The months of August and September are loaded with typical Belgian one-day races that suit a mix of sprinters and classics riders and after a short break following the Brussels Cycling Classic, things intensify this week as there will be races on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. First up is one of the most prestigious races in the series, the GP de Wallonie, whose iconic finish on the climb to the Citadel in Namur makes it a unique event that distinguishes itself from the other semi-classics and whose position on the calendar has often turned it into one of the most important preparation races for the World Championships.
While the spring offers a mix of stage and one-day races and the first part of the summer is all about stage racing, the second half of the year is for the one-day riders. After the Tour de France, the Vuelta a Espana is the only big race for the grand tour and stage race specialists while the late summer and the autumn are loaded with lots of one-day races throughout Europe. The highlight is Il Lombardia and Clasica San Sebastian, Vattenfall Cyclassics, GP Plouay and the Canadian races also offer important WorldTour points. The list also includes historic races like Paris-Tours, Giro dell’Emilia, Tre Valli Varesine and Milan-Turin and the calendar offers a wide variety of terrain for sprinters, classics specialists and even climbers.
In addition to the bigger races, there are a number of smaller races. Traditionally, the two key countries for one-day racing, Belgium and Italy, have both had a rich calendar of small semi-classics but nowadays most of the Italian events have disappeared. Things are different in Belgium where the economic crisis hasn’t hit as hard and most of the fascinating list of typical Belgian races is intact.
The series of semi-classics started earlier than usual with the return of the Dwars door Het Hageland in the first week of August and intensified with four races in a week in the second half of August. It culminated in early September at the Brussels Cycling Classic, the biggest event in the series, and after a small break, it continues with a busy week with three races in just four days. First up is Wednesday’s GP de Wallonie, on Friday the sprinters will get their chance in the Kampioenschap van Vlaanderen and it all ends on Saturday at the Primus Classic Impanis-Van Petegem.
The block comes at a perfect time for riders that are preparing for the World Championships. Traditionally they are held less than two weeks before the World Championships road race and for riders that come from Canada or the Tour of Britain, they are a perfect chance to fine-tune the condition. This year things are of course a bit different due to the new dates for the World Championships and so they play a different role. This year they will be a chance for riders to prove their form for their national coaches who still considering what kind of line-up to select for the races in Qatar.
The most prestigious of the races is definitely the GP de Wallonie which is markedly different from the other autumn classics in Belgian. While the other races are held in the relatively flat region of Flanders and so suits the cobbles specialists and the sprinters, GP de Wallonie is held in Wallonia. Furthermore, it has one of the most iconic finishes in Belgium as it finishes on the small climb to the famous Citadel in Namur and so it is a race for Ardennes specialists and puncheurs.
Like most other Belgian one-day races, it is relatively old race that was first held in 1935. However, it had a tumultuous start as it was cancelled several times but it rose to fame in 1950 when – under the name Liege-Corcelles – it was part of the Ardennes cycling week alongside Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. However, it soon disappeared from the calendar and it only returned in 1970. Since then it has been held every year and it has been won by several cycling starts like Felice Gimondi, Hennie Kuiper, Stephen Roche, Claude Criquelion, Luc Leblanc, Franco Ballerini, Philippe Gilbert and Greg Van Avermaet. Since the current system was introduced, it has been a 1.1 race on the UCI Europe Tour.
As said, the race has traditional been the final big test before the Worlds for many riders but this year things are different. The course is markedly different from the route in Qatar and furthermore it comes at a different time compared to the battle for the rainbow jersey. Instead, it plays a new role as the perfect final test for Sunday’s European Championships which finishes on a climb in Plumelec that is very similar to the one that will decide the GP de Wallonie.
The iconic finish means that it’s a race for puncheurs which is reflected in the fact that recent winners include Philippe Gilbert, Greg Van Avermaet, Jan Bakelants and Julien Simon. Last year Jens Debusschere defied expectations by winning a race that many regarded as being too hard for the Belgian sprinter.
The 56th edition of the GP de Wallonie will be held on a pretty traditional 205.5km course that will bring the riders from Beaufays on the outskirts to the Citadel in Namur. After a flat start, they will head into the Ardennes to tackle the early climbs of Cote de Saint-Hubet, Cote de Saint-Remacle and Cote de Werbomont after 31.3km, 44.8km and 59.1km respectively. The middle section of the race is pretty flat but things get much harder in the finale where three climbs in the final 50km precede the final ascent to the citadel. First up is the Cote d’Emeton with 43.8km to go, then it is time for the Cote de Lustin 26.2km from the finish and the penultimate challenge is the Tienne aux Pierres with 18.4km to go. Finally, the riders will tackle the final 2km climb that averages 4.8%. It’s a spectacular ascent with a few hairpin bends and a very technical finale with a U-turn and sharp corner inside the final 100.
