Gent - Wevelgem Race Preview 2017

Gent – Wevelgem – 2017 Race Preview

Course:

Fans have already seen the biggest names in the early season classics trade blows amongst themselves during Dwars Door Vlaanderen and E3 Harelbeke, but the anticipated contest at Gent – Wevelgem offers differing prospects once again. The course may have a greater number of flat kilometres than what the riders have tackled already during their Spring campaign, but that is not to say that plenty of murderous hellingen are not waiting to break the spirits of the peloton as the ranks begin to thin. Stretching for a total of 249km from the historic city of Gent to Wevelgem, the race has often been one which leans closer to the talents of the toughest sprinters than the thoroughbred cobblestone crunching specialists, alongside both Scheldeprijs and Kuurne – Brussels – Kuurne. After approximately 130km of racing upon relatively flat roads, the eleven climbs soon begin to be ticked off rapidly, the race retaining a familiar format while building upon the recent addition of another pass of the Kemmelberg. Another new feature of the race is the use of several roads which are unpaved, making the battle for position more intense in order to avoid being caught up behind any potential punctured riders. The majority of the hellingen will prove simple enough, but much of the day’s anxiety shall hang above the second Kemmelberg pass, approaching from the steeper side which reaches a maximum gradient of approximately 23%. An elite group of riders is likely to have formed by this point of the race and should contest the outcome of 2017’s Gent – Wevelgem amongst themselves with the fastest bunch kick possible after such a draining affair.

Gent - Wevelgem Race Preview 2017

Contenders:

Peter Sagan did not really feature during Friday’s E3 Harelebeke and shall be extremely motivated to perform well with the ambition of defending his title from last year. The topography should play into Sagan’s hands favourably, something which is evident given his convincing history of results at this race in the last five seasons. He will need to ride aggressively in order to drop several faster finishing classics specialists, though given his sparkling form right now, it seems a challenge well within the abilities of the day’s favourite.

John Degenkolb is building strongly ahead of his main target of Paris – Roubaix and looked to be one of the only riders of Sagan’s ilk to follow the world champion when dropping the hammer on the Poggio during Milan – San Remo. He possesses a strong team of riders who are skilled enough to keep him safe throughout the day and bring back any threatening looking moves which do not feature the German sprinter if required. Trek – Segafredo will be confident of Degenkolb taking the win in a sprint against anyone after such a tough affair, marking them out as key protagonists throughout the day in order to assure his presence once they reach Wevelgem.

Alexander Kritstoff will be one of the greatest threats to the likes of Peter Sagan and John Degenkolb in a sprint finish for the title, as the Norwegian strongman is notorious for surviving attritional races with his ruthless turn of pace still intact. He may not be in the scintillating form of a couple of years ago, but his recent showing at Milan – San Remo provided a glimpse of the past, taking fourth place ahead of rivals for today Fernando Gaviria and John DegenkolbIt is likely he will keep a low profile for as long as possible, but once Kristoff is forced to break cover, viewers will realise the true race is on.

Fernando Gaviria has an incredible sprinting ability which has already delivered him victories against the world’s fastest sprinters in races much more simple than Gent – Wevelgem. The Colombian is still developing as a classics rider, yet came close to securing a monument on his Milan – San Remo debut last year and took 5th this season there too. As a young rider, the skill of staying in contention without going too deep is not as well honed as a rider like Alexander Kristoff, but his palmarés suggest he is not far off that heading into this battle.

Greg Van Avermaet took the win at E3 Harelbeke on Friday, so will arrive here aware of the form he is currently enjoying in the Spring yet again. The Belgian rider may have seen his impetus to win here reduced somewhat as a result of his recent win, but knowing what he can do in terms of racing could allow him to ride a more patient race in hope of catching the sprinters by surprise with a late move. There is no doubt that somebody will look to make a move on the final pass of the Kemmelberg and many shall expect Avermaet to be right up there in the mix, if not leading the charge.

Other riders who have the potential to win from either a sprint or small breakaway are Tom BoonenDylan Groenewegen, Fabio FellineNiki TerpstraZdenek StybarMatteo TrentinLuke Rowe and Michael Matthews.

