BMC and Rohan Dennis lived up to expectations in the team time trial and the Australian is now back in the lead with a comfortable 27-second advantage over Peter Sagan who is the biggest rival for the white jersey holder. The Slovakian will try to take back those seconds in the two hardest stages of the race and he will get his first chance in stage 6 which offers a tough run through the Ardennes. However, an easier course than usual will make it hard to make a big difference and a reduced bunch sprint could very well be the outcome.
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 some 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 has 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%.
Lanaken has not hosted the finish of a major bike race for more than a decade.
The riders have had great conditions for the first part of the race but it will reach a whole new level on Saturday which will be like a Belgian summer day. Bright sunshine and a temperature of 24 degrees will be on the menu.
There will only be a light wind from a southerly direction which means that the riders will have a headwind in the first part of the final big circuit and a tailwind in the second part. In the final 3km, it will mainly be a cross-headwind which will also be the case on the finishing straight.
BMC fully lived up to their status as the overwhelming favourite and with Rohan Dennis in the leader’s jersey ahead of the final weekend, things are just as we expected them to be when the race started five days ago. However, the team time trial still delivered a few surprises and even though the best four teams were already known beforehand, their order was not a given thing.
The biggest surprise was the fact that Etixx-QuickStep were so close to BMC. The Belgians had lost Tom Boonen and were only seven riders at the start. At the same time, all of their specialists had done a pretty poor time trial in stage 2. Nonetheless, the winning margin was very small and they must be left wondering what would have happened if Boonen had been there. Tony Martin must be ruing his poor time trial a lot as he would have had a real shot at the overall win if he had been at his usual level in Tuesday’s race.
Secondly, Movistar did much worse than expected and it will now be very difficult for Ion Izagirre to finish on the podium. The Spaniards have to ride very aggressively in the next few stages but they don’t have much experience in this terrain. More importantly, it’s a bad omen for the World Championships even though the addition of Jonathan Castroviejo will be a significant reinforcement.
On paper, the big loser is of course Peter Sagan who slipped to fourth. However, Tinkoff were always going to lose a lot of time and they did more or less as expected. In fact, Sagan’s two surprise stage wins in the flat stage still mean that he is in a much better position than he could have expected at this point of the race.
Sagan now has 27 seconds to make up on Dennis and as he won’t drop the in-form Australian, he has to rely on bonus seconds. Two stage wins won’t be enough and even though there may be some small splits on the Muur on stage 7, we doubt that he will gain 7 seconds there. Hence, Sagan has to focus on the Golden Kilometre in the next two stages and that sets the scene for a very interesting race.
Dennis can’t do much against Sagan in a sprint so he only has to follow and limit his losses on the Muur. The key rider for the Australian will be Greg Van Avermaet who has to stay glued to Sagan’s wheel in the next two stages and try to beat the Slovakian in every single sprint. He will be pleased with the fact that the Golden Kilometre comes on a climb on both days as it gives him a much better chance to challenge Sagan in the battle for the crucial seconds.
However, it’s not a two-horse battle yet. Apart from BMC and Tinkoff, no one can win the race by just trying to follow wheels so the scene is set for a very aggressive race in the next two stages. In stage 4, we already had strong attacks from GC contenders like Martin, Tom Dumoulin and Andriy Grivko. Almost every single team will try to blow the race to pieces and so Tinkoff and BMC can suddenly become allies. Especially, Etixx-QuickStep have numerous cards to play and we can expect Martin, Bob Jungels and Niki Terpstra to attack on almost every single climb.
Tomorrow is the first chance to change the script. It’s the classic Ardennes stage but it is much easier than it has been in the last few years. There will be very little chance for Tim Wellens to repeat what he has done in the last two years as this is a stage that the sprinters may even be eyeing. That’s a pleasant fact for BMC and Tinkoff as they may get some welcome help in their attempt to control things.
