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Photo: Lotto Soudal




15.08.2015 @ 15:00 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Torrential rain and a disorganized chase made it possible for Wilco Kelderman to put himself in a great position on GC and he now stands out as the big favourite to win the race overall. However, he still needs to survive the two hardest stages of the race and after today’s disappointment there is no doubt that BMC will be ready to strike back they enter their terrain in tomorrow’s queen stage which is a mini version of Liege-Bastogne-Liege.


The course

The Eneco Tour has always included a hard stage in the Ardennes but in 2013 and 2014 the organizers made it tougher than ever. In a tribute to Liege-Bastogne-Liege and its famous climb Cote de la Redoute, they designed a stage with a very tough finishing circuit that ended on the famous ascent. The stage provided some of the most exciting and dramatic racing in the history of the race but this year the toughest climbing stage has been changed. It still features some big challenges and climbs known from the oldest classic but it does no longer include and uphill finish and the climbs are not as tough as they were in the previous editions. Again a climb from Liege-Bastogne-Liege will play a key role as the finish is located at the bottom of the Cote de Saint-Roch but the riders will not go up the ascent in the end.


While the amount of climbing has been reduced, the distance has been increased as the riders will cover no less than 208.6km from the Dutch city of Heerlen to the Belgian city of Houffalize that is known from the world of mountain biking. However, the longer distance is mainly made up of easier terrain with just a few smaller climbs and the finishing circuit is easier than last year’s. The riders will tackle 10 small hills but as some of them feature multiple times, the total number of ascents is 15.


The first part of the stage is very similar to the opening of last year’s stage. The hostilities kick off right from the start as the first part of the stage consists of a small circuit around Heerlen that includes the Bergseweg (2200m, 4%). In fact, the official start is given on the climb and it features again after just 10.7km of racing when the riders have done a full lap of the circuit and have started a long southerly journey towards the Liege-Bastogne-Liege terrain.


Along the way, they go up the Mamelisserweg (500m, 6%), Rugweg (1900m, 4.2%) and Schuttebergsweg (1800m 5.3%) before they cross the border after 29.1km of racing. The riders will now deviate from last year’s course as they continue their southerly journey towards Houffalize. The first climb on Belgian soil is the Hochstrasse (800m, 4%) at the 44km mark and 10.7km later, the riders will tackle the long Malmedyerstrasse (3000m, 5%).


After the feed zone, the riders will go up the tough Cote La Ferme Libert (1100m, 14%) at the 80.2km mark and then the Cote Bois de l’Abbaye (1100m, 5%) after 92km of racing. The Cote Wanneralval (3000m, 4%) comes just 3.4km later but then the riders get to the easiest part of the course where the terrain is significantly flatter.


The hostilities start again at the 126.8km mark when the riders go up a 2.3km climb that average 5%. 9.4km later they hit the Rau de Cowan (900m, 6%) before they get to the finish for the first time after 139.3km of racing.


They now tackle a small 15.1km circuit on the southern outskirts of Houffalize that includes the famous Cote Saint-Roch (1000m, 11%) - known from Liege-Bastogne-Liege – right after the passage of the line. At the 154.4km mark, they are back at the finish and then the final part of the race is made up of two laps of a 27.1km finishing circuit.


Of course it starts with another passage of the Cote de Saint-Roch before the riders descend to the bottom of the Rue Bois des Moines (1200m, 8%) which comes just 22.9km from the finish. 7.5km later it is time for the Cote Achouffe (800m, 8%) before the Cote Petit-Monfort (400m, 5%) looms as the final challenge 11.9km from the line. The final part of the stage includes undulating terrain and the final 1km is slightly uphill but there are no major climbs. In the finale, the riders will follow a winding road before they take a sharp right hand turn just 300m from the line. The golden kilometre starts after the Roue Bois des Moines on the final lap when 20.5km remain. The second Primus sprint comes at the top of the Cote de Saint-Roch on the first lap.


The city of Houffalize is a major venue in the world of mountain biking but it has rarely been used in road racing. In recent years, it has hosted a stage finish of the Tour de Wallonie on three occasions. In 2011, Joost Van Leijen took a surprise win by beating race leader Greg Van Avermaet in a two-rider sprint. In 2005, Guido Trentin won the stage while it was Leif Hoste who came out on top in 2000.




