The final part of the season has traditionally been almost exclusively about one-day racing and in Europe only one race has bucked the trend. The Tour del’Eurometropole, formerly known as Circuit Franco-Belge, has been the final stage race of the European season for several years but unfortunately, financial difficulties have forced the organizers to reduce it to a one-day race. Nonetheless, they could hardly have asked for a better field as the relatively flat course makes it a final big test for the Worlds contenders.
The cycling calendar has a beautiful anatomy that means that different parts of the season are focused different types of races. While the early months of the season are almost only about stage racing, the classics and one-day races take centre stage in the middle of the spring. After Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the stage races dominate during the final part of the spring and most of the summer until the classics again take over in the months of September and October.
There have often been a number of stage races in Asia and Oceania in the final part of the season, with the Herald Sun Tour and the relatively new Abu Dhabi Tour and Tour of Beijing being the prime examples. In recent years, a number of races in China have also been established and races like Tour of Hainan and Tour of Taihu Lake all hope to turn into bigger events in the future.
In Europe, however, the stage racing season has traditionally come to a close after the Vuelta a Espana and the Tour of Britain but one race has allowed the riders to race for multiple consecutive days in the final part of the year. Tour de l’Eurometropole which was formerly known as Circuit Franco-Belge has been a standalone stage race in the final part of the year, usually coming in the week after the World Championships.
As the old name shows, the race is held close to the French-Belgian border and always visits both coutries. It was first held in 1924 and has always been held in the beginning of October. It was cancelled from 1940 to 1954 but since then only the 1968 and 1970 editions haven’t been held. It may never have been the biggest race on the calendar and the honour’s roll lacks the glorious taste of many other Belgian races but I has been a great chance for riders to make use of some late season form after the World Championships. It got its current name in 2012.
Tour de l’Eurometropole takes place in a relatively flat part of Europe and so it has always been a race for strong sprinters who can survive the small climbs in the area that is known from Gent-Wevelgem. Hence, it has served as the perfect preparation for Paris-Tours and it has often been the big indicator of form ahead of the final big classic of the year. Recent winners include Robbie McEwan, Jimmy Casper, Gert Steegmans, Tyler Farrar, Adam Blythe, Jurgen Roelandt, Jens Debusscher and Arnaud Demare and this clearly reflects which kind of riders shine in this terrain.
Unfortunately, the race has come into financial difficulty and this year it will be held as a one-day race on the circuit that has been used for the final stage in the last few years. This takes away its role as the final stage race of the European season and so the Eneco Tour was the final multi-day event in 2016. However, the race hasn’t lost any bit of its prestige and this year the field is maybe even stronger than usual. With the Worlds taking place on a flat course in Qatar, most of the sprinters are in great form and many will use the Belgian race as one of final preparation races for the big battle in the Middle Eastern desert. Hence, the start list includes riders like Tom Boonen, Fernando Gaviria, Arnaud Demare, Jens Debusschere, Alexander Porsev and Dylan Groenewegen who are all set to play prominent roles in Qatar later this month. Luckily the plan is to turn it into a two-day stage race in 2017.
Last year the race included a prologue for the first time in years and as it finished on a tough climb, it tipped the balance away from the sprinters. Alexis Gougeard won the opening test and took the overall win ahead of Martijn Keizer and Jurgen Roelandts.
As said, the first one-day edition of the race will use the same finish that has featured in the final stage in the last few years. The 195.6km race will start in Poperinge and finish in Tournai. Unlike in the past, the entire race will be held on Belgian soil.
From the start, the riders will head along flat roads to the first small climb, Sulferbergstraat which comes after 8.3km of racing from there the terrain is completely flat as the race follows the border and passes through the Belgian suburbs of Roubaix. As they get closet to Tournai, the riders will tackle the small climbs of Enclus du Haut and Horlitin before they get to the finishing circuit. It includes the small Col Croix Jubaru which the riders will tackle one time after 101.9km of racing before they get to the finish line for the first time at the 107.5km mark. The final part of the race consists of 6 laps pf the 14.7km circuit which means that the riders will tackle the climb a total of seven times. Its top is located with 5.5km to go and from there, a short descent leads to the final 3km which are completely flat. There are no major technical challenges in the final 3km until the riders turn left in a roundabout with 500m to go.
