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Will this man conquer the cobbles and hellingen in the Belgian semi-classic?

Photo: Jérémy-Günther-Heinz Jähnick




22.08.2016 @ 21:50 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

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. After the hilly GP Jef Scherens, the series continues at the GP Stad Zottegem 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.


After Dimitri Clayes’ win at GP Jef Scheren – Rondom Leuven, there will be a first chance to get revenge in Tuesday’s GP Stad Zottegem. The race is Zottegem is one of the oldest on the Belgian calendar. It was first held in 1934 and has been held every year since then. It is held as part of a big festival in the city of Zottegem and always takes place on a Tuesday. It became a pro race in 1935 but had a time in the 1980s. A new organization took over in 1999 and managed to keep the race alive. Since the current system was introduced in 2005, it has been a 1.1 race on the UCI calendar. It has had a number of different names, most notably Herinneringsprijs Dokter Tistaert which was used between 1971 and 1998. It has had its current name since 2002.


Like most others of these typical Belgian semiclassics, it has been dominated by local riders and it is maybe a little less prestigious than some of the other races held at the same time. The winner’s list is less impressive but in recent years it has had a more international flavor. However, it remains a place for young riders to get a chance, especially as the bigger Druivenkoers Overijse takes place just one day later.


GP Stad Zottegemis a typical Belgian semi-classic and attracts the same teams as these races usually do. The Belgian Lotto Soudal will be the only WorldTour team 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 the race hasn’t been decided in a bunch kick since 2010. 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 big breakaway decided the race. Kenny Dehaes, the late Antoine Demoitie, Oliver Naesen, Elias van Breusseghem arrived at the finish together and crossed the line in that order.


The course

Like most other Belgian semi-classicss, GP Stad Zottegem is a circuit race. The race starts and finishes in Zottegem and is held on three different circuits for an overall distance of 189.7km. The key climb is the Grotenbergestraat (875m, 4%, max. 8%) which will be tackled a total of 7 times.


First the riders will do one lap of a 64.8km circuit which includes the climb right after the start in kilometre 1. The riders will also tackle Hostelleire at the 34km mark and the key climb again after 38km of racing. The famous Lange Munte cobbles come at the 14km mark.


The final part of the race consists of three laps of a 22.6km circuit and two laps of a longer 28.8km circuit. The Grotenbergstraat features on both circuits and will be passed for the final time with 22km to go. However, the key challenge is the famous Paddestraat pave which features close to the end of the final circuit. The riders will pass the cobbles for the final time with 4km to go before they will head along flat roads to the finish in Zottegem.


In total, the riders will tackle 8 climbs and three pave sectors.




The favourites

As said, the race hasn’t been decided in a bunch sprint since 2010 and usually a small group manages to make a difference. Especially the Paddestraat in the finale is a huge challenge and a perfect chance to make a late attack. Even if it’s a sprint finish, you need to be a very powerful rider to survive this section in a front position and so only the strong guys have a real chance to win this race.


The weather always plays a big role in the Belgian classics. In Leuven, the riders had rainy conditions and this made it a hard race. On Tuesday, it will be very hot and there will barely be any wind. This will probably make the race less selective.


The main question is which teams want a bunch sprint. Lotto Soudal had originally planned to come here with André Greipel but he has been deleted from the start list. Hence, the best team probably wants to ride aggressively as will the very strong Wanty team. As opposed to this, Veranda’s Willems, Wallonie and Bora-Argon 18 want to sprint.


Both outcomes are definitely possible but with the best teams all keen on an aggressive race, we don’t expect a bunch sprint. The difference may be made on the Paddestraat in the finale but we expect a pretty selective race.