The weather

The forecasted thunderstorm arrived earlier than expected and had a big impact on the outcome of today’s stage. Tomorrow it is likely to be even worse as 13mm of rain is forecasted in Houffalize. It is likely to be dry in the morning and then the risk of rain gradually increases throughout the day. The evening is guaranteed to be very wet but there is also more than 50% chance that there will be rain in the finale of the stage. The maximum temperature will be just 21 degrees.


There will only be a light wind from a southerly direction. This means that the riders will have a headwind almost all day until they get to the finishing circuit. Here there will be a headwind on the Cote de Saint-Roch and tailwind on the next two climbs. They will turn into a headwind for the Cote Petite-Monfort and then there will be headwind until the riders turn into a crosswind with 7km to go. There will be a headwind on the finishing straight.


The favourites

Going into the race, the Amstel Gold Race stage was not expected to have a major impact on the outcome of the Eneco Tour but it turned out to be much harder than most had predicted. The horrendous conditions suddenly turned what seemed to be a relatively straightforward race into an uncontrollable affair where Johan Le Bon and Dylan van Baarle surprised the favourites and Wilco Kelderman and Tim Wellens gained unexpected time. It was a smart move by the LottoNL captain who already found himself in pole position and now has a massive 26- and 29-second advantage over pre-race favourites Greg Van Avermaet and Philippe Gilbert respectively. Two stage wins are no longer enough for the BMC pair to win the race so they need to drop Kelderman at some point if they want to win the race.


There were some strange tactical decisions during the stage. BMC decided not to sacrifice Manuel Quinziato completely to bring the chase group back. Last year it was evident that the Ardennes climbs are too tough for the big Italian so it would have been much wiser for the team to use their third card to reduce the deficit for their two Belgian captains. However, it was similarly strange that Kelderman waited a long time before he started to work in the chase group. Of course he had Jos van Emden behind but as the Dutchman is very likely to get dropped tomorrow he should definitely have gone all in in an attempt to maximize his gains. Finally, Etixx-QuickStep had several riders in the group and it was a bit of a surprise that they didn’t chase as Tom Boonen was still there.


Kelderman now has a comfortable buffer over his key rivals but it won’t be easy for him to control the next two stages which offer plenty of room to ride aggressively. He doesn’t have a strong team to support him and in fact he is the only LottoNL rider who can expect to be there in the finale of a tough stage in the Ardennes. He is in a very similar position to the one that saw Tom Dumoulin getting isolated in the finale of last year’s queen stage. Back then he had no climbers at his side and so he was unable to respond to all attacks. That allowed Tim Wellens to ride away with a surprise win and so the door is really open for outsiders to do what the Lotto Soudal did last year.


Unlike last year, there is no uphill finish but the stage is still very hard. The Cote de Saint-Roch is brutally steep as it averages 11% and will be too hard for most of the riders. HThe second climb is also pretty hard while the final two climbs are easier. This will make it a rather selective race and only the best climbers will still be in contention at the end of stage. The distance and rain will only make it harder.


However, the final 20km do not offer any major challenges so even though it’s a tough stage, tactics will play a huge role. It won’t necessarily be the strongest rider that wins the stage and it’s not necessarily a big disadvantage to have lost a bit of time as it will give more freedom to attack in the finale.


Like today, the race is likely to get off to a very fast start with numerous attacks. Many teams are out of the GC battle so they are desperately searching for a stage wins. Bigger time gaps have opened up so a break has a bigger chance and this means that a lot of riders will be part of the early action. Today it took more than an hour for the break to be formed and it is likely to be similar tomorrow.


LottoNL-Jumbo would love the early break to take the bonus seconds away so they will do their utmost to make sure that the break won’t include any dangerous riders. If they can accomplish that mission, they can allow themselves an easier day and leave it to other teams to try to bring it back. That will allow them to save energy for the finale where they will need to be at 100% to support Kelderman.


BMC have the key to this stage. Today they delivered a poor performance and may have thrown the victory away. They can no longer win the race by taking bonus seconds and as Greg Van Avermaet and Philippe Gilbert will both be heavily marked, they won’t get any freedom to attack. To win the race, they have to be stronger than the rest and so they need to make the race hard.


