The months of August, September and October are loaded with typical Belgian one-day races that suit a mix of sprinters and classics riders and now we are reaching the end of the series. After Sunday’s Tour de l’Eurometropole and Tuesday’s Binche-Chimay-Binche, there is only one chance left. Every year the Belgian season ends with a big bunch sprint in Putte-Kapellen at the Nationale Suitingsprijs and even though many of the fastmen are now in Qatar, it will be a big surprise if it is any different in 2016.
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 continued with GP de Wallonie, Kampioenschap van Vlaanderen and Primus Classic Impanis-Van Petegem. Last Sunday, the Tour de l’Eurometropole kicked off the final block that also includes Tuesday’s Binche-Chimay-Binche and the finale at next Tuesday’s Nationale Sluitingsprijs.
The final races in the series have traditionally been a chance for sprinters and classics riders to make use of their good form following the World Championships and keep the legs going ahead of their final big goal at Paris-Tours. In 2016, however, things are different. The late date for the Worlds means that the races are a perfect final chance for Worlds contenders to test their condition ahead of Qatar. That has boosted the line-ups and levels for most of the races which have been more competitive than usual.
However, things are different for the Nationale Sluitingsprijs which traditionally brings the curtain down on the Belgian season that started in February at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. This year the race is held in the same week as the Worlds and even though many stayed in Europe for Sunday’s Paris-Tours, most of the Worlds contenders are now in Qatar to acclimatize to heat. That makes the Belgian finale one of the losers in the restructured calendar and even though the line-up at this late point of the year has rarely been impressive, it’s probably one of the weakest fields in recent years.
It’s a bit of a shame that the 2016 edition has been devalued a bit as it’s a historic race which history goes all the way back to 1929 when Alexander Maes took the first win. Since then, it has always brought the curtain down on the Belgian season as it has only been cancelled during World War II. Just like the cyclo-cross racers have a Sluitingsprijs in Oostmalle, Putte-Kapellen has been the traditional place for the Belgain riders to end their year.
Unlike many other Belgian races, Nationale Sluitingsprijs has never been a main international event and it has been dominated by Belgian and Dutch riders. Only in the last few years, the dominance has been broken and in fat it was only when Denis Flahaut won the 2009 edition that the first non-Belgian or non-Dutch winner emerged. Since then, things have changed as only three of the last seven editions have been won by riders from the two main countries.
The lack of international attention also means that the race is one of the smallest events on the Belgian calendar and it doesn’t have the star-studded list of winners that many others have. Of course Eddy Merckx has won the race and Adrie van der Poel has come out on top thrice but most of the Belgian giants have never won the race. Things haven’t really changed much as the field is usually not as strong as it is in many other Belgian semi-classics, mostly because the race comes at a time when many have started their holiday.
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 rider in these small Belgian semi-classics. This is the finall event and Dylan Groenewegen is the current leader.
Many Belgian races are similar as they are either flat sprint races or lumpy events suited to classics riders. Nationale Sluitingsprijs belongs to the former category as it is held on an almost completely flat circuit in Putte-Kapellen. This means that it has always been a festival for sprinters and almost every year the Belgian season ends with a big bunch sprint.
That was also the case in 2015 when Nacer Bouhanni made a late decision to do the race as he had a chance to win the Europe Tour. He grabbed the victory in the season-long competition by winning the Belgian race too as he held Tom Van Asbroeck and Jens Debusschere off in the final dash to the line.
Nationale Slutitingsprijs is a circuit race that is always held on the same well-known circuit in Putte-Kapellen. The riders will do 11 laps of the 16.25km circuit for an overall distance of 183.59km as parts of the first lap is neutralized. The circuit is almost completely flat as the riders stay between 0m and 20m above sea level. There are a few turns in the first half but the second half mostly consists of long, straight roads. In the final five kilometres, there is just one sharp left-hand turn which comes in the penultimate kilometre.
Nationale Sluitingsprijs has always been a sprint race and it will be a huge surprise if it is any different in 2016. The course hasn’t changed and provides no obstacles from a topographical or technical point of view. However, the roads can be exposed so on a windy day, things can change. Hence, the sprinters will be very pleased to know that Tuesday is forecasted to be sunny with only a very light wind from a northeasterly direction so there is no chance that the peloton will split.
Of course we will have the usual attacks but in these conditions it will be virtually impossible to make a difference. LottoNL-Jumbo, Wallonie, Veranda’s Willes and maybe Etixx-QuickStep and Wanty-Groupe Gobert all want to sprint so we should get the usual bunch kick in Putte-Kapellen.
The best sprinters are absent and this sets the scene for a very open battle. Despite the presence of three WorldTour teams, we will put our money on a continental rider. Timothy Dupont has been the revelation of the 2016 season and has won no less than 15 races. In fact, he was very close to getting a spot in the Belgian team for the World Championships.
