Lost in the hullabaloo surrounding Ghent-Wevelgemâ€™s calendar move to the Sunday before the Tour of Flanders was the race already occupying that date on the calendar. Ironically, the Brabantse Pijl seems to be one of the only events to have benefited from its new spot. Previously held the day after the E3 Prijs, the Brabantse Pijl often suffered from a lackluster start list thanks to the mini-Ronde taking place the day before. Couple that with a rather uninteresting course profile offering none of the climbs or cobbles from the following Sundayâ€™s monument, and you have a race that often struggled put on a big show for the sponsors and fans. Oftentimes, the event was won by riders more suited to the Amstel Gold Race or the Ardennes classics, hence the decision to bump it to the Wednesday before Amstel, a terrific warm-up for the next 10 days of racing in Holland and the Ardennes.
The race itself has changed as well. Originally starting in Zaventem, the race traditionally came to its conclusion following several local laps of a finishing circuit in the Brussels suburb of Alsemberg. In 2008, the race moved to begin Leuven; and this year, the race ends with several laps in Overijse, a town cyclocross fans might recognize from the annual race held there.
All in all, the Brabantse Pijl takes-in about 200 kilometers of some of the Province of Brabantâ€™s finest roads, skirting back and forth between Flanders and Wallonia in the process. For me, the â€œnewâ€ Brabantse Pijl takes on a personal significance, as the course includes several of the roads I used for training during my lackluster days as student/racer. But I digress.
As I said before, the eventâ€™s new place on the calendar makes it an important appointment for riders looking to fine tune their form in preparation for Sundayâ€™s Amstel Gold Race. Letâ€™s have a look at the teams and riders expected to make their mark:
Rabobankâ€™s a squad weâ€™ll be hearing a lot about over the coming days as they prepare for the most important one-day race of their season this Sunday. Raboâ€™s won 5 of the last 10 editions, with Oscar Freire taking 3 of them. Freire is starting tomorrow; heâ€™s supported by a strong team including Nick Nuyens, a man hoping to be the first Belgian to win an important race in Belgium this season.
Phillippe Gilbertâ€™s another man hoping to earn a winâ€”doing so would open accounts both for Belgium and his Omega Pharma-Lotto squad, one of few remaining teams without a win this year. Greg Van Avermaet joins him in a race that could just as well end in a sprint.
Quick Stepâ€™s taking heat for exiting the cobbled classics without a victory. Stijn Devolder was to be the teamâ€™s main contender tomorrow, but heâ€™s out due to knee injuries sustained in a fall Sunday in Roubaix. The team might be better off without him though, as Devolverâ€™s absence gives 2008-winner Sylvain Chavanel and the 2009 Clasica San Sebastian-winner Carlos Barredo a chance to race for themselves. Who would have thought this Belgian squad would have to rely on their imports to take its first big win on home soil this season?
Team Sky brings the foundation of its squad for the Ardennes including Simon Gerrans, a man hoping to breakthrough with a win in one of this yearâ€™s hillier classics. Michael Barry joins him before taking a well-deserved break following a long spring spent in service of his team.
Garmin brings a younger group to Leuven; Micheal Kreder is one to watch in what will be his first semi-classic appearance of the season. Katusha will be hoping Kim Kirchen can begin to show the form he displayed in the Ardennes 2 years ago when he won Fleche Wallone.
As for Team Radioshack, Sebastien Rosseler finished well at Roubaix on Sunday; he and Frenchman Geoffroy Lequatre lead the squad in Brabant. BBox and BMC will be relying on Thomas Voeckler and Karsten Kroon, respectively. Kroon is a rider to watch come Sunday in Amstel. And for some reason, my gut tells me to keep an eye on Raivis Belohvosciks from Ceramica Flaminia, while Cerveloâ€™s Xavier Florencio deserves consideration following his stage win in Paris-Nice. From Belgium, Landbouwkrediet brings Bert De Waele and Davey Commeyne to races where they could earn top-5 results, and the indefatigable Nico Eeckhout will give it one more try for An Post.
But at the end of the day, the strongest team in the race might just be Vacansoleil, with the Feillu brothers, Borut Borzic, Johnny Hoogerland, Marco Mancato (whoâ€™s won some races recently), and Bjorn Leukemans. While the Feilluâ€™s and Borzic might not be the best picks, Hoogerland, Mancato, and Leuekemans all deserve considerationâ€”especially if Leukemans has recovered from his effort Sunday.
As for my prediction, I think Gilbert might race conservatively in advance of Sundayâ€™s race and Freire might prove a bit rusty following some time in between races. And while Iâ€™d like to think Chavanel or Barredo could finally finish the job for Quick Step, I have to go with Bjorn Leukemans. Heâ€™s enjoying incredible form, has something to prove following a string of near-misses, and knows the roads in this area well. Heâ€™s my pick.
And what about you? Share your comments below.