It's heading into day 4 of the ENECO Tour, and you've been watching for days now. You've seen three sprint stages that resemble the Spring Classics, minus all of the obstacles that make them interesting to watch. But the ENECO Tour has a lot of cards up its sleeve, and it's about to start playing them.
Stage 4: The Hoogerheide Time Trial
This is a teaser. Yes, the GC will start sorting itself out, but not in any meaningful way. Or will it?? Here's the thing about ENECO... you can never say with all that much confidence which stage will prove decisive. Here's where the races have been won:
- 2010: the Ronse stage (Flemish Ardennes)
- 2011: the Roermond ITT (14.7km)
- 2012: Geraardsbergen (first Muur stage in ENECO history)
- 2013: Geraardsbergen again
- 2014: La Redoute stage
So can Thursday's flat ITT make a difference? Sure. Can it make the difference? Less sure, but never say never. The key rider, I suspect, is
Niki Terpstra [see update]. Among those fit to win (he sits 15" back and obviously likes to race in these parts), Terpstra is perhaps the best cronoman. Lars Boom is another to watch, but he lost it last week in Denmark, and I'll take a little convincing before backing him again. Dylan van Baarle, Jos van Emden and Wilco Kelderman round out the list of all-Dutch crono favorites. Tim Wellens won last year's race despite a middlin' effort against the watch, but has some ability here. Svein Tuft strikes me as another guy who could place well. Beyond that, your guess is as good (if not better; let's go with better) than mine.
Stage 5: Amstel Gold Day
Hm. Hmmm.... Well, here's the profile.
It's a total of 27 climbs, almost none of them very daunting, but they'll take their toll. Last year's stage to Sittard-Geleen was won solo by mini-Boo, Guillaume Van Kiersbulck, over a chasing group of 9 riders. Gaps were in the handfuls of seconds behind Van Kiersbulck, so while it was a spectacular win for him and an interesting day, it wasn't decisive. Prior to that Sittard only hosted time trials.
Like stage 4, this is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Definitely a hard and tiring enough day in the saddle for the bigs to get blown up if someone has the legs, and the next two stages are no more obviously decisive. Basically, we've entered the zone of stages where anything can happen. And probably should.
Stage 6: Hybrid Liège-like Stage Day
Here's where ENECO changed things up and in the process may have given us the most exciting, or least memorable, edition in years. For the last two editions a stage finished atop the Côte de la Redoute, the notorious LBL climb and one of the great sights in cycling. In 2013 the Redoute stage had 11 rated climbs and ended with 11 riders within 12 seconds, and everyone else off the back. Zdenek Stybar hung in gamely and sealed the win the next day. Last year the route was up to 16 rated climbs, and Tim Wellens won alone, by 50 seconds, ending the ENECO Tour right then and there.
This year: 18 climbs, three countries visited (if you count some German-speaking areas along the border, as opposed to actually entering Germany), and likely no effect on the race. The stage ends in Houffalize, near Bastogne, after a reasonably hard day, but the last climb is 11km from the line, and it's an easy one. I'd say the last tough climb will be the Côte Rue de Bois des Moines, 1200 meters at 8%, but that's 22km from the finish. It'll be hard to make a move stick. But definitely not impossible. A tailwind in the last 30 minutes might make all the difference between a race which keeps coming together and one where guys all-out attack.
Stage 7: The Muur Stage
I just like typing that sentence. It's a most beautiful affair, even in summer, even with all the heartbreak that surrounds the place right now. Say hello to Screaming Kid and Colnago Sweater Guy if you see them.
And this stage is going to be fantastic, from the moment they hit Gaasbeeksesteenweg to Varentstraat.
I'll do a more detailed analysis before Sunday, but the bottom line is that they hit a TON of cobbles along the way, nearly 8km, not including the climbs. The Berendries-Valkenberg-Tenbosse-Muur section with 50+km to go will be beastly, and the closing circuits of the Muur-Bosberg-smaller climbs and cobbles will continue to shake things up. So far the weather for Sunday is scheduled to be nice enough, but there's rain beforehand (Friday-Saturday) so stay tuned on that factor.
I think the scale of the stage will put it right up there with the previous two stages in terms of how decisive it can be. Basically, all of them offer a chance -- and not to the same riders -- but none is so clearly selective that you can predict what will happen. I hope the answer is "a lot" and that we get the nail-biter this course was designed to produce. We joke about how this is the Fourth Grand Tour, but let's face it, short as it may be, it's pretty grand.
Oh, and remember how I was talking about Terpstra above? This is the stage that drives my point home about him and about the time trial maybe mattering. Right parcours, right team, right guy for a four-day plan that could put a Dutchman back on top in ENECO.
Well, Terpstra's bike fell apart during his ride and he's out of contention at this point. Here's your new GC after Jos van Emden's stage win:
- Jos Van Emden (Ned) Team LottoNL-Jumbo
- Wilco Kelderman (Ned) Team LottoNL-Jumbo 0:00:05
- Adriano Malori (Ita) Movistar Team 0:00:07
- Lars Boom (Ned) Astana Pro Team, s.t.
- Matthias Brandle (Aut) IAM Cycling 0:00:11
- Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC Racing Team 0:00:14
- Manuel Quinziato (Ita) BMC Racing Team 0:00:16
- Philippe Gilbert (Bel) BMC Racing Team 0:00:20
- Michael Hepburn (Aus) Orica GreenEdge 0:00:21
- Michael Rogers (Aus) Tinkoff-Saxo, s.t.
- Fabio Felline (Ita) Trek Factory Racing 0:00:23
- Tim Wellens (Bel) Lotto Soudal 0:00:24
- Rick Flens (Ned) Team LottoNL-Jumbo 0:00:25
- Ramunas Navardauskas (Ltu) Team Cannondale - Garmin 0:00:27
- Dylan van Baarle (Ned) Team Cannondale - Garmin 0:00:29
- Andriy Grivko (Ukr) Astana Pro Team, s.t.
That's your thirty-second cutoff. There may be someone who emerges from down below to win or threaten the leaders but let's stick with this for now.
Wellens, the defending champ, is in OK shape but has plenty of company and a less favorable course to work with. The cobbles stage may be a bit new to him, though obviously he's ridden on them before, just not at the Tour of Flanders. Gilbert stands out as the rider who's had the most success in the past over the various terrains coming up over the next three days. But his teammate/shadow Van Avermaet is there as always, and guys like Boom or Kelderman could get it done as well. Frankly, whoever from this group or just outside it has the best legs is going to win. Still totally unpredictable. Stay tuned.