Furthermore, BMC need the bonus seconds in this stage so they have to do the chase work behind the break. However, they don’t have the strongest team for this stage. The terrain will be too hard for Quinziato, Drucker and Zabel and they are already down to seven riders after Daniel Oss didn’t even start the race. On a great day Danilo Wyss can get far in this stage but it will be left to youngster Loic Vliegen to support the captains in the finale.


They may get a bit of help from Etixx-QuickStep, Trek and Astana who are both targeting a stage win and the GC. Lampre-Merida will also go for the stage win here and may also lend a hand if they miss the move. Hence, the early break is unlikely to make it to the finish but on the tough circuit, everything can happen. No one is likely to have any domestiques at their side after the final passage of the Cote de Saint-Roch and so it will be almost impossible to keep things under control and bring it back together for a sprint from a small group. Hence, the most likely scenario is that an outsider will ride away with the win in the finale. However, it’s definitely also a possibility that a few riders are strong enough to make a difference on the climbs and if they can work well together, there is a chance that they will be able to stay away.


Tiesj Benoot has had a marvelous debut season at the pro level. He created a major surprise when he finished fifth in his first Tour of Flanders and proved that he is more than a rider for the cobbled classics when he finished second in the Tour of Belgium and climbed with the best on some hard days in the Alps at the Criterium du Dauphiné. In this race, he is obviously riding equally well as he has been up there on the climbs and won the bunch sprint in today’s stage.


Benoot has never tried his hand in the Ardennes classics but his performances in the Dauphiné suggest that he can do well in this terrain too. He only seems to have one weakness: his time trialling. That means that he has already lost a bit of time in the overall standings but that may be a blessing in disguise. He won’t be too heavily marked and so there is a solid chance that he will be able to attack in the finale. He loves the rainy weather that’s on the menu and if he has a few riders for company, he will probably be the fastest. Today he proved that he can beat Gilbert in a sprint too so he also has a chance if it comes down to a reduced sprint. With several options, Benoot is our favourite to win the stage.


Julian Alaphilippe is another youngster that has really impressed this season. He was clearly fatigued in June but after a few weeks of recovery, he is obviously back in good condition. The time trial was a bit too much about power for him and so he has lost a bit of time. That may open the door for him to attack in the finale as he won’t be too heavily marked.


Furthermore, Alaphilippe is one of the best riders in this terrain and if he has the form he had in April, no one will be able to drop him. If the best riders can make a difference, he is likely to be one of them. Furthermore, he is very fast in a sprint and so can come out on top from a small group too. Alaphilippe can win this stage in every possible way and so he is one of the favourites.


Diego Ulissi was targeting the GC but he paid the price for poor positioning in today’s stage. He missed out when the peloton split on the slick roads and so he is no longer a GC contender. However, he proved in the Tour de Pologne that he is in good condition so he should be able to stay with the best in tomorrow’s stage. No one will do anything to bring him back if he goes on the attack and with his fast sprint, he has the means to finish it off. He also has a chance in sprint from a small group of climbers even if some of the favourites are faster than him in a flat sprint.


Another rider who has lost some time in the time trial is Marco Marcato. The Italian is in excellent condition as he proved by finishing third in the Tour of Denmark. He has never had much success in the Ardennes classics which have always been a bit too hard for him and there is a risk that tomorrow’s climbs will be too much. However, he is really riding better than he has done for a long time and so he could find himself of there in the finale. With his time loss, he won’t be too heavily marked and with his fast sprint, he has the skills to finish it off.


Fabio Felline is sitting in 11th overall and still looms as a possible GC threat. However, he has flown under the radar and no one has really mentioned him as a big contender. If Kelderman, Wellens, Gilbert and Van Avermaet are too concerned with each other, there could be room for the Italian to attack. He has been climbing outstandingly this year and among the overall contenders he is probably the fastest. Hence, he will also be the favourite if it comes down to a reduced sprint.


