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Will Wout van Aert take his first professional stage race win at the Tour de Wallonie?

Photo: UCI Channel




22.07.2016 @ 19:00 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

While the Tour de France riders prepare themselves for the final battles, another group of riders have their eyes firmly on the second half of the season. For many of those riders, the Tour de Wallonie serves as the start of the late summer and autumn campaign and the hilly terrain and many sprint finishes makes it a perfect preparation event for the tough Clasica San Sebastien and the sprint classics Vattenfall Cyclassics and GP Plouay that are the big goals for many riders at this time of the year.


Only one cycling event really transcends the sport and gets attention from all over the world. The Tour de France has a special status not only in cycling. As it is the largest annual sport event in the world, it has a unique position on the world of sport.


That makes it hard for anyone to compete with the French grand tour for the attention from cycling fans and so it is no wonder that there are barely any other major races during the month of July. There have been a few one-day races in Spain, the German Sachsen Tour was once held at this time of the year and the Vuelta a la Comunidad de Madrid was also a July event at one point. However, almost everybody have realized that it is impossible to match the Tour and so those races have all disappeared or moved to another slot on the calendar. The Tour of Austria has bucked the trend and always takes place during the Tour and this year the Tour de Pologne was held in July due to the Olympics but otherwise this month is all about the Tour.


Another event that bucks the trend is the Tour de Wallonie. At this time of the year, many riders are searching for opportunities to prepare for the second half of the year and the Belgian stage race has turned into the preferred – and only – option for many riders. Finishing three days before the next major classic, Clasica San Sebastian, the race is the perfect chance to get back into the racing rhythm before important WorldTour points are on offer.


The race has positioned itself well on the calendar. The first two stages are held during the final weekend of the Tour so of course they barely get any attention. However, the final three stages are held at a time when nothing else is going and they are even shown on Belgian television. In that way, it both accommodates the wish of the organizers to get some extra attention and allows the riders enough time to recover for Saturday’s big classic.


Belgium is a race mostly known for its one-day races and stage racing has rarely been a big issue in the country. They still have one of the oldest stage races in the world, the national Tour of Belgium, but it gets far less attention than the big classics. While there is no stage race in Flanders, the region of Wallonie bucks the trend by having its own tour too.


The race was first held in 1974 and has had several different names before it became a real regional tour in 1994. The first 22 editions were only for amateur riders but in 1996 it became a professional event on the UCI calendar. It has been a 2.HC race since the current UCI system was introduced in 2005 and it got its current name two years later after having previously been known as the Tour de la Region Wallonne.


Wallonia is mainly known for the Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Fleche Wallonne classics but the stage race is less tough. There are usually several sprint stages and some hillier stages where the puncheurs can make a difference. However, there are never very long climbs and bonus seconds have always played a crucial role. Furthermore, the level of difficult has varied significantly. In 2012 and 2014, strong sprinters Giacomo Nizzolo and Gianni Meersman won the race while Greg Van Avermaet won the harder editions in 2011 and 2013. Last year Niki Terpstra won a race that should have been too tough for him but a surprise win from a breakaway on the first day allowed him to take a surprise victory ahead of Victor Campenaerts and Sergey Lagutin.


The course

As said, the level of difficulty varies a bit from year to year and the 2016 edition seems to be one of the easier. The tough stage with the Mur de Thuin that made the 2011 and 2013 editions very hard, won’t return and there won’t be an uphill finish like we had last year. However, the terrain definitely suits the puncheurs that will have a chance to make a difference in the final three stages. The race won’t be as easy as it was in 2014 but with flat finishes every day, a strong sprinter of the Giacomo Nizzolo type can win the race.


The course has a beautiful anatomy as the stages get progressively harder. The first two stages are for the sprinters while there are climbs on the circuits in the final three stages. Those climbs become harder and harder and the courses include more and more climbing, meaning that the puncheurs have increasingly bigger chances to make a difference.



Stage 1:

The sprinters are likely to have their say right from the start of the race. On the first day, the riders will tackle 178.3km from Charleroi to Mettet. After a flat start, the terrain gets hillier at the midpoint where there are four category 2 climbs and one category 3 climb on the menu. However, the final climb comes with 31.6km to go and the stage ends with one lap of a 16.6km circuit.


As it was the case when Mettet hosted a stage finish in 2012, this should be a day for the sprinters. The field is loaded with fast finishers and they shouldn’t be troubled by the small climbs. The scene is set for a bunch kick on the first day.




Stage 2:

There won’t be any major climbs on the menu on the second day either but a small climb on the circuit should see the stronger sprinters come to the fire. The 182.7km will bring the riders from Saint-Ghislain to Le Roeulx and again a flat start leads to hilly middle section. Here the riders will tackle two category 3, one category 2 and one category 1 climb. However, there are no categorized climbs in the final 73km and the stage ends with two laps of a 12.3km circuit. Here there is a small climb at the midpoint which may take the sting of the legs of some of the sprinters and be used for a late attack.


