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16.08.2015 @ 14:35 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Tim Wellens never reached his best form in the Tour de France but apparently the grand tour has done him well and he was in a class of his own in today’s queen stage of the Eneco Tour. Supported by a strong team of classics riders, he has a big chance to make it two in a row but he won’t get an easy ride when the Mur van Geraardsbergen returns to the cycling spotlight for what should be a mini version of the Tour of Flanders on the final day of the race.


The course

Nothing will be decided until the final day of the race as the organizers have saved one of the two hardest stages for the very end. With the only uphill finish in the race, the final stage may offer a good chance to create differences between the best riders.


Naturally, the race has usually included a stage in the Flemish Ardennes but in 2012 the organizers decided to make it a lot harder by making it finish on the famous Muur van Geraardsbergen. When it was announced that the famous climb would no longer be part of the Tour of Flanders course, the city of Geraardsbergen made an agreement with the Eneco Tour which ensured that the stage race would include a stage on the wall in 2012, 2013 and 2014. In the first two years, the stage came on the final day but last year it was held before the mini-Liege and mini-Amstel stages.


This year it is back at the tail end of the race and the organizers haven’t changed much of what is now a classic in this race. At 188.6km, it is a bit longer than it was 12 months ago but it still doesn’t have the length of a classic. However, apart from the distance, it has all the ingredients of one of the major Flemish one-day races. The riders will tackle no less than 12 of the famous hellingen in the Flemish Ardennes and as they go up some of them multiple times, 17 climbs are spread throughout the entire course, three less than last year.


Unlike last year, the stage doesn’t start in Geraardsbergen. Instead, the riders will take off from Sient-Pieters-Leeuw on the outskirts of Brussels, meaning that the first part of the stage is relatively flat. A usual, the riders will first do a lap of a circuit around the starting city. This time it’s 12.6km long and completely flat. Having returned to the start, the riders will contest the first Primus sprint very early in the race.


The next part of the course is made up of a long westerly run towards the Flemish Ardennes. Already at the 25.1km mark, the riders will tackle the Pelikaanberg (500m, 4%) but apart from that small ascent, the roads are mainly flat. They will pass the city of Geraardsbergen to get into the Flemish Ardennes where the climbing gradually start with the Mont (2000, 4.7%) and Kanarieberg (1000m, 8%) at the 75.3km and 79.9km marks respectively.


Having reached the city of Ronse, the riders will turn right to head to Oudenaarde and from here the stage is almost identical to the one that was used 12 months ago. In Oudenaarde, they will climb the Edelareberg (1600m, 4%) with 93.9km to go. Then it’s time to turn around to head back to Geraardsbergen where the stage will be decided. This is when the real race starts as the riders will tackle Leberg (900m, 4%), Berendries (1000m, 7%), Valkenberg (800m, 6%) and Tenbosse (400m, 7%) with 84.8km, 80.4km, 74.9km  and 68.5km to go respectively and with 59.7km to go, they will hit the finishing circuit.


The riders will now do the tricky final 8.5km for the first time. First they will tackle the Denderoordberg (700m, 8%) before they will descend down to the bottom of the Muur (1100m, 8.7%). The finish line comes 600m up the climb and signals the start of the final two laps of the 25.6km finishing circuit. The second Primus sprint will be contested at the top of the Mur after the first passage.


The circuit is a very tough affair with no less than 4 climbs. Having descended from the Muur, the riders go straight up the famous Bosberg (1000m, 6%) which is another climb no longer featuring on the Ronde course. It is followed by the easiest section of the circuit before the riders hit the Onkerzelestraat (1500m, 3%). At the top, there’s still 11.2km to go, with the first part made up of a descent before the riders again reach the final section with the Denderoordberg and the Muur whose first 600m lead directly to the finish at the end of the second lap. The riders do two right-hand turns just after the flamme rouge before heading onto the climb where there’s a left-hand turn just 200m from the line. The golden kilometre starts halfway up the Bosberg on the final lap when 20.8km still remaining.


