Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne-Spokenforks-Preview

Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne Preview

After much speculation as to who has the legs for this year’s classics campaign, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad served up an interesting mix of answers from the big names. Once again, Patrick Lefevere and his Etixx-QuickStep team found themselves in a position where the win seemed guaranteed to finish in Belgian hands; well it was until Ian Stannard decided otherwise. The defending champion repeatedly closed down gaps and responded immediately with his own, leaving only Niki Terpstra alongside him by the end to challenge the inevitable. With a showing of raw power over tactical nous (or the lack thereof), Britain’s Stannard became the first man since 1998 to defend his title.

Course:

A different sort of offering altogether is next on the agenda in Belgium, a race traditionally favouring the quicker men; Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. Like Scheldeprijs, this one day affair is a victory most sprinters will fancy adding to their palmares; the fact KBK requires greater work to guarantee a sprint adds to its desirability. This year’s edition is 195km long and boasts 9 testing hills; including the infamous Oude Kwaremont. Having completed the day’s earlier climbs, it is at the 98km mark where the first big test comes in the shape of  the Kanarieberg; an average gradient of 7% which kicks up to 14% over its kilometre length. Once crested, a punchy run of  the Kruisberg (avg. 4%, max. 9%), the Hotondberg (avg. 3.1%, 7.5%) and the Cote de Trieu (avg. 7%, max. 13%) all appear in under 2okm of racing. Positioning will be crucial over these; as no time will be offered to correct lapses in concentration before the decisive Oude Kwaremont is upon them.

In excess of two kilometres long and teamed with an average 4% gradient which maxes out at 11.6%; the Oude Kwaremont is placed at a pivotal moment. Only 75km shall remain once completed; meaning the formation of a select group of riders is likely to be formed over the course of this climb. Those first to the other side will be seen as the biggest threat to the bunch kick ambitions’ of the sprinters. The two final climbs of the day are completed with 51km remaining; these are the Holstraat (avg. 5.2%, max. 12%) and the Nokereberg (avg. 5.7%, max. 7%). Despite opportunities being offered here to ignite more attacks, the teams working for a sprint finish will see the remaining 51km as plenty of time to reel in any breakaway. Two finishing circuits comprise the last 16km and will see the pace ramp up as escapees are swallowed up and sprint trains assembled for a frantic finish.

Outcome:

With the changeable weather conditions always a factor in Belgium, a contender will need a well organised team to protect them from crosswinds and exhibit enough tactical nous to survive on their own if required. The combination of Etixx-QuickStep and Mark Cavendish certainly appears to fit this mould on first impressions, but it is unlikely he will be given full control of the team with Tom BoonenZdenek Stybar and Matteo Trentin all likely to be there. In a straight up sprint, Cavendish should be the fastest man here, but a day in the wind and rain would make all the difference to his turn of speed.

The one man with bolder indications of being suited to this race is Alexander Kristoff; the Norwegian already demonstrating buckets of determination this year in the Middle East. He will have the entire team at his disposal to ensure he is not found out too greatly on the climbs, but with 51km of flat to the finish; he has time to recoup lost ground. A versatile rider who can take care of himself in the midst of battle, he appears to be in incredible form to rectify the current absence of a cobbled classic in his palmares. He is by no means intimidated by the weather either; casually shrugging off the atrocious crosswinds in Qatar when stating his hometown’s seaside gales were worse.

Team Sky have the chance to take back-to-back wins when arriving here after Ian Stannard’s amazing win at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad the previous day. He could choose to ride KBK and would certainly be a huge help to the ambitions of their main sprinter Elia Viviani, a man recently returning from time on the track. He is not an obvious choice for a cobbled classic, but has started this year well and should cope with the range of hills. A reduced sprint would see his odds of winning increases greatly; the same can be said of teammate Luke Rowe. The young Welshman finished an impressive 9th the previous day and appears to be growing into the classics nicely already.

