Consider this. It’s date night. You order a five star plate of cobbles, spring time weather and opening day energy. The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Your spouse orders a hearty dish of Grand Tour, and gives you a fork full of Maillot Jaune contenders, Cols and descents, and French commentary. The Classic Sud Ardeche. Delicious. And now, just to cap things off you head to McDonalds for the perfect dessert: soft-serve ice cream. Wholesome, reliable, honest, satisfying and most importantly cold. That’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. The perfect I-don’t-care,-what-do-you-want ending to a perfect opening weekend date.
This year’s edition takes the same general form of previous editions. It starts headed eastward for 60 km to a town called Voorde, but not before traversing the first two of 13 bergs, and the two newbies included in this year’s edition: The Volkegemberg is 1 km in length with an average gradient of 5% and a patch of cobbles at the tippy top, and the Eikenmolen is 350 m with a gradient of 6%. From Voorde the race turns south toward a third berg, the Onkerzele, with is 2.1 km at 3%. The race then heads back toward Kuurne and an onslaught of bergs. The nastiest might be the Kwaremont, taken 9th in succession, which tests riders with 2.2 km of work, averaging 4% but maxing at 11.6%. The 13th is the Nokereberg, 350 meters at just under 6%.
First the bad news. Taken together, this rapid succession of bumps might sap some legs, but the 50 km remaining in the race will likely dampen its potential as a jump-off point for the winner. After the bergs are dusted, the race turns toward Kuurne, before taking two 15-km laps around the town, running into the finish.
But there’s good news. As of when I’m writing, there is a 60% chance of rain forecasted for Kuurne (down from a 90% forecasted earlier in the week), with winds out of the SW at 17 mph, which should be head/cross on the run into Kuurne. That favors the hardmen and can turn this race into an attrition bomb, something that KBK has experienced in the past (in fact in 2013 there were zero finishers… there were zero starters; it was cancelled due to weather). Though this is somewhat thought of as a sprinters’ classic, it is foremost an early spring race and weather can certainly have its say on who and how many survive and might potentially dictate this race.
How will it unfold?
The last three years have seen the three possible outcomes of this race. In 2016, Jasper Stuyven won alone, 17 seconds ahead of a bunch sprint after launching solo from 30 km. The following year, Stuyven launched again from 30 km, but was joined by a reduced group that included Luke Rowe, Tiesj Benoot and the eventual winner Peter Sagan. Last year saw an active race on the bergs, before coming together for a bunch sprint with Dylan Groenewegen coming in ahead of Arnaud Demare and Sonny Colbrelli.
So which flavor of McDonald’s soft-serve is favored? In two out of the three scenarios described above, I think Jasper Stuyven stands a pretty good shot.
Listen, it’s no secret I am a firm believer in Stuyven this year: I took him first in my draft, ahead of Elia Viviani, Primoz Roglic and Greg Van Avermaet. When I think of riders who have the best shot of winning multiple monuments, first is Peter Sagan. Second is probably Julian Alaphilippe. I have to think that Jasper Stuyven has got to be in the conversation for third. [Full disclosure: I did not spend 26 points on him in regular VDS. I spent 18 on Oliver Naesen who is a cheaper Jasper Stuyven… and oh, look, there he is on the start line.]
This will be the first test of that belief. He is a classically-trained hardman, who appears to be keen on this race. He admitted that he worked on his sprinting this offseason, something that has been viewed as a weakness of his in the past. If he can force the hand of a small group, he can probably at least tighten shoelaces with the best of whomever marks him, especially in the absence of Peter Sagan. Though he was roughed up a little in Portugal, he’s had a bit of time to recover. Furthermore, he knows the course well, having timed a couple of moves perfectly in the past. If he’s healthy and happy, I think he’s probably the favorite. Aside from him, I could see Tiesj Benoot winning from a long solo (ala Strade Bianche last year) or Greg Van Avermaet in either scenario.
Of course, when the race has the reputation of being a sprinter-friendly classic, you have to consider the possibility of having a bunch sprint. The perfect neutral vanilla soft-serve on this banal dessert. Suppose the race does come together, then Stuyven doesn’t stand a chance, offseason sprint work or not. If that’s the case, Dylan Groenewegen is the man on form. He’s been strong lately in spite of some sloppy lead-outs and he is excellent from a reduced bunch. As a Pro Conty outsider, try Timothy Dupont. He’s at least awake this season, finishing second at Trofeo Palma (ahead of the likes of Alexander Kristoff, Hugo Hofstetter and John Degenkolb), and he was there for the sprint last year.