As said, the tricky finishing circuit has been used for the final stage of the 2012 and 2013 editions of the race and in stage 5 of last year’s race too and so it is now well-known by most of the riders. In the first edition, the peloton exploded to pieces on the Muur and in the end, Alessandro Ballan and Lars Boom emerged as the strongest. While the Italian took a rare victory on the famous Muur, the Dutchman gained enough time on then race leader Svein Tuft to win the race overall. In 2013, Zdenek Stybar took the jersey off Tom Dumoulin’s shoulders by finishing off a perfect display of team tactics. After Sylvain Chavanel had put the rivals under pressure, Stybar launched his own attack on the final lap to bridge the gap to lone escapee Ian Stannard. Accelerating hard from the bottom of the Muur, the Czech dropped his companion and soloed across the line to take both the stage and the overall victory. Last year it was Greg Van Avermaet who made the difference as he accelerated hard to fly past a fighting Pavel Brutt who had attacked a little earlier. He put one second into Tom Dumoulin, Brutt, Matti Breschel and Lars Boom which allowed Dumoulin to take the leader’s jersey off Boom’s shoulders by virtue of bonus seconds.





The weather

The Tour of Flanders is now for its rainy and windy weather and after two days in wet conditions, one could expect the riders to get another rainy day for the final stage. However, the weather gods have shown some mercy as tomorrow will be a cloudy day with almost no chance of rain. The temperature will reach a maximum of 20 degrees.


There will be a light wind from a northerly direction which means that there will be a crosswind for most of the stage as they riders travel from the starting city and to the Flemish Ardennes where they turn around to get back to Geraardsbergen. On the finishing circuit, it will mainly be a crosswind but there will be a tailwind on the Denderoordberg. Then it will mainly be a headwind in the final part until the riders turn onto the Muur. It will be a crosswind on the lower part and then a headwind in the final straight to the finish.


The favourites

We openly admit that we made a big mistake in yesterday’s preview by not even mentioning Tim Wellens. After his excellent time trial and his good ride in Limburg, it was evident that he was on good form. However, he had moved himself into a very good position on GC and so was always going to be closely marked by his main rivals. We never expected him to be good enough to drop the likes of Greg Van Avermaet and Philippe Gilbert who would always be faster than him in a sprint.


However, Wellens has really come out of the Tour de France in good condition. His debut in the French race was disastrous as he rode a completely anonymous race but apparently the racing has served him well. Today he was simply in a class of his own and his performance was very similar to the one that saw him take it all in the Ardennes stage 12 months ago. Back then, he benefited a bit from team tactics to take the win and he had lost a bit of time and was no immediate danger but today he made the difference with the legs.


As expected, it was always going to be difficult for Wilco Kelderman to defend the lead. The Dutchman delivered a heroic ride to rejoin the peloton and saved what could be a spot on the final podium. However, with no climbers on the team, he was isolated way too early and had to shut down lots of attacks. He was riding reasonably well but that kind of effort was always going to take its toll.


At the same time, BMC was again left empty-handed. Both their captains were in the mix but they were again left empty-handed. Van Avermaet was maybe just as strong as Wellens but his constant attacking took the sting out of his legs. Being closely marked, he had to be superior to the rest to ride away and that was not the case. Furthermore, Gilbert was clearly not at his best and never looked like a real threat.


The Eneco Tour has always been decided by seconds but this time the time gaps are a lot bigger. Wellens leads Van Avermaet by 1.03 and that’s a comfortable advantage that almost guarantees him the overall win. The final stage is definitely hard but it has been tested thrice in the past and history shows that it is hard to make a big difference. It may be held in classics terrain and have a pretty tough finale but due to the shorter distance, it is of course not as selective as the Tour of Flanders. In 2013, 31 riders finished within a minute of the stage winner while in 2012 47 riders managed to reduce their time loss to less than 60 seconds. Last year no less than 32 riders finished within 6 seconds of Van Avermaet while 41 riders limited their losses to less than a minute.


Furthermore, Wellens is supported by a very strong team for this kind of terrain. They have lost Jurgen Roelandts but an in-form André Greipel was impressive in Flanders earlier this year. Tiesj Benoot was 5th in Flanders and Jens Debusschere was in the top 10 in Paris-Roubaix and is clearly riding well. Marcel Sieberg is also in great condition so they will have plenty of firepower to control the race.