Nacer Bouhanni’s season is gradually spluttering into life, but truly needs a solid victory to really light the fire beneath his ambitions. Though an ill-fitting rider in some respects, he often surprises in tougher conditions and has spoken previously of his interest in the classics. If he happens to be present amongst a reduced group sprint, he should be watched closely; the ability to weave between rivals and accelerate at the right time is a talent of his. A really interesting sprinter to watch for here will be Yauheni Hutarovich, who has finished runner up at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne twice; in ’11 and ’12. He comes to Belgium off the back of a dominant performance at La Tropicale Amissa Bongo; where he took a hat-trick of wins and is clearly in good form with a supportive team.

All of the above is based on the assumption that something resembling a moderate group sprint will determine the outcome of this year’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. However, plenty of names are apparent on the startlist who could instigate the sort of breakaways which can shatter the hopes of the fast men. Greg Van Avermaet is showing good condition for these early classics and would not hesitate to join a strong group of escapees if convinced he would benefit in the finale. Conspirators are likely to be quick to join him with  Sep VanmarckeJean-Pierre DruckerMatthieu LadagnousScott ThwaitesEdvald Boasson HagenMatthew Brammier and Edward Theuns all being men to watch for.

1st Alexander Kristoff 2nd Yauheni Hutarovich 3rd Elia Viviani 

Omloop-Het-Nieuwsblad-Spokenforks-Preview

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Preview

The European curtain raiser to the classics season begins with the 70th edition of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad; requiring a real specialist to rise to the occasion and slay this tough beast. With weeks of racing in the legs of many who found seasonal refuge in the climates of Oman, Dubai and Qatar; a taste of Belgian grit will be a shock to the system for the ill-prepared. Life in the continental spring shall not start softly at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad; this is no longer a case of ‘getting the miles in’ for the peloton.

Course:

Short, sharp and often cobbled climbs will be the order of play for a large part of the day; the diet of many champion strongmen. Its 200km distance is enough to jelly the legs of many, but when factoring in the possibility of dismal weather, this really can become a war of attrition. The total of official climbs has increased by one (to 11) and has once again utilised the testing Muur van Geraardsbergen; a formerly decisive cobbled climb of the Tour of Flanders. Despite many of the hills being unlikely to decided the race’s outcome, it is a case of the accumulative damage inflicted throughout the day which will see contenders tossed aside.

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Life will become tense as the peloton approach the 65km marker, where positioning for the oncoming barrage of hills and attacks will be imperative for those with an eye on the win. The Taaienberg will appear around this time; signalling a crushing triumvirate of slopes (as well as the obligatory Boonen attack) in the space of 10km alongside the Elkenberg and Wolvenberg. This trio is followed by another, on this occasion pavé in nature, which will lead directly into the final two climbs of the day. Afterwards, any leading breakaway will be left with a flat 37.2km run to the finish; provided with three further cobbled sectors upon which to play their race winning moves or gamble to win in the sprint.

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Outcome:

Classics specialists are few, but contenders remain many as ever; these turbulent courses can churn up the most unlikely of winners on occasion. At this point in time, even the strongmen favourites are unlikely to be riding at 100% for this opening of the classics season. This has not prevented Greg Van Avermaet being named favourite however; the combination of a strong team and finishing second in last year’s edition being deciding factors. Many times before GVA has been deemed a forgone conclusion for a race win, but he always remain an awkward fit as a ‘dead-cert’ bet. BMC will also field Philippe Gilbert alongside him; though it does not seem a race to lure Gilbert out all guns blazing.

Alexander Kristoff is the other major favourite for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, returning from his dominant performance in the Middle East which resultantly saw Tom Boonen leave empty handed. Kristoff genuinely appears to be on form for this race so early in the classics campaign and will thrive if conditions become atrocious in the Belgian countryside. One glaring negative is the lack of depth apparent in his support team; no big name lieutenant is apparent to marshall Kristoff through the decisive maelstrom.

It would be challenging to argue Sep Vanmarcke’s credentials as one of the most talented riders to emerge from Belgium in recent years; especially in this environment. A true specialist with the consistency to negotiate the full support of his team, he is likely to be an antagonistic character amongst the pack. The day’s course probably calms down too far from the finish for him to be part of a winning move; it is over the difficult sections where he will make others suffer most. Teammate Tom Van Asbroeck could be an alternative; he has shown good condition already this year and is more than handy in a selective sprint.

