Another week, another World Tour race sandwiched into the slim gap between the Tour and the Vuelta. This time, though, I don’t need to sell any of you on the joy of the race – it’s ENECO time! Well, okay, it isn’t. It’s the Binck Bank Tour. Before we get into the racing, a couple of bits of housekeeping. First, I think that calling a company Binck Bank is a joke that got out of hand, and further proof that employing humour in a brainstorming meeting is always a bad idea. Second, Jens deserves the credit for this headline.
If there’s any justice in the world, Leonard Hofstede will pick up his first pro win during the next seven stages. I’m not proud of how long I spent looking at the course, his results, and his team, to work out if it is possible. I don’t think it is, but I hope I’m wrong.
Anyway – the race. Where are we, and what can we expect?
ENECO covers… nope, sorry. The BBT is a tour of Belgium and the Netherlands, and there isn’t much change in the parcours from year to year. Last year we saw a 20km team time trial which won’t be repeated this year. Otherwise, it is business as usual. The official site is here but there isn’t much in the way of quality stage profiles, I’m afraid. Startlists are in the usual places.
Today’s stage (if you’re reading this on the day I post it) sees a bunch gallop that won’t have much impact on the GC unless something extraordinary happens. The Binck-bankers start in Breda and wrap things up 169km later in Venray.
Tuesday sees the time trial, a 9km flat course with a few technical turns, but essentially an out and back ride. This is one for the pure time trailers and it is probably long enough for them to take the leader’s jersey from Monday’s sprint winner. This shindig takes place in Voorburg, which google tells me is a suburb of the Hague.
Back on the road bikes for stage three, and the peloton have moved down the coast overnight, and into Belgium. 185km will take them from Blankenberg to Ardooie. There are more bumps en route than we saw in stage one, but you’d still expect a sizable peloton to fight it out for the win. Lots of tight bends in the final few kms could make life tricky, too.
Those who wish to Binck Bank are staying in Belgium, but only just. On the slate for Thursday is a 154km loop from Lanaken, which is as near to Maastricht as makes no difference. We’re around and among the Ardennes, and accordingly, you may expect hills. Still, this isn’t too different from stage 6 last year, which finished with 85 riders not far behind the leading five, so don’t expect this to be a decisive stage in GC terms.
Now that’s what I call hilly. Friday’s stage is just over the border from Thursday’s, and is again a loop, this time 167km from Sittard-Gelen. Heading east of the Meuse, we’re seeing some meaningful hills and we can expect some separation in the field. The profile, confusing as it is, is below, but the key is that we’re looking at lots of short, sharp ascents rather than a couple of big climbs.
The Cauberg does feature but it’ll be too far out to make a dramatic difference. Anyone with GC aspirations will need to be at the front over two closing loops that include Bergstrasse, Schatsberg, Weg langs Stammen, Windraak (the toughest of the group, 700m at 5%) and Watersley. I believe there is also an uncategorised short cobbled climb just before the finish, but I could really use some local assistance confirming that. If you want a cliched preview, you can’t win the race here but you can certainly lose it.
Saturday’s stage provides an answer to a question that you’ve been asking if, like me, you’re an idiot. Why is it that the roads from Liege to Bastogne are flat, but the roads from Bastogne to Liege are hilly? Well, kids, it turns out that there are different routes between the two places, and you can take a hilly route from Liege to Bastogne if you want to. All this is by way of saying that the Queen stage of this year’s BBT runs 203km from north of Liege to almost Bastogne, and it does it in a bumpy way.
Specifically, they are riding from Reimst to Houffalize, with a bunch of hills along the way. The Cote de la Ferme Libert is a punchy little number, 13% for 1.2km, but there are four climbs in the concluding loop that are likely to be more decisive, including the Cote St-Roch, 11% for just over a km in the closing kilometres.
The stage, and the race, wrap up on Sunday in a place called Geraardsbergen. Nope, me neither. Apparently it has a hill. Whatever.
Enough of this foolery – the riders are starting in Essen, and are travelling 190km, but you only care about what happens from kilometre 133, when they first ascend the Muur. After that, it is your usual savage affair among cycling’s beloved terrain. After the Muur there are two laps that take in the Bosberg, Onkerzelestraat and Denderoodstrat, and then return to the Muur. Of the other climbs, the Denderoodstrat is a good candidate to be the most significant, but ultimately still isn’t the Muur. They climb the full way up the wall twice, and finish the race around 500m up on the third ascent. Wimps.
Who’s going to win?
That, dear reader, is the question. A review of the previous winners suggests that excellence in Flemish and Ardennes-style classics racing is essential, as is a fair time trial. This year’s parcours reduces the significance of the chrono ability, but we’re still looking for a tough all-rounder who can climb a bit and cope with the narrow and cobbled roads we can expect throughout.
For the sprints, we can expect to see Peter Sagan fighting it out with Marcel Kittel, Arnaud Demare, Andre Greipel and a few lesser names. Ben Swift, Elia Viviani and Rudy Barbier will be trying to make some noise but Kittel is the fastest here if he’s recovered from his falls in the Tour. If not, Sagan and Demare who look the most likely to pick up wins, particularly as they’ll see benefit in the bonus seconds with the overall prize at stake.
With no Rohan Dennis, Tony Martin and Tom Dumoulin will be the favourites for the time trial, while Alex Dowsett and just about anyone from Team Sky will be among those trying to get involved. Sooner or later, Owain Doull is going to start making some noise in these events, but probably not quite yet.
It is over stages five, six and seven that we’ll see the winner emerge, and once again we have to start with Peter Sagan, who clearly loves riding in this terrain, was climbing ominously well in Poland, and can expect to pick up a few bonus seconds early in the week. He’s definitely one to watch.
Quick Step once again have an embarrassment of riches, with 2016 winner Nikki Terpstra in the #1 dossard. However, with transfer rumours swirling and severely out of form, he might well not be his team’s top choice. Phillipe Gilbert, he of enormous success in both the Ardennes and Flanders, is probably their strongest card. Tim Wellens has won this twice and leads a strong Lotto-Soudal team, with Tjesj Benoot another who could be involved.
You can’t look at this sort of race and not imagine Greg van Avermaet succeeding. Last year he managed fourth but he’s climbing well enough to take 8th in San Sebastian a couple of weeks ago and will enjoy every km of this race. I seem to underrate GVA at every turn and he’s proving himself to be consistent as well as excellent. He’ll be hard to beat.
Tom Dumoulin, Jasper Stuyven and Jens Keukeleire have all been named as leaders of traditionally strong squads for this type of racing. They all have the ability to be right up there among the bigs on every stage, and Dumoulin’s time trial will be a real asset even with only 9km of road to take advantage of.
I’m contractually obligated to mention Sep Vanmarcke, and now I have.
Of far greater interest to me is Olivier Naesen. The Belgian champion has extended his contract at AG2R and they come here with a strong team around him – Bakelants, in particular, will be helpful on the steep slopes. 13th in Amstel Gold, and some strong rides in the Tour should remind us that he’s not just a man for cobbled climbs, and he’d have been much closer in 2nd place last year without the team time trial.
What all of this proves is what we already knew about this race – it is a varied parcours but separation will be slight. Any one of a large number of riders could win but I’m thinking that class will out, and that we won’t see a decisive lead until stage seven. If there are, say, ten riders left with a chance after Saturday’s queen stage, expect fireworks. When that happens, Van Avermaet usually wins.
Who’ve you got, and who wins?