Can Quick-Step Floors repeat spring dominance?
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The prevailing theme of the spring Classics earlier in the season was that of Quick-Step Floors dominance. The team enjoyed a possibly unprecedented run of success, winning a total of 11 Classics in less than eight weeks, including the big ones of the Tour of Flanders (Niki Terpstra) and Liège-Bastogne-Liège (Bob Jungels).
The BinckBank Tour – formerly known as the Eneco Tour prior to its rebranding last year – is a chance to revisit the spring as riders return to the same roads in Belgium and the Netherlands that hosted the Classics. Which prompts the question – will Quick-Step Floors again be as dominant?
They are certainly bringing a very strong line-up. Their chief star of the spring and 2016 overall winner Niki Terpstra is here, and will compete alongside Classics specialists Zdenek Stybar (who won the overall here in 2013) and Belgian national champion Yves Lampaert.
Emerging talent Max Schachmann could also be a dark horse, as a rider who – having just claimed bronze at the European Championships – is a candidate for taking the leader’s jersey after stage two’s time trial.
Expect the team to replicate their tactics from the spring and keep their options open, riding aggressively and attacking with all of these stellar options – all of whom look like potential winners.
Classics stars competing for overall victory
As strong as Quick-Step Floors’ team looks, they’ll be up against a formidable who’s-who of the world’s best Classics riders.
The standout contender is Greg Van Avermaet, who enters the race on the back of a superb Tour de France, and who possess such all-round ability that it’s a surprise he’s never won the BinckBank Tour before (he has made the top five in each of the last four editions, though).
Historically, this is a race Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) excels in, having won the overall back-to-back in 2014-15 and finished second last year, so he will again be a major favourite.
Other riders to look out for include: Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo), who was third overall last year; Michael Valgren (Astana), who emerged as a major new multi-faceted Classics star with twins at Amstel Gold and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad; and Oliver Naesen (Ag2r La Mondiale), another all-round talent well-suited to this race, and who was runner-up in 2016.
A quality field of sprinters
A large portion of this year’s BinckBank Tour stages should end in bunch sprints.
Stages one, three and four all look pretty nailed-on, while there’s a possibility that the rolling terrain of stage five wont be enough to split up the bunch.
Thankfully, a host of top-rate sprinters are down to ride, meaning these sprints should be very competitive and provide plenty of excitement.
Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) is perhaps the most on-form sprinter having won two stages at the Tour, and could be the man to beat, while rising stars Fabio Jakobsen (Quick-Step Floors) and Kristoffer Halvorsen (Sky) will relish the chance to test themselves at WorldTour level against some of the peloton’s best.
There will be some who feel they have a point to prove, such as Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott) having been overlooked for Tour de France selection, and Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin), who will be desperate to start to turn around what has been a distressing season.
And perhaps the most fascinating participant will be Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe), who returns to the WorldTour for the first time since his career-boosting three stage wins at the Giro d’Italia, and who has a chance of making yet stronger his case of being considered one of the best sprinters in the world.
An important time trial
The first GC shake up of the race will be stage two’s individual time trial.
At 12.7km in length it is the first time trial to exceed 10km at the BinckBank Tour since 2015, meaning the time gaps here could be crucial for determining how the rest of the race unfolds.
Last year, Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) laid the foundations for his overall victory by finishing third place in the time trial, but has opted not to ride this time around.
There remains plenty of specialists who will be aiming to win the stage and go on to defend the leader’s jersey as long as possible, including Dumoulin’s talented teammate Søren Kragh Andersen, last year’s stage winner Stefan Küng (BMC), 2015 stage winner Jos van Emden (LottoNL-Jumbo) and the recently crowned European Champion Victor Campenaerts (Lotto Soudal).
None of these riders are in the same league as Dumoulin in terms of climbing, but could prove difficult to dethrone in the weekend’s final stages if they manage to build a big enough lead of the overall favourites in the time trial.
Hills and cobbles
The organisers of the BinckBank Tour have left the best until last, with two stages on Saturday and Sunday that will decide the outcome of the race.
First up is a stage held both in Belgium and the Netherlands, that is notable above all for its hills. A huge total of 25 classified climbs have been included, with a particularly intense final lap which features seven in the space of just 45.5km.
This stage alone could be selective enough to decide the race, but the final day on Sunday should also have a big say. As has been the case for the last three editions, the race will finish halfway up the much-loved Muur Kapelmuur, following a day packed with steep hills and cobbled bergs.
It’s another one for the Classics specialists, and should produce plenty of attacking racing as the contenders duke it out for overall victory.