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 Dwars door Het Hageland kicked the series off, things intensifies this week as there will be races on Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday. First up is the hilly GP Jef Scherens – Rondom Leuven which is a typical Belgian semi-classic that has been won in both bunch sprints and by strong attackers.
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 but now is the time when the hectic period really starts. During the next eight days, no less than four Belgian one-day races will be held and they are all pretty similar, suiting a mixing of sprinters and classics riders.
First up is the GP Jef Scheren – Rondom Leuven which has been moved from its usual spot in early September and like last year will be held already in the final week of August. First held in 1963, it is a relatively old race which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2016 and it’s teastament to its importance that it has been won by big riders like Freddy Maertens, Walter Planckaert, Adrie van der Poel, Thor Hushovd, Lars Boom and André Greipel. Since the current system was introduced in 2005, it has been a 1.1 race on the UCI calendar and this year it has been included in the new Napoleon Games Cycling Cup which is a series of 10 of these typical 1.1 races. The first four events were held in March and June and Dwars door Het Hageland kicked off the second half of the season for the series which is set to reward the most consistent ride in these small Belgian semi-classics. Niki Terpstra is the current leader.
GP Jef Scherens is a typical Belgian semi-classic and attracts the same teams as these races usually do. The Belgian Etixx-QuickStep and Lott Soudal will be the only WorldTour teams in attendance and they will be joined by a mix of international pro continental teams and continental teams that mainly come from Belgium and the Netherlands. The terrain is also very typical for this kind of race as it is held on a lumpy circuit with typical Belgian hellingen and so it can both come down to a bunch sprint or be won by strong classics riders. Compared to many other similar races, the chances of a bunch sprint are usually a bit smaller and most of the recent editions have been won by attackers. Since 20104, only two editions have been decided in reduced bunch sprints. Most of the time, a small group has battled it out for the victory, arriving with an advantage of less a minute.
Last year a 6-rider group emerged and it was Bjorn Leukemans who made a late attack to claim a solo win. Dimitri Claeys and Mark McNally rounded out the podium 7 seconds later, with Wout van Aert, Marco Marcato and Gaetan Bille completing the top 6. The peloton lost 1.06.
The 50h edition of the race will be held on the well-known 12.9km circuit in Leuven which will be covered 13 times for an overall distance of 185.7. It includes four small climbs. The first one comes right from the start and averages 6.5% over 390m. After 5.1km of racing, the riders will hit a 1200m ascent of 3% and then there is a 350m climb at 9% which starts at the 6.8km mark. The final challenge is an easier climg of 415 at 3 which starts just 2.6km from the finish. Then a flat section leads to a descent which starts just after the flamme rouge. The final 600m are flat. There aren’t any major technical challenges in the finale as the riders will follow a lightly bending road for several kilometres. However, there is a sharp turn less than 500m from the line.
History shows that the GP Jef Scherens is usually won by an attacker and it takes a very strong team to control the race. In recent years, only the 2014 edition ended in a bunch sprint and back then it was a strong Lotto Soudal team riding for André Greipel that controlled things. This year there aren’t many teams that want a sprint finish so it should be another edition for the punchuers, strong sprinters and classics riders that can attack in the finale. Things will be made even harder by the fact that it will be rainy and very windy so the scene is set for a very hard race where only the strongest will shine.
One of them is Baptiste Planckaert. The Belgian has had a bit of a breakthrough season, winning numerous races throughout the year. Recently he won the hard final stage of the Czech Cycling Tour and the tough uphill sprint at La Polynormande. In races like Tro Bro Leon, the Belgium Tour and Omloop Het Hageland, he has shown that he is more than a sprinter and that he is one of the best in hard terrain.
Planckaert will be one of the two big favourites for a sprint alongside Timothy Dupont. However, his team is not strong enough to control the race so he will probably try to attack. He is strong enough to follow the best and he will be very hard to beat in a sprint from a breakaway. If he can have Olivier Pardini at his side in such a breakaway, he will have a strong rider to control things and so he is our favourite to win. Pardini is a solid back-up plan as he climbs well and is fast in a sprint.
