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He was absent last Sunday but now he is back and as a consequence he is the natural favourite in tomorrow's race. Peter Sagan focuses on an assault on the Amstel Gold Race and possibly the Fleche Wallonne, and the Brabantse Pijl will be...

Photo: Sirotti




















10.04.2013 @ 11:55 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

With the cobbled classics now done and dusted, we face a changing of the guards as the powerful, strong men take a well-deserved rest while the punchy climbers enter the scene in the Ardennes classics. The main actors in the most famous hilly races get one final chance to test their legs in tomorrow's warm-up race, the Brabantse Pijl.


Held on the Sunday ahead of the Tour of Flanders, the Brabantse Pijl was for several years a monstrosity in the cobbles season. With almost no pave sections on the hilly course near the city of Leuven and a hard finish on the Alsemberg climb, the race saw a number of Ardennes riders test their legs while most people had their attention firmly focused on De Ronde a week later.


In a restructure of the Belgian classics calendar in 2010, the race got a race date in the part of the season to which it really belongs. Replacing the cobbled Scheldeprijs on the Wednesday ahead of Amstel Gold Race, the race now has its legitimacy as the final and perfect preparation race for the three important classics in the Belgium and the Netherlands, and at the same time the route was changed to further accommodate its new role.


Unsurprisingly, the race has gained in stature as a consequence of its new date. After a surprise breakaway victory in 2010, the last two editions have seen a fascinating battle between some of the finest Ardennes specialists all in peak condition. In 2011, the race even signalled the start of Philippe Gilbert's unprecedented run of classics success as the Belgian gobbled up the semi-classic ahead of his all-conquering assault in the Ardennes.


Despite its lack of paves, the race is a sort of amalgamation between a cobbled and an Ardennes classic. With no less than 25 climbs on the course, climbing legs are clearly the main attribute in any quest for success. However, the race is held just south of Bruxelles and so the long climbs of the Ardennes are absent from the race route. Instead, the race features several short, sharp, paved ascents much more comparable to the hellingen tackled in the Tour of Flanders.


In that sense, the build-up of the hilly classics schedule now follows a nice progression. Starting with the short ramps in the Brabantse Pijl, the climbs gradually get longer and longer in the Amstel Gold Race and the Fleche Wallonne before the Liege-Bastogne-Liege rounds off the classics season as the race most suited to pure climbers. Hence, it is no surprise to see a number of the in-form cobbles specialists try to get one last result before they take a well-deserved rest, and the start list contains a mix of both types of classics riders.


Last year, Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) kicked off an amazing classics campaign by escaping from a select group to take an impressive solo victory in terrible weather conditions. With his success throughout the hilly classics, Voeckler finally saw his own potential in the one-day races and this year the races form his main spring target. Last year's race also gave the first indication that Gilbert had not left behind his early-season woes and signalled the start of a disappointing campaign for the 2011 Ardennes conqueror.


The course

The 2010 revision of the course meant that the race abandoned its traditional finish on the Alsemberg and the former race landmark now only plays a secondary role in the layout of the race. Instead, the key point of the event is a hard finishing circuit in the city of Overijse containing no less than 5 climbs and with the peloton scheduled to tackle three laps, it is a hard end to the race with 15 short ascents inside the final 70km of the race.


The riders start from its traditional site in the city of Leuven and head for a mostly flat run to the race's former finish location. Along the way they tackle three climbs - among those the Alsemberg - before they turn around and travel along the same route back to the city of Overijse. With 7 climbs on the menu, the route is slightly more challenging in the opposite direction but the opening part of the race is mostly a rather calm affair with an early break taking the opportunity to enjoy some time in the spotlight.


The pace gradually heats up and the racing gets serious as soon as the peloton hits the finish line for the first time after 130km. The riders now have to tackle 3 laps of the 23,4km finishing circuit. With 5 climbs and to easy cobbled stretches, it is a tricky affair, and attacks usually go thick and fast as soon as the peloton starts the first lap.


The main selection can take place in any of the climbs, and usually a select group of favourites escape the peloton's clutches rather early in the race final. From then on, it is an attacking battle between the main contenders with riders dropping off the pace, groups splitting up and riders going clear in brave attempts to foil the faster finishers.


The race final is a hard one. With the IJskelderlaan topping out with 4,2km remaining and the key climb of the Schavei situated only 200 meters from the finish line, the riders have plenty of opportunities to attack, and the deciding part of the race is much more suited to a punchy classics specialist than a traditional fast finisher.


