You think last week's races were predictable? Welcome to the Circuit Franco-Belge, a race which travels the border of France, Hainault (Wallonia) and West Flanders like a drunk walking a straight line. On cobblestones.
Which brings me to my next subject: cobblestones! From a competitive standpoint there isn't too much to love about this race -- last year three of the four stages ended in mass bunches, and the fourth escaped that fate by all of two seconds. Adam Blythe of Lotto used two 10-second stage win bonuses to seal the overall. But hey, it's that part of the world, it can't help but look cool here and there. What with the sprints happening on cobblestones. Here's a quick breakdown of this year's event, which runs tomorrow thru Sunday.
Stage 1: Mouscron -- Peruwelz, 180km
Starting in Belgian Hainault, the westernmost extent of Wallonia which wedges itself between Flanders and France, the race veers into both west and east Flanders, even accidentally climbing the Kluisberg (Mont de l'Eclus) early on in the stage. There's also the imposing sounding Col de la Croix Jubaru, a rather unimposing lump of Hainault turf that won't make any difference, and some short stretches of pave. Eventually the peloton will bear down on the flat finishing circuits, routing through three or four small towns on the French/Hainault border. If you can call it that. I crossed into France there in 2009 and still haven't seen a sign.
It keeps going...
Stage 2: Menin -- Poperinge, 159km
Easily the most intriguing stage of the race, this course borrows a few key elements from Gent-Wevelgem, particularly the Monteberg (done once) and the Rodeberg (done on each of the five closing circuits). Like Gent-Wevelgem, riders who want to win will have to be on their guard. It will definitely break up some, but it may come back together. Or not.
Stage 3: Antoing -- Ichtegem, 153km
Back down to sea level again, this should be the least intriguing stage of the race. Ichtegem is deep into West Flanders, the part of Gent-Wevelgem they don't show on TV because it's so flat. Personally I'd have the finishing circuits through some farm pastures on CX bikes, but the organizers, they like their sprints.
Stage 4: Mons -- Tournai, 175km
A/k/a Croix Jubaru Day, as they climb up the thing no less than 7 times. It's only 1350 meters at 5.6%, pretty steady and no stones, so by itself it shouldn't hurt much, but seven reps means a strong rider should have an advantage (paging Sep Vanmarcke). But the final 9km is down or flat to the line. More than enough time to regroup for the sprint.
Needless to say, this race has grave implications for the VDS. For starters, I am within 200 points of Majope in the Editors' League, a gap that could come down rapidly once Michael Van Staeyen starts sampling that home cooking. Deep down, however, I know Sep will make a bigger splash, and if the races don't break up, Borut Bozic could win as many stages here as he wants. Oh well. Enjoy!