Outcome:

1st John Degenkolb 2nd Alexander Kristoff 3rd Peter Sagan

E3 Harelbeke 2017 Race Preview

E3 Harelbeke – Race Preview 2017

Course:

With barely a pause for breath in the wake of a hectic Dwars Door Vlaanderen, the peloton once again charges headlong into another contest of hellingen and cobblestones, poised to tackle the ever entertaining E3 Harelbeke. Considered by many to be the closest thing to a practice run of next month’s Ronde Van Vlaanderen, riders who perform well here are often earmarked as the main protagonists to watch during the second monument of 2017. Comprising a 205km route from Harelbeke and back again, the race organisers have once again completed the task of seemingly featuring every possible hill, pavé section or both combined to truly make this an attritional affair. Despite many being all too familiar with the likes of the Taaienberg, Eikenberg and Paterberg, these hellish obstacles never soften, forever skilled at breaking the toughest riders en route to the finish. Given the gruelling profile of E3 Harelbeke, it is rare for a large group to sprint amongst themselves to decide the victor, so expect to see a series of elite riders trading blows until a handful of the strongest splinter from the chasing pack and set about crowning 2017’s champion.

E3 Harelbeke 2017 Race Preview

Contenders:

Peter Sagan is enjoying monstrous form in 2017 and will be given the title of ‘man to beat’ yet again as the peloton spend another arduous day surfing the cobblestones of Belgium. He always rises to expectations of putting on a show for fans, animating races regardless of how it may impact upon his hopes of winning, but today is the kind of race which looks ideal for Sagan showboating en route to victory. Having defended his rainbow bands for another year, being the most watched man in the peloton is hardly of note to him now, no doubt relishing the attention as he seeks to make life as hard as possible for his rivals.

Greg Van Avermaet has been closest thing to a thorn in the side of Peter Sagan, beginning to acquire a convincing record in head to head sprints and diminishing the air of invincibility surrounding the reigning world champion. He often seeks to follow the rear wheel of Sagan, hoping to get the better of him in a sprint at the end of a tough race like this which often sees the Belgian with a faster turn of pace. It is unlikely that Avermaet will be afforded an inch to attack, so himself and his BMC teammates will do their utmost to position him well and leave him in the best shape possible to contest the win from a lead group.

Tiesj Benoot will once again be feeling the strain to convert his potential on the cobblestones into a victory at last, despite only recently turning 23 years old, the native fans are eager to see a new Belgian hero emerge. His performance during Dwars Door Vlaanderen bordered upon the anonymous, yet he still secured 7th place behind the leading group of four riders which decided the race. Benoot knows these climbs well and is not afraid of riding an aggressive race, looking to chip away at his main rivals in hope of arriving solo in Harelbeke. 

Sep Vanmarcke missed all the major moves during Dwars Door Vlaanderen and was surely unimpressed by his Cannondale – Drapac teammates’ lack of impetus to chase the break down. Regardless, we have since learned that Vanmarcke has been suffering from a mixture of illness and a bruised rib, yet has assured fans that he will be in contention once again at E3 Harelbeke; perhaps the greatest threat to Peter Sagan if fighting fit.

Tom Boonen may be lining up for the Spring classics once again, but the reality is that the Belgian cycling icon is currently riding in the Autumn of his career. As part of another incredibly strong Quick – Step squad, the likelihood is that Boonen will be allowed to remain in the main bunch, hoping for a sprint finish to decide the day’s outcome; from which he will be a favourite. The antics of his teammates may well tire other favourites ahead of the finale, allowing Boonen to take advantage to stir some emotions in the Belgian fans of previous triumphs.

Philippe Gilbert worked well with teammate Yves Lampaert to deliver Quick – Step the win at Dwars Door Vlaanderenperhaps even sacrificing his chances of victory to assure the team did not suffer another tactical embarrassment on home soil. He will be further down the pecking order during E3 Harelbeke, where he could be tasked with forcing the hand of rival riders by animating the race late on. If a tactical race begins to play out in the latter stages, Gilbert is certainly a strong enough rider to make a late move stick right the way to the finish line.