The race may usually have been held as a stage race but the new format will be unknown. As said, the finale has been used for the final stage for several years and so everybody knows what to expect. There may be a small climb on the circuit but in recent years, it has always been decided in a bunch sprint, with Jonas Ahlstrand, Arnaud Demare, John Degenkolb, Nacer Bouhanni, Robbie McEwen, Wouter Weylandt and Juan Jose Haedo being the winners since 2009. The last time the sprinters missed out was in 2008 when Sebastien Rosseler took the victory.
The one-day format will of course change the tactical game as there will be no leader’s team to control things and this will make the chance of a surprise slightly bigger. More importantly, the weather will be bad as there is a 50% chance of rain and a temperature of just 17 degrees. It will be relatively windy too, with a moderate win coming from a westerly direction. This means that the riders will have a crosswind on the finishing circuit which could make the finale much more interesting.
History shows that there are usually a lot of attacks on the Croix Jubaru and very often the final attackers have been caught very close to the finish. It is definitely not impossible to make a difference on this circuit and we can again expect an aggressive finale, especially in the tough conditions.
It still looks like a sprint finish is the most likely outcome. For Etixx-QuickStep and LottoNL-Jumbo, this is one of the final chances for their leaders to do a sprint before the Worlds and they will probably do their utmost to control things. Especially the Belgian team may try to exploit the windy conditions and make the race selective but their goal is very likely to be a sprint. Lotto Soudal are likely to be more aggressive but as FDJ also want to sprint, a bunch kick is the likely outcome. The wind may create a bit of selection but it’s unlikely to be strong enough to do major damage even though the direction is right.
If it comes to a sprint, the two main teams are Etixx-QuickStep and LottoNL-Jumbo. Both teams have strong trains and the fastest sprinters and it is likely to come down to a battle between those two squads. It will be very interesting to see whether Etixx-QuickStep will ride for Fernando Gaviria or Tom Boonen. On paper, Gaviria is probably the fastest but we expect them to go for Boonen. The Belgian worked for Kittel at the Eneco Tour and he is expected to lead Belgium at the Worlds. Gaviria has had lots of sprint opportunities recently while Boonen hasn’t had any since he won the Brussels Cycling Classic one month ago. It’s a Belgian team and they have the leader of the Belgian Worlds team. Boonen has a special position in the team and so we expect the Belgian to be given the nod.
However, Dylan Groenewegen is our favourite. The Dutchman has had a breakthrough season and recently took the biggest win of his career at the Eneco Tour where he beat almost the entire sprint elite. More importantly, it seems that the Tour de France has made him a lot stronger and at the Tour of Britain and the Eneco Tour he impressed with his excellent climbing. This means that this kind of lumpy course suits him pretty well and in a flat finish he is one of the fastest in the world.
Furthermore, the Eneco Tour proved how much he has improved his ability to position himself and for this race he can count on a great train that includes fellow sprinters Moreno Hofland and Tom Van Asbroeck and lead-out man Dennis Van Winden. They may not have worked much together with this particular line-up but in a race without many WorldTour teams they should have the firepower to keep Groenewegen up there. Only Gaviria has the speed to match the Dutchman in a flat sprint and as Etixx are likely to go for Boonen, Groenewegen is our favourite.
His big rival will of course be Tom Boonen. The Belgian has been sprinting really well since he renewed his contract in July. He won a stage in the Tour de Wallonie and took an impressive sprint win at the RideLondon Classic. However, it was his marvelous sprint at the Brussels Cycling Classic that really showed how well he is going. In this race he can count on the best train which includes the likes of Gaviria, Nikolas Maes, Yves Lampaert, Lukasz Wisniowski and Davide Martinelli and that’s a big advantage. On paper, he is not as fast as Groenewegen but with the bad weather, the race could become hard. That favours Boonen and with this kind of lead-out, he won’t be easy to beat.