History shows that the GP de Wallonie is usually decided by select group on the final climb to the Citadel. The finale is tough with numerous climbs and this always makes the race very aggressive. In most editions, a small group of the best climbers go clear in this section and then decide it on the final ramp. The finale is so tough that the race is easier to predict than most other Belgian one-day races as it’s a finale for specialists where only the strongest riders will emerge. Last year the elite group that decided the race was made up of Jens Debusschere, Helle Vanendert, Jan Bakelants, Christophe Laporte, Rudy Molard, Gaetan Bille, Franck Bonnamour, Arthur Vichot and Thibaut Pinot.
However, the finale can still create some surprises. Mostly, the race has been won by puncheurs and Ardennes specialists and usually there is little room for the sprinters. Nonetheless, Jens Debusschere took a surprise win in last year’s race which is a clear indication that the final climb is not that hard. Furthermore, last year’s race was held in bad weather which favoured a strongman like Debusschere compared to the tiny climbers.
Currently, it’s hard to understand that it’s September as most of Europe is enjoying summerlike conditions. That’s also the case in Belgium where a temperature of more than 30 degrees, bright sunshine and little wind is forecasted for Wednesday. The heat will play a role but in general the nice conditions mean that we will probably have a less selective race.
This year the line-up is not quite as strong as it has been in recent years, probably due to the new dates of the Eneco Tour and the Worlds. Hence, there are only four WorldTour teams at the start, Etixx-QuickStep, Lotto Soudal, Ag2r and FDJ. Lotto Soudal have by far the strongest team as they go into the race with all their four Ardennes specialists, Tiesj Benoot, Tony Gallopin, Jelle Vanendert and Tim Wellens, who are all capable of winning the race. They have the firepower to create an initial selection and will probably try to make the race as hard as possible. If a small group emerges in the finale, they are likely to have strength in numbers and if they take turns attacking, it may not come down to a sprint on the climb. The tactics clearly favour Lotto Soudal that have the means to take a solo win or win an uphill sprint.
Currently, the in-form rider in the team is Tony Gallopin. The Frenchman had a disappointing Tour de France but bounced back with a fantastic performance in Clasica San Sebastian where he finished second behind Bauke Mollema. After a small break, he showed that he is back on form with an excellent fourth place in the Tour of Britain. On the climbs, only Wout Poels, Rohan Dennis and Tom Dumoulin seemed to be stronger than him and he ended the race by doing one of the best time trials of his life.
Gallopin’s big goal is the European Championships and he will be keen to prove that he deserves leadership by winning this race. The finish suits him down to the ground as he excels in uphill sprints like this one. Furthermore, he has a very strong team at his side which should be able to set him up well. As said, he may also use the strength of the team to go on the attack and so he can win from multiple scenarios. The in-form Gallopin is our favourite to win the race.
Etixx-QuickStep will be led by Petr Vakoc who seems to have benefited greatly from surviving his first Tour de France. The Czech had a strong spring season but he seemed to miss a bit in the WorldTour races. That wasn’t the case in Canada last week where he finished in the top 10 in Quebec and emerged as one of the strongest in Montreal until a late crash took him out of contention at a time when he is likely to have finished in the top 5. It remains to be seen how he has recovered from the jetlag but history shows that it’s possible to be competitive in Wallonie just three days after the race in Montreal. The finale is tailor-made for him as he is strong in an uphill sprint – just remember how he won Brabantse Pijl. He is up against a strong team from Lotto Soudal but he is strong enough to surprise his rivals.
Jan Bakelants is a former winner of this race and he is always one of the best in this race. He goes into the race on the back of a very solid final part of the Vuelta. After a bad summer, he finally found his best form in the third week where he emerged as one of the strongest riders. He has proved that he can win a sprint on this climb and even though Gallopin and Vakoc are a bit faster, he is not without a chance. The main question is whether he has recovered enough from the Vuelta.