Zdenek Stybar is leading the attack for Quick – Step here as they utilise their entire arsenal of riders to try and put Peter Sagan to the sword. In terms of possessing the power required to bridge over to decisive moves and attack rivals on the day’s hellingen, Stybar is perhaps the closest match to Sagan when in his best form. He will be well protected by his teammates and should be a guaranteed face amongst the lead group which pushes onwards to the finish in Harelbeke at the end of the 205km.

Luke Rowe may be given the task of stepping into the shoes of teammate and fellow Welshman Geraint Thomas, who has previously enjoyed victory here amongst several other good performances. Despite Rowe stating that his recent time at Paris – Nice was one of the toughest ever, he caught the eye with his potent efforts to keep protected riders in the best position possible during crucial moments. Being given the chance to ride this race with much greater freedom than normal could deliver Team Sky an unexpected win; Rowe certainly not scared of attacking the bigger name riders.

John Degenkolb is targeting Paris – Roubaix in a few weeks time, though might be tempted to test his form at E3 Harelbeke, despite the course not being a typical fit for his talents. The German is extremely powerful, being the last man to be dropped by Peter Sagan’s attack during the final moments of Milan – San Remo and is often the fastest man present in races which stretch onwards from 200km. This may not be an obvious target for him, yet he will certainly seize the opportunity should he find himself at the front of affairs as part of a race deciding group.

Outcome:

1st Tiesj Benoot 2nd Peter Sagan 3rd Luke Rowe

Dwars Door Vlaanderen 2017 – Preview

Course:

Having seen the monument of Milan – San Remo toppled last weekend, the subsequent springtime whirlwind of hellingen and cobblestones begins immediately with the semi-classic Dwars Door Vlaanderen. Though seemingly lacking the prestige of other one day races in this part of the world during March and April, this shall be the 72nd edition of a contest which features the likes of Eikenberg, Taaienberg, Oude-Kwaremont and Paterberg; making victory here a bold indication of form approaching Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris – Roubaix. Departing Roeselare, the riders will travel a total of 203.4km en route to the finish at Waregem, taking in twelve hellingen and four pavé sectors along the way. There is no doubt that the course shall do what it was designed for and drain the legs of the peloton throughout the day, thinning the ranks until an elite group of riders has formed at the head of affairs. The biggest question of Dwars Door Vlaanderen is how the finale itself shall be executed, as recent history demonstrates an even balance between riders arriving at the finish solo or a small bunch sprint crowning the champion. Regardless, Dwars Door Vlaanderen is deserving of greater merit within the cycling fandom and those who watch the day’s contest are certain to see an exciting race proving precisely that.

Dwars Door Vlaanderen 2017 Preview

Contenders:

Niki Terpstra has finished on the podium here three times in his career, taking to the top spot in both 2012 and 2014 as race winner, marking the Dutchman out as a rider who often performs well at Dwars Door Vlaanderen. Terpstra seldom takes any win from a sprint finish, so he will be seeking to follow the wheels for the most part, looking to attack solo in the final kilometres by utilising his time trialling prowess to bury the opposition late on.

Tiesj Benoot seems to have long been the rising star of Belgium cycling, but at still only 23 years old, the Lotto-Soudal rider is surprisingly yet to capture his maiden professional victory. This season hints at great form however, with an 8th place finish at Strade Bianche and an impressive 4th place at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne causing a stir amongst native fans. He has often been the victim of bad luck or poor tactics, but his emerging race maturity and strong form will make him a greater threat than ever, Benoot certain to be a key figure in shaping the race’s decisive group.

Zdenek Stybar has not truly been as prolific as many have come to expect at this time of year, perhaps keeping his powder dry ahead of his key focus of Paris – Roubaix later in the cobbled campaign. He arrives here as part of another indomitable Quick – Step squad, the team anticipated by many to make life as hard as possible for the rest of the peloton en route to Waregem. Stybar has the strength required to power across to any moves which begin to sneak away from the pack on either pavé sectors or climbs, while also retaining enough energy to put rivals to the sword in a reduced sprint. If he proves to be on form, Stybar will be a major contender, but he will need to avoid being hamstrung by the talents of his own teammates.