Veranda’s Willems are here with Timothy Dopint who won three stages at the recent Tour Alsace and the Antwerpse Havepijl. He is very similar to Planckaert. Those two riders are the fastest in a sprint after a hard race but they have also shown that they are good enough to follow the best on the climbs. Dupont may be a bit isolated if he joins the right group in the finale but if it comes down to a sprint from a breakaway, he is maybe even faster than Planckaert. Halle-Ingooigem winner Dries De Bondt is a back-up plan to follow the attacks and he has proved that he can be competitive in a sprint from a breakaway.
Wanty-Groupe Gobert have clearly the strongest teams as Marco Marcato, Dimitri Clayes, Jerome Baugnies, Xandro Meurisse and Frederik Backaert are all tailor-made for this kind of lumpy circuit. They are likely to try to blow the race to pieces and then they will have numbers in the finale. If they attack in turns, their five aces can all win. However, Marcato is probably the best card as he is the fastest and strongest on short climbs. He has shown food form in both Norway and Denmark. Claeys is also very fast and strong in this terrain and his stage win in Wallonia shows the form is great. Baugnies is not as strong but also has a fast sprint. Meurisse is the best climber but he doesn’t have the same kick in a sprint. Backaert is the slowest in a sprint but he is strong enough to attack.
Wout van Aert has turned his attention to the cyclo-cross season but he is still doing some road races. He was one of the best in the Dwars door Het Hageland so he should be up there in this race too. He is one of the best on short, steep climbs and he has a fast sprint too.
Topsport Vlaanderen have Pieter Vanspeybrouck who has had a bit of a breakthrough season. He has been up there in all the hardest races throughout the year and is tailor-made for this kind of lumpy circuit as he is punchy and has a fast sprint. He showed good form in Limousin. Amury Capiot is a back-up plan if it comes down to a sprint and he was good in the Tour of Denmark.
Gazprom-Rusvelo go into the race with Roman Maikin as their leader. The Russian showed great form by winning a stage at the Tour du Limousin where he attacked with Giovanni Visconti in the finale. He may be known as a sprinter but this shows that he is climbing well enough to follow attacks in the finale.
Lotto Soudal have Kris Boeckmans for the sprint and he is constantly getting better and better. He will be one of the favourites if it comes down to a bunch kick. Pim Ligthart, Sean De Bie and Tim Wellens will be there to follow attacks. Wellens is the best climber in the race but it is probably not hard enough. Lighart and De Bie are better options, especially the former who is very fast in a sprint.
Wilier have Filippo Pozzato who recently did the Tour du Limousin in support of Manuel Belletti. He was very good at Nationals and has shown that he can still be competitive. The circuit suits him well but his form may not be at 100% yet.
Etixx-QuickStep have a small 5-rider team and don’t have many chances here. Their best card is Lukasz Wisniowski as he is strong in this terrain and is the fastest in the team. He showed very good form in Hageland.
Finally, we will point to Dion Smith from ONE. The Kiwi had a tough start to the year but he is getting better and better as he gets more experience in Europe. He climbs well and is fast in a sprint from a small group so he will have options in this kind of race.
***** Baptiste Planckaert
**** Timothy Dupont, Marco Marcato
*** Wout Van Aert, Dimitri Claeys, Pieter Vanspeybrouck, Jerome Baugnies, Roman Maikin, Pim Ligthart
** Xandro Meurisse, Kris Boeckmans, Sean De Bie, Tim Wellens, Filippo Pozzato, Lukasz Wisniowski, Amaury Capiot, Dion Smith, Olivier Pardini, Dries De Bondt
* Frederik Backaert, Julien Vermote, Huub Duyn, Boris Vallee, Simone Ponzi, Jakub Mareczko, Haydon McCormick, Rob Ruijgh, Nicolas Veercken, Oscar Reiesebeek, Dylan Page, Alberto Cecchin
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