The entire Etixx-Quick Step team pose a threat to everyone’s ambitions; Tom BoonenZdenek StybarNiki TerpstraStijn Vandenbergh and Guillaume Van Keirsbulck could all take the reins if plan A  does not go well. Though Boonen was consistent in the Middle East, it seems unlikely that he will find himself in a position to sprint for the win and demonstrate his turn of pace. On the other hand, Stybar has already demonstrated form beyond his usual terrain and has a much greater chance of finding himself in a race winning position.

Omloop’s defending champion this year is Ian Stannard, a rider who can win this back-to-back but will need truly atrocious conditions to do so. The assembled ranks of Team Sky also bolster Elia VivianiBradley Wiggins and Luke Rowe; it is perhaps the later who is the biggest wildcard for the team. The young Welshman is a growing talent on the classics scene and could be a threat in a reduced bunch kick.

Outsiders and dark horses are plentiful, with the permutations for what could happen in the race so broad proving inviting. Heinrich Haussler has demonstrated early season condition in both Australia and Qatar to hint at a possible return to the sort of form he wielded several years ago now. He enjoys a day on the cobbles and is long overdue for a another good result in such races; he is another who might benefit from a tougher ride. FDJ will aim for their riders to peak later in the classics campaign, but still come here with an aggressively mustered squad of riders. Perhaps the standout man in regards to being present at the decisive moment is Matthieu Ladagnous; he was on the ball at Haut Var last week and also suits the 1.5% drag when sprinting for the finish line. Pim Ligthart is another who has opened the season well and is likely to have the entire team at his disposal if he decides to really pursue the day’s racing. Buried beneath the big names at BMC is another possible contender for the day in the shape of Jean-Pierre Drucker. Having only recently stepped up to a major team as he approaches 30, the Luxembourg rider has a great depth of encouraging results at a variety of classic races and could serve as a handy contingency plan for any unforeseen events.

1st Zdenek Stybar 2nd Matthieu Ladagnous 3rd Jean-Pierre Drucker

Tour-Of-Oman-Stage-6-Spokenforks-Preview

Anti-Climax – Tour of Oman Stage 6 Preview

After the building anticipation of who might come out all guns blazing on Stage 5, the day ultimately ended as a damp squib; cancelled after sandstorms and soaring temperatures left it too dangerous to contest. Because of this, Rafael Valls seems guaranteed the surprising victory of this year’s Tour of Oman; the final day left constructed for the sprinters to contest.

Course:

Beginning at Oman Airport, Stage 6 is a 133km ride to Matrah Corniche; where they will be expected to complete two city centre circuits before crowning the day’s winner. A few noteworthy bumps are present on the profile card, the first being Al Hamriyah after 89km of riding, a reasonable hill which leads the peloton down a gradual descent down to the subsequent intermediate sprint. This is then followed by the 1.4km run up Al Jissah; the 9% average gradient likely to seem familiar after appearing on Stage 2 already. A couple times around the 7km city circuit comprises the final 14km’s worth of racing; a brief incline at 3.5km on the second lap could see an attempted breakaway form. The flat road slinks through the streets, opening onto the finish after the last turn at the 400m mark.

Tour-Of-Oman-Stage-6-Spokenforks-Preview Tour-Of-Oman-Stage-6-Spokenforks-Preview

Outcome:

It seems unlikely that anyone is going to prevent Rafael Valls from securing a major win, but it might be worth watching out for Alejandro Valverde. The Movistar rider is 19 seconds down, can sprint well and will view the earlier climbs as a nice way to soften the legs of the sprinters. Realistically, the Spaniard would need to win the stage (taking a time bonus) and gap Valls by several seconds further to overturn the lead.

Turning focus onto the likely contenders for a bunch kick trawls up the usual likes of Nacer BouhanniAlexander KristoffAndrea GuardiniMatteo Pelucchi and Sam Bennet. Despite having struggled to impress much this year, Bouhanni tends to perform well when the finale gets technical and sight of the finishing line comes late. The testing streets could diminish the benefit of a leadout train, meaning a more level playing field for the Cofidis star. Form is temporary, but Kristoff is certainly enjoying it while it lasts; the Katusha man will be a big favourite with the punters once again.