The weather

The weather played a key role in last year's edition which was hampered by extremely wet conditions. It was a race of attrition, and only 44 riders made it to the finish on a cold and unpleasant day. Furthermore, the downpour made the numerous descents and tight corners on the final finishing circuit really dangerous, and pre-race favourite Peter Sagan lost all hopes due to an unfortunate crash as he entered a bend on a downhill section.


For once, the riders will experience better conditions in 2013 than they did the previous year but it will not be a pleasant day of riding. A bit of everything is forecasted with rain, clouds and showers mixing it up throughout the day. The extreme cold has left Belgium for now, and temperatures of 10 degrees are expected to greet the riders when they hit the city of Overijse tomorrow afternoon. Finally, there will be a moderate wind from a westerly direction but with the finishing circuit mostly taking in urban areas, it rarely plays a major role in the first hilly semi-classic of the year.


The favourites

He was absent last Sunday in Roubaix but now he is back and as a consequence he is the natural favourite in tomorrow's race. Peter Sagan (Cannondale) once again decided to skip the cobbled classic least suited to his characteristics to focus on an assault on the Amstel Gold Race and this year possibly also the Fleche Wallonne, and the Brabantse Pijl will be an opportunity to sharpen his legs after 9 days without competition.


It is difficult to put together a route more suited to the Slovakian's characteristics than the one found in tomorrow's race. With numerous short, sharp climbs, plenty of bends and technical sections and a hard final with a climb just 200 meters from the finish line, it is hard to see anyone beat the Gent-Wevelgem winner in Overijse.


Last year, an unfortunate crash was his undoing, and he will certainly be out for revenge tomorrow. However, it will be a case of everyone against Sagan and he could face a difficult situation as the only one to close down attacks from a select group of favourites on the numerous climbs in the final part of the race.


Hence, team support will be crucial for the Slovakian who hopes to be surrounded by teammates as long as possible. However, this should be no problem for Sagan who will be assisted by a formidable team in tomorrow's race. Two of the team's other captains, Damiano Caruso and Moreno Moser, both target the Ardennes classics before they start their build-up for the Tour de France and while they will get their own opportunities in the Liege-Bastogne-Liege and possible the Fleche Wallonne, it will be all for Sagan in the Brabantse Pijl and the Amstel Gold Race.


Both have just returned from their second training camp on Tenerife and should enter the race in peak condition. Caruso proved his strong run of form with a victory on the final day in Coppi e Bartali, and both should be capable of making the decisive selection. They will chase down the crucial attacks but we could also see a repeat of the Strade Bianche in which the fear of Sagan made it possible for Moser to go on the attack and steal the glory himself.


However, Sagan will face a very strong line-up of genuine Ardennes classics contenders who will all try to put the Slovakian under pressure. One of those is the in-form and remarkably consistent Greg Van Avermaet. The BMC rider is one of the select few to contest both the cobbled and the Ardennes classics and this year he even made a further expansion of his schedule by including the Paris-Roubaix which he usually skips.


This proved to be a wise decision as the Belgian saved his American team on an otherwise lacklustre day by playing a key role in the final and ending up 4th only narrowly denied the final podium spot by Niki Terpstra. With a 3rd place in the Gent-Wevelgem and 7th in the Tour of Flanders, no one can doubt his current condition and he has a great history in the Brabantse Pijl after taking 8th, 15th and 5th on the previous three occasions.


He handles the short, steep climbs really well and with his fast finish, he is able to distance most rivals in a final sprint to the line. Furthermore, his aggressive nature makes him a likely candidate to be the one to escape the Cannondale clutches in the final part of the race. Of course, the main question is whether he has recovered from Sunday's efforts and like all of his rivals he faces the difficult task of finding a way to get rid of Sagan before the final time up the Schavei climb.


Björn Leukemans (Vacansoleil) is another of the select few riders to contest both the cobbled and the Ardennes classics. He struggled to find his form in the early part of the season and was not anywhere near his best in the Dwars door Vlaanderen and Gent-Wevelgem. However, he was better in the Tour of Flanders and only bad luck prevented him from making the crucial 13-man selection on the Mons-en-Pevele sector in the Paris-Roubaix. While he usually attempts to keep his condition in the Ardennes after a long classics season, his form is on the rise this year, and so he could be an even more prominent actor in the hilly races than he usually is.


He was the only one able to follow Gilbert when he won the Brabantse Pijl in 2011 but lacked the sprint to beat his companion in the end. Compared to his main rivals, his final kick is not frightening, and he will have to go on the attack to finally land the big victory which has so far eluded one of the most consistent classics contenders.


