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The sprinters will be gunning for victory in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne but the classics riders will try to destroy their plans

Photo: Paumer Kare Dhelie Thorstad

KUURNE-BRUXELLES-KUURNE

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27.02.2016 @ 20:45 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

While the classics riders will test themselves on the hellingen in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the sprinters will save themselves for one of their only chances to win a prestigious semi-classic. The Belgian opening weekend has a bit for everyone and with Saturday’s race being reserved for the hard men, Sunday’s Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne is often a chance for the fast finishers to shine. Nothing is guaranteed in Kuurne where classics riders have also prevailed but with several teams bringing their sprinting contingent, there is a big chance that it is time for the first very prestigious sprint battle of the year.

 

Despite more than a month of riding under sunny conditions in places like Australia, Argentina, the Middle East, Algarve, Andalusia, and the French Cote d'Azur, many cycling fans have the impression that the racing season does not begin for real until the classics riders have tested themselves on the hellingen in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. While a win in one of the early season races was pleasant and a welcome boost of confidence, it isn’t until Saturday that the hard men have a real pressure to perform in a big race when the Omloop will kick off the Belgian classics season, a very unique part of the international cycling calendar.

 

The situation may be a bit different for the sprinters. For fast finishers, the quantity of wins often play almost as big a role as their quality and many of them have been extremely eager to clock up the first victories in races that for other riders are mere preparation. Nonetheless, the Belgian city of Kuurne is often the place for the first really important battle between the fastest men on two wheels.

 

The Belgian opening weekend is a diverse affair that has a bit for everyone and the combination with the Omloop is a perfect one as the two races appeal to the same riders but still give different riders an opportunity to shine. Even though they both include cobbles and hellingen and several riders have won both, Saturday's opener is one for the true classics specialists and Sunday's race to Kuurne is much more of a sprinters race. Even though many riders do both races, this means that there is a certain difference between the line-ups for the events. Several teams bring in some fast finishers for Sunday's race while many of the classics riders often make a late decision after Saturday's race about whether to continue racing the next day as well.

 

It is no wonder that the teams keep their sprinters ready for the Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne. With races like Omloop, E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix being too hard for them to get a chance to excel, they have very few chances to add a classic to their palmares. Milan-Sanremo, Dwars door Vlaanderen and Gent-Wevelgem are potential options later in the season but the only real sprinter classics are the Scheldeprijs and tomorrow's race in Kuurne.

 

This makes Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne a prestigious affair that has been red-circled by most of the fast finishers as one they need to have on their palmares. Hence, it is no wonder that they will mostly stay away from Saturday's race to be 100% ready for Sunday’s battle and many of their lead-out riders have done the same, causing a nice shake-up of the start list.

 

However, nothing is guaranteed in Kuurne. While it is clear that a sprinter won't win one of the hardest Belgian classics and it is almost a certainty that Scheldeprijs ends in a bunch sprint, things can be different from what is expected in Kuurne. The race is certainly not flat and includes several famous hellingen - even the feared Oude Kwaremont features on the course - and they offer the classics riders a chance to make a difference. That opportunity is usually taken but as the race ends with a long flat stretch, the sprint teams have plenty of time to bring things back together. However, if the weather conditions are brutal, history shows that the classics riders have a genuine chance of prevailing in Kuurne. That was the case in 2014 and in 2010 when Bobbie Traksel won a memorable race in horrendous weather conditions where only 26 riders reached the finish.

 

Much of the race's prestige stems from its long history. Held first in 1945, the race has only been cancelled three times, always due to bad weather at the early time of the season. As it is the case for many historic races - with Milan-Sanremo being the notable exception - the name is slightly misleading as the riders no longer reach Brussels before they turn around and head back to the finish in Kuurne. Instead, the turning point in located near Ninove, some 25km west of the Belgian capital. Unsurprisingly, the winners list is dominated by Belgians and most of the greatest classics stars from the home country have taken the win in Kuurne at least once. The first rider from outside Belgium and the Netherlands to win the race was German Gregor Brain in 1982 but in recent years a lot more international riders have been able to prevail in Kuurne.