Dupont has shown impressive consistency as he has finished in the top 5 in almost every bunch sprint he has contested. Since the beginning of August he has completed 11 one-day races has been in the top 6 in nine of them and only missed the top 10 once. His wins in Kampioenschap van Vlaanderen and Nokere Koerse show that he can beat sprinters from the highest level and on paper he is maybe the fastest here. Furthermore, his positioning skills are great and the main reason for his huge consistency. His sixth place in the very hard finale in Binche shows that his form is still excellent and so he is our favourite to win the race.
LottoNL-Jumbo go into the race with arguably the strongest sprint team. They have both Tom Van Asbroeck and Moreno Hofland as sprint options but usually the Dutchman is at the top of the hierarchy. They planned to work for Hofland in Paris-Tours but they came away empty-handed due to confusion in the finale. Here the fight for position will be less intense and with Dennis van Winden, Maarten Wynants and Mike Teuniseen, the team have a formidable lead-out. It remains to be seen how they will share the roles but as this is Hofland’s final race with the team, we expect him to get another chance. This year he has been sprinting very well and his lack of victories is mainly due to poor positioning. In this race, he has the best train so he could very well take the win.
Tom Van Asbroeck will be the back-up plan. The Belgian has been in great form in the second half of the year and took his first win for his team at the Tour de l’Ain. He is not as fast as Hofland and we don’t expect him to be the leader. However, things can quickly change and as he will be supported by the best train, he can definitely win if he gets his chance.
Etixx-QuickStep are here without their top sprinters and so Gianni Meersman will get a chance in his final race with the team. The Belgian is usually not a man for the flat races but in the Vuelta he proved that he can still win flat sprints at this level. He has done so in the past at the Handzame Classic too. His team don’t have their best train but he can still count on Davide Martinelli and Zdenek Stybar. That should make them pretty powerful in the finale. Meersman is not the fastest here but with that kind of support he can definitely come out on top.
Wanty-Groupe Gobert will be riding for Roy Jans who is back to his best after a difficult season. He suffered from health issues for most of the year but in September and October he has been sprinting consistently well. He was close to victory in the Münsterland Giro and here is backed by a strong team. Wanty should be one of the main powerhouses in the finale and Jans has the speed to finish it off.
Baptiste Planckaert has had a fantastic season and has been riding strongly since the beginning of the year. However, it seems that he is now getting a bit tired. He did worse than expected in Vendee and in Binche he only drifted backwards when the sprint was launched. He is very consistent but he is usually not fast enough to beat the best in a flat sprint. This race may be a bit too easy but he would love to leave Wallonie with a final victory.
Roompot will be led by Raymond Kreder. The Dutchman started his year better than ever and looked like he was heading for a breakthrough season. Unfortunately, crashes have set him back and he has been unable to build on the momentum. However, he showed signs of progress with his third place at Kampioenschap van Vlaanderen and even though he has failed in his last few sprints, he should be one of the fastest here.
Lotto Soudal are here without their main sprinters so it should be a chance for Tosh van der Sande. The Belgian got his first pro win at the Tour de l’Ain and has improved a lot in the sprints. However, this race is too easy for him as he usually excels in hillier races. Jasper De Buyst is the back-up plan but he still hasn’t proved that he can be up there at this level.
Cofidis are without defending champion Bouhanni and instead Michael van Staeyen will get a rare chance. The Belgian was once one of the most consistent riders in these races but after he moved to Cofidis as a lead-out man, he hasn’t been sprinting much. He is no longer the sprinter he once was but he should still be competitive.
Wim Stroetinga is a former winner of this race and by winning the final stage of the Ster ZLM Toer, he has proved that he has the speed to beat even the biggest stars. At the Dutch Championships, he was furious at his teammates because he felt that he had been faster than winner Dylan Groenewegen. On paper, he is one of the favourites but as he hasn’t raced since Nationals in June, his form is a big question mark.
Roth have Andrea Pasqualon who has been in excellent form recently. He was fifth in the hard stage 4 at the Tour des Fjords and second in the puncheur finish at Coppa Sabatini. However, he needs harder races to excel and he is unlikely to win a flat sprint like this. Dylan Page will be the back-up plan for the team.
Finally, we will point to Bert Van Lerberghe. The Belgian showed good form with his aggressive riding in the Eneco Tour and now will be back in his usual role as a sprinter. He is a solid and consistent fast finisher but he is not fast enough to win here. Amaury Capiot is the second option for Topsport Vlaanderen but even though he is in great form, he needs a harder race to excel.
***** Timothy Dupont
**** Moreno Hofland, Gianni Meersman
*** Tom Van Asbroeck, Roy Jans, Baptiste Planckaert
** Raymond Kreder, Tosh van der Sande, Michael van Staeyen, Wim Stroetinga, Andrea Pasqualon, Bert Van Lerberghe
* Amaury Capiot, Johim Ariesen, Emiel Vermeulen, Kenny Dehaes, Danilo Napolitano, Jasper De Buyst, Dylan Page, Joeri Stallaert, Justin Jules, Kenneth Vanbilsen, Jelle Manaaerts
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