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It will be a huge surprise if Sieberg doesn't hit the front just before the flamme rouge and from there Lotto Belisol will probably be in control all the way to the line. With Greipel likely to be delivered in the best possible position...

Photo: Sirotti

KUURNE-BRUXELLES-KUURNE

RACE PROFILE
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NEWS
02.03.2014 @ 14:00 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

While the classics riders have tested themselves on the hellingen in today's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the sprinters have saved themselves for one of their only chanxes to win a prestigious semi-classic. The Belgian opening weekend has a bit for everyone and with today's race being reserved for the hard men, tomorrow's Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne is often a chance for the fast finishers to shine. Nothing is guaranteed in Kuurne where classics riders have also prevailed but with several teams bringing their sprinting contingent, everything suggests that it is time for the first very prestigious sprint battle of the year.

 

Despite more than a month of riding under sunny conditions in places like Australia, Argentina, the Middle East, Algarve, Andalusia, and the French Cote d'Azur, many cycling fans have the impression that the racing season did not begin for real until the classics riders tested themselves on the hellingen in today's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. While a win in one of the early season races was pleasant and a welcome boost of confidence, it wasn't until today that the hard men had a real pressure to perform in a big race when the Omloop kicked off the Belgian classics season, a very unique part of the international cycling calendar.

 

The situation may be a bit different for the sprinters. For fast finishers, the quantity of wins often play almost as big a role as their quality and many of them have been extremely eager to clock up the first victories in races that for other riders are mere preparation. Nonetheless, the Belgian city of Kuurne is often the place for the first really important battles between the fastest men on two wheels.

 

The Belgian opening weekend is a diverse affair that has a bit for everyone and the combination with the Omloop is a perfect one as the two races appeal to the same riders but still give different riders an opportunity to shine. Even though they both include cobbles and hellingen and several riders have won both, Saturday's opener is one for the true classics specialists and Sunday's race to Kuurne is much more of a sprinters race. Even though many riders do both races, this means that there is a certain difference between the line-ups for the events. Several teams bring in some fast finishers for Sunday's race while many of the classics riders often make a late decision after Saturday's race about whether to continue racing the next day as well.

 

It is no wonder that the teams keep their sprinters ready for the Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne. With races like the Omloop, E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, and probably now also Milan-Sanremo being too hard for them to get a chance to excel, they have very few chances to add a classic to their palmares. The Dwars door Vlaanderen and Gent-Wevelgem are potential options later in the season but the only really sprinter classics are the Scheldeprijs and tomorrow's race in Kuurne.

 

This makes the Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne a prestigious affair that has been red-circled by most of the fast finishers as one they need to have on their palmares. Hence, it is no wonder that they have stayed away from today's race to be 100% ready for tomorrow's battle and many of their lead-out riders have done the same, causing a nice shake-up of the start list.

 

However, nothing is guaranteed in Kuurne. While it is guaranteed that a sprinter won't win one of the hardest Belgian classics and it is almost a certainty that the Scheldeprijs ends in a bunch sprint, things can be different from what is expected in Kuurne. The race is certainly not flat and includes several famous hellingen - even the feared Oude Kwaremont features on the course - and they offer the classics riders a chance to make a difference. That opportunity is usually taken but as the race ends with a long flat stretch, the sprint teams have plenty of time to bring things back together. If the weather conditions are brutal, however, history shows that the classics riders have a genuine chance of prevailing in Kuurne. Most recently that was the case in 2010 when Bobbie Traksel won a memorable race in horrendous weather conditions where only 26 riders reached the finish.

 

Much of the race's prestige stems from its long history. Held first in 1945, the race has only been cancelled three times, always due to bad weather at the early time of the season. As it is the case for many historic races - with Milan-Sanremo being the notable exception - the name is slightly misleading as the riders no longer reach Brussels before turning around and heading back to the finish in Kuurne. Instead, the turning point in located near Galmaarden, some 25km west of the Belgian capital. Unsurprisingly, the winners list is dominated by Belgians and most of the greatest classics stars from the home country have taken the win in Kuurne at least once. The first rider from outside Belgium and the Netherlands to win the race was German Gregor Brain in 1982 but in recent years a lot more international riders have been able to prevail in Kuurne.

