Let's face it, what makes the ENECO Tour worth watching is the blend of stages in Dutch versus Belgian style. That plus the strong presence of Dutch and Belgian teams says pretty clearly what this is about: a Border War. Quaint, quiet Belgium versus its slick, sophisticated neighbor to the north. The only chance cycling gets to settle such a score, at least until the Cyclocross World Championships.
So where is Belgium in all of this? Oh, sure, Omega Pharma-Quick Step gained its second stage win today, thanks to surrogate Belgians Sylvain Chavanel and Zdenek Stybar earlier in the week. The two OPQS riders are in the hunt for the overall, and Chava in particular looks like a threat to win, if he can out-class Lars Boom at some point during the next two stages. Not a great bet, but in with a shout, for sure.
But where are the actual Belgians? Today's time trial pitted former Belgian TT champ Philippe Gilbert against the field, and Gilbert delivered about what you'd expect: a 20th placing, half a minute off the lead on the short ITT (or long prologue) course. This was day 2.5 in the Netherlands (including yesterday's international affair), with the final two stages back in Belgium and set on the country's most hallowed cycling grounds. Tomorrow's stage looks like a bizarro-Liege-Bastogne-Liege, with a circuit race ending on the Cote de la Redoute after two previous ascents, while Sunday's finale is the main attraction, with 2.5 ascents of the Muur van Geraardsbergen meant to set Belgian hearts aflutter and heap shame upon Flanders Classics for excluding it from its rightful place among the Tour of Flanders.
With all this, and World Tour points to boot, you would think Belgian riders would take the bait. For while the ENECO Tour may succeed in pitting Dutch stages next to Belgian ones, and in trolling fans of the Classics into submission (I promise I'll be good!), they haven't done much to bring out the riders. To wit:
- Lars Boom leads the race, after having won it last year on the Muur, something he knows how to ride.
- Dutch riders have swarmed the top 20 on GC, six of them, with Tom Dumoulin in third at 8" and Sebastian Langeveld fifth (+10"). Only Chava (second, +4") looks like a contender, with Gilbert hovering at 18".
- Today was particularly disgraceful, with Gilbert finishing behind no less than seven Dutchies. Are people in Belgium really OK with this?
Of course, there's a pretty strong counterargument. Up til now, the stages have been somewhat Dutch in nature: fast, flat, tricky at times but not overly draining. Skinny roads are awesome, but when the tarmac is smooth and the wind is minimal, there's not much for an enterprising Belgian rider to do.
And the race is hardly over. As any Belgian tactician can tell you, it's not how you do in the middle of the race, it's how you finish. And the next two stages promise to be at least as selective as today's time trial. Gilbert, in his favor, won the only recent Ardennes stage when he put 8" into the field at the 2011 edition on the fifth stage to Andenne. Moreover, while past editions have ventured into Wallonia regularly, they've often finished far enough away from the Cotes to eliminate their importance... whereas tomorrow the Cote de la Redoute could not be more important. And if there's a single rider left in the GC whom you might associate with the Cote de la Redoute, it's Gilbert, the legendary slayer of Cotes from just two years ago.
Better still, another rider on GC whom teams overlook at their peril would be Jan Bakelants. Not that they will -- when you've worn yellow and finished third on an Alps stage of the Tour, your days of being ignored are over. Sitting 37" back, Bakelants needs Gilbert to come a-cropper, and for all the lesser climbers to do the same, on tomorrow's challenging parcours. But given the terrible curse Gilbert pulls onto his shoulders every day, the rainbow-colored one, I'm not dismissing this outcome.
So Belgian fans might have something to get quite excited about after all, before this is over. That's assuming Chavanel doesn't cut it, a poor assumption since the guy has been an honorary Belgian for years, thanks to his faithful and awesome service to the Quick Step machine and Tom Boonen in particular. So yeah, they're probably already excited, and on a good day Chava can get up and down a few Cotes before reality sets in. Maybe Lars Boom has been set up to fail tomorrow. Maybe Belgium will have the last laugh in this battle, after what's been a terribly one-sided affair. Maybe.
But remember that Boom isn't as terrible a climber as your average Flanders-Roubaix guy. And the darkest horse of all, Dumoulin, sits at +8". If Gilbert and Bakelants can't drop Dumoulin tomorrow, don't go listening for La Brabançonne at Sunday's closing ceremonies.