After the big opening of the Flemish cycling season last weekend, racing in the Walloon part of Belgium will kick off in more modest surroundings on Wednesday. With several pave sectors and short, steep climbs, Le Samyn resembles a Flemish race more than a typical Walloon classic and usually allows some of the lesser known riders to shine in the absence of their captains.
Belgium is divided into two major regions that don’t agree about much. However, they both share the love for cycling and both areas host some of the biggest cycling races in the world, including two of the monuments. Racing in the two regions are pretty different though, with the Flemish cycling calendar dominated by its cobbles and short, steep hellingen and the Walloon races usually characterized by the longer climbs in the Ardennes.
The Flemish cycling season always has a grandiose start with the opening weekend’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and for many those races signal the real start of the road season. Those two races are both typical Flemish races and are major events on the international calendar.
The Walloon highlights in the Ardennes are still far away and so it is no surprise that the start of the season in this part of Belgium is a bit more low-key. Traditionally it all kicks off on the Wednesday after the Flemish opening with the small Le Samyn semi-classic.
The race may take place in Wallonia but actually it has a perfect calendar date as its nature makes it look more like a Flemish classic. It doesn’t take place in the Ardennes and the key challenges are the weather, cobbles and hellingen, just as it was the case this past weekend in Flanders.
Le Samyn was first held as a professional race in 1968 and so has a long history. However, it still lacks the prestige of the major races and the big names usually head home after the opening weekend to prepare for Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico. This opens the door for some of the domestiques to go for glory on the cobbles and together with the weekend stage race Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen, it offers an alternative path for young riders and support riders who haven’t been selected for the two major WorldTour stage races.
Last year’s race was made more selective than ever as the organizers had included a pave sector close to the finish. Etixx-QuickStep ripped the race to pieces but were unable to get rid of Kris Boeckmans who beat Gianni Meersman and Christophe Laporte in the uphill sprint.
Le Samyn has usually been a typical Belgian classic with lots of wind, narrow roads, short climbs and a few pave sectors. Traditionally it has suited the powerful sprinters as it has usually been decided in a bunch sprint on the tough uphill drag to the line.
In 2015, however, the sprinters had a harder time than usual. After several years with an unchanged format, the organizers made a significant change to the finishing circuit to include more cobbles, including a very difficult 700m sector just 2km from the line. That made the race a lot more selective as Etixx-QuickStep went full gas in this section and created a small group that decided the race in a sprint.
This year the organizers have made the course even tougher as they have added another 3-star pave – a sector of the greatest difficulty – to the finishing circuit. The opening big loop is unchanged but the extra challenge in the finale could make the race even more selective than it was in 2015.
The 202.6km race starts in Quaregnon and finishes at the traditional site in Dour and can be split into two parts. The first part is made up of a 102.3km journey through the area north of Dour. After a flat opening, the riders will get into the hillier area where they will tackle the short Cote de Mainvault, Cote de la Folie, Cote des Papins and Cote du Semenil in quick succession between the 30km and 50km marks. Then they head back onto flat roads to go back to Dour.
Just before the first passage of the finish line, the riders will enter the finishing circuit and here they will get their first taste of the difficult pave sector that has been given the maximum 3-star difficulty rating and was introduced last year. They will continue straight to the finish line where they end the race by doing four laps of the slightly modified 25.1km finishing circuit.
The circuit is very similar to the one that has been used in the past and includes the two pave sectors and two hellingen that have always characterized it but now there are two extra cobbled sectors on the menu. The first challenge is an easy 1-star pave sector before the riders reach the cobbled Cote de la Roquette which has been given a two-star rating. It comes 13.3km from the finish and leads straight onto the novelty, the Chemin de Wiheries cobbles that have a three-star rating. Then it’s back onto the traditional circuit with the Cote d’Audregnies 6.9km from the finish. With 2.6km to go, the riders will hit the 700m 3-star pave which is slightly rising. From there it is slightly uphill all the way to the well-known finish in Dour. The finale is non-technical as there are no turns inside the final kilometre.
The weather always plays a huge role in all Belgian races. Wind and rain can make it very selective while sunny, calm conditions favour the sprinters. This year it seems that we could be in for an epic battle as we are likely to have both wind and rain.
The riders are likely to have dry conditions for the start but in the afternoon there is a 50% chance of rain. There may be a bit of sunshine along the way too. The maximum temperature will be 7 degrees.
There will be a strong wind from a westerly direction which means that it will mostly be a crosswind on the big loop. On the final circuit, the wind will be coming from every direction. In the final part, it will be a cross-tailwind which will also be the case for the uphill sprint.
In the past few years, Le Samyn has not been a very selective race. Partly due to rather pleasant weather conditions, the two climbs on the finishing circuit have not been enough to challenge the sprinters and so a bunch sprint has decided the race in most of the latest editions, with Dominik Klemme’s solo win in 2011 being the major exception. However, the uphill finishing straight has made things complicated for the pure sprinters and it is no coincidence that it has been won by stronger guys like Philippe Gilbert, Jens Keukeleire, Arnaud Demare, Alexey Tsatevich and Maxime Vantomme.
Last year the new course made things a lot more complicated and Etixx-QuickStep managed to blow the race to pieces on the last pave sector. Only Tiesj Benoot, Kris Boeckmans, Christophe Laporte and Steve Chainel could keep up with the quartet of Steijn Vandenbergh, Niki Terpstra, Yves Lampaert and Gianni Meersman and after the domestiques had emptied themselves, Boeckmans, Meersman and Laporte sprinted for the win.
