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Will Marcel Kittel finally get that elusive win in the mini Brabantse Pijl?

Photo: Sirotti

ENECO TOUR

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21.09.2016 @ 17:57 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Peter Sagan proved that he is the king of chaos and benefited from the messy conditions to take a surprise win in stage 3, moving closer to the overall lead. He now hopes to take the leader’s jersey as the peloton finally moves into some harder terrain in what will be like a mini Brabantse Pijl. However, the late climbs near Brussels are unlikely to be much of a challenge for the pure sprinters who hope to get one final chance to go for glory before they head into survival mode in the final three stages.

 

The course

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 800m of 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.

 

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

 

 

 

 

The weather

The Eneco Tour has the rumour of being a race for classics riders but this year the hardmen have to do without the tough conditions that characterize the spring. Even though Thursday will be a bit cloudier than Wednesday, it will still be a nice day with a maximum temperature of 22 degrees.

 

There will only be a light wind from a southwesterly direction. This means that the riders will have a crosswind from the right almost all day. On the circuit, it will also mainly be a crosswind but it will be a headwind for the final 3km.

 

The favourites

Peter Sagan is simply impressive! For once, he seemed to be out of position when the sprint was launched but in a miraculous way, the Slovakian still managed to find his way to the front in time to take a comfortable win. It has always been evident that the Eneco Tour is tailor-made for the Slovakian and it is a bit of a mystery why he has never done the race before. The many classics stages are made for him and even though he is usually not fast enough to win the real bunch sprints, the chaotic nature of the finales mean that he can beat the faster guys here. That’s what he did in stage 1 where only Groenewegen and Bouhanni were faster and today he came out on top in a stage that should usually have been too fast for him.

 

The big talking point of stage 3 was why the sprint teams again timed their chase so badly. In stage 1, they had everything under control but when they suddenly slowed down, the breakaway suddenly had a chance. Today it was the exact same scenario and if the break had been working just slightly more together in the final kilometre, they would have left it too late. It seems that most of the sprint teams are willing to commit one rider to the chase but with the high level of the field here, they know that they need almost a full team for the lead-out. Hence, they are all reluctant to add more firepower when the early workers have blown up and they don’t want to launch their trains too early. That creates confusion in the finale when the peloton suddenly slow down inside the final 20km while the sprint trains wait until the final moment to launch the action.

 

Today’s stage must be an inspiration for many riders. The final three road stages were always going to be a lot more aggressive but with today’s stage fresh in mind, they will be even more eager to try to shake things up the next few days. That sets the scene for some exciting racing and it is not evident who’s going to take control and bring things back together on stages that are a bit lumpier and less suited to the pure sprinters.

 

Things could already get exciting in tomorrow’s fourth stage which offers the first classics elements. 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. On paper, they should do very little to challenge the fast guys and so most will be confident that they can get another chance to sprint for the win. Furthermore, this is probably the final chance for many of them and as most of them are empty-handed, they should give it a shot, especially as the nice conditions will make the stage pretty easy. The cobblestone sections also come too far from the finish to play a major role.

 

Nonetheless, we should have a more animated start and we can expect the break to be established a bit later than in the last few days. However, the sprint teams will make sure that the group is not too strong or too big and usually they should have little chance. The time gaps are small so BMC have to keep them on a tight leash and then we can expect Etixx-QuickStep, Cofidis, Lotto Soudal, LottoNL-Jumbo and maybe Orica-BikeExchange and Tinkoff to lead the chase. Some of them may be a bit more reluctant than they have been until now as the stage is harder but as this is their final chance, we will be surprised if they don’t commit a few guys.

 

After today’s late catch, we expect the peloton to take fewer chances. At the same time, the finishing circuit has some obstacles and this will make the fight for position more intense much earlier. That should be enough to bring the break back.

 

Interestingly, the Golden Kilometre comes very close to the finish at the top of the Bruine Put climb. This makes it likely that there will be bonus seconds up for grabs for the GC riders. We have little doubt that riders like Greg Van Avermaet, Geraint Thomas, Lars Boom, Michael Matthews and maybe Tom Dumoulin will go for them but it puts Peter Sagan in a difficult position. Does he want to go for the seconds in what are some tough sprints or does he focus fully on the finale. At the same, there is no doubt that we will see attacks on the two climbs in the finale. Last year, a similar stage created more damage than expected but with several motivated sprint teams, it will be very hard to make a difference. At the same time, a rider like Van Avermaet who would be an obvious candidate for a late attack, may prefer to save energy for the TTT which is a much better chance to gain time.

 

In the end, it should all come down to a bunch sprint and like in stage 1, it is a real power sprint without any major technical complications. The difference is the slightly uphill finishing straight but the profile looks more dramatic than it is. In reality, the riders only gain around 30m of altitude in 3km so the average gradient is just 1% before it levels out in the final kilometre. Hence, it shouldn’t make much of a difference.

 

In the first two stages, we have pointed to Marcel Kittel as our favourite but until now the big German has not had much success. Nonetheless, we will again point to the big German. His time trial indicates that his form is very good and today he also showed his strength by getting to the front in the hectic finale. In fact he was in the perfect position to launch his sprint but he hesitated a bit too much and then he was boxed in by the early escapees. If he had started his sprint when Van Poppel went, he is very likely to have won the stage.