Unlike in the first stages, we can expect a very fast start with numerous attacks and it will take time for the early break to be formed. BMC hope that the group will be made up of riders that are a far behind on GC as they would love the break to make it. However, almost everyone is pretty close to the overall lead so they have to keep the break at a relatively tight leash. As Tinkoff will be going all out to bring it back, the early break will have very little chance.
We expect BMC and Tinkoff to control the stage, with the latter team doing most of the work as they want things to be back together for the Golden Kilometre. It could be a good stage for riders like Michael Matthews and John Degenkolb so they may get some help from Orica-BikeExchange and Giant-Alpecin.
As soon as we get to the hilly zone with 62km to go, we expect hell to break loose and from there it will probably be a festival of attack. It will be very difficult for BMC and Tinkoff to control things and especially the Russian team will be under pressure as it will be very hard to keep things together for the Golden Kilometre. They don’t have the best team for this kind of tough stage so we doubt that they will be good enough to secure bonus seconds for Sagan.
BMC hope for a small group of non-dangerous riders to make it and it is definitely not impossible that attackers can make. Even riders who are in GC contention have a solid chance. As said, Tinkoff don’t have the best team and BMC looked surprisingly poor in stage 4. They don’t have many climbers here so Dennis and Van Avermaet could be pretty isolated in the finale.
Nonetheless, we will still put our money on a reduced sprint. This stage must be a big goal for Michael Matthews so we expect Orica-BikeExchange to go all out for a sprint. If Dumoulin is not on the attack, Giant-Alpecin will probably go for Degenkolb. Furthermore, riders like Alexander Kristoff, Giacomo Nizzolo and André Greipel may survive the climbs and if they can do so, they will be going for a sprint too. Hence, there will be a decent amount of firepower to try to control the stage and so a sprint is the most likely outcome.
If that’s the case, Peter Sagan will be the clear favourite. The Slovakian has won two flat sprints which indicates just how well he is sprinting at the moment. He will be much more comfortable in this kind of uphill finale and in general he is the best in the world in this kind of sprint. Furthermore, it all comes at the end of a very hard stage and this will make things even better for Sagan as he is much stronger in this terrain than his fellow sprinters.
The big question is his level of freshness as he will have to spend a lot of energy if things are still together at the Golden Kilometre. Riders like Michael Matthews and John Degenkolb can stay calm there and Sagan may be a bit too tired in the end. On the other hand, he has proved that he has an excellent ability to recover from such sprints and he is usually able to do several sprints in a single race. He is unlikely to have much support in the finale but that’s not a problem as he rarely has any lead-out. An in-form Peter Sagan is the obvious favourite for this stage.
In our opinion, his biggest rival is John Degenkolb. The German is an outstanding climber and he has overcome much harder challenges in the past. He hasn’t had the chance to prove his climbing skills much since he returned from his training crash but the way that he has been sprinting since the Tour de France indicates that he is very close to his former level. He should have no trouble even on tough Ardennes climbs like this. Furthermore, he loves uphill sprints where it is all about the legs. His positioning skills are poor but they will be less important in a tough race like this. He prefers a sprint after a hard race and that’ what he will get tomorrow. If he is sprinting like he did in Norway, he will be very strong.
The climbs could very well be too hard for Alexander Kristoff and if the race is really aggressive, he will probably be dropped. However, the Tour des Fjords showed that he is climbing really well at the moment and it’s definitely not impossible that he can make it. If he does, he will be a strong contender in an uphill sprint that suits him really well. Furthermore, he will benefit from a tough race. Unlike most others, he doesn’t seem to lose any speed if the going gets tough so if he is there at the finish, he should do a very good sprint.
The stage seems to be tailor-made for Michael Matthews who is one of the best climbers among the sprinters and very strong in an uphill sprint. He usually doesn’t have the speed to beat riders like Sagan and Degenkolb in a flat sprint but in this kind of finale, he definitely has a shot. He will be fresher than most at the finish and unlike Sagan, he won’t be bothered by the Golden Kilometre. That could give him the edge to beat Sagan like he did in a sprint at this year’s Tour de France.