A duo which have shown great consistency thus far are Guardini and Pelucchi; it would come as no surprise to see at least one of them make the podium. One man who has gone missing since the first stage is the young Sam Bennet, a sprinter who could utilise his team’s support with great effect. He won the final day in Qatar having been one of the last home on the previous day; he may have been saving himself once again to finish with a bang.

1st Bouhanni 2nd Bennet 3rd Guardini

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Going Home – Tour Of Oman Stage 5 Preview

Green Mountain lived up to the expectations of fireworks, when Rafael Valls put in a shock performance to beat all major contenders and take the stage; along with the leaders jersey too. The result will have a knock on effect as to how the likes of Alejandro Valverde and Tejay Van Garderan will approach Stage 5; if they wish to overturn the deficit to Valls. This is the last chance for the overall favourites to impact upon the General Classification before the final day’s treat for the sprinters.

Course:

Beginning at Al Sawadi Beach, the riders will have to cover 151km and several testing circuits, before finishing at The Ministry of Housing. Only after reaching the 86km mark will the peloton turn onto the first of the laps; comprising the last 65km of racing for the leader’s jersey in Oman. They will be tasked with climbing Bousher Alamrat from two angles on these circuits; first at 8.8% gradient for 3.4km and then 6.8% at 3.2km. Once all rotations of this have been complete, the riders will turn onto the final 12.5km, of which start with a downhill section towards the Ministry of Housing. This will soon become simple flat terrain to navigate in the final kilometres; finishing upon an 8m wide road in the final 300 meters.

Tour-Of-Oman-Stage-5-Spokenforks-Preview
Outcome:

A handful of pre-race favourites remain in contention for the overall win, despite Valls incredible effort on Green Mountain. This will surely set the stage for some last ditch efforts in an attempt to send Valls out the back before the final descent to the finish. Tejay Van GarderenAlejandro ValverdeRafal MajkaThibaut Pinot and Rui Costa all finished less than 50 seconds back to the current leader after Stage 4. BMC’s Van Garderen will have Greg Van Avermaet to work alongside him, but the Belgian might see a greater opportunity to take a stage win than support his leader’s attempt to beat Valls. Should they achieve kicking Valls out the back convincingly enough, the support of GVA might be returned by setting him up for the win later on.

Valverde has looked in good condition so far and has the capability to push it on the hill repetitions, as well as staying away on the downhill section. He should remain in the mix all day, but might just be lacking his top form right now. Two men who might find success here are Peter Sagan and Rui Costa; both able to sprint well after a tough day, as long as they stay in contention. Sagan has performed well on this course before and will no doubt be eager to build upon it to take his first win of 2015. The descent towards the finish is particularly typical of a late Sagan attack; a man known for his suicidal descending. Former World Champion Rui Costa should not be ignored either for the stage win, but it seems unlikely he would manage to gain 1′ 45″ on the entire peloton to take the overall lead.

Team Katusha certainly have options on paper; Alexander KristoffDaniel Moreno and Luca Paolini have all won on similarly finishing races in the past. Beyond that of Kristoff, it is hard to gauge where their form sits at present, but Stage 5 could be a perfect time for the Russian team to find out. Others worth keeping an eye upon are Fabian CancellaraSonny Colbrelli and Damiano Caruso; especially if a small group splinters off the front late on.

1st Greg Van Avermaet 2nd Peter Sagan 3rd Daniel Moreno

 

Tour-du-Haut-Var-Spokenforks-Preview

Two Days Of Pain – Tour du Haut Var Preview

While the those touted for Grand Tour glory seek refuge beneath the Middle Eastern sun during Europe’s dingy opening to 2015; Haut Var comes as a welcome blast of grit and guts for the Classics hopefuls. Two days of back to back old school style racing await those wanting to cement their names in history come the cobbled/muddy/dusty/hilly (delete as appropriate) spring racing. Haut Var’s terrain is not extreme enough for mountain men, nor concluding with finishes which favour sprinters either; it only lends itself to a very specific breed of rider. Legs flood with lactic acid as riders are expected to plunge deep into the red zone to just stick the pace; to create a race winning move requires honed guile for this environment.