 

Usually, Kittel doesn’t benefit from the harder terrain but with the form he has, it may actually be an advantage. It will make the sprint finish less hectic and so it will more be a question of speed. That suits Kittel perfectly as he is clearly the fastest rider in the world. Furthermore, he has proved that he is strong in uphill sprints – just remember the stage he won in the Tour de France – and today his train worked a lot better as it was Tom Boonen who brought him to the front and closed the gap to the escapees. His positioning has been solid in the first two sprints but he has hesitated a bit too much. If he can finally find a gap, there is little doubt that he should be able to win here.

 

The other big German sprinter André Greipel has also had little success as the Lotto Soudal train has worked surprisingly poorly. However, he should benefit from this harder stage as he is a much stronger guy than many of the sprinters. Furthermore, this kind of power sprint on a 1% gradient is what he really prefers and he could probably not have designed a better finale. Finally, his lead-out riders are stronger in tough terrain than many of the others trains and so there is a better chance that they can time things better. As said many times, the team should be the strongest here so on paper Greipel has a big advantage. If they can stay together and deliver Greipel on the front, this is the kind of sprint where he is hard to beat.

 

Nacer Bouhanni has been the most consistent sprinter in this race and he has again proved that he is one of the best when it comes to positioning. His train has not had the power to match the best lead-outs but he has still been able to stay close to the front. At the same time, he has confirmed what he already showed in the build-up to the race: that he is sprinting very well at the moment. He prefers more technical finales but he likes uphill sprints and he should also find the tougher finale to his liking. His lead-out doesn’t have the strength to dominate the finale but if he can pick the right wheel, Bouhanni is one of the fastest in a sprint like this.

 

Usually, we would not give Peter Sagan many chances in a sprint like this even though the stage is a bit harder. However, today’s stage proved that the Slovakian can benefit from the chaotic nature to beat the faster guys and it is not impossible that he can do so again. Tomorrow’s harder stage suits him even better and the uphill sprint provides him with better chances too. He is the best when it comes to positioning so he is an almost guaranteed top 3 bet. If the fastest riders are again boxed in, Sagan will be able to make it two in a row and comfortably ride himself into the white jersey.

 

In stage 1, the Katusha train was the best. Today the Russian team was again on the front but they lost control in the finale where they got split up. That cost Alexander Kristoff a good position and he was never really able to sprint. However, his train has proved its strength and Kristoff has been in great condition recently. The harder finale and the uphill sprint is a clear advantage for him and he could probably not have designed a better finishing straight. If Katusha can do a lead-out like they did on stage 1, this is the kind of sprint that Kristoff can win.

 

Dylan Groenewegen may be known as a pure sprinter but he is actually a pretty strong guy. After all, his first big win came at the Brussels Cycling Classic which has a tough uphill sprint and in the Tour of Britain he climbed excellently. Hence, the tougher finale should be no problem for his and his confidence is high after his win on stage 1. Today he again showed that he has improved his positioning a lot and if LottoNL-Jumbo had not been forced to chase hard to catch the break, he would have had an even better chance. Groenewegen has proved that he can beat the best and in an uphill sprint he may have an even better chance.

 

Today Danny Van Poppel again proved that he is pretty good when it comes to positioning. The Dutchman was in a great spot when the sprint was launched and if it hadn’t been for Sagan’s fast finish, he would have won the stage. On paper, Sky have one of the best lead-outs and they will be even stronger in a finale like this. The same goes for Van Poppel who prefers uphill sprints and he has proved that he can beat almost everyone. If Sky can do like they did today, a confident Van Poppel will have a chance

 

Giacomo Nizzolo is another sprinter who prefers harder finales. Unfortunately, he also prefers things to be more technical and this finale may be a bit too straightforward for him. On the other hand, the uphill finishing straight suits him well and like Sagan and Bouhanni, he likes the chaotic nature as he is good at positioning. Unfortunately, he has been a bit isolated in the finales so Trek have to do better if Nizzolo is to win the stage.

 

Caleb Ewan is not a bad climber but since he turned pro he has had a harder time in the tougher stages. Hence, the harder nature of the stage is unlikely to be an advantage for the Australian. On the other hand, he likes an uphill sprint – just remember how he beat Sagan and Degenkolb in a much harder finale at last year’s Vuelta – so if he is still fresh and in a good position when the sprint is launched, he can win the stage. On paper, he remains one of the fastest guys here and in Britain he proved that his form is great. If the team can do a good lead-out, Ewan has the speed to win.

 

Finally, we will point to John Degenkolb. Until now, the stages have been a bit too easy for the strong German so he should find this one more to his liking. An uphill power sprint is what he really likes and the straightforward nature of the finale is also an advantage for him as he is not good at positioning. Until now, the Giant train hasn’t worked well and there is again a big chance that Degenkolb will finish outside the top 10. However, there is little doubt that Degenkolb is one of the fastest in a finish like this.

 

CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Marcel Kittel

Other winner candidates: André Greipel, Nacer Bouhanni

Outsiders: Peter Sagan, Alexander Kristoff, Dylan Groenewegen

Jokers: Danny Van Poppel, Giacomo Nizzolo, Caleb Ewan, John Degenkolb

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