Binck Bank Tour Preview
Continuing the busy month of August, following the European championships racing keep under way in the Benelux with the week-long stage race that is now called Binck Bank, but goes over the same territory. The race is known to suit the classics specialists and the time-trialists whilst at the same time providing lots of opportunities for the sprinters, the hills and the cobbles alongside the short time-trial will provide most of the GC fight but an innovative Golden Kilometer makes sure there is usually a fight every stage, it's become a vital part of the race and one that helps provide a spectacle all week long and motivate agressive racing.
The opening stage will take palce in the flatlands of Antwerp and Zeeland, with a pan-flat stage where the height barely goes above 10 meters of altitude. In that sense there's no trouble, the dificulties may come from the likely wind and cobbled sectors along the route, narrow roads and fight for positioning, alongside the presence of a Gold Kilometers with just 9.5 kilometers to go will make it a hard fought stage to take, dangerous closing to the stage.
Because with a short cobbled sector right after, with just 6 kilometers to go the run-up to the finish is rather technical with the last two kilometers with several sharp turns into the finish in Hulst.
The second stage is in West Flandrien roads, it's another flat stage finishing in a small circuit in Ardooie. It's not as complicated as the day before, coming more inland the winds will likely not take such importance, less exposed roads and a Golden Kilometer quite far from the finish, still with 27 kilometers to go, and the cobbles won't be as stressful.
It's another complicated finish, the roads running up to Ardooie are quite wide but the final two kilometers aren't, the city center area is in a narrow roads with a chicane right before the final kilometers, the fight for positioning will be intense into those corners, and from there there's no time to recover position.
The third stage consists of a series of loops around Aalter, it's a very hard stage technically, with several cobbled sectors where it will be a full-on day of tension, several sections of the stage are crucial and can be decisive in the end of the race, not in terms of winning time but in terms of loosing it.
There are two cobbled sectors that will be repeated four times, the 200-meter long Poekedorpstraat and most importantly the Neringenstraat, 1.8 kilometers in the cobbles, a completely straighforward sector where as you can see it isn't that intense, but it will be felt and there are riders that are targeting the GC that can't deal with the cobbles that well and it can prove too hard, it takes a lot of experience to race in this type of roads.
And the run-up to the line, it's quite hard. There's a sharp turn with 4Km to fo that leads towards a very narrow country road for a little over a kilometers, before coming back to a main road, winding until the final meters where after passing under a bridge they will turn into the 450-meter long finishing straight. Technique will be even more important today.
Stage 4 may be the first where we see actual individual attacks, it's a circuit around Houffalze and it sums up modern cycling very well. It's a very short stage, only a mere 96 kilometers in lenght in a circuit that will be ridden three times. In them will be the iconic Mur de Saint-Roch, a climb made famous as a regular presence in Liège-Bastogne-Liège and one that's very hard. It's last summit will come with 29 kilometers to go, following there are rolling roads with some steep inclines in the middle, with the Golden kilometer in an uphill section that will further trigger. A stage that's designed to be attacked from far, in a circuit but very well designed taking into acount it's circumstances.
Saint-Roch is a wall, it's first 800 meters at 13%, a straight-line climb where accelarations won't go that far but the pack will completely split, as the puncheurs and lighter riders will take advantage of their favourable terrain.
If there's a group or a small bunch heading for the line they will have big complications in the end, the road leading back to Houffalize is wide but winding, and there's a turn leading into the final slight uphill stretch with a mere 300 meters to go, suiting for a rider to antecipate his move.
On stage 5 the rider go back to Netherlands, it's another pan-flat stage, this one less technical and with no cobblestone sectors involved, and with a finishing circuit to top it off, it's 15 kilometers long and the Golden Kilometer comes with 10 kilometers to go.
As for the finish it's not technical, it's finally a "safe" finish for the fast men. Except the turn with 2 kilometers to go towards the Venray center there's no danger spots, and the roads are wide leading into it so it will be a battle of leadouts and the fast men above everything else.
Stage 6 is a vital day. This year there's a time-trial and it's positioned right in the backend of the race, it is only 8 kilometers long so there won't be big gaps made but every second is important in this race, one where bonus seconds and small gaps at the end can be the difference between winning or missing the podium.
It's a very simple route, most of it is back-and-forth, fast roads for the powerful men with just a few turns that will stop them from being in constant top speed.
And the final day as it's been tradition takes place in Flandres with the Geraardsbergen/Bosberg circuit, one of the most iconic combinations in cycling and one that can make or break the race. Ever since 2015 the race as finished in Geraardsbergen and with good reason, with the combination of cobbled, steep climbs in succession there is always a guarranteed show. Although there's the Denderoondstraat (700 meters at 5.4%) summiting with 5.5 kilometers to go, the day's focus will be on these.
The Muur, 1.1Km at 7.9% with a nasty 20% into the chappel, one of cycling's landmarks and a place where the favourites will go all-out with no exception, in these gradients there's no such thing as saving yourself. The final summit will come with 25 kilometers to go.
And the Bosberg, a draining climb, one for the powerful riders, it's doable by pace but quite hard with 9% in the cobbles to the summit, last of which with 19.5Km to go, lots of attacks and the groups will be spread out on the road.
And then the finish in the streets of Geraardsbergen, it doesn't include the full climb, and although it's still a finish for the fast men, it's between those that resist, the puncheurs/classics specialists that make it through will have a long draining sprint up the narrow uphill finish.
On the long-term what I'm able to see is that it will be a mild week in terms of temperature, low twenties and below but the wind will generally be quite strong. As for rain, non-existant until the final day where there's a possibility. Long-term forecast but gives a general idea of how it'll be this week.