 

Last year's race was one of the three to be cancelled when horrendous winter weather forced the organizers to make the unpleasant decision to not let the riders tackle the icy and dangerous roads. When the race last took place, Team Sky delivered Mark Cavendish to the second consecutive win for the British team after Chris Sutton had won the race in 2011. Cavendish beat Yauheni Hutarovich and Kenny van Hummel in a big bunch sprint in Kuurne but he won't be back to go for a second win in the race. Van Hummel is racing at the Tour de Langkawi in Malaysia but Hutarovich will be back to finally get the win in a race where he has finished 2nd twice in a row.

 

The course

The Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne is a traditional Flemish classics in the sense that it is held in the same small area in the Flemish Ardennes where most of the big Belgian one-day races take place but it is of a completely different nature than races like the Tour of Flanders, E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, Dwars door Vlaanderen, and yesterday's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Those races all head from its start along flat roads to the Flemish Ardennes where they zigzag their way through the hilly area, taking in the same roads numerous times and going up many of the famous hellingen in the area before heading back to the finishing city.

 

As the name of the race reveals, the course for tomorrow's race has a more fixed character as it heads from the start in Kuurne in an easterly direction before turning around and heading back to the starting city. The course briefly touches the Flemish Ardennes on the way out and passes straight through the classics heartland on the way back but the course is more of a direct journey between Kuurne and the turning point instead of a twisting zigzag trip in the hilly zone. The course is not designed with the purpose of being as difficult as possible and the straight passing of the hills means that the number of hellingen is far less. If one adds the fact that the extra kilometres are not found in the hilly zone but by doing two laps of a 16km flat circuit in Kuurne, one has the recipe for a race that is more suited to the sprinters.

 

From the start in Kuurne, the riders travel in a predominantly easterly direction as they head towards the Belgian capital of Brussels. They pass through classical classics cities like Anzegem, Oudenaarde, and Brakel but instead of heading into the heart of the Flemish Ardennes, they follow a route north of the hills, meaning that the Edelare (1500m, 4.2%, max. 7%) is the only climb in the first half of the race, coming at the 33km mark. Otherwise, the first half is completely flat and unless it is a very windy day, this portion only serves the purpose of accumulating fatigue and allowing the early break to take off.

 

After 57km, the riders reach the city of Voorde on the outskirts of Ninove and this is where they turn around and start their journey back towards Kuurne. The riders never reach the city of Brussels but turn around 20km before reaching the Belgian capital. Before heading back in a westerly direction, however, they travel south for a few kilometres, meaning that they will pass through the Flemish Ardennes on the way back.

 

The riders pass through the city of Geraardsbergen shortly after turning around but won't climb the famed Muur. Instead, the hilly zone starts a few kilometres further up the road when La Houppe (1880m, 4.8%, max. 10%) kicks off the day's action after 86km of racing. During the next 60km, the final 8 of the 9 hellingen are all located and this is where any selection has to be made.

 

Next up is one of the steeper climbs, the Kanarieberg (1000m, 7.7%, max. 14%) which comes at the 94km mark and 5km further up the road, it is time for the Kruisberg (1875m, 4%, max. 9%), with the Cote de Trieu (1260m, 7%, max. 13%) coming another 11km later. At this point, the climbs come in quick succession and it is usually typical, nervous Belgian racing where positioning is key to success and where everyone wants to stay near the front. This automatically causes an increased pace and some nervous racing and we will certainly see some attacks being launched.

 

The place to make the selection, however, is the famous Oude Kwaremont (2200, 4%, max. 11.6%) which is a long, hard one and one of the toughest in the area. It comes after 123km of racing and with 74km to go and this is usually where the classics riders test their legs. At the top, a select front group has usually been created and now it is time for the escapees to start working together.