 

Last year’s race was a classic edition of the Belgian semi-classic. The race split on the Oude Kwaremont where a small group tried to stay clear but as the chase got organized, it came down to a bunch sprint. Mark Cavendish was the big favourite and lived up to expectations by beating an in-form Alexander Kristoff into second, with Elia Viviani completing the podium. Cavendish is focused on the track and his Dimension Data team will skip the race so there will be no title defence but Kristoff and Viviani will both be chasing a first win in the race.

 

The course

Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne is a traditional Flemish classics in the sense that it is held in the same small area in the Flemish Ardennes where most of the big Belgian one-day races take place but it is of a completely different nature than races like the Tour of Flanders, E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, Dwars door Vlaanderen, and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Those races all head from its start along flat roads to the Flemish Ardennes where they zigzag their way through the hilly area, taking in the same roads numerous times and going up many of the famous hellingen in the area before heading back to the finishing city.

 

As the name of the race reveals, the course for Sunday’s race has a more fixed character as it heads from the start in Kuurne in an easterly direction before turning around and heading back to the starting city. The course briefly touches the Flemish Ardennes on the way out and passes straight through the classics heartland on the way back but it is more of a direct journey between Kuurne and the turning point instead of a twisting zigzag trip in the hilly zone. The course is not designed with the purpose of being as difficult as possible and the straight passing of the hills means that the number of hellingen is far smaller. If one adds the fact that the extra kilometres are not found in the hilly zone but by doing two laps of a 15.3km flat circuit in Kuurne, one has the recipe for a race that is more suited to the sprinters.

 

The organizers usually change the route slightly from year to year but the main features always remain the same. This year again a key change has been made though as the Kluisberg will be done shortly after the Oude Kwaremont which is traditionally the key point in the race. At the same time, the distance has been increased from 195km to 200.7km. The addition of the Kluisberg means that there now are 10 hellingen on the menu but the rest of the course is largely unchanged.

 

From the start in Kuurne, the riders travel in a predominantly easterly direction as they head towards the Belgian capital of Brussels. They pass through classical classics cities like Anzegem, Oudenaarde, and Brakel but instead of heading into the heart of the Flemish Ardennes, they follow a route north of the hills, meaning that the Edelare (1500m, 4.2%, max. 7%) is the only climb in the first half of the race, coming at the 29.9km mark. Otherwise, the first half is completely flat and unless it is a very windy day, this portion only serves the purpose of accumulating fatigue and allowing the early break to take off.

 

After 55.2km, the riders reach the city of Voorde on the outskirts of Ninove and this is where they turn around and start their journey back towards Kuurne. The riders never reach the city of Brussels but turn around 20km before reaching the Belgian capital. Before heading back in a westerly direction, however, they travel south for a few kilometres, meaning that they will pass through the Flemish Ardennes on the way back.

 

The riders pass through the city of Geraardsbergen shortly after turning around but won't climb the famed Muur. Instead, the hilly zone starts a few kilometres further up the road when La Houppe (1880m, 4.8%, max. 10%) kicks off the day's action after 83.4km of racing. During the next 60km, the final 9 of the 10 hellingen are all located and this is where the selection has to be made.

 

Next up is one of the steeper climbs, the Kanarieberg (1000m, 7.7%, max. 14%) which comes at the 90km mark and 7km further up the road, it is time for the Kruisberg (1875m, 4%, max. 9%), with the newly aded Hotondberg (2.7km, 3.1%, 7.5%) coming another 2km later. The Cote de Trieu (1260m, 7%, max. 13%). is next up as it is located another 7km further down the road. At this point, the climbs come in quick succession and it is usually typical, nervous Belgian racing where positioning is key to success and where everyone wants to stay near the front. This automatically causes an increased pace and some nervous racing and we could see some attacks being launched.

 

The place to make the selection, however, is the famous Oude Kwaremont (2200, 4%, max. 11.6%) which is a long, hard climb and one of the toughest in the area. It comes after 1115.5km of racing with 85k.2m to go and this is usually where the classics riders test their legs. At the top, a select front group has usually been created and this is time for the escapees to start to work together.

 

It is usually a difficult task as several teams have dedicated sprint teams and while some may have sent riders up the road, some teams are likely to organize a chase behind. In 2014, the riders climbed the Tiegemberg 9km after the Kwaremont but last year there was no immediate climb. This year the Kluisberg (1100, 6%, max. 11%) comes just 7km after the Kwaremont, giving less room for recovery.