Sep Vanmarcke seems perpetually plagued by misfortune when it comes to the classics and one day races which he admires so greatly. He was present in the mix at this season’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, eventually finishing third in a sprint finish behind Greg Van Avermaet and Peter Sagan, hopefully learning in the process that he cannot keep waiting for sprints which he shall never win. Vanmarcke’s greatest asset is his huge engine power, a talent which has often seen him make the cut for the lead group in some of the year’s toughest races. If he is to win Dwars Door Vlaanderen, then he must commit to a late move which propels him away solo, forcing the faster finishing riders to look at each other for somebody to invest energy in bringing him back.

Guillaume Van Keirsbulck recently dropped down from previous employers Etixx to join the Wanty – Groupe Gobert squad, now appearing to be a canny move after having won Le Samyn in dominant form a few weeks ago. The Belgian rider is incredibly strong during races such as these, though has perhaps not always been able to show this due to being at the call of team leaders in major races previously. As a man with an entire team likely to be tasked with protecting him, Van Keirsbulck is a clear wildcard who could capitalise on a naive peloton. 

Arnaud Démare will not wish to walk away from this year’s classics season without a victory of some sort, especially given his determination to perform competitively when attempting to defend his Milan – San Remo title, which as a result now finds him in perhaps a career best form. The Frenchman should be interested in putting this fact to good use right now and could animate the race more aggressively than many expect. 

Fabio Felline continues to demonstrate his strength and endurance at some of the toughest races, winning his opening race of the season Trofeo Laigueglia and recently finishing 4th at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad behind breakaway leaders Greg Van Avermaet, Peter Sagan and Sep Vanmarcke. Felline will be hoping for a reduced bunch sprint, from which he has a great chance of being the fastest man present.

Other riders worth keeping an eye upon include Jens DebusschereJurgen Roelandts and Edward Theuns.

Outcome:

1st Tiesj Benoot 2nd Fabio Felline 3rd Sep Vanmarcke

Milan - San Remo 2017 Preview

Milan – San Remo – 2017 Preview

Course:

The fringes of Spring may only just be tracing their way across Europe, but the looming prospect of Milan – San Remo shall imminently signal the confirmation of this year’s classics campaign getting underway. Victories in the five races which form cycling’s monuments (Milan – San Remo, Tour of Flanders, Paris – Roubaix, Liège – Bastogne – Liège and Giro di Lombardia) are rare badges of honour for a rider to add to their palmarés; having the power to turn a ‘great’ into a ‘legend’. For a race to possess such prestige, it cannot be a simple affair to win, thus presenting a total of 291km from Milan to San Remo to all of those with an eye upon victory. This year’s edition follows a familiar format which seeks to agitate the race over the decisive late climbs of the Cipressa and Poggio, often then creating an established group of elite riders who are then poised to hammer it to the finish line upon the Via Roma. The peloton will let the day’s breakaway vanish up the road, keeping them under control and rolling through more than half of the race before truly considering reeling them in. Though the Cipressa is expected to be the scene of a few speculative moves, the 5.6km climb averages a modest 4.1% and with the steepest section only hitting 9%, it is unlikely we will see the race won from here. What follows is the historic Poggio ascent, coming less than 10km from the finish and possessing a history of inspiring attempts to fracture the race in hope of seeing the major sprinters slide out the back of the pack. The climb lasts 3.7km and mirrors this with an average gradient of 3.7%, the most demanding section is 8% and it summits 5.4km from the finish. The climb itself is not that tough, but the puncheurs will seek to set a high tempo in order to make life as difficult as possible for the sprinters. Once the riders return to the main coastal road after the dangerous technical descent, only 2.3km will remain for those wishing to stay away and those hoping to reel them back in. With a lack of road furniture or tight bends, it is ideal terrain for the main bunch to capture any escapees before the finale, the Via Roma set once again to be the scene of another iconic finish of Milan – San Remo.