It's going to be a long but exciting week. Between the favourites are rider generally touted as classics specialists, both on the cobbled classics specialists and the hilly classics, with also a very solid chance of seeing time-trialists and even sprinters being in the fight. With no big mountains there are no place to really control the race, so it's about dealing with all the challenges the road casts along the way, from cobbles to steep walls, to crosswinds and narrow roads all the way to the bonifications and the great idea of the Golden Kilometer.
Let's start with Deceuninck. It's no news that they are specialists in this type of racing, everything involving all types of terrain in the race. Leading, well there is no certain leader but a trio of leaders who all won a cobbled classic this year, Zdenek Stybar, Phillipe Gilbert and Bob Jungels. All of them ride the cobbles, the walls and well there's pretty much no flaws in their skillset that can harm them, only bad days or being surprised can take their favouritism. Supported by Sénéchal, Keisse and De Clercq they are safe and well protected. Despite the race's dynamics Deceuninck is the only team really with a big amount of co-leaders, so who follows?
In the list of teams that can have two leaders we can consider Lotto Soudal, with Tim Wellens and Tiesj Benoot they will target the stage in the Ardennes, it's their terrain and they will force the heavier riders to the limit there. Jumbo-Visma have an interesting team, stages with Groenewegen but Mike Teunissen is strong for the cobbles, Laurens de Plus/Paul Martens/Timo Roosen are strong on the climbs and Jos van Emden has the time-trial covered, we can't really say who is the leader in their mind but only one or two riders will really be a bet. Movistar has Jurgen Roelandts and Jasha Sutterlin as outsiders, Mitchelton has a duo that I think can surprise, Edoardo Affini was third in the European Championships time-trial, very inexperienced in this kind of racing but a very powerful rider in a sharp evolution, alongside Cam Meyer. Sunweb also has a set of interesting rider, Marc Hirschi and Joris Nieuwhenhuis are neo-pros but both have undeniable great potential, and they'll race alongside Soren Kragh Andersen who had an underwhelming Tour but is still a name to take into account. Trek have Edward Theuns and Mads Pedersen, lot of potential here but they have to resist until the final stage to be able to contest, Groupama have Arnaud Démare and Stefan Kung, interesting to see how that plays out. Finally EF bring Tour de Flandres winner Alberto Bettiol and Sep Vanmarcke the near-man, this duo played perfectly in the spring, both have the legs for it so it will be another attempt at success.
Greg van Avermaet leads CCC, as tradition he has never won this race but is always in the fight, it suits him well and this year will be no exception, he's on a great run of form and can be a serious contender as long as he overcomes the possible lack of team support in the vital moments, INEOS have Dylan van Baarle, strong in all terrains too and can be a very dangerous weapon as he is another rider with virtually no weakspots, Bora wil be more focused in the sprints with Sam Bennett but between Daniel Oss, Lukas Postleberger and Jempy Drucker there is GC power in there. Oliver Naesen leads AG2R's charge, a very talented classics riders ideal for the powerful stages but who may loose some time on the time-trial, and Astana, despite a very lowkey squad into the race Davide Ballerini brings good expectations and with good reason as he's a fenomenal puncheur and perfect for the steep climbs they'll face this week.
Some riders will need to be considered, although coming as outsiders, Ivan Cortina of Bahrain, Katusha have some interesting riders, Ruben Guerreiro, Jenthe Biermans and Jens Debusschere are in the list that I wouldn't consider a surprise seeing in the Top10, UAE will come with a very young team to get experience but Jasper Phillipsen has the raw power to be with the best I bet, strong sprinter good to get bonus seconds but also explosive in short hills. In the Pro Continental ranks there's some good quality aswell, Sport Vlaanderen have Dries van Gestel, Wanty have Xandro Meurisse and Loic Vliegen who won the Tour de Wallonie last week alongside Aimé de Gendt, Roompot have former winner Lars Boom, Jan-Willem van Schip and Jasper Asselman in a team that has the experience in the classics, and Direct Energie have Adrien Petit, Damien Gaudin and Pim Ligthart.
Usually there's a big big presence of fast men here and the tradition remains, despite this year being possibly upped a notch. The big rivalry that's likely to set if there's a regular bunch sprint will be that of Jumbo's Dylan Groenewegen and Bora's Sam Bennett, two of the fastest sprinters in the peloton and two riders who are coming with a strong leadout behind them.
Alvaro Hodeg will lead the ever-strong Deceuninck leadout, although with no real rider to take with him into the final meters, Arnaud Démare has his classics and sprint team with him, UAE have Jasper Phillipsen and Juan Sebastian Molano to support, alongside a team that is really good for this type of finish, INEOS have Kristofer Halvorsen and Chris Lawless, Bahrain have Phil Bauhaus, CCC will be looking to launch Jakub Mareczko after a season where he seems to be gaining the consistency he used to lack, Matteo Moschetti and Edward Theuns will have Trek's ambitions in the fast finishes.
EF have Sacha Modolo, Dan McLay and Moreno Hofland in a team that excels in this terrain, Katusha will have Jens Debusschere, a strong rider in the classics-type finishes, Wanty have Timothy Dupont, Dimension have the South African duo of Ryan Gibbons and Reinardt Janse van Rensburg and Wallonie come with Justin Jules and Baptiste Planckaert.
⭐ Roosen, Affini, Theuns, Oss, Vanmarcke, Kung, Ballerini
I'm going with Zdenek Stybar, he's won this race in the past, showed tremendous form this season which he hasn't had for some years, coming in the team that will likely threaten the others more, can climb the walls both paved or not and above all gives me confidence as a rider that has the sprint for the Golden Kilometer and group finishes, the strenght in number will allow the Deceuninck riders to infiltrate dangerous moves.
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