This year the race is likely to be even more selective. The addition of a new, difficult pave on the circuit offers an extra chance to create a selection. Furthermore, the rain will make the cobbles more slippery and likely to create bigger gaps. If one adds a strong wind that will give plenty of crosswinds, we are unlikely to get a full bunch sprint.
Things could potentially already split up on the big circuit where there will be lots of crosswinds but the real danger comes on the final circuit. Wet cobbles mean crashes and so positioning will be crucial. This is a race where team support will be more important than anything else, especially at the entrance of the most difficult cobbles in the finale where the strongest teams will try to split things. We expect a very similar scenario to last year’s race where a small group will decide the race but it won’t be impossible for a breakaway to make it in these conditions.
The importance of the team means that Etixx-QuickStep is in pole position. They don’t have their best classic line-up here but with Guillaume Van Keirsbulck, Lukasz Wisniowski and Niki Terpstra they have some serious firepower for this kind of epic race. Last year they blew the race to pieces on the final pave and there is little doubt that they will try a similar move.
Like last year Gianni Meersman will have the task of having to finish it off. Last year he was up against an unstoppable Kris Boeckmans but this year there’s no in-form classic specialist that’s able to beat him in a sprint. He has not been at his best this year but he loves this kind of uphill sprint and as he is surrounded by the best team he can be expected to be given the best conditions for the finish. Of course there are faster guys than him in this race but if his team can get rid of them, it is hard to imagine that anyone will be able to beat Meersman.
There is little doubt that the fastest rider in this race is Dylan Groenewegen. The Dutchman has had a great start to the year with a stage win in Valencia and most recently a fourth place in Kuurne. We doubt that anyone will be able to beat him in a sprint as he likes this kind of finale. However, LottoNL-Jumbo haven’t really excelled in the fight for position in the first classics and he is mostly surrounded by a young team. He will have to do a lot of work on his own and rely on Maarten Wynants and Moreno Hofland to make sure that he is in a good position at the entrance of the paves. If he can handle the positioning, no one will beat him in a sprint.
Philippe Gilbert had a disappointing Het Nieuwsblad. He was never to be seen on the climbs and in the end he crashed out of the race. Now he will use this race to boost his confidence and he should find the more selective course to his liking. He is great at positioning himself and will be a contender in the uphill sprint. In this kind of field he should be able to make the selection but it will be hard for him to beat the likes of Meersman and Groenewegen if they are still there.
If Groenewegen fails, LottoNL-Jumbo have another card to play. Moreno Hofland seems to be in pretty good condition as he climbed really well in Oman and he was only taken out by a mechanical in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. He specializes in uphill sprints but his team will probably ride in support of Groenewegen. However, he has more experience in the classics and if his teammate is not there, he will take his chance.
Wanty have one of the best teams for this race and aim to set up Roy Jans for the win. The Belgian has been sprinting better than ever and seems to be in excellent form. For some reason, he rode poorly in Kuurne and this casts some doubts over his performance. Furthermore, there are stronger riders than him for these conditions but if his team can make sure that he is there in the finale, he will be hard to beat.
Alexey Tsatevich is a former winner of this race and he has been in good form recently. He nearly won in Almeria and did well in Haut Var before working for Kristoff in the first classics. He is usually not fast enough to win a flat sprint but has a better chance on an uphill finishing straight. It remains to be seen whether he can make the selection but Katusha have a relatively strong team and if he can stay close to the front, he definitely has a chance. Alexander Porsev offers an alternative option but it remains to be seen whether he has recovered sufficiently from his recent illness.
Lotto Soudal are without defending champion Boeckmans and instead they will play the card of Tosh van der Sande. He doesn’t have much experience on the cobbles and is surrounded by a relatively young team. It will be hard for him to make the selection in these tough conditions but he looked strong in the first classics. There are faster riders than him but the uphill finishing straight should suit him.
Scott Thwaites was one of the strongest riders in the weekend where he seemed to make almost all the key selections. He was in the top 20 in both races and proved that he has taken another step up. There is little doubt that he is one of the strongest riders at the moment and there is a big chance that he will be there in the finale. Unfortunately, he is likely to be up against faster riders and so his best chance may be to attack from a bit further out.
If the race becomes really hard, it will be possible for attackers to make a difference. Niki Terpstra stands out as the biggest specialist and even though he is clearly not at his best, he could take a solo win in these conditions. Other strong classics riders include Lukasz Wisniowski, Sven Erik Bystrøm, Florian Senechal, Marco Marcato, Olivier Pardini, Maarten Wynants and Guillaume Van Keirsbulck.
Lorrenzo Manzin, Phil Bauhaus, Davide Martinelli, Daniel Hoelgaard, Ralf Matzka, Bartlomiej Matysiak, Jonas Ahlstrand, Benjamin Giraud, Tony Hurel, Ryan Anderson, Yoann Gene, Boris Vallee, Daniel McLay, Yanto Barker, Chris Opie, Michel Kreder, Antoine Demoitie, Baptiste Planckaert, Justin Jules, Aidis Kruopis, Jelle Mannaerts and Nicolas Vereecken can all mix it up in a sprint but are unlikely to win such a hard race.
***** Gianni Meersman
**** Dylan Groenewegen, Philippe Gilbert
*** Moreno Hofland, Roy Jans, Alexei Tsatevich
** Tosh van der Sande, Scott Thwaites, Alexander Porsev, Niki Terpstra
* Lorrenzo Manzin, Lukasz Wisniowski, Sven Erik Bystrøm, Florian Senechal, Marco Marcato, Baptiste Planckaert, Olivier Pardini, Phil Bauhaus
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