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Sprinters, puncheurs and time triallists can all win the Ster ZLM Toer. Who'll come out on top?

Photo: Tim De Waele/TDW Sport




15.06.2016 @ 20:03 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

While the climbers and the classics riders prepare themselves for the Tour de France at the Criterium du Dauphiné and the Tour de Suisse, the pure sprinters often prefer to head to the Netherlands to fine-tune their fast legs for La Grande Boucle. The Dutch stage race Ster ZLM Toer has developed into the big dress rehearsal for the Tour de France bunch sprints and it won’t be any different in 2016 as André Greipel and Marcel Kittel are set to go head to head during the five days of fast racing.


Traditionally the Criterium du Dauphiné and the Tour de Suisse are known as the big preparation events for the Tour de France. However, the two races are very mountainous and have very few – if any – opportunities for the pure sprinters. There are usually several opportunities for the classics riders and the strongest of the fastmen but for the really heavy guys, there is no real reason to head to France or Switzerland. Some of them have occasionally done the races but it has all been about working on their climbing form for the Tour.


In recent years, there has been an alternative path for the sprinters. The small Dutch stage race Ster ZLM Toer has found its role as the perfect preparation race for the lead-out train. Once held in September, it moved to the month of June of the 2004 edition and since then it has gradually grown in status and for the past few years it has been the big dress rehearsal for the bunch sprints that we will have next month in France.


The race was first held as a one-day race for amateurs from 1971 to 1986 and then became a three-day race in 1987. In 1990 it was expanded to four days and got its new name of the Teleflex Tour. One year later, it added a hilly stage in the Limburg province but had to scale down to a four-day race in 1998 when Teleflex disappeared as a sponsor and it changed its name to Ster der Belfoten.


A ten-year contract with Van Heeswijk Electronics in 2001 was the big change for the race which was now known as Ster Elektrotoer and returned to its five-day format while growing in status to become of the best professional stage races in the Netherlands. In 2004, it got its current June slot on the calendar and since then it has found its role and a fixed format. In 2011, it changed its name to Ster ZLM Toer after a new sponsorship contract was signed.


Its popularity among the sprinters is reflected in its ability to attract the biggest names. In 2013, we had the first big clash between Mark Cavendish, André Greipel and Marcel Kittel in the Dutch race and for the last two years, Kittel and Greipel have gone head to head in the event. This year it will be no different as the two Germans will be back and will face formidable opposition from a strong group of sprinters that includes the in-form Dylan Groenewegem, Wouter Wippert, Nikias Arndt, Leigh Howard, Jonas Van Genechten, Kenny Dehaes, Barry Markus, Jakub Mareczko, Jonas Ahlstand, Timothy Dupont and Aidis Kruopis.


The race has found a fixed format with a technical opening prologue, two flat stages, a hilly stage in the Limburg province which often comes down to a third sprint, and the queen stage with the tough uphill finish in La Gileppe. The queen stage and the prologue have usually been decisive and the race has been dominated by Ardennes specialists like double winner Philippe Gilbert and Enrico Gasparotto who find the tough finale in La Gileppe to their liking and who can often do pretty well in an explosive prologue. However, the sprinters can also be in contention as they are usually great prologue riders and can pick up lots of bonus seconds in the sprints. If they can limit their losses in the queen stage, they can win the race like André Greipel did last year when he took victory ahead of Yves Lampaert and Moreno Hofland. Overall it’s a perfect preparation for the Tour as it allows the lead-out trains to fine-tune the automatisms while the queen stage offers the climbing that is needed to build strength for the Tour de France.


The course

As said, the course hasn’t changed much in recent years and the organizers have found no reason to modify a formula that works very well. The course for the 2016 edition is virtually unchanged compared to recent edition and will again feature a technical prologue and four road stages that are bookended with flat rides. In between there will be a lumpy stage in the Limburg province and the traditional queen stage to La Gileppe.


Stage 1

With the 2011 edition being the notable exception, the race has kicked off with a prologue every year since 2007 and it will be the same in 2016. The course has changed a bit from year to year but for this edition, the organizers have opted for the same 6.4km test that was used in 2015. The course is completely but has several turns, especially in the first part. The second half is more straightforward and suited to more powerful riders.


With a combination of technical sections and long straights, it’s a pretty traditional prologue that suits the real specialists. This means that it’s usually a combination of sprinters and time triallists that will do well in this test. Last year Roger Kluge won the stage ahead of Martijn Keizer, Victor Camepanerts, Sean De Bie and Danny Van Poppel while later overall winner André Greipel was 10th and Marcel Kittel was 13th. The stage has often been marred by bad weather which has had a huge influence on the results as wet roads play a big role on such a technical course.




Stage 2

The first road stage has usually been completely flat and that’s no different in 2016. This year the stage will both start and finish in the city of Oss where the riders will cover 186.1km. First they will do two laps of a flat 63.6km circuit. The final part of the stage consists of three laps of a 20.3km circuit that is equally flat. With several turns inside the final three kilometres, it’s a technical finale but the final kilometre is not complicated.