 

It is usually a difficult task as several teams have dedicated sprint teams and while some may have sent riders up the road, some teams are likely to organize a chase behind. 9km further up the road, the riders climb the Tiegemberg (750m, 5.6%, max. 9%) followed by Holstraat (1000m, 5.2%, max. 12%) 3km later. Then it is another 9km before the riders do the final helling, the Nokereberg (350m, 5.7%, max. 7%) which is a rather easy affair but from its top, 53km still remain. Those final three climbs may provide some final launch pads for attacks and cause some troubles for the sprint teams but they have no reason to panic as they have plenty of time to reel in the break after the top.

 

From there, the riders pass through well-known Flemish cities like Waregem, Desselgem and Harelbeke before reaching the finish in Kuurne. If the race had finished there, the attackers would have had a much better chance as there are only 21km from the Nokereberg to the first passage of the line but the sprint teams get an extra chance to bring things back together.

 

The race ends with two laps of an entirely flat, 16km finishing circuit that brings the riders from Kuurne to Kortijk and back to Kuurne. Apart from a few corners in Kortrijk, the circuit is rather non-technical and it is a perfect place for the bunch to organize a dedicated chase. Hence, the final part of the race usually develops into more of a traditional grand tour sprint stage, with the peloton chasing down the early or later attackers to set up a bunch sprint. The final 4km are rather non-technical, with the riders passing straight through a roundabout and turning left in another between the 4 and 3km to go marks. From there it is a straight road until the final sharp left-hand turn 600m from the line that leads onto the finishing straight that has been the scene of some dramatic sprint battles in the past.

 

What may change the outcome of the race is the weather as windy and cold conditions can make the race much harder and selective. If the conditions are right, it can be a true race of attrition and elimination race through the hilly and windy zones but otherwise it rarely happens that the sprinters miss the chance to sprint for the win in Kuurne.

 

 

 

The weather

Last year the race was cancelled due to cold and snowy conditions and the conditions couldn't be more different for the 2014 edition. Sunday shapes up to be a sunny day and even though more clouds will occur as the day goes on, the riders will have a pleasant day in the saddle, with the temperatures even reaching a maximum of 9 degrees.

 

As the cold won't wreak havoc on the peloton, the one thing that could produce some drama and create a hard race. Today was an unusually calm day in Belgium and things should be more exciting tomorrow. There will be a rather strong wind from a southerly direction which means that the riders will mostly have a crosswind as they head back and forth between Kuurne and the turning point. There will a tailwind in the final part of the hilly zone, including all the way up the Oude Kwaremont.

 

On the final circuit, there will be a headwind in the first part and a tailwind in the second, with the riders turning into a crosswind for the final 3km. The final 600m will be with a headwind, meaning that timing will be crucial in the sprint.

 

The favourites

The rather pleasant weather conditions mean that this year's edition of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne won't go into history as one of the hardest. The wind may cause some drama and will create plenty of nervousness and we are pretty sure that some teams will try to take advantage of the windy conditions. However, there is mostly a tail- or a headwind on the final circuit and this means that it will require an awful lot of work to maintain a split all the way to the finish. Finally, a lot of teams have lined up dedicated sprint teams and there should be plenty of interest in bringing things back together for a bunch sprint.

 

We are guaranteed to see some exciting racing in the hilly zone and it would be a surprise if a team like Omega Pharma-Quick Step doesn't try to make things hard for the sprinters. The conditions for a really tough race aren't right though and we predict that we will see a bunch sprint finish in Kuurne.

 

This means that we have to find potential winners in the big pool of sprinters and even though the line-up is a strong one, one rider is head and shoulders above the rest. With Marcel Kittel and Mark Cavendish both being absent, André Greipel is the fastest rider in the race and he will be the focus point for most teams and the man to beat.

