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Will Dylan Groenewegen come out on top in the uphill sprint on the Nokereberg?

Photo: Lotto NL-Jumbo




16.03.2016 @ 14:47 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

While everybody have their eyes on Italy and the build-up to Milan-Sanremo, the Belgian classics season is slowly getting back into swing after a short break. This week offer two warm-up races for the big races next week. First up is the semi-classic Nokere Koerse whose uphill sprint on the Nokereberg makes it a perfect test for the strong sprinters and the classics contenders.


Nokere Koerse may not have the same prestige as the bigger races next week but it’s a solid semi-classic that all sprinters would love to have on their palmares. Held for the first time in 1944 – the first edition was won by Marcel Kint – the race has a long history and has been conquered by many of the greatest Belgian sprinters. This year’s edition will be the 71st and it serves as a perfect testing ground for young riders.


The Belgian season kicked off in the opening weekend and the first Walloon race was Le Samyn. After Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen, there has been a small break in the calendar but now the classics season starts for real. From now on, it is a slow progression until it all culminates with the Tour of Flanders.


This week offers two opportunities to warm the legs up. Nokere Koerse and Friday’s Handzame Classic are chances for some of the less famous riders to lead the team and a chance for the sprinters to shine while the big names are still recovering from Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico. More stars will have arrived for Dwars door Vlaanderen and they all the big names will be present for E3 Harelbeke next Friday. That’s the big dress rehearsal for De Ronde and then Gent-Wevelgem comes as the second most prestigious Flemish classic one week before the Belgian monument.


Nokere Koerse is characterized by its landmark climb Nokereberg which is a typical short, cobbled hill. It’s not nearly as hard as many of the really difficult Belgian hellingen but with the finish line coming at the top after several laps of a circuit, it’s a tough little challenge. Traditionally the race has suited the strong sprinters as the race has often been decided in an uphill sprint and it has often revealed some of the future classics talents. That was the case in 2010 during Jens Keukeleire’s breakthrough season and Wouter Weylandt won two years earlier. Recent winners include sprinters like Graeme Brown, Gert Steegmans, Francesco Chicchi and Kenny Dehaes and last year it was Kris Boeckmans who continued an excellent month of March by winning the race.


The course

The 71st edition of Nokere Koerse will be held on a classic 199.5km course starting in Deinze and finishing in Nokere. First the riders will cover 55km from the starting city to the finish on the top of the Nokereberg after having gone up the Tiegemberg at the 36.1km mark. Then they will tackle one lap of a 26.1km circuit that includes the Kloosterstraat and Huisepontweg cobbles.


Having returned to the finish after 81.1km of racing, the riders end the race by doing 8 laps of 14.8km circuit. It starts with the descent from the Nokereberg and then a long gradual uphill section, followed by a short descent and another short climb. Then it’s flat for a few kilometres until the riders hit the final descent at the flamme rouge. It leads straight to the bottom of the 400m climb to the finish which is on a cobbled road with a maximum gradient of 6%.





The weather

As it is the case for every Belgian race, the weather plays a huge role in Nokere Koerse. Wednesday will be sunny with a maximum temperature of 8 degrees. It will be windy with a relatively strong wind blowing from an easterly direction. This means that there will be lots of crosswind in the early part of the race but on the circuit, it will mainly be a head- or a tailwind. It will first be a headwind, then a tailwind and then there will be a short crosswind section. It will be a cross-tailwind in the finale.


The favourites

History shows that it is very hard to avoid a bunch sprint in Nokere Koerse. We have to go all the way back to 2007 to find the last time, a lone rider managed to deny the sprinters. Nokereberg comes no less than 10 times during the day and it is hard enough to create some kind of selection but when riders like Graeme Brown and Francesco Chicchi have won the race, it is evident that the circuit is manageable for most professional riders.


What can really change the outcome is the weather. Wednesday will be pretty windy but as it will mainly be a tail-or a headwind on the circuit, it is unlikely to play much of a role. There’s a short crosswind section where some damage can be done and this is the place to try to split things. We could very well have some selection in the early part of the race and there is definitely no guarantee that we will have a complete field by the time we get to the circuit. However, we still don’t expect the race to be overly selective.


Most teams have arrived here with sprinters that can handle this kind of uphill sprint but most teams also want not be caught off-guard. Teams like LottoNL-Jumbo and Wanty-Groupe Gobert are probably going all in for a bunch sprint but Lotto Soudal and Etixx-QuickStep want a hard race. As usual, we will have lots of attacking on the circuit and if the right group with strong riders from most of the major teams gets clear, they may hold off the peloton. LottoNL-Jumbo are the major favourites but they don’t have the best team here. Most likely, we will have an uphill sprint but a breakaway win is not totally impossible.