The second best Lotto Soudal card is Tiesj Benoot. The Belgian was flying in Poland but later he was set back by food poisoning. Hence, he is not in his best form but he was still at a competitive level in the Canadian races where he finished in the top 15 in both Quebec and Montreal. He would have preferred bad weather but on paper this is a race that suits him well as he is good on short climbs and fast in an uphill sprint. He may have to work for Gallopin in a sprint finish but if he gets his chance, he is fast enough to win. Furthermore, he can use the tactical situation to go on the attack.
We are very curious to see how Fernando Gaviria handles this race. It’s his first race since the Olympics so his form is a bit of a question mark. However, he is gearing up for the Worlds so he shouldn’t be too bad and he always seems to be in decent shape. He may be known as a sprinter but he actually climbs extremely well and on paper he should be better than Debusschere in a finish like this. When the Belgian can win here, Gaviria can do so too.
Wanty have a formidable team with multiple options. Their best card is stagiaire Xandro Meurisse who is back in Belgium after his great Tour of Britain where he finished fifth in the queen stage and seventh overall and won the mountains jersey. He likes this kind of terrain and clearly has the form to match the best climbers here. His win in the Dunkirk queen stage proves that he has a decent punch in a finale like this so even though it will be hard to beat riders like Gallopin and Vakoc, it won’t be impossible.
On paper, Tim Wellens is one of the strongest riders here but the Belgian is far from his best form. He rode terribly in Rio and his performances in Plouay and Canada do nothing to indicate that he is getting better. We doubt that he has the form to beat the best on the final climb but he may benefit from the team tactics. As part of the strong Lotto Soudal team, he may go on the attack in the finale and then he will be hard to catch.
Baptiste Planckaert is enjoying a bit of a breakthrough season and seems to finish in the top 10 almost in every race he does. He has proved that he is far more than a sprinter and that he climbs excellently too. Last Sunday he was second in the Tour du Doubs which we had expected to be a bit too hard for him. He is pretty similar to Debusschere so when the Lotto Soudal sprinter can win here, the in-form Planckaert can do so too.
Last year Christophe Laporte finished on the podium in this race which is no big surprise as it’s a finish that suits him really well. He excels in uphill sprints and he has proved that the final climb is not too hard for him. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to have the form he has in 2015. Nicolas Edet is the second Cofidis option as he showed good form in Tour du Doubs and has a decent uphill sprint.
Meurisse is the best card for Wanty but they also have Dimitri Claeys and Guillaume Martin. The latter is climbing excellent at the moment but may not be explosive enough to win here. The former showed his great form in August and he should find the finale to his liking as he is fast on the line and strong in lumpy terrain.
On paper, the finale is perfectly suited to Jonathan Hivert as he is an excellent puncheur. He has had a nightmare season but recently there have been signs of improvement. He rode solidly in the Tour du Doubs so he is at a competitive level even though it’s probably not enough to win.
Jelle Vanendert is the fourth Lotto Soudal card. The Belgian was one of the best in last year’s race but may have to work for his faster teammates. However, team tactics may give him the chance to attack and if that’s the case, he is strong enough to claim a solo win.
We are curious to see what Etixx-QuickStep stagiaire Adrien Costa can do in what is a real breakthrough season. His second place in the Tour of Utah proves that he can climb with the best. However, he crashed out of the Tour of Britain and probably has to work for Vakoc.
Finally, we will point to Larry Warbasse and Huub Duijn. The former is coming out of a solid Vuelta where he showed that he climbs well at the moment. He is strong short climbs but he is probably not fast enough to win. Duijn is part of a strong Roompot team that is likely to have cards to play in the finale. Pieter Weening is their best climber but Duijn is probably the best option as he is faster in a sprint. He showed his good form when he finished second in the tough Druivenkoers Overijse.
***** Tony Gallopin
**** Petr Vakoc, Jan Bakelants
*** Tiesj Benoot, Fernando Gaviria, Xandro Meurisse, Tim Wellens, Baptiste Planckaert
** Christophe Laporte, Nicolas Edet, Dimitri Claeys, Guillaume Martin, Jonathan Hivert, Jelle Vanendert, Adrien Costa, Larry Warbasse, Huub Duijn
* Gaetan Bille, Thomas Sprengers, Jerome Baugnies, Pieter Weening, Stefan Denifl, Christian Mager, Floris De Tier, Laurent Pichon, Domenico Pozzovivo, Hubert Dupont, Sebastien Reichenbach, Maxime Vantomme, Oliver Zaugg, Nick van der Lijke, Rasmus Guldhammer
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