The small climb in the finale can be a launch pad for some aggression and as there is an intermediate sprint there on the first lap, we should get an aggressive finale. However, it should do little to challenge the sprinters and another bunch sprint is the expected outcome.




Stage 3:

Things gradually get tougher in this year’s Tour de Wallonie and the third stage offers an even tougher finale than we have had in the first two days. Most of the 200.3km between Braine l’Alleud and Vielsalm are relatively flat as there are only a category 2 and a category 3 climb on the menu during the long trek from the start to the finish. However, the stage has a nasty sting in its tail as it ends with two laps on a 16.7km circuit that has a category 2 climb 6.6km from the finish.


The finale is a new one so it is hard to know much about the toughness of the ascent. However, the strong sprinters can usually survive category 2 climbs in the Tour de Wallonie but the heavier guys will have no chance in this finale. We are likely to see attacks in the finale and may be possible for a puncheur to make a difference but the most likely outcome is a reduced bunch sprint.




Stage 4:

The fourth stage is very similar to the third one as it ends with a few laps on a circuit with a tough climb and a flat finale. The 180m between Aubel and Herstal are hillier than the previous stage as there are four category 2 climbs and one category 1 climb in the first 65km. Then the road levels out until the riders hit the finishing circuit with 50.3km to go. They will almost do a full lap of the 18.9km circuit and then finally do two laps. The circuit includes the category 1 Cote de Sarolay just 10.9km from the line and so the riders will tackle the ascent a total of three times.


The stage looks like the previous one but it is hard. Overall there is more climbing and the final climb is tougher. On the other hand, the distance from the top to the finish is longer so it will be harder for a late attack to stick. We expect another sprint finish but from a smaller group than in the previous stage.




Stage 5:

The Tour de Wallonie has often had its hardest stage on the final day and it’s the same in 2016. The final 189.3km of the race will bring the riders from Engis to Dison and is a very hilly affair. The opening sections between the start and the finish includes a total of two category 1, four category 2 and one category  climbs so the riders will already be tired when they get to the 17.3km finishing circuit. It includes the category 1 climb of Cote La Haute Saurée with 11.2km to go and the category 2 Cote de Val Fassotte just 2.2km from the line. The peloton will do almost a complete lap before they get to the finish line for the first time and then end the race by doing one full lap, meaning that they will tackle both climbs twice.


This is the queen stage of the race and the day that will decide the race. The tough course means that the peloton will already been relatively small by the time we get to the circuit and this is where the puncheurs and classics riders have to attack. They may be strong enough to make the difference and a lone rider or a small group can make it to the finish. However, it might be possible for a strong sprinter to hang on in this kind of terrain and it’s definitely not impossible that such a rider can win the final stage too.




The favourites

Tour de Wallonie has traditionally suited either a strong sprinter in years when every stage has been decided in a bunch sprint or a reduced bunch sprint, or classics riders that can go for bonus seconds and make a difference in the harder stages. Everything depends on the course and this year it seems that both types of riders will have a chance. There is no really tough stage like the Mur de Thuin finale which has been used in the past and a strong sprinter should be strong enough to hang on in stages 3, 4 and 5. On the other hand, especially the final stage is so tough and has climbs so close to the finish that the strongest riders can make a difference.


This sets the scene for an exciting battle between the best sprinters and the puncheurs and the race can go both ways.  Much depends on the form of the fast guys which is always a bit uncertain at this point as it’s the first race in a long time for many riders. Furthermore, much will depend on how much belief the teams have in their fast guys and how much they want to control the race.


On paper, Lotto Soudal have one of the best teams and they want the race to be as hard as possible. Tiesj Benoot is in excellent form. In the brutal stage to Zakopane at the Tour de Pologne, he rode very aggressively, dropping several good climbers. In fact only his teammate Tim Wellens and maybe Davide Formolo appeared to be stronger.


Benoot often comes up short in stage races because of his poor TT skills but this race really suits him. There is no time trial in Wallonia and the final three stages are tailor-made for his characteristics. He may be known for his skills in the cobbled classics but he could shine in the Ardennes races too. He rode strongly in Clasica San Sebastian last year and he impressed in the mountains at this year’s Tour de Suisse. Furthermore, he is fast in a sprint so he can go for bonus seconds and win sprints from small group. We expect Lotto Soudal to make this race as hard as possible and Benoot seems to be strong enough to make a difference in the finales. The Belgian is our favourite to win the race.


