Do I know that you all had tremendous fun watching Roubaix on Sunday, and even more fun watching the preceding cobbled races? Sure I do, but the racing keeps coming, bringing most notably De Brabantse Pijl, which has recently become the opener to the Ardennes.
Did you Know? De Brabantse Pijl (or La Flèche Brabançonne — The French name for the race is also in its official title) means the Brabant Arrow? You probably did, but did you know that that is a moniker that the race route certainly fails to follow? The race leaves the city of Leuven and heads south-west in seeming fulfillment of that name, but, rather concerningly for an arrow, does a little loop and starts heading towards where it came from, before doing laps around Overijse until everyone is dizzy. I'm not saying that it's false advertising, I'm just saying that if I owned an arrow that functioned like that, I might be complaining.
Did you Know? Once they get onto the circuit in Overijse, there are some pretty cool climbs? Their names are the Hertstraat (Deer street? Stag street?), Ijskelderlaan (Ice cooler lane. It's where they kept their beer cold before they had fridges), Holstheide, Hagaard and Schavei, and they're where the race will be won. The Ijskelderlaan and Hertstraat are cobbled. The other climbs are not, but they are steeper. The fact that there are cobbles in the race, but they are not decisive nor quite so dangerous, contributes to this being quite a cobbles-Ardennes hybrid of a race.
Did you Know? This race could end up in an uphill sprint. That's because the race ends on the top of the shallow, tarmacked Schavei, seven hundred metres at a little over five per cent. It could also very easily be won how it has been the last couple of years — a small escape gets away and holds off the sprint. While the narrow, cobbled streets will make co-operation in the peloton no easier than it has been this spring, I don't think a long escape is likely in this race. Most of the action will probably take place on the final lap. Long assaults seem to make little sense for most of the contenders.
Speaking of those competing riders, let's see who we've got. There's Ronde champ Philippe Gilbert to begin with, and it's hard to think of a race that suits him more. He skipped Paris-Roubaix, presumably in the hope of maintaining a peak for the Ardennes, but if he starts to fade by Liège-Bastogne-Liège he may not be tomorrow, and his two wins in this race imply quite some pedigree on the Schavei. He could win with an attack from a few kilometres out or even with an uphill sprint. His team mate Peter Vakoç is also here to defend his title, but given Gilbert's form, jersey and skills for this race I think we could see him relegated to attack fodder or even superdomestique.
Bahrain-Merida will likely be happy to see the end of cobbles season, but they also bring a couple of riders capable of victory. Enrico Gasparotto will likely be seen on the attack on the final lap while Sonny Colbrelli waits in the peloton for the sprint. The pair finished second and sixth last year when riding for different teams, so now allied will probably be a difficult combination to deal with.
Is Tim Wellens ever going to be the favourite to win a race? He's got all the tools required to show off his sponsor logos on the Brabant roads tomorrow, but not all of the tools to win in all likelihood. He can probably be outkicked if he goes with a group. Last year, he featured very prominently, but his escape was swallowed up easily when it came down to it. Watch out for Tiesj Benoot on his team. I think this race might suit him very well, but he ultimately has the same problem as Wellens does.
Now we've got a few more sprinters. Michael Matthews from Sunweb put in a very impressive time-trial over some difficult climbs, so we know he won't have any trouble on the Schavei but I just don't think he's going to be the best placed to win at the end of the race. He might be outkicked by Bryan Coquard of Direct Energie, Dimension Data's Kristian Sbaragli or even Juan José Lobato of LottoNL.
As a previous winner, Ben Hermans of BMC deserves a token mention but I more have my eyes on his team mate Loic Vliegen, who has the tools to win this race should he be given leadership. For a few more picks, look at Alberto Bettiol, Nathan Haas, [sigh]mon Gerrans and Enrico Battaglin.
Despite all those names, my pick to win is Gilbert. He's versatile and firing well enough to win this race in so many scenarios that it's impossible not to see one of them playing out.