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Nokere Koerse: Raise the Curtain!

Francesco Chicchi nails N-K '12 finale
Francesco Chicchi nails N-K '12 finale

The let's-really-start-the-cobbles-season-without-the-actual-contenders annual kicks off Wednesday/tomorrow in Ronse, East Flanders, a/k/a the Center of the Cycling Universe until further notice. Nokere Koerse is a wee romp across southern Ost-Vlaaanderen, along the Leiestreek area, for those of you scoring at home using a Fietsroute map. But really, it's a warmup to an eight-lap circuit around Nokere, ending on the Nokereberg in a tough, uphill sprint on cobblestones. Because it's Flanders time.

What's New?

Well, for starters, it isn't snowing, nor is it expected to -- weather in Gent is sunny-ish and warm for now. So unlike 2013, the race will almost certainly be held. Another tweak is the exclusion of the Kluisberg, which previously made an early appearance around 15km. I could tell you more about the Kluisberg, but nothing that happens in the first hour of the race is actually raced, except by the inevitable breakaway. The official distance is 199km. The final circuit, which counts for 65% of the race, is identical to recent versions, and I suspect it's pretty well etched in stone.

What's Interesting?

The startlist and the final km, both of which have their own categories coming up in this preview. Basically, since the race happens just after the finishes of two World Tour stage races down on the Mediterranean, and just before Milano-Sanremo, Nokere Koerse is sort of an all-Flemish/B-List appetizer for the locals. It's a chance to see guys who may have some cobbles chops but for whatever reason -- youth, inexperience, poor results -- either won't be on the roster for De Ronde or will spend that day running bottles. For the deeper teams, like OPQS, it's a chance to see some very strong riders who have no role in MSR. Check out the roadbook.

Where Will the Race Be Won?

At the line, most likely. The last edition won on any sort of breakaway was Leon van Bon, riding solo, in 2007. More typically, several dozen riders make it to the line to engage in the bunch sprint up the somewhat broad, slightly ascending Nokereberg, which is a pretty gentle 5% stretch for 350 meters, albeit with cobbles. Watch Francesco Chicchi take an early jump and hold on in 2012:

Scroll ahead a bit. Basically, you don't want to wait too long to start your acceleration. Drafting to the finish doesn't mean as much on uphill stones.

Who Do I Need to Know?

Very hard to say. If you're a regular Vlaamse Wielerbond reader maybe you know who's got a hot hand in Flanders, but for us foreigners, it's hard to not be in the dark. Here's the latest startlist. Some names jump out: Daniel Oss for BMC, Michael Kreder for Wanty, Kenny De Haes at Lotto, those are the bigger names I can think of who are suited to the course. After that? A slew of Belgians of varying shapes and sizes. Even a Planckaert.

Pick to Win:

De Haes. He's been 4th here once before, and though he's missed the cut a few times, tomorrow will be a pleasant day, favoring a big bunch. Also he just won Drenthe, making him as hot a hand as there is. Add in a good team and you've got a winnar.