 

That chance to recover will come after the new climb as the next climb, Tiegemberg (750m, 5%, max. 9%) is on the menu 15km later when 62km remain. Then it’s time for the Holstraat (1000m, 5.2%, max. 12%) just five kilometres later and it is another 7km before the riders do the final helling, Nokereberg (350m, 5.7%, max. 7%) which is a rather easy one. From its top, 50.1km still remain. Those final three climbs may provide some final launch pads for attacks and cause some troubles for the sprint teams but they have no reason to panic as they have plenty of time to reel in the break after the top.

 

From there, the riders pass through well-known Flemish cities like Waregem, Desselgem and Harelbeke before reaching the finish in Kuurne. If the race had finished there, the attackers would have had a much better chance as there are only 19.5km from the Nokereberg to the first passage of the line but the sprint teams get an extra chance to bring things back together.

 

The race ends with two laps of an entirely flat, 15.3km finishing circuit that brings the riders from Kuurne to Kortrijk and back to Kuurne. Apart from a few corners in Kortrijk and Kuurne, the circuit is rather non-technical and it is a perfect place for the bunch to organize a dedicated chase. Hence, the final part of the race usually develops into more of a traditional grand tour sprint stage, with the peloton chasing down the early or late attackers to set up a bunch sprint.

 

The final 4km are pretty easy, with the riders passing straight through a roundabout and turning left in another one between the 4 and 3km to go marks. From there it is a straight road until the final sharp left-hand turn 600m from the line that leads onto the finishing straight where some dramatic sprint battles have taken place in the past.

 

What may change the outcome of the race is the weather as windy and cold conditions can make the race much harder and selective. If the conditions are right, it can be a true race of attrition and elimination race through the hilly and windy zones but otherwise it rarely happens that the sprinters miss the chance to sprint for the win in Kuurne.

 

 

The weather

In 2014, year the riders faced one of the rare occasions when the weather conditions were harsh enough to make the race a selective affair. Despite riding on dry roads and in relatively warm conditions, the combination of a strong wind and a powerful acceleration from the Omega Pharma-Quick Step team was enough to wreak havoc on the peloton and produce one of the most exciting editions of the race. The weather conditions are usually the single most important factor in the race and while the sprinters hope for sunshine and no wind, the classics riders hope for typical Belgian classics weather.

 

This year it seems that spring has arrived early in Belgium. Sunday will be a day of great sunshine and there will be a maximum temperature at the finish in Kuurne of 7 degrees. However, it will be relatively windy as a rather strong wind will be blowing from a northeasterly direction. This means that the riders will have a crosswind for most of the day. It will be a tailwind on the key climb of the Kwaremont and on the Kluisberg but then the riders will turn into what is mainly a headwind for the final part of the hilly zone. Then it will be a crosswind in the final part leading to the circuit in Kuurne. Here the riders will mainly have a head- or a tailwind. In the finale, it will be a crosswind until the riders turn into a tailwind on the finishing straight.

 

The favourites

At the moment, the final start list for the race is not known and as many riders make a late decision Saturday evening about whether to do the race or not, it may happen that some of the favourites won’t be at the start line. However, most of the sprinters have decided to skip Omloop Het Nieuwsblad to be fresh for this race and this means that most of the fast guys are guaranteed to be there.

 

What makes Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne difficult to predict is the fact that it is open to two very different scenarios. Will it be possible for the strong teams to split the race in the hilly zone and will they be committed to keep it going all the way to the finish? Or will it be possible for the sprinters to control affairs and set up the usual bunch sprint?

 

This year the weather forecast sends conflicting signals. On one hand, it will be sunny and warm which will make things easier. On the other hand, there will be a relatively strong wind and it will be a crosswind for most of the day. Crosswind is usually what is needed for the race to be selective and this will open opportunities for the teams that want a hard race.

 

The fact that most teams have a sprinter often make a bunch sprint more likely as most teams are eyeing that kind of finish. However, two of the strongest teams have different plans. Etixx-QuickStepare here without Marcel Kittel and this year there is of course no Cavendish either. They have Tom Boonen for the sprint but he will prefer a hard race. There is little doubt that the Belgian team will take the initiative in the crosswinds and blow the race to pieces on the Kwaremont. BMC have similar plans as they don’t have a pure sprinter that can win a big bunch sprint and they have one of the strongest teams for the hilly zone.