Wout van Aert may be known as a cyclo-cross rider but he is a very capable road racer too. He won the Belgium Tour prologue, he was one of the best in the Belgian Championships and he nearly won the queen stage at Ster ZLM Toer. With a fourth place at GP Cerami, he has proved that his form is great and this is a race that suits him really well. He is very strong and punchy on shorter climbs and like Benoot he can make the difference in the harder stages. Furthermore, he is fast in a sprint even though he would have preferred some of the finales to have been uphill.


On paper, it’s a great race for Enrico Gasparotto who is having one of the best seasons of his long career. The Italian is an Ardennes specialists and so finds the terrain to his liking and he is fast in a sprint. Like Benoot, he can go on the attack on the climbs and mix it up in sprints from small groups or in reduced bunch sprints. He has only done one race recently, the GP Cerami where he missed the split in the crosswind. He may not be in his best form yet but we think that he will be strong. This year he has been riding at a high level almost all the time and this is an important race for Wanty. Gasparotto has all the skils to win this race.


One of the strong sprinters in this race is Matteo Trentin. The Italian climbs better than most and he may be strong enough to hang on in this terrain. He abandoned GP Cerami so his form is uncertain but if he is at his best, this is a race that suits him well. He will probably work for Boonen in the first sprint stages and then he will get his own chances if he can survive the harder stages. He is probably not strong enough to follow the attacks in the hard stages but if there are all decided in sprints, Trentin will be one of the favourites.


Lotto Soudal have more cards to play. One of them is Tosh van der Sande who will probably be more defensive than Benoot. The Belgian is fast in a sprint but he has a hard time in the big bunch kicks. However, he climbs really well so in the reduced bunch sprints, he will be one of the best. If the race is less selective, van der Sande should be able to take the win but doing well in some of the sprints and pick up important bonus seconds. Sean De Bie is another solid candidate to ride aggressively and as he is reasonably fast in a sprint, he is suited to this race.


Jerome Baugnies is one of the most inconsistent riders in the peloton but for the first time in more than a year he seems to be close to his best. He has been up there in some of the smaller races in Belgian and finished second at GP Cerami. He is a good climber with a fast sprint so he will be ready to take over if Gasparotto is not ready to lead Wanty.


Katusha go into the race with Alexey Tsatevich who hasn’t raced for a long time. His form is a bit of an unknown but if he is as strong as he was in Catalonia, this is a race he can win. Back then, he won a very hard stage in Barcelona and so he definitely has the means to do well in this kind of terrain. He is not fast enough to win the pure bunch sprints but in a reduced group he is likely to be one of the fastest.


Baptiste Planckaert is one of the best sprinters in the race and he is a solid climber too. On paper, the final stages may be too hard for him but he is one of the fast finishers who may be strong enough to hang on. He missed the split at GP Cerami so his form is uncertain but this year he has been riding really well all year so he shouldn’t be too far from his best in a race that is a big goal for this Wallonie team.


On paper, Arnaud Demare is the fastest sprinter here and he will be one of the big favourites in the bunch sprints. However, the final stages are likely to be too hard for him. His form is a bit uncertain as he has only done the GP Cerami recently. In that race, he finished in the first group but failed to mix it up in a sprint. We expect the race to be too hard for him but it is worth remembering that he has actually won the 4 Days of Dunkirk overall. If he can pick up bonus seconds in the sprint stages, he may limit his losses enough to win the race overall.


Dries Devenyns and Sebastien Delfosse are some of the best climbers here and they are both pretty fast in a sprint. However, they don’t have the speed of the likes of Benoot, van Aert and Gasparotto so they have to get rid of those riders to win the race. That’s difficult but as Devenyns showed at the Belgium Tour, it’s not impossible.


On paper, it’s a great race for Julien Simon who climbs well, is fast in a sprint and is an Ardennes specialist. However, he has missed most of the season due to injury and this is his first race for a long time. We doubt that he has the form to be competitive. The same goes for Gianni Meersman who is a former winner of this race. It suits him down to the ground but he has shown no signs of form for the last two years


UPDATE: Tiesj Benoot is out of the race and has been replaced by Frederik Frison


***** Tiesj Benoot

**** Wout van Aert, Enrico Gasparotto

*** Matteo Trentin, Tosh van der Sande, Jerome Baugnies, Alexey Tsatevich

** Baptiste Planckaert, Dries Devenyns, Sebastien Delfosse, Anthony Turgis, Sean De Bie, Julien Simon, Gianni Meersman

* Gaetan Bille, Arnaud Demare, Pieter Vanspeybrouck, Dimitri Claeys, Michel Kreder, Viacheslav Kuznetsov, Jelle Wallays, Florian Senechal, Lilian Calmejane, Roman Maikin, Jelle Vanendert, Niki Terpstra, Yves Lampaert, Odd Christian Eiking, Eliot Lietaer, Laurent Pichon, Pavel Kochetkov



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