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Can anyone stop Marcel Kittel in the Belgian sprint race?

Photo: A.S.O.




15.09.2016 @ 18:15 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 a short break following the Brussels Cycling Classic, things intensify this week as there will be races on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. After the puncheurs and climbers battled it out for victory in Wednesday’s GP de Wallonie, the terrain will be completely different in Friday’s Kampioenschap van Vlaanderen which is one of the flattest Belgian semi-classics and almost always allow the sprinters to go for victory in a big bunch sprint.


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 was 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. In 2016, 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 second race this week is the Kampioenschap van Vlaanderen which will be an even more important race than usual. Among the three races, it is the smallest event but as it is a race suited to pure sprinters, it is the perfect place test the sprinting legs before the battle for the World Championships. Hence, it is a bit of a surprise that only two of the Worlds contenders have been tempted to line up for the race as Fernando Gaviria and Marcel Kittel will be the only Worlds captains at the start.


Kampioenschap van Vlaanderen was first held in 1908 and so is one of the oldest Belgian races. It has always been held in the middle of September and last year it celebrated its 100th edition. The name suggests that it’s a regional championship for Flanders but that’s not the case. Instead, it is an international event on the UCI calendar and it has been registered as a 1.1 race since the current system was introduced I 2005.


As the name suggests, the race was once a major event in Flandes and it has been won by most of the greatest Belgian riders. Marcel Kint, Briek Schotte, Rik Van Steenbergen, Rik Van Looy, Eddu Merckx, Patrick Sercu, Freddy Maertens, Johan Museeuw and Peter Van Petegem have all come out on top. In recent years, it has lost a bit of its prestige among the Belgian riders and it is now one of the least important races in the autumn. However, it has become a much more international affair and since Paul Van Hyfte’s win in 2001, only two editions have been won by home riders. Instead, lots of big international sprinters have added the race to their palmares as the winner’s list now includes riders like André Greipel, Marcel Kittel, Arnaud Demare, Baden Cooke and Jimmy Casper.


As the list of winners reflects, the race is one for the sprinters and it has rarely been possible to avoid a bunch sprint in Koolskamp. This has turned it into one of the most hotly contested races for Belgian sprinters as they rarely find a flatter course anywhere in their home country. True to its Flemish nature, the race has a cobblestone section on its circuit but it has never created much of a selection.


This year the race has been added to the 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.


Last year’s race was one of the rare exceptions where a small group managed to make it to the finish. Jens Debusschere crossed the line first in a dramatic sprint that saw Dylan Groenewegen sustain several injuries in a bad crash. Debusschere was relegated and instead Michal Golas was given a rare victory ahead of Nikolay Trusov and Adrian Aas Stien.


The course

There are never any changes to the course for the Kampioenschap van Vlaanderen which is held as a circuit race on a well-known circuit in Koolskamp. It’s 12.3km long and will be covered 16 times for an overall distance of 192.4km (the first part of the first lap is neutralized). The circuit is completely flat and includes a small cobblestone section after 3km of racing. Most of the circuit doesn’t have any technical difficulties and the finish line comes at the end of a long, straight road of more than 2km.



The favourites

History shows that it’s hard to avoid a bunch sprint at the Kampioenschap van Vlaanderen. In the last 10 years, the sprinters have been denied in 2007, 2009, 2012 and 2015 while the other six editions have been decided in a bunch kick. The reputation as a sprint race makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy as most teams go into the race with a fast finisher as their leader and this means that the race is usually pretty controlled.


When the sprinters have been denied, bad weather has often played a big role. This year it’s summer in Belgium and the country has had very hot conditions in the last few days. However, things are set to change tomorrow late in the afternoon and evening where Koolskamp will be hit by a torrential downpour. It seems that the riders will have a wet finale but if they are lucky, it will stay dry. Furthermore, it will be windy as there will be rather strong wind from a southerly direction and this means that there will be a crosswind on most of the circuit.


Nonetheless, we expect it to be another day for the sprinters. Etixx-QuickStep go into the race with the strongest team and they have both Fernando Gaviria and Marcel Kittel at the start. Their only goal is to sprint and they have the team to control things. They may try to split things on the cobbles and in the crosswinds to force some kind of selection but as they have the strongest team, they will have all their key riders on the right side of the splits. We may not have a full bunch sprint in the end but Etixx-QuickStep should be strong enough to set up some kind of sprint finish.


This also means that Marcel Kittel is the overwhelming favourite. The German has often proved that he is the fastest rider in the world and in this race he is totally unrivalled. Fernando Gaviria would have been a solid match but the Colombian is his teammate and will be working in the lead-out.


At the same time, Kittel is in very good form which he showed by winning the GP de Fourmies which is a relatively hard race where the sprinters have often been denied. He is fully focused on securing the captaincy role in the German team for the Worlds so he will be extremely motivated after he deliberately missed a chance to win when he worked for Boonen in the Brussels Cycling Classic. With his good form, he should have no problem in the tough conditions and he loves this kind of long power sprint. At the same time, he has Gaviria, Nikolas Maes, Davide Martinelli and most notably Fabio Sabatini for the lead-out and so he even has the best train. It will be a surprise if Kittel doesn’t win this race.


His biggest rival may even be Fernando Gaviria. We expect Etixx-QuickStep to support Kittel as he has more at stake and Gaviria has only just returned to racing after his track campaign in Rio. However, the Brussels Cycling Classis showed that things are not always as you expect so Gaviria may get his chance before turning himself into a domestique for Kittel at the Eneco Tour. If that’s the case, Gaviria should be in a class of his own in this sprint as he is both the fastest and has the best lead-out.