 

There will be lots of crosswind all day but those two teams will regret the fact that it will mainly be a tailwind and a headwind in the crucial part of the race. Most importantly, it will be a headwind after the Kwaremont and this will make it much harder for the small group that is likely to escape, to hold off what will definitely be an organized chase from a peloton loaded with sprinters. Last year it was also very windy but it was not enough to split things and in general the conditions have to be pretty tough for a bunch sprint to be prevented. With a headwind after the Kwaremont, it seems that it will be a sprint year in Kuurne. However, you never get a complete peloton at the finish and in these windy conditions, lots of rider – including several sprinters – will have been left behind by the time we reach Kuurne.

 

For the second year in a row, Alexander Kristoff goes into the race on the back of an impressive campaign in the Middle East. This year he even arrives in Europe with an extra win in his pocket and he even managed to do what he had thought to be impossible as he beat Mark Cavendish in a real bunch sprint on the final day in the Tour of Qatar. In general, he has been in outstanding form as he was at ease in the wind in Qatar, sprinting better than ever and climbed better in Oman than he did 12 months ago.

 

For some reason, he has never been at his best in the opening weekend but he still managed to take second in Kuurne last year. He will be pleased to see that Kittel, Greipel and Cavendish are not here and this means that he stands out as probably the fastest rider in the field. Furthermore, he is much stronger than most of the sprinters and everybody is always a lot more tired than usual in the sprint in Kuurne. This is an advantage for the Norwegian who is very hard to beat at the end of a tough race.

 

Kristoff can win this race from every scenario as it won’t be easy to get rid of him in the hilly zone. At the same time, he will probably be the fastest in a big sprint. He can again count on his excellent lead-out that dominated all the sprints in Qatar and Oman but for some reason the team has decided not to line up final lead-out man Jacopo Guarnieri. That’s a big disadvantage and will make things harder for Kristoff. However, it can’t change the fact that his train is one of the best and if Kristoff can just start his sprint from a reasonable position, he will be very hard to beat.

 

Last year Elia Viviani finished third in this race and he will be eager to improve on that performance. He showed great form in Dubai where he won a stage and underlined his status as one of the very fastest sprinters in the world. Since then he has been preparing for the Track Worlds but last year that did not prevent him from mixing it up with the best in Kuurne and there is little doubt that he is close to peak condition.

 

Viviani won’t win the race if it’s a hard and selective affair but in a bunch sprint he will be one of the fastest. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the train he had in Dubai as Ben Swift won’t be at the start but he still has a powerful train at his disposal, with Andrew Fenn being the final lead-out man. He has improved his positioning a lot but he still lacks a bit of consistency. However, if he can get the positioning right, he will be hard to beat.

 

The big question mark is Caleb Ewan who lines up for his first Belgian classic. He has no previous experience in such a race which will be a big test for him. However, he has proved that he can handle very tough conditions as he won the very hard second stage at the Herald Sun Tour which boosted his confidence and made him realize that he can do well in tough races too.

 

Of course this race is a completely different animal and he won’t win if it’s a really selective race. However, no one can deny that he is probably the fastest when it comes to pure speed and if he is there in the end, he will be one of the big favourites. He has a decent train at his disposal too which is important in such a heavy sprint field and with Mitchell Docker at his side, he has an experienced final lead-out man. It can be both really good or really bad when it comes to Ewan but he definitely has a chance to win.

 

Giacomo Nizzolo has developed into the eternal runner-up but he is always very close to the win. In recent months, he has improved his endurance a lot and he is now much stronger on the climbs. This turns him into a real contender for the classics and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne suits him really well. He may even be strong enough to be with the best if the race gets really selective but he will definitely be there if it’s a bunch sprint. Jasper Stuyven, Niccolo Bonifazio, Marco Coledan, Edward Theuns and lead-out man Boy van Poppel mean that he is supported by one of the best trains in the field and this can make all the difference that will finally allow him to take a big win.

