Here's a quick Three Things to Know about the ENECO Tour getting underway as we speak.
1. How Awesome Is the ENECO Tour?
This year? Not that awesome. In past years the race has relied heavily on route recognition from the spring classics -- all of them, at least the northern ones -- to make for an intriguing summer smorgasbord for us cobbles fans. It was pretty delicious, even if it was a bit of a guilty pleasure, like eating a second donut. "Should we be racing in Geraardsbergen right now?" I don't know... we just are.
Geraardsbergen, meanwhile, has returned to cycling with a vengeance. I had mused a few times over the years that I didn't think people would let it go -- it being the removal of the iconic Muur from the Tour of Flanders, and yes, it's always about the Tour of Flanders -- and it seems I was maybe right. Just a week ago it was the host to a cyclocross race, for the first time that I'm aware of, and Wout Van Aert put on a show for the win. Like dirt and incredible cycling images? Watch this:
Anyway, the Muur has been reinserted into the Ronde van Vlaanderen for 2017, which I plan to celebrate in person. And of course the Muur retains its place in the ENECO Tour, only more so.
Remember in the early days of ENECO, when it was pretty darn flat and decided by sprinters and time bonuses, plus a prologue? I'm sure many of us can elicit a sigh at the memory of George Hincapie falling down in the final km and losing out to (sigh) Stefan Schumacher by one second in the finale of the 2006 race. The sprints-and-ITTs format won out for a while (Edvald Boasson Hagen says thanks) until 2012 when, seemingly in response to the Muur removal at de Ronde, the ENECO organizers promptly made it the centerpiece of the week-long race, with the final stage ending atop the hallowed cobbles (just below the final Kapelmuur). Leave it to the Dutch organizers to take advantage of a national cultural crisis in Flanders with an event where you could win World Tour points atop the Muur. Thanks?
Anyway, as great as that was, the following year ENECO went all in on the Classics, with a La Redoute finish that invoked Liege-Bastogne-Liege as well as a stage in Sittard-Geleen that invoked the Amstel Gold Race. So yeah, the answer to the question "how do you improve on a stage race that ends on the Muur?" was apparently "by having it come a day after a stage that ends on La Redoute." The next two editions involved various parts of LBL, and both times launched Tim Wellens to the win. Last year, La Redoute was out (but other Cotes remained). This year the LBL trails are completely eliminated. The Queen Stage is more of an Amstel affair, but even there, the race offers two manageable climbs (Muizenberg, Hale Mbaye Sud) in the last 50km. Pretty toothless.
There is a new stage, Stage 4 from Aalter to Sint Pieters Leeuw, that dredges up Brabantse Pijl, and maybe the Bruineput with 12km to go will shake things up. But really, this entire race, even including a TTT in Limburg and an ITT tomorrow, will come down to the Muur. The stage involves a Bosberg-Denderhoovberg-Muur circuit three times (plus a fourth Dender-Muur early on), making this a Flanders-only affair. Is this good? Yes. Is this better than a race that doubles down with Flanders and LBL? Nope. But don't expect too many complaints, outside of Tim Wellens' camp.
2. What's So Important About this Race Anyway?
Definitely two things, World Tour points and World Championships prep.
On the former, there's an article at the Inner Ring about the potential jeopardy faced by Team Dimension Data in the fight for a World Tour license. I won't repeat that fine work but just point out that it details how DDD are getting lapped for points at the moment, and there are 18 applicants for 17 licenses for next season. I would say "you do the math" but a) it's not 2003 and b) the math there is basically already done. 18>17. Problem not solved. ENECO and Lombardia -- a one-day race -- are all that's left for point-scoring chances. IAM Cycling is next in line, and catching them will be of little satisfaction to Dimension Data, given the Swiss team's lack of a future. DDD have a feel-very-good story to them but they could use a raft of WT points at ENECO to bundle with their 2017 application if it's gonna have a chance.
And then there are the Doha Worlds coming up... which makes me think that point #1 might be a bit overstated because the organizers actually thought through the benefit of a less climby course in a year when the worlds are on a... well, not very climby course. If ever there was a time for ENECO to align itself with Flanders-style riding, it'd be now, with the calendar change and the flat worlds awaiting. The startlist is loaded with de klassikoers, like Sagan, Kristoff, Van Avermaet, Boonen, Stybar, Terpstra, Stuyven, Hayman, Thomas and Boom. Some crossover types are there too, like Kwiatkowski, Dumoulin and Jungels... though each of them brings something to the time trials, which is another key characteristic. The cronos are short, but it's better practice for Doha's events against the watch than just riding around on the road bike.
3. Who has it?
Sagan is on fire but I'd be a little surprised if the TTT didn't drastically limit his chances. He'll have a decent team, but not of the caliber that BMC and Etixx-Quick Step, your regular World TTT champs over the last few years, will have on hand. Add in a fit Van Avermaet for BMC and an array of potential weapons on the cobbles for Etixx and you have to like someone from those lineups for the overall, unless Sagan can do it all himself (not out of the question).
I'll go with... Boonen! Among the Etixx boys, Terpstra and Stybar are coming off the Vuelta, which doesn't mean they are out of gas but I'd wager they're a bit less fresh than Boonen. Actually I can totally see Van Avermaet taking it away from Turbinado Tom (cause he's soo sweet!) and killing off the last of the competition for Flandrian of the Year. But I'm a sentimental old fool. So yeah, Boonen.