On paper Greg Van Avermaet and Philippe Gilbert are clearly the favourites for this stage as they have both had lots of success in this kind of terrain. Both are in great condition and bad legs were not the reasons for their time loss today. However, they will be very heavily marked and are unlikely to have any teammates at their side in the finale. It will be hard for them to cover all attacks so they need to be strong enough to make the difference. They won’t get any help from Kelderman and the Dutchman seems to be riding very well at the moment so they have to be very strong to drop him. It won’t be impossible though. Van Avermaet probably has the best chance as he seems to be in the best condition and if he has the legs he had in San Sebastian he can do a lot of damage. Both will also have a chance in a sprint from a small group where Van Avermaet is usually the fastest.


Tom-Jelte Slagter has not had much success in 2015 but now he finally seems to have found some form. The Dutchman was strong in San Sebastian and has been riding well in this race too. As an Ardennes specialist, he likes this terrain and as he lost time in the time trial, he won’t be too heavily marked. Finally, he has a fast sprint to finish it off.


Jan Bakelants was very close to joining the Kelderman group in today’s stage but just missed a few metres. As he also lost too much time in the time trial, he is no immediate danger but he is clearly riding very well. He was strong in San Sebastian and strong in today’s stage so he should be up there in the finale. He is always riding aggressively and so he could make the right move. He is pretty fast in the sprint but many of the favourites are faster.


Michael Rogers has flown under the radar as he has just finished the Giro-Tour double but he did a surprisingly good time trial and so sits in the top 10 overall. He has a vast experience and knows how to time his attacks as he proved when he won stages in the Giro and the Tour last year. He is a GC contender and so won’t get much freedom but as he is not one of the big favourites, he could be allowed to get clear. If he gets into TT mode, he will be hard to bring back.


Lars Petter Nordhaug crashed hard in the Tour of Denmark but seemed to be back on track as he rode strongly in today’s stage. Tomorrow’s harder stage suit him even better and he lost quite a bit of time in the TT and so it not a marked man. He is clearly not at his best yet but in a tactical finale he will have cards to play.


There is a big chance that the terrain will be too hard for Jens Keukeleire who is more of a man for the cobbles. However, he was up there in 2014 and so there is a chance that he will be there again. He seems to be riding very well at the moment and he has lost time in the time trial. Finally, he is fast in a sprint.


In the past, the Ardennes stages were too hard for Lars Boom but last year he turned out to be the strongest in this stage. He doesn’t seem to be at the same level as he was dropped in the Tour of Denmark queen stage but his form is definitely growing. He was clearly strong in today’s stage. As he is a GC contender, he won’t get much freedom though and so he has to rely on his fast sprint if he wants to win the stage.


Jose Joaquin Rojas is a great climber. The Ardennes stages have always been a bit too hard for him but this year the final climbs come a bit earlier. This opens the door for him to make it into a select group in the finale and on paper he would then be the fastest. There is definitely no chance that he will win a sprint though as he rarely wins these sprints and will probably be more tired than the main contenders.


Dries Devenyns hasn’t had much attention in this race but the Belgian seems to be close to the level he had in last year’s spring classics. He did a surprisingly good time trial and won’t be a marked man tomorrow. Even though he has mostly done the cobbled classics in recent years, he has been a strong Ardennes rider in the past and so should do well in this stage.


Alexey Lutsenko did a surprisingly poor time trial and so has lost a bit of time. The Kazakh is hugely inconsistent but on his best days he is almost unstoppable. No one will react if he attacks in the finale and with his strong TT skills and his sprint he has the means to finish it off.


Finally, Niki Terpstra deserves a mention. Due to his bad luck in the TT, he is no longer in GC contention. Usually, this kind of stage is too hard for him but this year he seems to have improved his climbing. He won’t be able to follow the best on the climbs but with his time loss, he has the freedom to attack in the finale.


CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Tiesj Benoot

Other winner candidates: Julian Alaphilippe, Diego Ulissi

Outsiders: Marco Marcato, Fabio Felline, Greg Van Avermaet, Philippe Gilbert, Tom-Jelte Slagter

Jokers: Jan Bakelants, Michael Rogers, Michael Rogers, Lars Petter Nordhaug, Jens Keukeleire, Lars Boom, Jose Joaquin Rojas, Dries Devenyns, Alexey Lutsenko, Andriy Grivko, Simon Spilak, Niki Terpstra



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