There will be several changes of direction throughout the stage so there is a chance that the wind can come into play. That has been the case in past editions of the opening stage. Otherwise it should be a controlled stage that will end in a big bunch sprint.




Stage 3

Since 2013 the second stage has been held on a hilly course around the city of Buchten in the Limburg province. It won’t be different in 2016 as the city will again welcome the riders for a 210.5km ride that is very similar to last year’s stage. The first part sees the riders head towards the famous hills where they will tackle the famous Amstel Gold Race climbs of Cauberg, Bemelerberg, Loorberg, Camerig, Gulperbergweg and Eyserbosweg – the latter being known as one of the steepest climbs in the Dutch classic. The top comes with 111.4km to go and then the rolling terrain continues for a while before the riders hit descending roads that lead back to Buchten. The stage ends with two laps of a flat 11.2km circuit with a very technical finish as there are numerous turns inside the final kilometre.


The stage is very similar to the one that has been used in recent editions and history shows that the climbs come too early to make a real difference. The stage has been decided in bunch sprints every year, with Marcel Kittel winning in 2013, Greg Henderson coming out on top in 2014 and André Greipel taking the win last year.




Stage 4

Every year since 2005, the race has had the same queen stage which brings the riders over 186.7km from Verviers to La Gileppe in Belgium. The stage will be back in 2016 and will again play a huge role in determining the winner of the race. The course sees the riders head into the Ardennes heartland as they travel from the start to the finish in the first part, going up the Baronheid climb along the way. They will tackle the climb to La Gileppe for the first time after 54.4km of racing and then do one lap of a tough 99.9km circuit that includes the famous Liege-Bastogne-Liege climbs of Col du Rosier and Cote de la Redoute in addition to the Cote d’Annette et Lubin. They will climb to the finish for the second time after 154.3km of racing and then the final part of the stage consists of two laps of the 16.4km finishing circuit. The final 2.5km are all uphill and very technical with numerous turns.


The stage is well-known by most of the riders. The famous Liege-Bastogne-Liege climbs usually create a selection but they come too early to any major damage. It’s usually an elimination race on the finishing circuit and then it comes down to an uphill sprint in the finale. Here the puncheurs usually come to the fore but history shows that the sprinters can limit their losses. The winners of the stage are Moreno Hofland, Philippe Gilbert (2014, 2011 2009), Lars Boom (2013, 2012, Adam Hansen, Enrico Gasparotto, Vasil Kiryienka, Jens Voigt and Erwin Thijs. Gilbert’s three wins say a lot about which riders can do well here but it’s worth noticing that Greipel finished 10th in last year’s stage.





Stage 5

The final stage has traditionally been for the pure sprinters and that will be the case again in 2016. The stage always finishes in Boxtel but the starting city has varied a bit. This year the 186.5km stage will start in Someren and the first 119.9km of flat racing will bring the riders to the finish. Here they will end the stage by doing one lap of a 27.2km circuit and two laps of a 19.7km circuit. Both are almost completely flat and the finish is mainly uncomplicated even though there is a late turn with 300m to go.


Last year Matt Brammeier surprisingly denied the sprinters the chance and Pim Ligthart did the same in 2013. However, the stage is very likely to be a day for the sprinters like it was in 2014 when André Greipel won and in 2012 when Marcel Kittel came out on top 10. With time gaps likely to be small, bonus seconds will be vital and there is always the chance that the wind can wreak havoc on the peloton in the windy Dutch countryside.




The favourites

Ster ZLM Toer is usually decided by a combination of four factors: the prologue, the bonus seconds, the queen stage and the wind. The race can be won by a great time triallist who can gain enough of an advantage in the prologue and hang onto the best in the queen stage. It can also be won by a puncheur who can do a good time trial and then win the race by making the difference in the queen stage. Finally, it can be won by a sprinter who can do a solid prologue, pick up bonus seconds in the bunch sprints and limit the losses in the queen stage. All three types of riders have come out on top in the past.


This year the course is very similar to what we have seen in the past so the race should play out in the way it usually does. The wind can always add an extra element of intrigue and drama but this year, the weather forecasts predict calm conditions. However, it will be raining every for the first four days and this will make the race harder and the sprints more dangerous.


In the past, the rain has had a huge impact on the prologue. Rain is forecasted for Wednesday afternoon but it should be dry for the evening stage. Choosing a late start, the favourites should all have dry roads but if a shower makes the conditions different for some riders, it will have a massive impact. As the prologue plays a huge role in the GC, rain can significantly impact the outcome of the race. We will base this preview on the assumption that the riders have equal conditions for the prologue which luckily seems to be more likely.


The prologue is probably the most important stage and one team comes very well-equipped for the opening stage. BMC have lots of potential winners of the prologue but their best option is probably Stefan Küng. The Swiss proved his time trialling potential in short time trials when he was second behind Bradley Wiggins in the De Panne TT last year but unfortunately a crash at the Giro prevented him from building on the potential he had shown there.


This year a bout on mononucleosis gave him a delayed start but now he is back on track. He has just finished his first grand tour at the Giro and everything in this race will depend on how he has recovered. However, he still looked strong at the end of the Italian race and young talents usually benefit massively from their first three-week race.