 

Greipel has got his season off to an excellent start and at this early point, he has already six 2014 wins on his palmares. This is a testament to the excellent form that he has shown right from the beginning of the season. He got close to the win already on the first stage of the Tour Down Under when he was one of only very few sprinters to survive Menglers Hill and he again put his climbing legs to good use when he won the very hard third stage of the Tour of Oman.

 

That kind of condition will come in handy tomorrow when teams like Omega Pharma-Quick Step try to make things tough in the hilly zone. Greipel is excellent in the battle for position and he has always performed well in the Flemish classics. It wouldn't be a surprise if he even makes any kind of selection made on the Oude Kwaremont and he won't necessarily have to use his team to get back in contention.

 

As his condition will allow him to stay fresh for the sprint and as he is the fastest rider in the race, Greipel is the man to beat. However, his main asset is his lead-out train which is by far the best in the world. Lotto Belisol may still miss final lead-out man Greg Henderson who has just come back from injury but the combination of Marcel Sieberg and Jurgen Roelandts has been working excellently so far. This time Jens Debusschere will also be present and he will slot into the position between Sieberg and Roelandts as he did in the Tour Down Under which just makes the train even stronger. It will be a huge surprise if Sieberg doesn't hit the front just before the flamme rouge and from there Lotto Belisol will probably be in control all the way to the line. With Greipel likely to be delivered in the best possible position, it is hard to imagine anyone beating the Gorilla in Kuurne.

 

Only a select few riders are fast enough to potentially beat Greipel in a sprint. The riders most likely to do so is youngster Bryan Coquard who is one of the very fastest sprinters in the world. The Frenchman proved so on a number of occasions in 2013 when he kicked off his professional career off in splendid fashion and he has done so again in 2014 when he beat no less of a figure than Nacer Bouhanni in a direct battle to win one of his two stages in the Etoile de Besseges. Last Saunday he finished 3rd behind Mark Cavendish and Arnaud Demare in the final stage of the Volta ao Algarve.

 

No one can question Coquard's speed but he is often hampered by a lack of ability to position himself for the sprints. This has been his undoing on numerous occasions but this year the Europcar team have tried to solve the problems by signing experienced lead-out man Jimmy Engoulvent. The duo have not had a lot of time to work together but the early signs are promising. If Engoulvent manages to position his sprinter well for the finale, Coquard may take his first big win.

 

A rider who already has big one-day wins on his palmares, is Arnaud Demare. Like Coquard, the FDJ sprinter is extremely fast and he proved so when he took a very commanding win in the final stage of the Tour of Qatar. He is currently in excellent condition as he proved when he did great time trials in both Qatar and Algarve and his speed was again put on show in the final stage in Portugal when he was only beaten by Mark Cavendish.

 

Demare has many of the same characteristics as Coquard as he also struggles with his ability to position himself. He has a formidable lead-out train at his disposal, with experienced William Bonnet, new signing Sebastien Chavanel, and final lead-out man Mickael Delage. However, Chavenel hasn't worked with that combination before and they will find it very tough to go up against the Lotto Belisol train. If they can manage to position him close to Greipel, however, Demare has the speed to win the race.

 

Another very fast rider in the race is Barry Markus who showed excellent condition in the recent Tour of Qatar. In the past, the new Belkin signing has often been one of the first to get dropped when the going got tough but this year he has shown clear signs of improvement. His new, more resistant nature will come in handy in a race that is no walk in the park but he will still need an easy race to have something left in reserve to prove his immense speed.

 

Like Demare and Coquard, Markus has often struggled with the positioning aspect but he is part of a strong Belkin team that includes Robert Wagner, Sep Vanmarcke, Jetse Bol and Moreno Hofland. That combination may not have an awful lot of experience in working together but if they can manage things right, their sprinter is one of the few that can beat Greipel.

 

If Markus hopes for an easy race, things are different for Alexander Kristoff. In a true bunch sprint at the end of 100 easy kilometres, he doesn't have much chance against the fastest riders. If the race has been a hard one, however, he has proved that he is very hard to beat as he did when he won the sprint in the first bigger group in last year's Milan-Sanremo, Tour of Flanders, and Paris-Roubaix.

