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The final day is a busy one with a morning sprint stage and an afternoon time trial

Photo: Sirotti




30.03.2016 @ 20:16 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Alexander Kristoff only managed to pick up four bonus second in a stage that turned out to be much harder than expected and so finds himself with a pretty small advantage over Lieuwe Westra as he goes into the decisive day. He gets another chance to pick up some seconds in the morning stage which he has dominated in the past and then it will all be decided in a thrilling time trial in the afternoon.


The course

Stage 3a

The riders will kick off the decisive final day of the race with the usual short stage starting and finishing in De Panne and compared to recent years, it is almost completely unchanged. At 111.5km, it is a short affair and even though there are a few smaller climbs along the way, it is an almost entirely flat one.


The riders start in the seaside city of De Panne and follow the coast to Wednesday's finishing city of Koksijde. Having reached Oostduinkerke, they will take on a big circuit that takes them along the coastal road to the city of Middelkerke after 20km of racing. Here they will turn right to leave the coast and continue in a mainly southeasterly direction until they pass the city of Handzame where they will start the journey back towards the sea. Having headed west to the city of Diksmuide, the roads will become more winding and the course a bit more technical until the riders end their circuit 16km from the finish.


Back in Oostduinkerke, they will turn left and contest the only intermediate sprint in Koksijde 13.6km from the finish. They will follow the same road as they did earlier in the day back to De Panne where they cross the line 8.4km from the finish. The stage ends with a lap of an 8.4km non-technical, rectangular finishing circuit that includes three roundabouts and only two sharp turns. The final one, however, comes at the end of a long straight road just 300m from the finish and leads onto the cobbled finishing straight. History proves that this is a very nervous finish where the real sprint takes place before the final corner as the stage winner is always one of the three first riders to go through that turn and the sprint has often been marred by crashes.


Compared to last year there have been a few small modifications in the first part but the final 50km are unchanged.


The wind may wreak havoc on the peloton in this stage but usually it is a pretty straightforward affair for the sprinters as the GC riders are keen to save energy for the afternoon time trial. Alexander Kristoff has dominated this sprint as he has taken it twice in a row in 2013 and 2012 while Jacopo Guarnieri and Tyler Farrar won in 2011 and 2010 respectively. In 2014 Kristoff’s dominance was broken when Sacha Modolo made it two in a row by holding off Andrea Guardini and Kenny van Hummel while the Norwegian could only manage 8th. Kristoff returned to the top in 2015 by beating André Greipel in a very close photo finish.





Stage 3b

The hills and the wind has produced some time differences but the single most decisive stage is usually the final time trial. No one will win the race without possessing solid time trialing skills to negotiate the final 14.2km in the city of De Panne. The course is well-known for the riders as it has been largely unchanged since 2010. In 2014, there was a slight modification at the end of the stage that reduced the distance by 450m and this same version was used again in 2015 and will be so again in 2016.


The course is entirely flat and suits the big specialists who can produce great power on the long, flat stretches that characterize most of the course. However, there is a technical middle section that makes things more complicated and requires acceleration skills and the riders often have to battle a rather strong wind.


From the start, the riders do a few early turns until they reach the coastal road that they will follow for a few kilometres. This part suits the specialists but they will be challenged a bit more in the next section. After 3km the riders will turn right and go straight until they make their first U-turn 1km further up the road. 5.4km from the finish, they will turn right before making another U-turn to head back along the same road and again turn right. A little further down the road, they do the same little trick with a right-hand turn and a subsequent U-turn. They are now back on the coastal road and from there it is a long straight journey all the way back towards the start-finishing area. When the riders turn left 1.2km from the finish, things again get a bit more technical as the final part includes several corners.


It says a lot about the importance of the time trial that the winner of the final stage and the overall was the same from 2009-2013. Sylvain Chavanel did the double twice in a row and was preceded on the list by Sebastien Rosseler and David Millar. In 2009 the trend was bucked when Frederik Willems took the overall win despite only finishing 30th in the time trial which was won by Bradley Wiggins. The Belgian had taken enough time in the hilly opening stage to hold off defending champion Joost Potsthuma by 19 seconds. In 2014, it was another unusual edition as Maciej Bodnar won the stage while Guillaume van Keirsbulck had gained enough time in the selective first two stages to win the race overall despite only finishing fifth. It was the same last year when Bradley Wiggins again won the stage but third place was enough for Alexander Kristoff to win overall as he had won all the road stages. The list of winners indicates which riders excel on this course: this is one for the real TT specialists.





