It’s Quick Step versus the peloton this Sunday as the home team take on all comers, including Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet and Sep Vanmarcke. It’s live on TV from start to finish and in front of an estimated million of roadside fans, an event of national importance to the Belgians.
The Route: 265km and not full tour of Flanders, the race starts in Antwerp and then heads south-west to reach the finish town of Oudenaarde after 97km. From here the race starts looping around the the hills of the Flemish Ardennes. Viewed on a map the route resembles a ball of wool.
The Cobbles and the Climbs: the reason why the race loops around a small area is so that can take in as many of the hellingen as possible, the short climbs. These are technical, tactical points and it’s all about positioning and everyone wants to be at the front because if a rider ahead has a mechanical, crash or merely slows it takes a lot of effort to overtake as accelerating on cobbles or uphill uses so much more energy. Watch for the density of riders at key points in race, the racing is fierce just to reach the start of these strategic sections with riders fighting for place, almost a combat sport. The Kapelmuur comes with 95km to go and it shaped the race as the field split.
The Koppenberg (45km to go): “discovered” in 1976 when a local informed race organisers about a narrow cobbled climb with a 22% gradient, rough cobbles and still damp on a dry day. It was used every year until Jesper Skibby crashed in the 1987 race and a race car, with the peloton closing in behind, had to drive over his bike with the Dane’s feet still into the pedals. Now it’s made a comeback and features late in the race. It’s probably the hardest climb of the day and if it doesn’t pick the winner it thins the field. Look to see who emerges over the top and how smooth they look on the way up while behind many will wear down the infamous stones with their cleats, countless images from the past show riders running up because they could not ride.
Oude Kwaremont (145km, 55km and 17km to go): the odd one out as it’s not short, it’s not steep and it’s not all cobbled. Instead it’s 2.2km long and a meagre 4.2% average; it touches 11% midway. If 2.2km doesn’t sound like much, it’s an effort of more than five minutes of which four are spent on the pavé making it a tiring boneshaker.
Paterberg (51km to go, 13km to go): the Kwaremont is chased by the Paterberg, it’s only 400m long but is short, steep and very cobbled. It’s not a normal road, it was inspired by a local farmer who suggested laying cobbles on what was a farm track in a bid to lure the race. It works and is VIP central today, it’s lined by fans who enjoy a giant screen TV and beers – this is the final climb of the race. The 20% slope has broken many a rider with 240km in their legs.
The Finish: the last section from Kerkhove to Oudenaarde is eight kilometres long on a flat wide road all the way to the line. The most unremarkable of roads, there are no sharp corners, roundabouts or hills. The featureless nature matters as it’s long enough to allow riders to regroup and offers no ambush opportunities for a late attack. The final kilometre has the tiniest of rises to the line.
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Quick Step have collectively dominated the cobbled classics this year and start with several strong candidates. Philippe Gilbert looks the strongest of them all and as we saw last year he can go from a long way out. So can Niki Terpstra as we saw a week ago in the E3 (and in 2015 when he went on the Hotond with Kristoff). Zdeněk Štybar is kopgroep material but keeps seeing results slip from his grasp while local son of the soil Yves Lampaert has just won Dwars Door Vlaanderen but remember he was struggling to hold Terpstra’s wheel in the E3. So far so good but if they’ve won this year it’s been by a whisker sometimes, a victory nonetheless. Without Tom Boonen they lack a rider whom they can bank on to clean up in a sprint from a group: this forces them to attack and the smaller the group, the better. This is a problem for their rivals but could also be team’s undoing. The likes of Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet can’t and certainly won’t take turns to mark each Quick Step move which is to the Belgian team’s advantage. But Quick Step can only launch so many moves and if Sagan or GVA latches onto an attack by Gilbert, Terpstra or Lampaert then more often than not Quick Step are going to lose in a sprint to the line. Finally Quick Step’s undoing could be ambition because their riders know that once they’ve gone clear up the road their team mates have to block for them behind, which brings to mind the maxim of “attacking as late as possible, but before everyone else”, or in this case before your team mates.
Peter Sagan is in a nonchalant position, he doesn’t have to win here because he can always aim for Roubaix next Sunday. Now he need only follow his rivals and beat them in the sprint, easier said than done but if he can win this way or could just go solo like he did in 2016. Bora-Hansgrohe are stronger than previous years but only in so far as they’re able to support Sagan later into the race, they’re unlikely to set the tactical agenda in the final 40km. One doubt is his form, he stayed in Belgium this week to visit a physio.
Greg Van Avermaet has won almost everything he can except the Ronde and it’s his big target. Only he’s looked adrift recently, chasing wheels rather than making the moves. His team are solid but miss Daniel Oss and Manuel Quinziato. Jürgen Roelandts is part support, part Plan B for them.
