This race became the beginning of the Ardennes Classics season in 2010, when the powers that be moved Scheldeprijs to the Wednesday after Flanders (a space traditionally held by Gent-Wevelgem), Gent-Wevelgem to the Sunday before Flanders (a space traditionally held by this), and this to the Wednesday before Amstel. Then "puncheur" became the job description of every year's winner. They even started inviting Team Colombia.
The race starts in the picturesque city of Leuven, capital of Flemish Brabant, where Leffe is now brewed, and home to an old university, Jasper Stuyven, and a rather enjoyable cyclocross race, won this year by Toon Aerts in a divergence from the dominance of Mathieu van der Poel and Wout Van Aert. But I digress.
The race heads south-south-west from Leuven, does a little loop, continues on past Waterloo (Insert ABBA/Swedish/Meeting Waterloo joke of your choice) and then turns back on itself towards the finishing town of Overijse, which is where Leffe was brewed for twenty-five years, and is home of an excellent CX race, which doesn't belong to any of the main series, and thrives every year. This year it heralded the comeback from injury of Mathieu van der Poel, who recorded his first victory of the season. But I digress.
Anyway, the race will likely be decided on the laps around the finishing circuit, and of the five important climbs of the race. The riders first must face the Hertstraat (which I'm choosing to believe means "hurt street," and you'll have trouble convincing me otherwise. It's the the least steep of the climbs, at under four per cent, but it is cobbled. The Holstheide is next, a paved climb at five per cent. Next is the Ijskelderlaan, the second cobbled climb on the circuit, and the second steepest of them all. The climb that will provide the finish is next on the lap, the paved 700 metre Schavei. Finally comes the very steep Haagard, less than three hundred metres long and at twelve percent. It's skipped on the final lap.
The Schavei may turn out to be the most important climb on the circuit. It's seven hundred metres long, and the race carries on for a few hundred metres after the summit. It's a little under seven per cent.
Let's rank the favourites!
Michael Matthews of Orica-GreenEDGE has to be the favourite for this race. He was the fastest finisher at the end of the race last year, winning the sprint two seconds behind escaped victor Ben Hermans. It was much the same story in 2014 for the Australian: he took second place then too, that time to Gilbert. But Gilbert is not here to stop Matthews now, having been subject to a drunken assault by some total idiots, leaving Matthews as the fastest guy up the Schavei in the peloton. It seems to me that the only way he'll be beaten is if someone beats the peloton to the bottom of the climb. With a warm day, and only light winds forecast, this is looking less and less likely.
Tony Gallopin and Tim Wellens will lead Lotto-Soudal's line-up, and it's tricky to say which is more suited for this race. Whichever will have preferred status, the two are a good pairing. I think we can expect Wellens to attack earlier on, and leave Gallopin to wait for the sprint, which is unlikely to provide him with a victory. Wellens, in the right group can provide a very big challenge to Orica and Matthews.
Sonny Colbrelli seems well-suited to this race. The Italian sprinter should have what it takes to get over the Schavei climb for a sprint to the line. While I think he might be outgunned by Matthews, a podium is certainly on the cards for the Bardiani rider after his victory in the GP Lugano, and podium finishes in the Trofeo Laigueglia and the Volta Limburg Classic.
Tom Dumoulin seems well-positioned to make a good assault on the Ardennes classics this year, and here is a good place to start. He has a good, powerful uphill sprint, and can be the driving force behind a late attack.
Petr Vakoč has been a revelation in one-day classics this season, winning the Classic Sud Ardèche and the Royal Bernard Drôme Classic early in the season, before a good performance in Strade Bianche, finishing fifth. While Etixx bring Alaphilippe to this race, Vakoč seems to be their best bet for a good finish.
Speaking of Julian Alaphilippe, he burst onto the Ardennes scene last year, but has rather disappeared into the woodwork since the end of last season, not appearing at the pointy end of any races since mid-August last year. However, it would be foolish to count him out, as this race should be good for a rider of his style.
Yet another team with two leaders, Cannondale send Tom-Jelte Slagter and Ramunas Navardauskas. The Dutchman showed signs of form early in the season, and tends to target these races, and while Navardauskas hasn't shown up yet this season, the sort of tough sprint that may occur at the end of the race will be right up his alley.
With sixth place finishes in 2014 and 2015, this is a race Nathan Haas tends to target, and he may have Team Dimension Data behind him. He'll also be banking on a sprint up the Schavei.
Ben Hermans won last year's race from a move on the finishing circuit, and may have been expecting to be back to domestique duties for Gilbert for this race this year. However, as I mentioned earlier, that will be no longer possible. Whether the team works for Hermans, Silvan Dillier or Dylan Teuns, BMC is a strong outfit.
Come on, it's 2016. Do I really have to mention Davide Rebellin? Apparently I do. Yes, Davide Rebellin is 44, and managed a top five in this race last year. He also beat Romain Bardet in a steep uphill finish in the Tour of Oman this year. Is that all I have to say? Good.
Dries Devenyns is one of the few cobbled classics riders who regularly rides this, and his results haven't been bad, securing three top tens in the last four years. He won't win it though. Another top ten? Sure.