Cobbles? Did you say cobbles?
Racing returns to the Flemish Ardennes tomorrow, albeit in preview mode. Another week and I will start using more exclamation points than vowels. But Nokere-Koerse is all about what's coming later. By which I mean later next week, and later in the next few years. This is showtime for some of the hot young talents in the sport who aren't quite hot enough yet, or at least not senior enough, to get a start at Milano-Sanremo. Much to like about that.
Parcours: The course is pretty straightforward: it starts in Ronse at the southern (kinda western) edge of the Flemish Ardennes, cuts through the hills with a few ups and downs (Vossenhol, Kruisberg, Kluisberg*, Hotond) before exiting the hills, saying hello to Waregem across the Leie River, and dipping back over the Leie to Nokere just outside Oudenaarde for the 15km finishing circuit, which it runs eight times. The Nokereberg is the star of the show, since it's the only hill ascended after the 77km mark, and the race finishes on top of it. As hellingen go, it's a cute 350 meter run over cobbles averaging 5% with a max of 7%.
[*Stay tuned for my upcoming three-part series, How To Tell the Kluisberg From the Kruisberg.]
Rating: Sprinter-friendly in general, though to win it requires a very powerful dash.
Little Known Fact: Nokere Koerse was originall known back in 1944 as the GP Jules Lowie, who was from Nokere and bore the distinction of winning Paris-Nice. Apparently that stopped being very compelling after a while, so it's now named the Nokere Course. [Another little known fact: it's not (hyphened) Nokere-Koerse (coughCNcough). In fairness, Wikipedia redirects searches of Nokere-Koerse to the Nokere Koerse page. So our reporter friends, whom I hope don't mind a friendly poke now and then, aren't alone in this mistake.]
Past Masters: A mix of decent sprinters and kids. Most of the A-listers aren't in the palmares (or on the 2011 startlist), but for every Graeme Brown or Jeroen Blijlevens there's a young Wouter Weylandt or Jens Keukeleire.
And this time? The young classicians field is choc-a-block with talent nowadays, and the chance to see them in full gallop, without having to get round Hushovd or Gilbert or Boonen is a real treat, assuming video shows up at some point. Keukeleire, now a ripe old 22, is back in the #1 dossard, but he'll have a hell of a battle on his hands. Andre Greipel is the biggest veteran name, though his broken face might slow him down. Also looking for some form and/or a win are Gert Steegmans, Leif Hoste, any of several FDJers (Hutarovich, Steve Chainel), several more Rabos (Bos, Brown, Martens), and Jimmy Casper. The kids include John Degenkolb, coming off stage wins at West Vlaanderen and the Algarve; Rabo's Michael Matthews who pocketed stages in Murcia and the TdU; 2010 Franco-Belge winner Adam Blythe (Lotto); Topsport's Michael Van Staeyen; Katusha's Denis Galimzyanov; among others.
The pick: Degenkolb. I'll take him over Matthews, who might be pressed into helping out the veterans, and Keukeleire, whom I suspect is taking it slower this spring to come good in the next few weeks instead.