On paper, Küng is probably the best prologue rider in this field. If he hadn’t crashed, he is likely to have won the first stage in the Giro and this speaks volumes about his potential. In our eyes, he is the favourite for the opening stage and then it will be all about building enough of an advantage to keep the sprinters and puncheurs at bay and then limiting the losses in the queen stage. The latter aspect could be a challenge as Küng is not explosive. However, he climbs well in lumpy terrain so we expect him to stay with the best there. If he can crush the opposition in the prologue, he will win the race so he is our overall favourite.


A big rival will be cyclo-cross world champion Wout Van Aert. The Belgian has often shown that he is a huge road talent too but the final confirmation came when he beat Tony Martin in the Belgium Tour prologue. That obviously makes him one of the favourites for this prologue too and he should find the technical nature to his liking. Van Aert’s big goal is the Belgian Championships so he should be close to his peak condition. He is a good climber with a solid sprint so he should really find the queen stage to his liking. He will even be one of the favourites to add win that stage and add a few bonus seconds there.


André Greipel won the race in 2015 and finished second in 2013. The German has all the skills to do well here. He has always done good prologues on the short explosive course and he has proved that he can limit his losses in the queen stage, even finishing sixth in La Gileppe in 2013. Furthermore, he is one of the best sprinters here and can add lots of bonus seconds to his tally. This year, however, he will be up against an in-form Marcel Kittel and a strong Dylan Groenewegen so it will be hard for him to dominate the sprints like he did last year. As there are also better time triallists here, he will probably lose more time in the prologue. The rainy conditions won’t make it easier as he won’t take any risks in the sprint. This will make it harder for him to win again but it’s definitely not impossible.


We are very curious to see what Marcel Kittel can do. He is faster than Greipel and a better prologue rider but the queen stage will be a tough challenge.  His best result there came in 2013 when he was 33rd and lost 32 seconds which is obviously way too much. In 2016, however, he has been climbing better than ever and we expect him to be a lot closer to the best. He hasn’t raced since the Giro but his form should be great as it has been all year and if he can do a prologue like he did in the Giro, he may even win the first stage. With a few sprint wins and a better queen stage, he can take the overall victory too.


Jempy Drucker is another BMC card. The Luxembourger was on fire in the Tour de Luxembourg where he won the prologue before suffering a bad crash. It remains to be seen how he has recovered but if he is back at 100%, he will be a danger man. The prologue suits him less than the Luxembourg TT but he should still be one of the best. He is the BMC sprinter so he may have an outside chance to pick up a few bonus seconds even tough his rivals are very strong. Finally, the queen stage suits him really well and he will be one of the favourites to win there. If he can do so, he can win the race overall too.


Moreno Moser is coming from the Giro and he will be a strong contender here if he has maintained his form. He is a prologue specialist and a great puncheur. He will be one of the favourites for the queen stage and if he can win that stage and do a TT like he did in the Giro, he will be hard to beat. However, he is very inconsistent so you never know what you will get from Moser.


Søren Kragh Andersen is a neo-pro but he has the necessary skills to win this race. He has just finished fourth at the Tour of California TT which proves that his form is very good. Last year he won the Tour de l’Avenir prologue so the first stage should be to his liking. Furthermore, he is great in hilly terrain and has a fast sprint as he proved by winning a stage of last year’s Tour des Fjords. This makes him a contender for both the queen stage and the prologue and so he has the complete package.


Sep Vanmarcke is one of the best puncheurs here and will be a contender for the queen stage. He has improved his time trialling a lot but probably not enough to win the race overall. Furthermore, he hasn’t shown the best form recently.


Nikias Arndt finished the Giro very well by winning the final stage and he was on fire in the final week. He has just finished third in the Rund um Köln so the form is still good. He has been second at the German TT championships and so should find the prologue to his liking. He is a much better climber than Greipel and Kittel so a good queen stage, a good prologue and a few bonus seconds in the sprints will bring him far.


Gaetan Bille is tailor-made for this race as he is a prologue specialist and a puncheur. However, he has just come back from a crash at the Tour de la Somme and even though his form is clearly getting better – he was solid in Luxembourg – he may not be good enough to win yet.


The race suits Ramunas Navardauskas really well. As he can sprint, time trial and climb, he will be good in the queen stage and the prologue. He has to work for Wippert in the sprints though so he won’t get the chance to pick up bonus seconds there. Furthermore, his TT skills are probably not good enough to win.


Finally, Taylor Phinney, Jos Van Emden, Niki Terpstra and Tom Bohli deserve a mention. They are all among the favourites for the prologue but the queen stage will probably be a bit too hard for them to take the overall win.


***** Stefan Küng

**** Wout Van Aert, André Greipel

*** Marcel Kittel, Jempy Drucker, Moreno Moser, Søren Kragh Andersen

** Nikias Arndt, Sep Vanmarcke, Gaetan Bille, Ramunas Navardauskas, Taylor Phinney, Jos Van Emden, Niki Terpstra

* Tom Bohli, Anthony Turgis, Sean De Bie, Pieter Vanspeybrouck, Vegard Stake Laengen, Gianni Meersman, Florian Senechal



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