The weather

A lot of wind was forecasted for today’s stage but it was not enough to split the field significantly. Tomorrow things will be much calmer. For the morning stage, there will be a 25% chance of rain and a temperature of just 8 degrees while there will be a light wind from a northerly direction. This means that the riders will first have a cross-headwind and a crosswind for most of the big circuit. Then it will be a cross-tailwind in the final part that leads to the finishing circuit. Here will be a crosswind in the section that leads to the final turn and then it will be a tailwind sprint.


For the time trial, there is less chance of rain, especially for the late starters. Furthermore, the wind will have picked up as a moderate wind will be blowing from a northerly direction. This means that it will mainly be a cross-headwind in the first part and a cross-tailwind when they head back towards the finish. The temperature will be around 9 degrees.


The favourites

Stage 3a:

The wind failed to play the expected role in today’s stage and the peloton only split momentarily just after the Kemmelberg. In the end, it became a relatively easy stage that left most of the sprinters fresh for the finish. That suited the pure sprinters like Elia Viviani and Marcel Kittel perfectly and it made it difficult for Alexander Kristoff who is not fast enough to win these high-speed sprints. Katusha really tried to make it hard in the windy parts but they soon realized that this was going to be a day for the fastest riders.


Marcel Kittel may have been beaten, with Elia Viviani proving that he has the speed to beat everyone. However, the German must draw confidence from the stage. Etixx-QuickStep mistimed it slightly and Kittel had to start his sprint a little too early which cost him a bit in the end. However, the Etixx-QuickStep train completely dominated the finale and given the fact that it was the first time with Maximilano Richeze in the train, there is definitely lots of positives to draw from the defeat.


Kittel will need all his lead-out power in tomorrow’s morning stage. The sprint in De Panne is a real classic and known as one of the most dangerous of the entire year. This stage is not about speed, it is all about positioning in the final turn. If you are not in the top 3 at that point, there is no way you are going to win the stage.


The morning stage has rarely produced much drama, even when it has been windy. Most are keen to save energy for the time trial so they prefer not to make any gambles by making risky attacks in the crosswind. Thursday will even be a relatively calm day, especially in the morning, so there won’t be any real danger. Hence, we should be in for a relatively straightforward sprint stage where only crashes will be able to prevent a full peloton from reaching the finish together.


We can expect the break to be formed relatively early and as there are no KOM sprints and only a very late intermediate sprint, there’s not much incentive going on the attack for the bigger teams. Katusha, Etixx-QuickStep and Sky are likely to control things and they will make sure that things come back together for a sprint.


The intermediate sprint is an interesting one. It comes too close to the finish for Kristoff to give it a shot and there is a big chance that the break has been caught at that point. Katusha will try not to bring the break back before that point but Astana may have different plans. The door could be open for Lieuwe Westra to pick up some important seconds and Katusha may have to use some of their many very fast lead-out men to try to take some of them away.


In the end, we can expect a sprint and as said, this is all about lead-outs. In this race, two trains are far stronger than the rest: Etixx-QuickStep and Katusha. That was evident in today’s stage. Etixx-QuickStep dominated the finale as Katusha played a strange waiting game. Nonetheless, Jacopo Guarnieri managed to move up in time and in the end it became a sprint between the two final lead-out men Fabio Sabatini and Guarnieri before Kittel and Kristoff went head to head.


Tomorrow we can again expect a battle between the two trains and it is hard to say who will come out on top. On paper, Katusha have more fast riders and Guarnieri is faster than Sabatini. On the other hand, Etixx-QuickStep have more firepower so they will be able to dominate the finale again. The question is whether Katusha have the speed to pass them before the final turn.


We will put our money on the Etixx train. Today they really played with their muscles and Maximilano Richeze has proved that he is one of the best lead-out men in the business. He has just come back from injury so for the moment he is only in third position in the train but he has the speed to go up against Katusha. Furthermore, Kristoff won’t take too many risks just three days before the Tour of Flanders and we doubt that he will go all in to get around the Etixx guys.


This means that Kittel is likely to be given the perfect lead-out. The German may have been beaten today but he remains the fastest rider in the bunch. Tomorrow he will have a tailwind in the sprint so it will be much harder to come around if he is forced to go for a long sprint all the way from the turn. Of course this kind of technical sprint doesn’t suit him perfectly but he can only be beaten by one of the very fastest if they are right on his wheel in that turn. We doubt that anyone will come around so this should be a stage for Kittel.


His biggest rival will be Alexander Kristoff. The Norwegian has won the sprint three times and knows how to come out on top. He is usually not fast enough to beat Kittel in a direct battle but this is more about lead-outs. Last year Jacopo Guarnieri led Kristoff out on the front in almost every sprint and it won’t be impossible for him to do so again tomorrow. If that’s the case, some of the very fast riders have to be right behind to beat the Norwegian.