It will be interesting to see what kind of tactic BMC choose. Will they try to go for the overall win or will they focus on the stage? Van Avermaet has clearly indicated that the main goal now is to defend second and repeat last year’s victory and so they are unlikely to try any crazy attacks from afar. Gilbert good give it a go but he still sits in fourth overall with just a small advantage over Felline. A fourth place gives valuable WorldTour points so he has no reason to take too many risks in what is likely to be a mission impossible.


BMC is not the only team going for the win. This Etixx-QuickStep terrain and there is no doubt that this stage is one of their biggest goals. They have lots of cobbled classics specialists who can do well in this terrain so they will also be going all in for the stage win.


This means that the race is likely to be pretty controlled by those two teams. We can still expect a fast and aggressive start as there is always a chance for a break to make it in this terrain. A lot of teams know that they have no chance in the finale so they will be keen to ride aggressively. Hence, it should be another fast start before the break finally goes clear.


Lotto Soudal can win the stage with Tiesj Benoot or Wellens but their main goal is the overall lead. There is no reason for them to bring the early break back so they will probably leave it to other teams to take the initiative. Etixx-QuickStep and BMC will probably take control and make sure that the break never gets too much of an advantage and so it is very likely that the early break will be caught.


Things will heat up during the hilly run-in to the finishing circuit where we could see some attacks and where Etixx-QuickStep and BMC may tighten the screws and try to make the race hard. In any case, we should see some aggression on the finishing circuit. Etixx-QuickStep have many cards to play and they could try to join some moves but we expect BMC to work fully for a sprint finish. Hence, it won’t be easy for anyone to escape as the circuit is not extremely hard. The Muur and the Bosberg are tough but the other two climbs are relatively easy. The hardest climbs come pretty far from the finish so it will probably come down to a final battle on the Mur.


The Golden Kilometre comes on the final lap and we could see some riders go for the seconds if there are no riders up the road. Welles, Van Avermaet and Kelderman have no real reason to do so but gaps are closer a little further down in the GC and so we could see some riders take the opportunity to gain some seconds.


History shows that a relatively big group usually arrives at the bottom of the Mur where it is possible to gain a few seconds. Positioning is hugely important in the tricky and technical finale and so team support is of utmost importance. We could see some minor changes in the GC but the podium is likely to be unchanged.


Last year Greg Van Avermaet won this stage and he again stands out as the rider to beat. His great ride in San Sebastian, his good time trial and his constant attacking in today’s stage prove that he is in very good condition. He was one of the most active riders and still managed to make the difference in the end. Tomorrow he will save his energy for the uphill sprint and so he will be much fresher at the finish.


Van Avermaet is one of the best riders for the cobbled classics and this year he seems to have stepped up his level. He has found the killer instinct that has turned him into a winner and he can rely on a very strong team to position him at the bottom. It won’t be easy for anyone to match the rider who beat Peter Sagan in an uphill sprint in the Tour and so the BMC rider is our favourite.


Tom Boonen has dominated the cobbled classics for a decade but he is no longer the rider he once was. However, he is still one of the best in this terrain and he is clearly in good condition. He won the bunch sprint on stage 3, worked hard for his teammates in today’s stage and stayed in the peloton on stage 5 until he let go in the finale when the break was no longer within reach.


In the past, no one was going to beat Boonen in an uphill sprint on the Muur but nowadays it is trickier for the strong Belgian. Nonetheless, he can still rely on one of the best teams in the world to set him up and if he is in a good position at the bottom, it may be time for Boonen to finally return to his winning ways on the cobbles.


Today Tiesj Benoot left it to Tim Wellens to fly the flag for Lotto Soudal but tomorrow he could be the rider in the spotlight. Of course his main job will be to support his leader but as BMC and Etixx-QuickStep are likely to control the stage he should be free to take his chance in the finale. This year he finished fifth in the Tour of Flanders and has proved that he is one of the best riders on the cobbles. He is one of the select few who have the speed and power to beat Van Avermaet in this kind of finale.


As expected, the climbing got a bit too tough for Lars Boom in today’s stage but that doesn’t mean that he is not riding well. He is clearly not at the same level as he was last year but it is no surprise that the Ardennes are too hard for a big guy like him. Tomorrow he is back in his preferred terrain and he has always been one of the best riders for the cobbles. He has mostly shined in Paris-Roubaix which suits him a bit better but he is very strong in the Flemish races too and has the speed to win an uphill sprint.


