Oh yes, the cobbled races are back!
Last year’s edition of the race saw an almost carbon copy of 2016 with Greg Van Avermaet beating Sagan in the uphill sprint into Gent. The reining champion returns this year hoping to make it three in a row at this race and without the current World Champion, he has a good chance of doing so.
There are plenty of riders who will be hoping to stop him though so let’s have a look at what is in store for them at the traditional “start of the season”.
A big change from the past editions with a new finish town and a route that is reminiscent of a “mini Flanders”.
The riders will face no less than 12 cobbled sectors, of which 5 are cobbled climbs; it’s a real race of attrition. To make matters worse for the riders but much better for our viewing pleasure, it is the second half of the day that is back loaded with obstacles. In total there are 16 cobble sections or hellingen to complete in the final 100km and that doesn’t include any uncategorised lumps or bumps either.
With any spring cobbled classic, the action can start anywhere along the route. However, the likely place we’ll see the favourites begin to cause a selection will be the Molenberg. The riders will tackle the 500m at 9.8% (including 300m of cobbles) climb with roughly 50kms in the day to go. From there it won’t be long until the Haaghoek and anyone in difficulty here can wave their chances of success goodbye.
Some more Hellingen follow over the next 20km before an iconic final two climbs.
At just under 20km to go the riders will tackle the famous Muur van Geraardsbergen a.k.a the Kapelmuur.
The iconic cobbled climb is a brute and averages 6.8% for a kilometre. That might not seem like much but these are proper cobbles and with ramps of 20%, riders can explode and lose the race here. Likewise, a rider can surge away from his opposition and build up a gap, not to be seen again!
Once over the top of the ‘Muur, a fast, twisting descent follows before the final challenge of the day; the Bosberg. Shallower than the Muur, it averages 5% for roughly 1.2km but the final 800m or so are all cobbled. A perfect launchpad for a puncheur to try one last attack and distance the group that they are with.
From there, 11kms remain and the finish in Ninove awaits.
It’s the start of the cobbled classics so we’re surely in for some bad weather right? Well, that’s partly correct. The riders are set to get sunny conditions all day but it will be very cold all day with a wind chill factor making it feel around freezing point. They should manage fine though, as on my commute to work the other day it was -8ºC but I guess I’m carrying some more bulk than them…
The above screenshot is the forecast for Aalst which is just north of the finish town of Ninove. As you can see, the riders will have a constant wind coming from the East/NorthEeast throughout the day.
It is strong enough to create some echelons if we get the right road direction and lack of tree coverage out on the route. Consequently the peloton will be on edge the whole day which might lead to faster, more nervous racing and the unfortunate likelihood of more crashes. Having numbers near the head of the race at all times will be very important.
One thing to consider though is that from roughly 30km to go onwards, the riders will face mainly a headwind/cross-headwind which could be to the detriment of a solo escapee. Unless of course everyone is battered by then and the strongest rider survives.
A Clear Favourite?
We come into the race this year without Sagan which is a shame but we do have a Sagan style rider, especially when it comes to these types of events, with Greg Van Avermaet. Having won the race the past two years and in scintillating form at the moment on the punchy stages in Oman he comes into this race as the massive bookies favourite. So much so, that according to them he has a 40% chance of winning.
His team is weaker than last year mainly due to the ahem, loss of Oss, but Roelandts should be with him long into the race. He’ll need a big performance from Küng as well because I can’t really see many others in his team staying at the head of the race when the going gets tough.
The tactics GVA adopts will be very interesting. He has the power to go with almost anyone and drop a lot of people on the climbs, but he also possesses a strong sprint so he might be happy with the headwind on the run in and sit in for a bunch gallop.
Last year during his Spring domination I mentioned that if people want to win against him, they need to treat him like Sagan in these races. Refuse to co-operate and try to work him over with numbers if he is isolated. I wonder if Van Avermaet will adopt the Sagan style and just shrug his shoulders and let people ride off; I can’t see that happening.
In conclusion, his okay-ish team and the fact he is such an overwhelming favourite means this race will be a lot more difficult for him to win than it appears on paper. Now, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him to be raising his arms come tomorrow afternoon but I’m going to be bold and suggest he doesn’t.
Van Avermaet won’t win.
The Harlem Cobbletrotters
Quick Step bring a ridiculously stacked squad with them. I mean, the strength in-depth they have is just stupid and they will play a big part in the outcome of the day.
Devenyns isn’t known as a cobble specialist but he has started the season in great form and that has to be taken seriously. He can climb well, pack a decent sprint and he isn’t a stranger to tough races here having won the Belgium Tour and Tour de Wallonie in the past.
Terpstra has had a quiet start to the season results wise but he’s been either working for team-mates or making audacious attacks. The latter suggests he’s going quite well at the moment and given the terrible weather conditions, his contender status goes up even further.