 

Peter Sagan is not a rider for the pure bunch sprints and so Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne doesn’t really suit him. On the other hand, you can never rule the Slovakian out. The sprint will come at the end of a hard race and this makes him a much bigger contender. Furthermore, he is excellent at positioning himself which makes him so impressively consistent. Now he even seems to have a better lead-out than ever before and last year he even seemed to be sprinting better than he has done for some time. His best chance is clearly to win a selective race where a small group arrives at the finish but he also has a chance in a big bunch sprint

 

Sam Bennett is one of the fastest riders in this race. Last year he was up there on the Kwaremont and this year he is a lot stronger. He was excellent in Qatar but his sprints in the Middle East didn’t pan out as expected. The Bora-Argon 18 train was strong but like so often before Bennett failed to stay with his teammates in the hectic finales. There is no doubt that he has the speed to win this race and now he also has the endurance. However, he needs to improve his build-up to the sprints.

 

It has been a frustrating start to the season for Nacer Bouhanni who has not had his usual speed. However, he still managed to grab a win in the Ruta del Sol and this will have boosted his confidence for this race. He doesn’t have much experience in the classics as FDJ prevented him from doing them but on paper they should suit him well as he is great at positioning and a good climber. Furthermore, he can count on most of his great train which is constantly improving. He doesn’t seem to have his best speed yet but on paper he is one of the fastest here.

 

Tom Boonen has won this race on numerous occasions and in Valencia and last year’s Eneco Tour he proved that he is still competitive in the big bunch sprints. However, there are riders that are faster than him and he needs a great lead-out to win. Etixx-QuickStep have some fast riders here but they don’t have their best train. Boonen’s best chance is to make the race really hard and win the race from a sprint in a small group.

 

LottoNL-Jumbo are aiming high with Dylan Groenewegen who beat Bouhanni to claim an impressive win in Valencia. In that race he was also climbing pretty well and he is gradually getting better in the really tough races. Furthermore, the LottoNL-Jumbo train has been working really well at the start of the year and Dennis van Winden has confirmed his status as an excellent lead-out man. Last year he won the Brussels Cycling Classic so he already has a classic on his palmares. Now he is even stronger and he has the speed to mix it up with the very best.

 

Arnaud Demare is no longer the sprinter he once was and the 2016 season has again been hard for him. He failed to position himself well in Besseges and this has always been his problem. He won a stage of La Méditerranéenne but in that race he was by far the best sprinter. The FDJ train has rarely been able to match the best and with his poor positioning, Demare now has a hard time in the sprints even though he is fast enough to win.

 

Greipel’s late withdrawal means that Jens Debusschere will now do the sprint for Lotto Soudal. As Marcel Sieberg is also absent, the Belgian team don’t have their excellent train here. However, he can still count on the experience of Jurgen Roelandts and he seemed to be sprinting better and better at the end of the 2015 season. His best chance comes in a hard and selective race but he will also be up there in a big bunch sprint.

 

Roy Jans sprinted better than ever in the Middle East where he was third in almost every sprint he contested. This will have boosted his confidence for this race. He also seems to have become stronger on the climbs and so will be a lot more competitive at the end of a hard race like this. He is now great at positioning himself and the Wanty train has been working really well. He is probably not fast enough to win but another good result could be in store.

 

Finally, Matteo Pelucchi deserves a mention. This race is probably too hard for the Italian and we don’t expect him to be there in the finale, opening the door for Leigh Howard or Jonas Van Genechten to do the sprint. On the other hand, he is one of the fastest riders here and IAM have a fabulous train to support him. It will be a surprise if he gets the chance to sprint but if he is there, he will be a strong outsider.

 

***** Alexander Kristoff

**** Elia Viviani, Caleb Ewan

*** Giacomo Nizzolo, Peter Sagan, Sam Bennett, Nacer Bouhanni, Tom Boonen

** Dylan Groenewegen, Arnaud Demare, Jens Debusschere, Roy Jans, Matteo Pelucchi, Raymond Kreder

* Jempy Drucker, Leigh Howard, Yauheni Hutarovich, Daniel Oss, Greg Van Avermaet, Jasper Stuyven, Jürgen Roelandts, Daniele Colli, Jonas Van Genechten, Manuel Belletti

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