Elia Viviani won today’s stage, proving that he has the speed to beat everybody. Sky knew that they don’t have the power to beat the best trains but they did a perfect job to drop Viviani off on Kittel’s wheel. Tomorrow they will try to do so again but it won’t be easy to repeat that performance. Everybody knows that that’s the place to be so the fight will be huge. In a tailwind sprint, Viviani has to be right behind Kittel to come around. Today he proved that he has the speed to do if he is there.


André Greipel is of course one of the fastest riders here but it’s hard for him to win. From his usual lead-out train, only Marcel Sieberg is here and that’s simply not enough against the strongest teams.  That was evident in today’s stage and it will be even more costly in tomorrow’s stage which is all about positioning. Greipel is not a man for huge risks so even though he is very fast, it won’t be easy to win.


Andrea Guardini has been close to winning this stage in the past. The Italian loves these short, flat stages as he is one of the every fastest at the end of an easy day. However, it won’t be easy to be in the right position for the sprint as he doesn’t have a train. In the past, he wasn’t very good at positioning but he has improved that part a lot. If he can fight himself onto Kristoff’s or Kittel’s wheel he is one of the select few with the speed to win.


Erik Baska took a fantastic win in the Handzame Classi where he easily beat Dylan Groenewegen who is known as a very fast rider. This proves that he has the speed to match the best and this relatively easy stage should suit him well. Tinkoff have a pretty strong team to put him into a good position which will be crucial in tomorrow’s stage.


Another team with a solid amount of firepower is Roompot. They have Raymond Kreder as their protected sprinter and the Dutchman has been flying all year. He was very close to victory in Andalusia and even though he has had some health issues since then, the good form can’t have disappeared completely. He has his brother Michel and Andre Looij for the lead-out and he is one of the fastest here.


Sacha Modolo is out of the race and this means that it is now up to Maro Kump to defend Lampre-Merida. The Slovenian missed out today but he has actually been sprinting solidly. He has Roberto Ferrari to lead him out and the Italian has proved that he is one of the best in the business. Kump may not be the fastest rider here but in this kind of sprint, it is more about positioning.


Eduard Grosu is a huge sprint talent. He came up a bit short in today’s stage as he had to spend a lot of energy to get back after a late crash. Tomorrow he should be in the mix and his strong performance in the hilly opener proves that that his form should allow him to be up there.


Bora-Argon 18 are here without Sam Bennett but most of his train is here. This is a great advantage for Phil Bauhaus as he will now be supported by one of the most powerful teams. Today they mistimed things a bit but if they can time things right, a top results is within reach for them in a stage which it is more about lead-outs than sprinting skills.


Finally, we will again point to Luka Mezgec. The Slovenian usually needs harder races to shine. However, Orica-GreenEDGE have a solid team here and he was actually brought into a good position in today’s stage until a swerve from Kreder nearly brought him down. He is unlikely to win the stage but a good position will bring him far.


CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Marcel Kittel

Other winner candidates: Alexander Kristoff, Elia Viviani

Outsiders: Andrea Guardini, André Greipel, Erik Baska

Jokers: Raymond Kreder, Marko Kump, Eduard Grosu, Phil Bauhaus, Luka Mezgec


Stage 3b:

After the morning stage, everything will be decided in the time trial which most of the riders know well. The course has been largely unchanged for several years and we know which riders can do well here. It’s completely flat which suits the big powerhouses but there are also a number of technical sections which make it harder to find the right rhythm. Hence, explosive riders and sprinters have often managed to do pretty well on this course even though it has always been dominated by the specialists.


Unfortunately, there is a 25% risk of rain which means that some riders may have dry and some may have wet roads. If that’s the case, it will have a huge impact on the result on this kind of technical course so the outcome could be a bit of a lottery. Furthermore, the wind will pick up slightly which will be a slight advantage for the early starters. Luckily, the riders that will fight for the overall win, will have the same conditions.


If all riders have the same conditions, it is hard to look beyond Tony Martin as the man to beat. The former world champion is clearly not the time triallist he once was and he has failed to win many TTs in 2015 and 2016. This year he was beaten in both Algarve and Tirreno-Adriatico. However, he has been up against an outstanding Fabian Cancellara in both races and in Algarve he wasn’t far off the mark. In Tirreno, he nearly crashed in the first turn which explains why he could only manage third.