Milan - San Remo 2017 Preview

Contenders:

John Degenkolb is a previous winner of this monument in a season which saw him double up with victory several weeks later at Paris-Roubaix. Such performances seemed to signal the emergence of a dominant force within the classics for years to come, but an unfortunate training crash which saw the German nearly lose a finger meant he has had to see his palmarés stall for an entire season. This seems to have allowed Degenkolb’s abilities to soften slightly in the minds of many, despite the fact that this endurance based affair and likely sprint finish are almost tailormade for this power based rider, as proven previously with victory in 2015.

Peter Sagan may well have a greater focus upon this year’s Tour of Flanders, but there is no doubt he will be in the hunt at Milan – San Remo as the two time World Champion seeks to collect his second career monument win. The last year has proven to be a demonstration of Sagan’s potential coming to fruition at an intimidating level, beginning to establish a consistency to his riding which has seen few beat him when he really targets a race. As ever though, Sagan’s passion for aggressive riding sometime leaves him paying the price come the finish, but it may be this bad habit which earns him victory here when forcing the tempo.

Fernando Gaviria looked on course for a shock win at last year’s Milan – San Remo, the Colombian appearing the fastest rider left in the lead group as they approached the Via Roma, but he was struck by misfortune when clipping wheels and ending up on the deck questioning what exactly had happened. Since last year, Gaviria has demonstrated an ability to perform well in sprints at the end of a long day in the saddle, getting the better of sprinting’s biggest names in the process. The support of his Etixx teammates could be a deciding factor here, as they look to limit his efforts in the final kilometres, leaving him fresh enough to outperform any remaining favourites.

Arnaud Démare was the unexpected victor a year ago and arrives with intentions to defend his title in superior form to that of last season. The Frenchman’s start to 2017 has been impressive, marking his intentions to make life has difficult as possible for those hoping to snatch his crown, though a degree of his hopes do rely on his team putting in another great showing here. A champion’s desire to retain a title can count for a lot when gritting teeth and pedalling squares is required to get up the final climb, so despite not being the biggest favourite, plenty shall be keen to observe his performance.

Alexander Kristoff is another former winner riding 2017’s edition, though perhaps the one in the least eye-catching form ahead of the opening classic to the season. The Norwegian has long established a reputation for seemingly savouring the harshest of conditions and there is no coincidence that his victory at Milan – San Remo came in the most grimy of weather; taking advantage of his rivals’ weary state to win. His form ahead of the race may not be the most encouraging, though should the wind and rain begin to close in, then there is every chance Kristoff will once again become the man to beat.

Michael Matthews once appeared to be set for taking this monument during his career, but his evolution as a rider has perhaps altered the races once seemingly suited to his abilities. The Australian consistently performs at the World Championships when the course is fitting, demonstrating a talent for coping with these arduous contests, though he usually favours a drag up to the finish line to make the most of his sprinting skills.

Mark Cavendish shall be viewed as an outsider for many here, despite the fact the Manxman won this race in 2009, though he will do well to recapture such victorious form in 2017. However, he was underestimated at last year’s World Championship Road Race and would have earned himself another year in the rainbow bands had he chosen the right sprinting line when just losing out to Peter Sagan. He is a tactical mastermind at preserving energy and staying out of danger, while in a simple drag race to the line, only Gaviria looks faster than Cavendish.

Sonny Colbrelli has a great record at Milan – San Remo, having never finished outside the top 20 during his four appearances, though never quite being in the mix for the win itself. The Italian looks in much better form this season, taking a surprise stage win at this month’s Paris – Nice, showing great determination to beat typically faster finishing sprinters. Colbrelli has developed a talent for long distance races and will be hoping to hit the Via Roma in a fresh enough condition to take advantage of the bigger name riders watching one another in order to make his dash for the line.

