Next weekend all Belgian pro's have to take the start in the Belgian national championships in La Roche. The race will be ridden on the hardest course in ages. But does that also mean the strongest rider will win? Not necessarily. We may even see a surprising winner.
Let's have a look at the course first. Check out this video if you haven't seen it before. The course starts (and finishes) in the centre of La Roche en Ardenne, a small town in the province of Luxembourg, in the south of the Ardennes region. Right from the start, the riders will have to climb. The Côte d'Ortho is the longest climb on the course: 2,8 km long with an average gradient of 6%. A long one, but not super hard.
At the top, the course turns right onto a windy plateau (crosswinds). After a bit of up and down and lots of twists and turns, two other hills follow in the towns of Buisson and Hives. Both hills are about 500m long and average around 8%. Next there's a long descent back towards La Roche and in the town centre, there's one last hill. It's about a kilometre long and around 5%. From the top, there's only a 500m descent remaining to the finish.
This is a very hard course for Belgian standards, Each lap (13,8km) counts about 300m of ascent. The men will ride 16 laps, so the race will be 221km long, with 4300 meters of ascent. The women ride 7 laps. Their race is 97km long with 1900 m of ascent.
The Côte d'Ortho is great for thinning out the bunch, the other hills are perfect for powerful, explosive types.
On such a hard course, you'd expect the strongest rider or the best climber to win. Sep Vanmarcke told the press that he expects only one or two guys fighting for the win, Leukemans (who celebrates his 36th anniversary on July first) says he's never seen such a hard course before and the race organiser expects Jurgen Van den Broeck to win because of all the climbing.
At the same time Boonen and Roelandts are saying they want to win here, And they actually might have a chance because this is not any other race, this is a national championship. And the Belgian nats are often tactical and unpredictable races.
The race tactics in the Belgian nats are often determined by the strength of the teams and their power in numbers. Lotto-Belisol, OPQS, Topsport, Crelan,... they all start with massive teams. But this year it looks like the strongest teams have no real leaders for this course while the favourites for this course don't really have a team to control the race for them. Let's have a look at the teams and riders
- OPQS start with thirteen riders. As always, they bring a really strong team to the start, but do they have a climber? De Weert? Pauwels? Not exactly the guys I'd let my team work for. So OPQS will probably prefer a closed race so they can enter the last lap with defending champion Boonen and Meersman-on-fire as possible winners. Boonen seemed really strong (and lean) in the Dauphiné. It looks like he really wants to prove something here. Did I mention he won his first Belgian title in Aywaille, on a hilly course in the Ardennes? Gianny Meersman has been riding great all season long. He can survive much more climbing than any other sprinter (unless you see Sagan as a sprinter) and he's crazy fast. Most people see him as one of the main favourites.
- Lotto Belisol have even more riders: 19. Usually Jelle Vanendert or Jurgen Van den Broek would be favorites on this course, but Vanendert is ill and JVdB is (as always) focussing 100% on the Tour. He will even keep training on altitude until two days before the race, so he probably won't feel too great on Sunday. Tim Wellens? Too young probably. Bart De Clercq seems like their best shot, but he's not real a winner either. So they may have many domestiques, but they don't really have a leader to work for...unless Roelandts manages to survive the hills.
- Crelan also starts with 19 riders. Their best shot is Maxime Vantomme, but again, not really a winner.
- Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise have the biggest team with 24 riders, but they don't have any real climbers. Sander Armee is probably their best guy for this course. I also expect a really strong performance by Laurens De Vreese. He's been riding really well and training like a madman since the Glava Tour.
So all these teams have the power in numbers, but they don't have any climber types (who are in shape). Now let's have a look at the 'smaller' teams
BMC bring Gilbert and Van Avermaet, two clear favourites, but they only have two domestiques, so they won't be able to control the race. Van Averemaet might try his luck in a (late) breakaway, but PhilGil will have to hope that the other teams do all the work for him (or pay some domestiques from other teams – see below).
Vacansoleil have Leukemans and De Gendt. Bjorn Leukemans has been training hard for this race and he should be in shape, De Gendt is preparing for the Tour. Both riders aren't afraid of joining attacks, it'll be interesting to see how they play their cards. They also have a sprinter who can survive a few hills (Boeckmans), but only two domestiques. Another team that won't control the race.
Radioshack Leopard bring four riders, Monfort, Hermans, Baekelandts and Devolder. All four of them have demonstrated in recent races that they are in shape. They're all outsiders for the win, but they probably will race passively and hope that others teams bring back the early break. Devolder (who's preparing for the Tour) might be the only exception, I wouldn't be surprised if he tries his luck in an early break.
So all these teams have guys who love this kind of course, but they don't have the support. It'll be interesting to see how this plays out.
Does Lotto decide to make the race hard (i.e. try to drop Boonen and Meersman – and most likely also Roelandts too) and hope either JVDB or Vanenders survives?
OPQS will probably try to let a small break go up the road, I'd guess they will want to keep the race closed (and slow) as long as possible.
Or will a break get away and will both Lotto and OPQS refuse to do the work (or have a smaller name in the break themselves)? Very hard to predict how this race will unfold. It might be a great opportunity for gutsy attackers (Devolder, De Gendt, Baekelandts, Monfort).
But it's a championship, so it's not unlikely that the course turns out less hard than expected, in which case Meersman is probably the biggest favorite, but Boonen, Roelandts, Gilbert and Van Avermaet will definitely give him a run for his money.
Locaux de l'étape
Monfort lives nearby and so does Van Avermaet, who has trained dozens of times on this course in the past months.
A funny phenomenon in the Belgian nats are the riders without any teammates, who don't think they have a chance of winning. Often these guys offer their services to a friend on another team, a team they hope to ride for some day, or simply the highest bidder. Kevin Seeldraeyers might be one of these guys. He's the only Belgian rider in his team, he's not a real winner, so he might offer his services to someone else. Kevin Hulsmans is another example, Jens Keukeleire, Bert De Backer and David Boucher are other solo riders.
Tom Dernies (Wallonie Bruxelles), son of former pro Michel Dernies. He finished 2nd in la Flèche Ardennaise last weekend (a big U23 race) and is the current leader in the Topcompetitie. He'll be motivated.
Sven Nys won't be there, he's riding the MTB European championships. Niels Albert is still recovering from a fracture in his hand after a crash during the ProRace Berlin, so we won't see him either. A shame because usually he rides quite well in the Ardennes.
The crosser to look out for is Kevin Pauwels: he's been targeting this race and he's got the skills to ride really well here. The other crossers will try to get in the early break.
Hard to predict. Jolien D'Hoore is our best rider this year, but the course might be a bit too hard for her. The Druyts sisters are probably better suited for this terrain. Other riders to look out for: Liesbet De Vocht, Jessie Daams, Maaike Polspoel (back after injury) and Kelly Druyts. This would have been a great course for Lieselot Decroix, but she seems to have dissapeared.
Look out for Helga Sibick. Still very inexperienced, but a phenomenal climber.
- The usual pirate channels will offer you streams of the men's race on Sunday, expect some images from the women's race during the men's pre race show and probably on Sporza.be
- A lot of men will stretch their legs one last time on Wednesday during Halle-Ingooigem. This race passes thru the Vlaamse Ardennen, and finishes with a bunch of local laps in which the riders have to climb Tiegemberg. It'll probably end in a group sprint though. This race is broadcasted by a small Belgian channel, so livestreams might be available.