Course:

Though the second day of Haut Var has not changed, basing itself once again around the city of Draguignan; the opening day’s race will see a new finish in Seillans however. The peloton will have to conquer 164.6km’s worth of racing from Le Cannet des Maures before they can contest the sprint of 2015’s first day. Five moderate climbs are stitched together in order to form the majority of the day’s racing, but it is the final 15.5km which are set to decide the winner. The 300m run up Mur de Montauroux is guaranteed to shatter the spirit as the bunch are tasked with cresting its mind numbing 21% gradient. Once climbed, a resulting descent is short, leading them into the final 10km of road which edged upwards in gradient to the line.

Tour-du-Haut-Var-Stage-2-Spokenforks-Preview

On the second day, life will seem more familiar to any who have raced here before; an out and back route around Draguignan. Asking the peloton to climb hills throughout its entire 194.7km, the stage profile would look at home in the gums of a shark. The accumulative efforts of hauling themselves over consecutive climbs will ensure the victor endures a war of attrition to earn the win come the finish. Two circuits around Draguignan conclude the race, the first of which is relatively forgiving, while the second features gradients of 15% on the Cote de Tuilieres. Their route remains lumpy until the actual finishing straight, offering the remaining men a chance to sprint on the flat for the win; perhaps teasingly so.

Tour-du-Haut-Var-Stage-1-Spokenforks-Preview

Contenders:

With this terrain on offer, Philippe Gilbert is the clear favourite to blossom both days ahead of opening his Classics campaign. He appeared to have sound form in Dubai and finished comfortably every day in Qatar; he certainly has the tactical nous to tame this unpredictable race too. AG2R are still without a win this season, but will dream of remedying that soon with the participation of defending champion Carlos Betancur and Samuel Dumoulin. As the Colombian Bentancur has left a lot to be desired as of late, it might be wise for the French outfit to back Dumoulin instead; especially as both finishes suit him if he remains in contention.

Another French team with zero wins currently is FDJ, possibly supporting climber Kevin Reza in hope of breaking their duck at last. The man climbs well when on form and would benefit if sprinting from a reduced sprint on either stage. Thomas Voeckler has a great history at the race and could well win the first day on the uphill sprint; winning it twice previously overall should have equipped him with the skills to defend the lead if he finds himself with a good margin after day one.

The unpredictable nature of the race means outsiders still have something worth fighting despite the presence of Philippe Gilbert. Franco PellizottiDavide RebellinRinaldo NoncentiniJohn Darwin Atapuma, Simon Spilak and Julien Simon could all be part of the rag-tag squad which hopes to throw a spanner in the works of Gilbert; should the moment take them.

Tour-Of-Oman-Stage-4-Preview-Spokenforks

Green On The Other Side – Tour Of Oman Stage 4 Preview

Though the last few days have provided plenty of entertainment and interest, they only truly served as an appetiser for the big showdown on Stage 4. For the fifth consecutive year, a battle royale is billed upon the devastating slopes of Green Mountain. This Queen Stage has repeatedly crowned its overall winner in its short history as part of the Tour of Oman; this year should be no different.

Course:

Running 189km from Sultan Qaboos Grande Mosque to Jabal Al Akhdhar (Green Mountain), the peloton will slink their way across the desert landscape; the day’s foe looming larger with every revolution. Tackling the major climbs proceeding terrain will not be effortless either; increasing the elevation in steps as they approach Green Moutain late on.

Tour-Of-Oman-Stage-4-Preview-Spokenforks

As the riders whittle the distance from home down to 11km, the elevation of the road begins to build gently towards the real agony of Green Mountain. The peloton will already be absorbing the early ramps’ gradients of 6% – 9% when they turn onto the final 5.5km and encounter the real challenge. Opening with 2km’s worth of 10% gradients will come as a shock to many; having been racing in the Middle East for a couple of weeks now. Cranking immediately upwards to 12% for the following kilometre, a section of 6% (of what must feel like flat by then) will offer a short moment to breath a sigh of relief. It is the final 2km which will light fuses and send sparks flying as men begin sprawling over 13.5% worth of agony; to attack or endure here is the question. A stage winning and probably race winning move will go in these final two kilometres, but when it is timed will be crucial. The majority of those aiming for the overall win could afford to leave their attack later, as they do not need to worry about gaining or overturning time deficits. Others such as Joaquim Rodriguez or Vincenzo Nibali have the talent to win the stage, but would need around a minute on all other favourites to secure a leader’s jersey.