The biggest rival for the Etixx team will be LottoNL-Jumbo who go into the race with two in-form sprinters, Moreno Hofland and Tom Van Asbroeck, and a great train to support them. Usually, Hofland is number two in the hierarchy behind Dylan Groenewegen and so he is likely to lead the team. He did some very good sprints in the Arctic Race of Norway where he only lost out due to poor positioning as he clearly had the speed for more. In this race, he will have Timo Roosen, Mike Teunissen, Van Asbroeck, Dennis Van Winden and Sep Vanmarcke for the lead-out and it’s not impossible that they will be strong enough to challenge Etixx-QuickStep. If they can nail the lead-out, Hofland may be able to deliver a surprise.


Tom Van Asbroeck may also get his chance. The Belgian has had a hard start to his time at LottoNL-Jumbo but now he seems to be in the form of his life. He took his first win for the team in Poitou-Charentes and climbed surprisingly well in the Canadian races. His good form should bring him far if the race becomes tough due to the bad conditions and it may allow him to do the sprint for his team. It won’t be easy to beat the Etixx riders but with a good lead-out, a surprise is possible.


The third great train is the Wanty lead-out. The team goes into the race with Roy Jans, Kenny Dehaes and Danilo Napolitano. Usually, Jans has been number one in the hierarchy but after an injury-marred year, he seems to have been passed by Dehaes. However, Jans has finally found some form and as Dehaes has not been at his best in recent races, Jans is likely to be the leader. He showed his good form in the sprints in the Tour of Denmark and in Poitou-Charentes and as he continued to build his condition, he should be even better here.


Danilo Napolitano may also get the nod. The Italian is usually a lead-out man but as he has done some good sprints recently, it’s not impossible that he will get a chance. Dehaes could also be the leader but we doubt that he has the form to win.


Timothy Dupont is enjoying a breakthrough season and has firmly established himself as one of the best Belgian sprinters. LottoNL-Jumbo is reported interested in signing him and he would love to make his mark with another top result here. He doesn’t have much of a lead-out but he has proved that he doesn’t need a big train. He positions himself well which makes him very consistent. As he is more than a pure sprinter, he hopes for a hard race which will make him much more competitive. Veranda’s Willems also have Aidis Kruopis as a back-up plan but he no longer has the form he had in the spring.


Baptiste Planckaert is the second big revelation on the continental circuit and he has proved that he can beat the WorldTour riders. He has already signed a contract with Katusha but he is still very motivated. His form is excellent as he proved with top 10 finishes in the hard Tour du Doubs and GP de Wallonie. He is great at positioning and so is very consistent in the bunch sprints. However, this race is probably a bit too easy for him so he will hope for a tough and selective race.


Lotto Soudal are here without any of their top sprinters so it should give Kris Boeckmans another chance. Unfortunately, he is still not at his former level and even though he has shown clear signs of improvement, he is probably not fast enough to win this race. On the other hand, he has Greg Henderson for the lead-out and that is a big advantage. The team may also give Jasper De Buyst a chance but he is not fast enough to win.


Wilier-Southeast have Jakub Mareczko who is one of the fastest riders. However, he is a pure sprinter and the races have to be very easy for him to be competitive. He has had a hard time in Europe but at the Tour of Turkey he has proved that his speed is good enough to compete with the best. Unfortunately, the tough condition will probably make it too hard for him.


Rudy Barbier will turn professional with Ag2r next year and he will be keen to end his time with the team on a high. He was sprinting excellently in the 1.1 races at the start of the year but unfortunately he has not been at the same level in the autumn.


We are very curious to see what Kristoffer Halvorsen can do here. The Norwegian delivered a massive surprise when he finished on the podium in Nokere Koerse. Since then he has confirmed his potential in the big Norwegian races and he is currently in great form as he showed when he finished third in the very hard final stage of the Tour des Fjords. He hopes for a hard race as it make it easier for him to beat the faster guys.


Roompot have three sprinters. Usually, Raymond Kreder is the fastest and he has been sprinting really well. However, he has just come back from injury so his form may not be good enough. That could open the door for Barry Markus and Andre Looij but they are not fast enough to win.


Steele von Hoff showed pretty food form in the Tour of Britain and his stage win at the Tour of Norway proves that he can still be competitive. ONE have a solid team for the lead-out so if he can handle the positioning better than usual, he should be up there.


Finally, Topsport Vlaanderen have Bert Van Lerberghe and Amaury Capiot. The former has had the best results but has not always been consistent and he is not fast enough to win. Capiot will find it even more difficult so a top 10 is probably the best possible result.


For more sprinters, keep an eye on Gediminas Bagdonas, Michael Carbel, Willi Willwohl, Nicolas Vereecken, Joeri Stallaert, Gerry Druyts, Frederique Robert, Timothy Stevens, Jelle Mananerts and Justin Jules.


If the races becomes hard and a small group makes it to the finish, riders like Sep Vanmarcke, Pieter Vanspeybrouck, Gaviria, Martinelli, Sean De Bie, Pim Ligthart, Mike Teunissen, Jimmy Turgis, Dries De Bondt, Kevin Ista and Tim Declercq may all have a chance.


***** Marcel Kittel

**** Fernando Gaviria, Moreno Hofland

*** Daniel McLay, Tom Van Asbroeck, Roy Jans, Timothy Dupont, Danilo Napolitano

** Baptiste Planckaert, Kris Boeckmans, Kenny Dehaes, Jakub Mareczko, Rudy Barbier, Kristoffer Halvorsen

* Steele Von Hoff, Sep Vanmarcke, Pieter Vanspeybrouck, Davide Martinelli, Mike Teunissen, Sean De Bie, Raymond Kreder, Barry Markus, Bert Van Lerberghe Jasper De Buyst, Aidis Kruopis, Amaury Capiot



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