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.
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.
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 Boonen, Zdenek 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 Vanmarcke, Jean-Pierre Drucker, Matthieu Ladagnous, Scott Thwaites, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Matthew Brammier and Edward Theuns all being men to watch for.
1st Alexander Kristoff 2nd Yauheni Hutarovich 3rd Elia Viviani