Fernando Gaviria may also be given the nod. After all, the Colombian is usually above Boonen in the sprint hierarchy and he is absolutely flying. He has only done four races since he left the track at the end of his Olympics campaign but his aggressive riding in both Kampioenschap van Vlaanderen and GP Impanis shows that his form is good. Sports director Brian Holm has told that reports from the camp is that he is riding excellently and his second place in Koelskamp and first play in GP Impanis has provided him with lots of confidence. At the Gran Piemonte, he finished second despite having gone down in a crash. He has the best lead-out so if Etixx-QuickStep go for him, he is likely to take the win.
Timothy Dupont has had an amazing season. He has confirmed that he has developed into a top level sprinter and most recently he proved his class when he beat Gaviria at the Kampioenschap van Vlaanderen. One day later he was second behind the Colombian in the GP Impanis which speaks volumes about his consistency. The tough conditions and the late climb suit him excellent and with Aidis Kruopis at his side, he has an excellent lead-out man. He has proved that he can beat the best and even though he would have preferred a harder race, he can definitely win. Kruopis will be the back-up plan and the Lithuanian is not without a chance as he goes into the race with great confidence after his recent win.
Lotto Soudal will be riding for Jens Debusschere who is always very good at this time of the year. The Belgian has often been flying in this race and at the Eneco Tour he showed that the form is very good. However, the Tour of Britain showed that he wasn’t sprinting very well at the moment and he missed out on his many opportunities. In general, it’s a long time since he has done a good sprint. On the other hand, he has Jurgen Roelandts for the lead-out and he is one of the best in the business.
Arnaud Demare is a former winner in Tournai and would love to do it again. The Frenchman has been in good form in the second half of the season and the FDJ train has been working really well. Most recently, the really impressed at the Eneco Tour where they were one of the few teams that managed to organize a lead-out. Unfortunately, he will be missing Mickael Delage here and that’s a huge setback as the FDJ leader always struggles when it comes to positioning. On the other hand, Delage wasn’t present in the Eneco Tour either and in that race things worked really well. Unfortunately, we are not convinced that he is sprinting well enough to win.
Katusha have Alexander Porsev for a sprint. The Russian returned to his best in the Giro where he was one of the most consistent sprinters and in this race he has a very good lead-out. He showed good form in Tour des Fjords where he worked for Kristoff and he did a very good work for Kristoff in the Eneco Tour after sprinting to a top 10 in the GP Impanis. With Marco Haller, Michael Mørkøv and Viacheslav Kuznetsov, he is supported by Kristoff’s lead-out train and if they can deliver him on the front, he is fast enough to win.
Wanty have Kenny Dehaes who is no longer in the form he had in the spring. However, he is still one of the fastest riders which his good sprint at the Kampioenschap van Vlaanderen proved. One day later his bad condition was put on show when he was dropped at the Primus Classic and if the race turns out to be hard he may not be competitive in the end.
Finally, we will point to the IAM pair of Heinrich Haussler and Sondre Holst Enger. At the Tour de France, the Norwegian showed that he is very competitive at this level but he has been in poor form in the autumn. Furthermore, the race is probably a bit too easy for him. Haussler has been riding well but he is probably not fast enough to win.
Michael Van Staeyen, Jonas Alhstrand, Boris Vallee, Yauheni Hutarovich, Fabio Chinello, Emiel Vermeulen and Amaury Capiot could all be competitive in the sprint but they are probably not fast enough to win.
In the unlikely scenario that a breakaway makes it, look out for late attacks from Oliver Naesen, Moreno Hofland, Tom Van Asbroeck, Marco Haller, Pieter Vanspeybrouck, Marco Marcato, Jerome Baugnies, Jurgen Roelandts, Tosh van der Sande and Jelle Wallays.
***** Dylan Groenewegen
**** Tom Boonen, Fernando Gaviria
*** Timothy Dupont, Jens Debusschere, Arnaud Demare
** Alexandr Porsev, Kenny Dehaes, Aidis Kruopis, Heinrich Haussler, Sondre Holst Enger
* Michael Van Staeyen, Jonas Alhstrand, Boris Vallee, Yauheni Hutarovich, Emiel Vermeulen, Oliver Naesen, Moreno Hofland, Tom Van Asbroeck, Marco Haller, Amaury Capiot, Pieter Vanspeybrouck, Marco Marcato, Jerome Baugnies, Jurgen Roelandts, Tosh van der Sande, Jelle Wallays, Fabio Chinello
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