Team Sky bring a strong squad as usual but they’ve been a damp squib in the cobbled classics so far with Kristoffer Halvorsen’s second place in the Handzame Classic and Łukasz Wiśniowski on the Omloop podium the only results to write home about. Gianni Moscon has been an ominous presence, more than ever a muscular 21st century version of Francesco Moser and due a result soon while Sky bring Michał Kwiatkowski who can be an ace or a joker and if he’s aiming for the Ardennes classics has won cobbled classics too and has the race craft to undo Quick Step and thwart Peter Sagan too.
Sep Vanmarcke can win but how? He’s persistent and few can match his attacks but sometimes this brute force betrays him. If he can keep his powder dry for the final ascent of the Kwaremont he’s in with a good chance of a podium.
Oliver Naesen (Ag2r La Mondiale) is another outsider who was close to a podium finish last year until that crash on the Oude Kwaremont. He crashed in Dwars Door Vlaanderen and sustained a knee injury. For know we don’t know if this is good or bad news, he could be crocked for a race that requires repeated high power efforts but it could also mean he got to sit out a grim day’s racing and should be as fresh as a cone of hot friten for Sunday.
Tiesj Benoot looked strong in Dwars Door Vlaanderen which matters because he’s been on the boil since winning the Strade Bianche. Only he’s often without team mates and so has to work a lot… which makes him look strong but means there’s no result and the conditions this Sunday are not grim enough to make this a test of attrition alone.
Wout van Aert has been one of the revelations this spring. Yes we knew his cyclo-cross talent, yes he’s won on the road before and convincingly too but he’s been hanging with the best in the World Tour this spring. He packs a good sprint but being able to use this is his problem, he’s not got the team. Stijn Devolder rides too.
Edvald Boasson Hagen appeared out of nowhere in the finale of Dwars Door Vlaanderen so he’s now a name to be reckoned with for the upcoming races. He’s one of those riders who’s a firm outsider because of his erratic ways but were he to win then everyone would ex post write how the win was inevitable given his versatile talents.
2015 winner Alexander Kristoff (UAE-Emirates) has been missing the moves of late and if he packs a sprint how can he be in a position to use it? For a rider who has traditionally found Paris-Roubaix harder to cope with this could be his last shot this spring.
Mitchelton-Scott’s best hopes rest with Matteo Trentin who has had a visible spring campaign but no results yet. He packs a fast sprint and his rivals are only too aware of this. Luke Durbridge is a candidate for a long range move, to follow a Quickstepper when they try a solo bid and work with them as a ticket to the podium.
Similarly there’s a long tail of outsiders who might find their best chance is to collaborate with Quick Step. When the Belgian team launches a move they must jump and work with it knowing that if it stays away the podium awaits, perhaps the top step. Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) has stood on the podium in Sanremo and Wevelgem but the bergs could be too much for him, next weekend’s Paris-Roubaix is much more his affair. Astana have a strong team with Michael Valgren and Alexey Lutsenko as two outsiders. Trek-Segafredo have Jasper Stuyven, John Degenkolb and the 22 year old Mads Pedersen. with Stuyven surely the most reliable of the trio, he keeps making the top-10 but is still hunting for a podium. Team Sunweb’s Edward Theuns and Mike Teunissen can take turns, maybe Søren Kragh Andersen too. What about Vincenzo Nibali? Alejandro Valverde had fun in Dwars so Nibali could figure but he’s bound to be a fish out water. Still he’ll draw in plenty of interest from Italy and take the focus and pressure off Sonny Colbrelli, Heinrich Haussler and Ivan Garcia.
|Peter Sagan, Philippe Gilbert|
|Greg Van Avermaet, Niki Terpstra|
|Sep Vanmarcke, Michał Kwiatkowski, Tiesj Benoot|
|Lampaert, Naesen, Štybar, Moscon, Roelandts, Boasson Hagen, Trentin, Stuyven, WvA|
Weather: cool with the chance of a rain shower. A top temperature of 8°C and a 15-20km/h breeze from the north-west which could gust to 30km/h, if so then it’s enough to start splitting up the peloton.
TV: new for 2018, the whole race will be live from start to finish. The start is at 10.30am CEST and the finish is forecast for 5.00pm. Local host broadcaster Sporza/Een offers the best coverage with moto reporter Renaat Schotte’s observations, otherwise it’s on Eurosport across most of Europe, Fubo in the US and DAZN in Japan. Cyclingfans and steephill have links to schedules and streams too.
Women’s Race: there’s an expert preview over at cyclingtips and the final hour is live on Belgian TV (Canvas).