Tour-Of-Oman-Stage-4-Preview-Spokenforks

 

Outcome:

Despite lacking Chris Froome and Alberto Contador, the field assembled to contest the Queen Stage is an embarrassment of riches in regards to climbing ability. Perhaps the most talented is Vincenzo Nibali, a man who thrives upon such devastating slopes so successfully he has won all three grand tours. It is unclear as to what form the Italian champion is in however; currently 56 seconds down on general classification. It seems extremely unlikely that ‘The Shark of Messina’ will overturn this to take the overall lead after Stage 4, he has spoken that his ambition in Oman would be to take a stage win though; there is no better.

Alejandro Valverde will be a marked man, sitting 2nd overall and already showing form beyond someone riding simply for race fitness. Realistically, the length and gradient do not suit him perfectly, but if he approaches the final kilometre as part of a diminished group, he might just run away with it. A man who will really see the absence of Froome and Contador as an opportunity to be seized upon, will be BMC’s Tejay Van Garderen. Often showing early season form, much has always been expected of the young climber and he knows how well this terrain suits him while sitting 10 seconds down on GC. BMC have also equipped him with a strong support team of Damiano Caruso, Peter Velits and Greg Van Avermaet to name a few. Froome was the only man to better him on a carbon copy of the day’s stage last year; a huge confidence boost to make his move upon.

One who could push Tejay to the limit in pursuit of victory is Tinkoff-Saxo’s Rafal Majka; the Pole displaying early flourishes of power on Stage 2. He should cope well with the terrain and mustering a winning performance is not beyond the Tour de France’s King of the Mountains. Others to keep a close eye upon include Jakob FuglslangDavid Arredondo and Jacques Janse van Rensburg who all sit within spitting distance of the overall lead. Losing so much time earlier in the week might afford Leopold Konig and Joaquim Rodriguez a chance to shoot off the front while others play cat and mouse; though both have left lots to be desired thus far. The sheer number of permutations possible makes it difficult to pick who will win atop Green Moutain. Overall contender or dark horse with nothing to lose? Regardless, Tejay Van Garderen must surely see Stage 4 as a pathway to a major career scalp; he should be leader by the end of the day.

1st Rafal Majka 2nd Tejay Van Garderen 3rd Jakob Fuglslang

Back In The Fast Lane – Tour Of Oman Stage 3 Preview

The conclusion of Stage 3’s 158.5km circuit out of Al Mussanah Sports City and back should result in another big sprint finish for the fast men. Without a bump on its profile worth mentioning, the day’s profile hardly requires an elevation guide alongside it.

Course:

Worrying so little about what comes between the start and finish could cause a lapse in concentration for some of the peloton, but alertness will be required as ever from the riders. Barren desert landscapes which blend onwards to the coast mean exposure to crosswinds is likely; should they decide to stir on the day. Teams will have to work hard to keep GC contenders at the front of affairs if the bunch begins fraying rapidly in the winds. Running parallel to the seafront, the final kilometres into the finish are extremely flat, meaning a fast bunch kick should crown the victor on Stage 3.

Tour-Of-Oman-Stage-3-PreviewTour-Of-Oman-Stage-3-Preview

Outcome:

It should be an incredibly quick sprint for the win, favouring Nacer Bouhanni, Sam Bennet, Andrea Guardini and Tom Boonen. All four have shown they are taking these early season races seriously and will certainly be eager to add to their hauls so far or open their 2015 account. No doubt ‘Mr.Consistent’ Peter Sagan will place in the top ten as expected; any chance of him winning reduced by such a drag race of a finish however.

1st Bennet 2nd Guardini 3rd Boonen