Martin seems to be in great condition. He was very strong in E3 Harelbeke and he looked very strong in the first stage too. He was at ease on the climbs and only missed out on the chance to win overall because he hadn’t joined the 16-rider group. It seems that it was more of a tactical mistake than a result of a lack of strength.


The course doesn’t suit him perfectly as he prefers both longer and less technical TTs. However, he has won this kind of time trials in the past and he must be the favourite to come out on top again.


His big rival will be Lieuwe Westra. The Dutchman was impressive in the first stage where he was clearly the strongest rider in the race. Now he has to prove that he can translate that into a good time trial performance. A few years ago, he was one of the best in the world but in the last few years he has not been at the same level. However, he has done nothing to hide that he wants to find the edge again and he has worked a lot on his TTs. Apparently, the effort has paid off as he did his best TT for years in Paris-Nice. He seems to be even stronger in this race. The strongest rider is a TT specialist – this means that Martin can be beaten on this kind of course.


Sylvain Chavanel has won this time trial twice which is no coincidence. The Frenchman is one of the best in the world in 10-20km time trials. Furthermore, he has great technical skills so this TT is really to his liking. He has been flying all year and did very good time trials in both Paris-Nice and Ruta del Sol. Unfortunately, he was ill last week and had to skip both Waregem and Harelbeke. Hence, he is not at the same level yet but he has still been riding solidly in this race. He is one of the best for this kind of course so he is clearly one of the favourites.


A few years ago, Johan Le Bon surprised the world by taking third in this time trial. Since then he has been unable to live up to the expectations that were created. However, the entire FDJ team have improved massively in the time trials and this has also been the case for Le Bon who was a surprise second in the Tirreno TT. This course is a bit more technical so it suits him less but if he has the legs he had a few weeks ago, he will be among the very best here.


Maciej Bodnar is a former winner of this time trial. Back then, it was a bit of a surprise. Since he joined Tinkoff, he has improved a lot and nowadays he is almost always in the top 10 in short, flat time trials. He knows how to win here but his form is a bit of a question mark. In the opening stage, he had made it into the 16-rider group but he was the first to get dropped. It remains to be seen whether he has the form to deliver one of his best time trials.


Tom Bohli surprised the world by beating the course record in the West-Flanders prologue. That stage has been won by riders like Kwiatkowski and Vorobyev in the past so it speaks volumes about his TT potential. He proved his good form by riding in the front group in stage 1. Of course the level in this race is a lot higher than it was in West-Flanders but he definitely has the potential to deliver another excellent performance.


His teammate Stefan Küng is one of the biggest time trial talents in the world. Last year he was second in this stage and if he had had a perfect preparation, he would be one of the big favourites. However, he has just returned from a bout of mononucleosis so he is still finding his best form. Surprisingly, he already seems to be at a very good level as he was in the peloton in the first stage. Hence, it’s not impossible for him to deliver another outstanding performance.


Last year, Alexander Kristoff did the time trial of his life to win the race overall as he finished third behind Wiggins and Küng. A few yars ago he also delivered an excellent performance here and the combination of power sections and technical sections obviously suits him well. However, he was in the form of his life in 2015 and this year he is not at the same level. He doesn’t expect to be able to repeat last year’s great ride. On the other hand, he has worked a bit more on his time trial and his form can’t be too bad as he managed to win a very hard first stage.


Lukasz Wisniowski has been sacrificing his own chances for his teammates but he has clearly been one of the strongest riders in the race. The Pole proved his potential in short, flat time trials in West-Flanders and he seems to be at a similar level here.


Alexey Lutsenko has an outside chance to win the race overall. The Kazakh is up against some strong riders but he is a former winner of the Tour of Denmark TT which has a similar distance. The technical nature of this TT should be to his liking and his form is evidently very good.


Dmitriy Gruzdev is very inconsistent when it comes to time trialling but occasionally he delivers an outstanding performance. He did a very good time trial in Qatar earlier this year and he seems to be in very good condition. He has been stronger than ever in the last few races and this means that tomorrow could be a day for one of his great TTs.


Finally, we will point to Marcel Kittel. The German started his career as a TT specialist before he turned his attention to sprinting. However, he can still do a very good short, flat time trial, especially if it’s technical like this one. It may be a little bit too long for him and it remains to be seen whether he will go full gas. However, his form is evidently very good so he could be capable of a great ride.


CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Tony Martin

Other winner candidates: Lieuwe Westra, Sylvain Chavanel

Outsiders: Johan Le Bon, Maciej Bodnar, Tom Bohli, Stefan Küng

Jokers: Alexander Kristoff, Lukasz Wisniowski, Alexey Lutsenko, Dmitriy Gruzdev, Marcel Kittel



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