Giacomo Nizzolo has improved his climbing a lot. He survived in a very hard stage of the Giro d’Italia, he won the Italian Championships on a very hard course and last year he followed Nibali on the climbs at Tre Valli Varesine. That makes him a strong contender for a tough stage like this. There are still no guarantees that he will be able to survive, especially as we are not totally convinced that he has reached peak condition. If he makes it, he will be one of the fastest and he has the speed to beat everyone in this race.
André Greipel is a solid climber but this stage is on the limit for the big German. However, he did a very good time trial and seemed to be at ease on the climbs in stage 4. With the form he has, it is definitely not impossible that he will be able to make it and if he is there in the finale, he should be the fastest. However, the finale may be a bit too steep for him to compete with the lighter guys even though he loves uphill sprints.
On paper, it’s a good stage for Nacer Bouhanni as he is a very good climber. However, while he has been sprinting very well recently, he has been riding poorly on the climbs. With the Worlds being held on a flat course in Qatar, he seems to have been more focused on his sprinting. We doubt that he will survive but if he is there at the finish, he should be one of the fastest.
This stage should be too hard for Marcel Kittel and this will open the door for Matteo Trentin. The Italian has won reduced bunch sprints at the Tour de France and the Tour de Suisse and has proved that he can beat Sagan at the end of a hard race. Trentin has shown great form recently so it’s definitely not impossible that he can beat the faster guys here.
Arnaud Demare finds himself in a different situation than Bouhanni. While he has been sprinting poorly, he has been climbing excellently since July. We won’t be surprised if he makes it to the finish with the best here. Usually, there are faster riders like him but he prefers uphill sprints. With the way he has been riding, he should benefit from a hard race.
Greg Van Avermaet is one of the best in the world in a uphill sprint but this finish is probably not steep enough for him to beat the sprinters. Furthermore, he will have to go for the intermediate sprints to protect teammate Dennis and he may not be fresh enough in the finale. Nonetheless, he has proved that he can beat Sagan in a sprint after a hard race so you can never rule him out.
If the race is too tough for Nizzolo, Trek can play the Fabio Felline and Jasper Stuyven cards. Both are in great form and climb better than their Italian teammate. However, they are unlikely to beat the real sprinters in a sprint so their best chance is to go on the attack. The same goes for Edvald Boasson Hagen who is not fast enough to win a sprint but has a good chance to make a winning attack in the finale.
We are very curious to see how Dylan Groenewegen handles this stage. Usually, it should be way too hard for him but he was climbing excellent in the Tour of Britain and today he was up there in the finale of a very tough team time trial. He seems to have become a lot stronger and so we won’t be surprised if he makes it to the finish with the best. The question is whether he will be fresh enough to win the sprint.
As said, a strong attack can make it in this stage. Look out for riders like Felline, Boasson Hagen, Tom Dumoulin, Zdenek Stybar, Tony Martin, Niki Terpstra, Stuyven, Dylan Van Baarle, Oliver Naesen and Ion Izagirre to animate the finale.
CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Peter Sagan
Other winner candidates: John Degenkolb, Alexander Kristoff
Outsiders: Michael Matthews, Giacomo Nizzolo, André Greipel, Danny Van Poppel, Nacer Bouhanni, Matteo Trentin, Arnaud Demare
Jokers: Fabio Felline (sprint or attack), Edvald Boasson Hagen (sprint or attack), Dylan Groenewegen (sprint), Tom Dumoulin (attack), Zdenek Stybar (attack), Tony Martin (attack), Niki Terpstra (attack), Jasper Stuyven (sprint or attack), Dylan Van Baarle (attack), Oliver Naesen (attack), Ion Izagirre (attack)
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