Gilbert started his year with a respectable third in Murcia and followed that up with an appearance in the breakaway in Algarve along with team-mate Stybar. Both riders pack a punch on the short slopes and have shown in previous years they go well in these types of races. I’m sure Phil will enjoy the return to the Muur/Bosberg combo, he dropped everyone on the latter in the 2011 Flanders but was brought back near the end.
Lampaert has been applying himself working for others so far this season and it is hard to tell where his form is at. He would probably prefer the older, slightly flatter finish but he is an ideal rider to send up the road early if QuickStep don’t want to control the race. The same can be said for Keisse although I fear he’ll be taking the “Vermote” role.
Finally we have Gaviria. He will win a cobbled race at some point in his career, it might even come on Sunday with Kuurne so I’m not too sure how he’ll approach Omloop. Nonetheless, he is punchy enough to deal with the climbs and I have a funny feeling QS will try to keep him safe with that headwind in the finale. Things might just come back together for a small bunch sprint and no-one here will beat the Colombian in a 20 rider effort.
The Countdown Selection
As I’ve rambled for a bit already, and there will be plenty of previews that go into almost every contender possible then I’m just going to name another four here to keep an eye out for tomorrow. Taking inspiration from “Countdown” the selection is made up of one favourite, an outsider and two Wongshots.
Arguably the form guy here, it will be good to see the Belgian rider take a proper shot at a cobbled one-day race. He was strong in the opening Spanish races but it was his performances in Andalucia that really caught my eye and I’m sure they caught yours too! Managing to follow the likes of Poels, Fuglsang, Landa etc up a tough 3km climb on the second stage really marks a step up, but he wasn’t just following, he was even one of the riders attacking. Then, he absolutely tore the race to shreds on the shorter but very punchy cobbled climb of Alcalá de los Gazules, taking the victory and ultimately the GC because of it. That type of performance should be able to transfer into a race like this and I would be very surprised not to see him right in the action at the end. Having strong team-mates like Benoot and Keukeleire will be a massive help too and it will allow Wellens time to rest in what will be a hectic day.
Once a loyal domestique for Van Avermaet, Oss made the switch from BMC to Bora during the winter. He’s only raced in Australia so far and if you just look at the results, then nothing stands out too much. However, it was his performance in the Great Ocean Road Race that really stood out for me. After missing a slight split on Challambra he powered back to the head of the peloton in the final 100m of the climb. Looking lean and mean, he then did a shed tonne of work for McCarthy, keeping everything together. Without Sagan, Oss will more than likely be Bora’s protected rider. Can he get one over his former team-mate?
When talking about riders who seem to be taking a step up this year and have shown good form, then the Lotto Jumbo man has to be mentioned. Instrumental in Groenewegen’s sprint wins, he proved on the Hatta Dam that he isn’t too shabby a rider either and put out some massive power to finish third that day. He’s done ok in one-day events in the past including an 18th place at this race last year. I’m intrigued to see how he copes with the Flanders style finish and it will certainly be on his limits. However, that pesky headwind might see things come back together a bit and with the way he’s riding just now, things could go better than last year.
Somewhat of an early season revelation, the UAE rider stunned everyone with a third place overall in San Juan back in January which included a very industrious 7th on the mountain finish. Post-race he said he worked really hard over winter to lose some weight, dropping almost 4kgs. Importantly though, he seems to have maintained his power though and that should help on the cobbles. As a former Paris-Roubaix U23 winner, he certainly knows how to handle them. Don’t get me wrong, he is a definite outsider but with the ambitious goal of finishing in the top 5 of a cobbled race this season, he certainly has some confidence in himself.
That pesky head-wind really makes things difficult and there is a chance we could see a small sprint at the end. Nonetheless, I think things will still be torn up fairly early and we’ll see a very elite selection come the Muur/Bosberg combo.
I’ll go with a flying Tim Wellens to continue his sparkling start to the season and win the race.
No one, not even Van Avermaet, will be able to match him on the Muur/Bosberg, and with some hesitation from behind and marking out by Benoot, his gap will be too big come the finish, even with the headwind.
Went a bit wild but it is the first cobbled race and I’ve been saving up those “No Bets” in Abu Dhabi for this!
2pts EW Wellens at 12/1 with most bookmakers.
1pt EW Oss at 66/1 with Bet365
0.25pt EW Roosen @ 150/1 with Various
0.25pt EW Gana @ 250/1 with Bet365.
I tweeted out those selections a few days ago (they’re the current prices though) but I’m also adding the following just incase the pesky headwind ruins things.
1pt WIN Gaviria @ 80/1 with Bet365 (Would take 50s)
Thanks as always for reading! Who do you think will win tomorrow? Personally I can’t wait and I’m just looking forward to some exciting racing. Anyway,
Those were My Two Spokes Worth.