Niki Terpstra has had a disastrous race. Punctures ruined his GC campaign and today the Ardennes were too tough for him. Now he is back in his terrain and he should be motivated to make amends. He is very strong on the hellingen but is not as explosive as the faster riders. He would definitely have preferred the line to come at the top of the Mur which would have given him more chance to make a difference with his power. However, he is still one of the best on these climbs and should be up there with the best.


Philippe Gilbert is clearly not at his best and we would be a bit surprised if he wins this stage. On the other hand, this kind of uphill sprint suits him really well and you can never rule him out in this kind of finish. He may have to work for Van Avermaet but we expect the two Belgians to do their own sprints and it won’t be impossible for him to win. He could also try to repeat what Stybar did by attacking from a bit further out.


It was always going to be a bit tricky for Jens Keukeleire to keep up with the best in today’s stage and he is now out of GC contention. However, he has never been a climber and is much more comfortable on the cobbles. He has done well in the Flemish classics in the past and seems to be in relatively good condition. He has always been a bit off the pace of the best but he is not far behind and he has the sprint to do well in this kind of finale.


The Wanty duo of Marco Marcato and Bjorn Leukemans were a bit off the pace in today’s stage. However, the former is in great condition and the latter is always strong on the cobbles. With his fast sprint and good form, Marcato has the best chance and he should be able to put Wanty in the spotlight.


We are curious to see what Jasper Stuyven can do in this finish. His main goal is to protect Fabio Felline’s fifth place but he may be given his chance to test himself. He has a huge potential for the cobbled classics and it is just a matter of time before he features in the finale of a big race. With his fast sprint, he should be able to do well here.


The IAM duo of Heinrich Haussler and Dries Devenyns have both done well in the cobbled classics and are both riding really well. Haussler finally seems to have found some good condition and even though he is no longer one of the best on the cobbles, he should be able to do well in this kind of finale. Devenyns was one of the best in the cobbled classics in 2014 and even though he is not in the same condition this year, he has the potential to do well.


Danny van Poppel and Moreno Hofland are both riding really well at the moment and have improved their climbing a lot. None of them have really excelled in the hardest classics and there is a big chance that the uphill sprint on the Mur will be a bit too much for them. Nonetheless, they could create a surprise as they seem to be riding better than ever.


Filippo Pozzato has had a hard race and even crashed two days ago. However, last year he suddenly came from nowhere to finish in the top 10 in this stage which must be his big goal for the race. He claims to be in relatively good condition so if he is not hampered by his injuries he should be up there.


Viacheslav Kuznetsov has been riding really well in this race. Today the climbing got a bit too hard for him but tomorrow the terrain should suit him better. He has not been up there in the biggest classics yet but he has not been far behind the best on the cobbles. Tomorrow it could be his chance to finally show what he can do.


Arnaud Demare has a lot of potential for the cobbled classics. He has not been up there in the finale yet but he has always had much luck. He is clearly not at his best at the moment and an uphill sprint on the Mur may be a bit too much for him. However, you can never rule him out in this terrain.


Dylan van Baarle and Johan Le Bon are both big talents for the cobbled classics and yesterday they proved their good condition. They are not going to win an uphill sprint but they have definitely been inspired by their heroic ride to go on the attack in the finale. Ramunas Navarduaskas also seems to be riding well and could have similar plans.


Finally, Yves Lampaert, Alexey Lutsenko, Michael Valgren, Christopher Juul and Jan Bakelants deserve a mention. None of them will win an uphill sprint and the former is likely to have to work for his teammates. However, they are all riding well and could be strong enough to finish off an attack in the finale.


CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Greg Van Avermaet

Other winner candidates: Tom Boonen, Tiesj Benoot

Outsiders: Lars Boom, Niki Terpstra, Philippe Gilbert, Jens Keukeleire, Fabio Felline,

Jokers: Marco Marcato, Björn Leukemans, Jasper Stuyven, Heinrich Haussler, Dries Devenyns, Danny van Poppel, Moreno Hofland, Filippo Pozzato, Viacheslav Kuznetsov, Dylan van Baarle, Johan Le Bon, Ramunas Navardauskas, Alexey Lutsenko, Christopher Juul, Michael Valgren, Yves Lampaert, Jan Bakelants, Tim Wellens, Wilco Kelderman, Magnus Cort



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