Ah, Wednesday racing. And not just some quiet little country romp. Real racing. Cobbles Racing.
The subject is Nokere Koerse, one of the older and more unjustly overlooked races on the calendar. Begun in 1944, the race was staged as a tribute to Jules Lowie, a Nokerian who had won distinction by taking the Paris-Nice title six years earlier. He never won his hometown race... but he did ride it at least twice, and is credited with 8th in the first running and fifth in 1946, his last year as a pro. The citation of Paris-Nice might be a misleading wikipediaism; although it was his greatest triumph, he was a Flandrian, and as such might be better described as a guy who got results all over the cobbled classics, including second in the 1943 running of Paris-Roubaix and fifth in the 1942 edition of de Ronde van Vlaanderen.
Wait -- there was a 1943 Paris-Roubaix? In the middle of WWII? Sure enough... after three years on the shelf, still-occupied France saw L'Auto get permission to run the race again in 1943, and Lowie was one of the biggest beneficiaries, taking a memorable second step on the podium behind Marcel Kint. And yes, Flanders persisted during the war too, not without complications for everyone involved.
Anyway, by 1944 the war was winding down, Lowie was beloved at home, and Nokere Koerse was born as the Grand Prix Jules Lowie. Somewhere along the way his name dropped out, and the race now bears the name of Nokere, and Koerse, which translates to Curonian, some lost language, but I've always assumed to be a twist in the spelling of koers, which means circuit race. Helpful Belgian clarification in 3... 2...
OK, to the race. It kicks off in the market square of Deinze, currently also home to the start of Gent-Wevelgem and a suburb of Gent, more or less, just two train stops west of Sint Pieters Station. The race swings south to Oudenaarde, east to Kerkhove (wave to the Koppenberg across the river!), then completes a crooked figure-eight with a loop to Huise (northeast of Oudenaarde) via Kruishoutem, before setting in for eight circuits of 15km each. Here's the map:
The circuits themselves start and end on the top of the race's only distinguishing feature, the Nokereberg. It consists of 350 meters, entirely cobbled, averaging 5.7% incline with a 7% maximum. The Chainstay, a site for people who like to ride (especially in Belgium), has some terrific details showing the Nokereberg stones to be pretty tolerable in the grand scheme of such things.
So over seven passages the Nokereberg should do little to scramble the peloton, except to contribute to the overall softening of legs, along with headwinds, crosswinds, and a thousand right and left turns on narrow roads. In otherwords, Belgium. [Forecast is for normal, non-dramatic spring weather.] But the final passage should settle things, as what's left of the peloton unleashes a mad, uphill, cobbled sprint which won't look anything like the usual bunch gallops we've been forced to watch for most of the last eight days.
Will it actually be a sprint? Most likely. It's been since 2007 since less than 20 riders came home together, and I'd have to look up what the weather was like that day before treating it as anything but an outlier. Still, the fact that it's a sprint doesn't mean the fastest sprinter will win. The Honor Roll includes sprinterly types like Francesco Chicchi, as well as Graeme Brown, the late Wouter Weylandt, and last year's winner Kenny De Haes. It also favors the strong, from Briek Schotte to Gert Steegmans. [OK, I don't know if the Iron Brick won on the Nokereberg, as opposed to another course design, but I felt like mentioning him, because it's March.]
So who this time? De Haes is back to defend for Lotto-Soudal, who have a strong team around him including Kris Boeckmans, twice second here and a rider with two nice wins in his pocket for 2015 already. Etixx-Quick Step have Guillaume Van Kiersbulck, Stijn Vandenbergh and Nikolas Maes on hand. Among foreign World Tour teams look for Jempy Drucker (BMC), Gert Steegmans (Trek) and Tom Van Asbroeck (Lotto NL), last year's runner-up. A few names from the Pro-Conti and Conti ranks include Jelle Wallays (Topsport), Bjorn Leukemans (Wanty Groupe), Daniel Schorn (Bora-Argon), Maxime Vantomme (Roubaix Lille Metropole), and that old fan favorite Davide Rebellin (CCC Polsat). Video access tbd, but I seem to recall the Belgian media providing live pictures. See you Wednesday!