The Tour of Belgium has the potential to be a top-tier race, if only it didn’t have to compete with the Giro d’Italia for attention. While the race’s pancake-flat stages may not be the most exciting, the middle stages are usually run on parcours familiar to spring classics fans. For example, this year’s Stage 3 will romp around Ieper, climbing the Kemmelberg twice and finishing not far from the second ascent. Perhaps it is a last-chance race for cobbled pretenders who didn’t shine in this year’s races?
Stijn Devolder (with Vacansoleil this year) certainly took advantage of this last year, using it as a launching board for his double-national champion quest. Other classics stars scheduled for appearance: Philippe Gilbert, Tom Boonen, Greg Van Avermaet, Filippo Pozzato. Last year’s second-place finisher Dominique Cornu is certain to figure in this race, as do some talented riders from smaller Dutch and Belgian teams such as Kenny Van Hummel and Staf Scheirlinckx.
My prediction is that Cornu will be gunning for a GC win, counting on his TT skills to carry the day. It all hinges on his ability to limit losses in tricky Stages 3 through 4. The second stage climbs the Kemmelberg twice, with a fairly fast run-in to the finish. The fourth stage is in Wallonia, including an early climb of the Muur de Huy, middle climbs of Stockeau and Haute Levee, and a rolling finish. These are a better fit for one-day racing than for stage racing, even in Belgium. Tellingly, last year Devolder won the GC without winning a single stage, almost as if by accident.
In terms of stage hunters, I predict a very aggressive Pippo Pozzato. Katusha left him off the Giro d’Italia squad, and recently announced an all-Russian squad for the Tour de France. Pozzato is running out of opportunities to earn a contract for next year. I also don’t think Boonen or Gilbert will take risks as they build up to the second part of the season. Boonen is sure to aim for Tour de France stage wins and Worlds, while Gilbert is likely to aim for a strong autumn campaign. I am actually surprised to not see Sylvain Chavanel on the start list, perhaps to taper off his very strong spring in time for Tour de Suisse and TdF as he did last year.
Skil-Shimano and Van Hummel traditionally do well in the Tour of Belgium, and it serves as a good team drill for summer’s big race. My outside bet is for Staf Scheirlinckx of Veranda’s Willem-Accent to make a good showing. He’s figured in several spring races and lady luck may turn on his favor this time.
Who do you think will impress at this year’s Tour of Belgium?