If it comes down to a sprint, Dylan Groenewegen is the big favourite. The Dutchman has had an amazing WorldTour debut with a victory in the Volta a la Valenciana and West Flanders and a fourth place in Kuurne. At the same time, he has proved that he is more than just a sprinter by riding very strongly in tough conditions in Le Samyn and Ronde van Drenthe. In fact, he could have won more races if he had not been let down by his team.


Groenewegen is definitely strong enough to handle this circuit and the main challenge for him will be the level of team support. They were really poor in Drenthe where Groenewegen was denied the win as he was isolated in the finale. For this race, the team has been bolstered by Maarten Wynants who is very strong in these races and Martijn Keizer and Twan Castelijns are also riding really well. He has Robert Wagner for the lead-out and is great at positioning. Last year he won Brussels Cycling Classic in an uphill sprint and he must definitely be the man to beat.


His biggest rival in Brussels was Roy Jans and he could very well be the main challenge again. The Belgian seems to have improved his sprint a lot in 2016. He was the eternal third in the Middle East where he was up against some of the best sprinters in the world. He is not as strong as Groenewegen but he is good in an uphill sprint. Most important he has an excellent lead-out train – probably the best in the race. This could make all the difference.


It has been a bad year for Gianni Meersman who has been far from his best. However, he usually gets into form at this time of the season as he builds up for Catalonia. He excels in uphill sprints but he may be a bit too light to do well on the cobbles. It remains to be seen whether his condition has improved enough but as he can count on one of the strongest teams that includes Davide Martinelli for the lead-out, it could be time for him to take the first win.


Raymond Kreder has been sprinting really well in 2016. He was very strong in Ruta del Sol but since then he has been set back by injury. However, he returned to form in the Ronde van Drenthe where he made the selection and was second by Groenewegen in the sprint for third. He is knocking on the door for a big win which could arrive in this race.


Baptiste Planckaert specializes in these sprints and is always up there in the Belgian and French sprint races. He missed a lot of races in February due to health issues but has returned to form. On paper, he is one of the fastest here and he should find the uphill finale to his likeing.


Timothy Dupont is just as consistent in these races as Planckaert and he has just taken that elusive breakthrough win in West Flanders. That victory came after a tough race in a breakaway but he is also fast enough to win this kind of sprint. Most importantly, his performance in West Flanders shows that he can make the selection in tough conditions.


Scott Thwaites rode to a memorable second place in Le Samyn which was a brutally hard race. He was third in this race last year and is clearly in the form of his life. There are faster riders than him but he is definitely one of the strongest. He hopes for a hard, selective race which will give him chances both in a sprint and from a small group. Bora also have Phil Bauhaus but based on his form and recent performances, Thwaites should be the leader.


Lotto Soudal won the race last year but have less of a chance this year. There man for the sprint is Tosh van der Sande who will find the uphill finale to his liking. He is in great form but there are faster riders than him.


Sky are here with Danny van Poppel but as it is his first race after a long injury break, Andrew Fenn will get his chance in the sprint. Unfortunately, he is probably not fast enough to win. FDJ have both of their sprint talents Lorrenzo Manzin and Marc Sarreau. Both are fast enough to win here but Sarreau has been feeling bad all year and Manzin has had a hard time in Belgium. Yauheni Hutarovich has the speed but the uphill finish will make things harder for him. Michael van Staeyen has just come back from a knee injury but he likes uphill sprints. We are also curious to see how Eduard Grosu can do in a sprint like this.


In case of a sprint, you should also keep an eye on Michael Kolar, Bauhaus, Bartlomiej Matysiak, Grzegorz Stepniak, Benjamin Giraud, Rick Zabel, Borut Bozic, Boris Vallee, Roman Maikin, Daniele Colli, Chris Opie, Matt Goss, Gerald Ciolek, Andre Looij, Andrea Pasqualon, Dylan Page, Bert Van Lerberghe, Gerry Druytsm Justin Jules and Aidis Kruopis.


If the race becomes harder and a small group goes clear, Florian Senechal, Sean De Bie, Van der Sande, Lukasz Wisniowski, Guillaume Van Keirsbulck, Loic Vliegen, Gianni Moscon, Jay McCarthy, Rasmus Guldhammer, Tim Declercq and Xandro Meurisse are good picks.


***** Dylan Groenewegen

**** Roy Jans, Gianni Meersman

*** Raymond Kreder, Baptiste Planckaert, Timothy Dupont, Scott Thwaites

** Tosh van der Sande, Lorrenzo Manzin, Yauheni Hutarovich, Andrew Fenn, Michael van Staeyen, Eduard Grosu

* Florian Senechal, Sean De Bie, Lukasz Wisniowski, Gianni Moscon, Jay McCarthy, Rasmus Guldhammer



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