Sorry to come late to the game (vacation/travel), but there's a race in Holland and Belgium on, so late or no, I can't stay silent. Svein Tuft of Garmin-Transitions, the world's reddest cyclist, propelled himself into the lead in today's prologue of the ENECO Tour of BeNeLux, but prologues are just an hors d'oeuvre, and this ENECO Tour will be serving up some pretty tasty courses over the next six days.
But first, a word from our sponsor.
Unlike most races, the ENECO Tour is named after the sponsor, not the locale, so you might be curious to know that ENECO Energie is a Dutch energy company whose official description sounds like they are a kinder, gentler Enron. The name is derived from a longer title along the lines of "Energy and Communications." Drilling down a bit, they're in the energy generating business, with solar and wind presented as their main concerns, but they also seem to be planning a bunch more projects around Europe, and maybe are trading energy as well. Sounds great, but corporate websites aren't founts of candor, and if they're secretly generating 90% of their income by converting third-world orphan labor into electricity, I won't be shocked. But they "like" cycling -- is it an accident that their lone hydro project is in Luchon? -- so I "like" them. OK, moving on...
Stage 1: Steenwijk -- Rhenen (NL)
Wassup? Long flat slog with a finish near Veenendaal in Utrecht Province, the rather green and lovely environs which hosted the Dutch Food Valley classic last week. I'm not seeing a profile, so I will assume that whatever hills exist won't be as selective as the nasty road furniture that has garnered so much attention in Dutch-soil racing this year.
Whom to Watch: Edvald Boasson Hagen is the headliner all week, starting here, though Andre Greipel could steal the spotlight on occasion. Then there's the usual suspects for a bunch sprint: Allan Davis, Borut Bozic, Robbie McEwen, Francesco Chicchi, Wouter Weylandt, Yahueni Hutarovich, and some up and comers like Tom Leezer or Michael Van Staeyen.
Stage 2: St. Willebrord (NL) -- Ardooie (BE)
Wassup? Longer, flatter slog to the heart of West Flanders. The most interesting part of the parcours could be the crossing of the Westerschelde. I've seen mention that last year's Ardooie stage included some late bumps, though the result was a mass sprint anyway. But hey, the riders make the race.
Whom to Watch: Same as stage 1. It's tempting to think of the peloton as being willing to allow a break to go off and make mischief rather than asserting itself for one bunch sprint after another. But there are a few reasons why this is unlikely. First, however warped the UCI points system is, it still gets people's attention. Second, the overall title won't necessarily be won by minutes, or even lots of seconds. And then there are the time bonuses. So the orders this week should be: no gifts.
Stage 3: Ronse -- Ronse (BE)
Wassup? A stage straight out of one of my dreams. Maybe it's just me, but whenever I dream about some great sports experience that's about to happen, it never quite materializes. Well, this stage pays homage to the heart of the Tour of Flanders by skirting past Oudenaarde, Brakel and Geraardsbergen without going in. Some ground is just too hallowed for a race that the UCI invented out of whole cloth less than a decade ago. That said, there are 16 hellingen, and at long last the Oude Kwaremont gets to live up to its destiny and decide the outcome of a race. I won't go into detail, on doctor's orders, but with five ascents in the last 40km, we could have ourselves a real classic.
Whom to Watch: Boasson Hagen will want to assert himself here for a variety of reasons, including putting his missed opportunities this past spring behind him now that his achilles is functioning again. Nearly every team here has a "classics guy" on the roster, so I'll single out a few. Lars Boom's E3 Prijs result is a good indicator of suitability, and his prologue suggests his form is on the upswing. Stijn Devolder has been ripping it up and was born (literally) for this race. Gasparotto and Quinziato will put instill fear in the favorites at some point. Martijn Maaskant needs a result here.
Time out... a list of the top five races invented to buff up the credentials of the UCI Pro Tour:
- ENECO Tour
- Tour of Poland
- Eindhoven Team Time Trial
- Tour of Sochi
Hm, not exactly rivaling L'Equipe for race creation excellence... anyway.
Stage 4: St. Lievens-Houtem (BE) -- Roermond (NL)
Wassup? Throwing up my hands here. I can't find anything useful about the Roermond area, except that Roermond was the sea-level stage start for the key Sittard stage, so I will assume it's another lovely, if not overly challenging, day out for the peloton.
Whom to Watch: Same as stages 1 and 2, although the potential for a breakaway staying out increases as the race gets further along.
Stage 5: Roermond -- Sittard (NL)
Wassup? Unlike stage 3, here the ground isn't hallowed enough for the Eneco folks to stay off. So it's Amstel Gold Race day. Get reacquainted with the Eyeserbosweg, Cauberg and Fromberg, as well as my favorite climb, the Doodeman. More importantly, there are three ascents in the 1km range included in the final circuit, although I suspect stage 3 will have more late selection than these 3% humps. Last year on this same course the top 13 GC guys came in bunched together, a half-minute ahead of the sprinters, although that had a lot to do with the fact that Tyler Farrar was the overall leader coming into the day.
Whom to Watch: The top 20 of the GC. At this stage of the game, anyone not within a minute of the overall lead can probably forget about their chances, for two reasons: the last two road stages offer too much time after the selective climbs for the gaps to stay large, and what business does a true GC contender have losing over a minute on the stages described above anyway?
Stage 6: Bilzen -- Heers (BE)
Wassup? Fleche Wallonne day... and in fact this should be the most decisive road stage, although again the time gaps might be less than what comes out of the final ITT. The signature ascents of the Mur de Huy and Cote de Ben Ahin are 50km from the finish, but a whole lotta chaff will get separated from the wheat there regardless. The race winner could emerge on the Mur d'Amay, 1600 meters of climbing at a noticeable 6%, and 30km from the line when the race will be humming along. But it's a slow descent to Heers, so again, whatever gaps do open could close, at least partially, before the line.
Whom to Watch: Well, given the absurdity of the Mur de Huy, this race should come down to the guys from the GC who can really climb. I guess this is why Tony Martin, Jurgen Van den Broeck, Mauricio Soler and Andreas Kloden are here.
Stage 7: Genk ITT (BE)
Wassup? 16.9km final time trial, should be more or less flat, though weather and the course's technical nature could be factors. Maybe information will improve as we get closer to the day.
Whom to Watch: Top ten GC guys. Time trials aren't the most exciting visual events unless there's an overall victory in the balance. The good news is that even a crono of this short distance will have an impact on the final GC, and we could see a pretty feisty affair. Last year there were ten guys in hailing distance coming into the final ITT, although this year's course is probably more selective. Martin is easily the top cronoman on the startlist, so if he's hanging around on GC, as I expect, this could be a memorable day for him.