Niccolo Bonifazio took an impressive fifth place finish two years ago when making his debut at the age of just 21 years old, stoking the hopes of native fans for an impending Italian champion. His start to the year has yielded modest results, though his talent for being one of the fastest left after such a tough race and a canny skill for navigating chaotic finales marks him out as strong outsider regardless.

Nacer Bouhanni appeared destined for victory in 2016, but then saw his chain slip just as the tempo kicked up in the sprint for the finish line, leaving the fractious Frenchman smashing his handlebars in frustration. This year he will be hoping for better fortunes on the Via Roma, only recently returning to racing after being forced to abandon Paris-Nice, bouncing back immediately when winning Nokere Koerse; albeit a race 100km shorter than this contest. Bouhanni is a durable sprinter and will be a man many hope to shake loose in the final moments, plenty fearing his potent burst of acceleration as they hit the final hundred metres.

Outcome:

1st John Degenkolb 2nd Peter Sagan 3rd Fernando Gaviria

Strade Bianche 2017 Preview

Strade Bianche – Preview 2017

Course:

Though a relatively new addition to the early season calendar, Italy’s Strade Bianche has already cemented itself as part of the classics landscape which builds towards the likes of Paris-Roubaix and Ronde van Vlaanderen later in the Spring. The iconic white roads and rolling terrain are contrasting to the challenges of Belgium, Northern France and the Ardennes, attracting a unique blend of competitors seeking to add their name to the list of victors at a race growing in prestige. The course totals 175km from Siena and back, returning once again to familiar roads in the latter stages, utilising gravel tracks and persistent changes in gradient to really make this an attritional affair. Expectation is that a reduced group will contest the final kilometres in the wake of a strong selection process, often making tactical nous as crucial as brute strength as the final climb is tackled.

Strade Bianche 2017 Preview

Contenders:

Peter Sagan once again appears to be riding in indomitable form at the start of the classics season and will be viewed by many as the man to beat as the race returns to Siena for the finale. His victory at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and second place to Greg Van Avermaet at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad have demonstrated his monstrous ability to simply surge across to anything resembling a race winning move. Sagan has previously finished second place on two occasions at Strade Bianche and will no doubt be looking to call upon his current form to convert his runner-up spots into a belated victory.

Greg Van Avermaet could return again to dampen Sagan’s hopes of victory at a minor classic, the Belgian rider having recovered well from an injury at the end of last year with great success. His history at this race is particularly encouraging, having been unlucky to miss the win here on a few occasions already. A strong support team will certainly improve his chances, hoping to shelter him from any unnecessary efforts, saving himself for what is likely to be a testing finish into town.

Zdenek Stybar really enjoys this race and has made no secret of his ambitions to produce another leading performance here. His experience in cyclo-cross has certainly played a part in his previous successes at Strade Bianche, calling upon his great bike handling abilities to navigate the gravel roads safely. He performs well on these repeated uphill accelerations, possesses great endurance and his usually capable of summoning up a blistering sprint after such a gruelling affair.

Fabio Felline should be considered a danger to the bigger name riders with eyes upon Strade Bianchethe Italian arrives at this race off the back of an encouraging performance at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad which saw him finish fourth. His endurance capabilities have grown year after year, often demonstrating real grit and determination to stay in contact with elite groups, hoping to pounce upon victory with his impressive turn of speed. If there is one rider likely to benefit from the favourites eyeballing one another too long, it could be Felline who steals the show.

Diego Rosa and Michal Kwiatkowski are bound to be the riders which Team Sky look upon as their greatest hopes in a race they are not expected to be targeting with great intent. The former caught the eye with his performance during 2015’s edition while riding for Astana and evidently performs competitively on these gravel roads when offered the chance. Former world champion Kwiatkowski won this race in 2014 and might be tempted to repeat his exploits of three years ago after a good performance at Volta ao Algarve already this season.

Other contenders who could well cause a stir are Jasper StuyvenBen HermansNathan HaasDaniel OssGianluca BrambillaGianni Moscon, Moreno MoserGiovanni Visconti and Tiesj Benoot.

Outcome:

1st Fabio Felline 2nd Peter Sagan 3rd Zdenek Stybar