Daniel Martin (Garmin) has kept quiet since his stunning victory in the Volta a Catalunya. However, it has all been a case of a careful preparation for his major targets in the Ardennes classics. Last year, he ended in the top 10 in both Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege and with his allergy problems more under control he has put in a concerted effort to better his performance this year. As a pure climber, the hills in the Brabantse Pijl - and even the Amstel Gold Race - are maybe a bit too short for the Irishman's liking but the tiny rider is actually quite explosive. His fast finishing kick makes him a danger man on the line and while it may be difficult to win the race, he is certainly a genuine podium contender.


Tony Gallopin (Radioshack) struggled to rediscover his 2012 form in the Flemish classics, and he was never able to play the same formidable support role to Fabian Cancellara as he did last year. A bout of illness was part of the reason and a strong 4th place in an unprecedented hard edition of the Circuit Cycliste Sarthe indicates that his woes are now behind him. He is another rider with plenty of punch on the climbs and a very fast finish and thus he is perfectly suited to the race. He spearheads the Radioshack team and will be extremely motivated as Wednesday's race and the Amstel Gold Race are the only races on his hilly classics schedule.


Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) missed out on the opportunity to be a protagonist in the Paris-Roubaix as bad luck prevented him from making the final 13-man selection in the Mons-en-Pevele sector. However, there is no doubt that the Frenchman is in blistering condition, and he has played a key role in all his races since the Paris-Nice in early March. He usually extends his classics season to include the Amstel Gold Race before he joins his fellow cobbles specialists in their well-deserved rest. This year is no different, and he will use tomorrow's race to reassure himself that his legs still feel strong. However, the former French champion has two challenges. First of all, he is not perfectly suited to the hillier races and his palmares prove this. Secondly, he has been in peak condition during most of the spring, and there is no doubt that the Frenchman will appreciate a chance to rest in the near future. Nonetheless, his attacking nature makes him a danger man, and if he makes a solo escape in the final, he will be very difficult to catch.


Davide Rebellin (CCC) can never be counted out in a hilly race.  The veteran Italian is still going strong and while he may not have the exact same power as he had when he was a main favourite in all of the Ardennes classics, the 41-year old is still remarkably consistent in the one-day races. He  may not get the opportunity to participate in the biggest races anymore but whenever he is at the start line, he is always able to challenge the sport's greatest stars. This year, he was 9th in Andalucia, 7th in Murcia and 8th in Coppi e Bartali and only his weak time trial prevented an even better performance in the two stages races. Just 10 days ago, he was a main aggressor in the Volta Limburg Classic which is very similar to tomorrow's race and with the race being his only opportunity to challenge the biggest names in the classics season, he will be fired up to be a key protagonist on the finishing circuit in Overijse.


Defending champion Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) is an obvious candidate to repeat last year's victory. He has not been able to rediscover last year's early-season form and he failed to play a key role in his first major target, the Tour of Flanders. Since then he was a main part of Pierre Rolland's overall victory in the Circuit de la Sarthe and his form should be on the rise. He is perfectly suited to the course and has a certain punch in the finish but his main weapon is his aggressive nature and ability to find the right moment to attack. If he is present in the final group, Sagan has to be aware not to let the wily Frenchman go up the road.


Finally, world champion and 2011 winner Philippe Gilbert (BMC) deserves a mention. If at his best, the Belgian can only really be challenged by Sagan on a course like the one in Overijse but indications are that the man who dominated the 2011 classics is once again nowhere near his former strength. Sensing his own weakness, he chose to skip one of his season targets, the Tour of Flanders, to make a last attempt to get ready for his major objectives in the Ardennes. Hence, he chose to make his first appearance in the Basque Country since 2005 but his performance in the Spanish race did not indicate that his form was on the rise. Since he abandoned the race on the penultimate stage, he has finalised his preparations at his home in Monaco and tomorrow we will get the first impression of his 2013 level in the races that matter most to the world champion.


***** Peter Sagan

**** Greg Van Avermaet, Björn Leukemans,

*** Thomas Voeckler, Tony Gallopin, Philippe Gilbert, Davide Rebellin, Sylvain Chavanel, Daniel Martin

** Moreno Moser, Damiano Caruso, Simon Spilak, Michal Kwiatkowski, Marco Marcato, Wout Poels, Maxime Vantomme

* Davide Malacarne, Vincent Jerome, Michel Kreder, Xavier Florencio, Tim Wellens, Ben Hermans, Simon Geschke, Nicolas Edet, Gerald Ciolek, Paul Voss, Pier Paolo De Negri


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