 

Kristoff will hope that the weather conditions are bad and that the pace in the hilly zone will be really fast. That will leave some of his faster rivals with fatigued legs and this will give him a shot at victory. His stage win in Oman proved that his condition is already rather good and he is very good at positioning himself for the sprint. Those are the weapons that should see Kristoff take his first big one-day win.

 

Surprisingly, Giant-Shimano have decided not to line up Marcel Kittel or John Degenkolb in this race but this doesn't mean that they don't have a shot at the win. They may not have the fastest sprinter in the race but their well-drilled lead-out train will be one of the strongest. All  riders on the roster have plenty of lead-out experience and the only question is which rider will be the final link in the chain.

 

In theory, there are three options. Luka Mezgec, Nikias Arndt, and Tom Veelers could all be given their chance to shine but the one with the greatest opportunities to win the race is Mezgec. The Slovenian had an outstanding first professional season which was capped off in the best possible way when he won the final stage of the Tour of Beijing to take his first WorldTour victory.

 

He made his season debut in the Vuelta a Andalucia but illness forced him out of the race before he had had the chance to sprint. However, he is a very resistant rider who handles tough racing really well and he will only benefit from the hard nature of the Kuurne course. He may not be as fast as riders like Greipel, Coquard, and Demare but he has one of the best teams to support him and this could put him right up on the podium.

 

Tyler Farrar still hopes that he can find back to his former sprinting level but until now nothing suggests that he will ever succeed. Nonetheless, he is still a very fast sprinter as he proved with several top results in the final part of 2013 and he has a vast experience in the classics. He showed good condition in the Dubai Tour and the Tour de San Luis and has been reported to be producing some really good numbers in training. Since then he has honed his condition at the Garmin-Sharp training camp and he will only have become stronger since his last outing. He will hope for a hard race that will tire out many of his faster rivals and then try to use his experience to come away with the win.

 

Tom Boonen is a double winner of this race but he usually decides not to do the bunch sprint. This could open the door for young Andrew Fenn but a win for Boonen can't be ruled out. In a pure bunch sprint, Boonen doesn't have many chances against a rider like Greipel but if the race becomes tough, he is hard to beat. That was the circumstances when he beat the German favourite to take a win in Qatar and we could easily see his team try to make things tough in the hilly zone. In the end, he will have excellent support from riders like Niki Terpstra, Nikolas Maes, Matteo Trentin, and Fenn and that combination could prove to be a winning one.

 

In the two most recent editions of this race, Yauheni Hutarovich has finished 2nd and the Belarusian is perfectly suited to these kind of sprint classics as his results in the Scheldeprijs also prove. Since joining Ag2r at the start of the 2013 season, however, he has had a difficult time and he no longer seems to have the speed that he once had. He may have sprinted to a fine 3rd on a stage of the Etoile de Besseges but nothing suggests that he is back to his former level. At the same time, he doesn't have a strong lead-out train and is likely to be badly positioned at the end. It is hard to imagine Hutarovich suddenly return to his former glory but due to the speed we know he has, he deserves to be mentioned.

 

The final rider on our list is Matteo Pelucchi. The IAM rider is a pure sprinter who will hope for an easy race that will not have tired out his legs too much. This race could end up being a bit too hard for him but he showed some solid condition in the Tour of Qatar. He has often been hampered by a bad position and will again have to overcome those difficulties but if he manages to do so in Kuurne, he could easily end on the podium

 

***** André Greipel

**** Bryan Coquard, Arnaud Demare

*** Barry Markus, Alexander Kristoff, Luka Mezgec

** Tyler Farrar, Tom Boonen, Yauheni Hutarovich, Matteo Pelucchi

* Manuel Belletti, Danilo Napolitano, Michael Van Staeyen, Tom Veelers, Nikias Arndt

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