stars.
Dylan Groenewegen is the sprinting revelation of the 2016 season and he would love to win a stage on home soil here. At the Tour, he showed that he has the speed to match the best but the lead-out was still missing something. In Britain, the train worked much better and they dominated the stage that their Dutch sprinter won. Furthermore, Groenewegen showed that he is probably in the form of his life. The trains here are stronger but if they can continue their improvement, Groenewegen can definitely win at this level.
After his training crash, John Degenkolb has finally returned to his best level. It all started in the second half of the Tour de France where he suddenly started to mix it up in the sprints and since he returned to racing, he has been absolutely flying. If he hadn’t had two late mechanicals, he would probably have won all three sprints at the Arctic Race of Norway and he went on to take a beautiful second place at EuroEyes Cyclassis. In that sprint, he was even the fastest rider and it was only his position that denied him the win and he was close in Bretagne Classic too. Degenkolb’s big problem is his positioning as he is often caught out in the frantic finales and he doesn’t have the speed of the fastest riders in a flat sprint like this. However, his sprinting has been absolutely excellent in August and by beating Kristoff on a number of occasions, he seems to be better than he has been for some time. If he can for once start his sprint in a good position, he will be strong here.
Giacomo Nizzolo is one of the fastest riders here but he hasn’t been sprinting excellently since his mid-season break. He was unable the match the likes of Kristoff, Degenkolb and Van Poppel at the Arctic Race and he also came up short in Hamburg and Plouay. He is clearly climbing better than ever and his confidence is high after he won the Coppa Bernocchi. Furthermore, the Trek lead-out is solid. His good positioning makes him a guaranteed top 10 finisher but he doesn’t seem to have the speed to win.
Danny Van Poppel has finally returned to his best after his knee injury and he has been flying this August. After winning two stages in Burgos, he beat Kristoff and Degenkolb in the Arctic Race. However, he wasn’t at the same level when he got a rare chance at the Tour of Britain. With Viviani out of the race, he will be the protected Sky sprinter though and he is backed by one of the best trains. He is unlikely to win but with a good lead-out he can finish on the podium.
This year Peter Sagan has been sprinting better than ever but this easy sprint is not really one for him. He simply doesn’t have the speed to match the pure sprinters and he will probably do the sprint more with an eye on the bonus seconds than the win. He is the best when it comes to positioning so he will try to grab Greipel’s and Kittel’s wheel. If he manages to do so, he is very likely to finish in the top 3 but he is unlikely to win.
Finally, we will point to Arnaud Demare. The Frenchman has been in good form in the second half of the season and the FDJ train has been working really well. Unfortunately, he will be missing Mickael Delage here and that’s a huge setback as the FDJ leader always struggles when it comes to positioning. At the same time, he probably doesn’t have the speed to win a power sprint like this one. On the other hand, the improvement of his FDJ train may bring him closer to the front than usual so if he can for once start from a good position, the podium is within reach.
Wouter Wippert, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Sacha Modolo, Andrea Guardini, Jonas Van Genechten, Bert Van Lerberghe, Amaury Capiot, Raymond Kreder, Roy Jans, Daniel Oss and Gediminas Bagdonas are also likely to do the sprint but it will be a big surprise if they manage to win.
CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Marcel Kittel
Other winner candidates: André Greipel, Nacer Bouhanni
Outsiders: Alexander Kristoff, Caleb Ewan, Dylan Groenewegen, John Degenkolb
Jokers: Giacomo Nizzolo, Danny Van Poppel, Peter Sagan, Arnaud Demare
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