Nonetheless, we will put our money on a sprinter. Timothy Dupont won three stages at the recent Tour Alsace and the Antwerpse Havepijl and is in great form. He missed the GP Jef Scherens due to a car accident and will be keen to get his revenge. Throughout the year he has proved that he is strong enough to go with the best on the climbs and the cobbles and he is much more than a sprinter. Hence, he can play his card in all race scenarios. In a flat sprint, he is one of the very fastest so he can win a bunch sprint and he can join the breakaways. An in-form Dupont is our favourite here. Veranda’s Willems also have an in-form Dries De Bondt who is strong enough to follow attacks and win a sprint from a small group. He looked strong last Sunday in Leuven.


Baptiste Planckaert 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 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. He may not be as fast as Dupont but he is maybe a bit stronger. He abandoned in Leuven but his form can’t have disappeared in such a short time.


Bora-Argon 18 are here with two top sprinters in Phil Bauhaus and Sam Bennett. Usually, the Irishman is number one in the hierarchy but this time it is likely to be different. Bennet hasn’t been at his best and Bauhaus has been riding really well, winning a stage in the Tour of Denmark. In Hamburg, the team played the Bauhaus card and he showed his form as he was there in the finale until bad luck took him out of contention. However, he is not as strong as Dupont and Planckaert so both he and Bennett need it to come down to a sprint to have a chance.


Wanty-Groupe Gobert want a hard race and have at least two very good cards to play. Dimitri Claeys won in Leuven and is in great form. He likes this kind of hard race and is a great rider for the cobbles as he proved with his top 10 at the Tour of Flanders. Furthermore, he is fast in a sprint so he will be hard to beat if he can join the right break in the finale. Marco Marcato is the second option and he showed good form in Denmark. He is maybe even faster than Claeys but would have preferred a hillier course. Also Frederik Backaert and Bjorn Thurau can do  well for the team.


Gazprom-Rusvelo have Roman Maikin who recently won a stage in the Tour du Limousin and won the sprint for third at GP Jef Scherens. He is great in a sprint after a hard race and will be one of the favouriets if it comes down to a sprint. However, he hasn’t shown much on the cobbles so the Paddestraat could be a change for him.


Lotto Soudal are here without Greipel so they will try to animate the race with Sean De Bie and Pim Ligthart. The former showed good form in Leuven where he was second but has less experience on the cobbles. This is where De Bie excels and he is probably the best card as he has been in the top in his last two races. For a sprint, they have Kris Boeckmans but he is not at his best yet.


Paul Voss has been in very good form since the Tour and should be one of the strongest riders here. He will have the task of following the attacks from Bora. He is fast and can do well on climbs and the cobbles.


Pieter Vanspeybrouck has had a fantastic year for Topsport Vlaanderen and even though he abandoned in Leuven, his form is still good as he rode strongly in Limousin. He will be one of the candidates for a breakaway and has a good sprint to finish it off. Bert Van Lerberghe will be ready for the team if it comes down to a bunch sprint.


Other sprinters include Steele Von Hoff, Boris Vallee and Raymond Kreder. They won’t be with the attacks but are some of the fastest in a bunch sprint. On paper, Kreder would be one of the big favourites but this is his first race since he crashed in Denmark. Vallee showed good form in Leuven where he sprinted to fourth but the Paddestraat could be a challenge. The same goes for Von Hoff who usually struggle swhen it comes to positioning in the sprints.


***** Timothy Dupont

**** Baptiste Planckaert, Phil Bauhaus

*** Sam Bennett, Dimitri Claeys, Marco Marcato, Roman Maikin, Sean De Bie

** Pim Ligthart, Kris Broeckmans, Paul Voss, Dries De Bondt Pieter Vanspeybrouck, Bert Van Lerberghe, Steele Von Hoff, Boris Vallee, Raymond Kreder

* Olivier Pardini, Sebastien Delfosse, Aidis Kruopis, Jan Barta, Lukas Pöstlberger, Frederik Backaert, Xandro Meruisse, Bjorn Thurau, Dion Smith, Barry Markus, Dylan Page, Alberto Cecchin, Nicolas Vereecken, Joeri Stallaert, Coen Vermeltfoort, Stan Godrie,



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