Deinze > Nokere 189.5km
The organisers have tried to make the race a little more difficult than previous years, in the hope it doesn’t end in another big sprint. Most of the tinkering has been done in the opening section of the race, before we hit the lap circuit, so I doubt it will have much of an impact on proceedings.
Not a typical day in March over in Belgium, the temperature will get close to 20 degrees. The wind will be around 20km/h all day long, that’s strong enough to cause some trouble.
The lap circuit contains six cobble sectors, but some of these are very short in length. Both the Lededorp and Hoevenstraat are only 200m, my driveway’s longer than that! The Huisepontweg is 1600m, that’s the sector where the race can be blown to pieces, especially as there will be a lovely 20km/h crosswind. This increases the chances for the attackers and decreases the hopes of the sprinters.
The race ends with the Nokereberg, which is 300m at 4.7%, and on some lovely cobbles. It’s a tough uphill sprint.
There’s been a lot of illness in the peloton over the last couple of weeks, that’s contributed to a weaker than normal start list. Who’s the strongest team? What type of race do they want? Are there enough teams wanting a sprint to make it happen?
Lotto-Soudal and Alpecin-Fenix should be the strongest teams, both have several strong options. Crucially, they both have a great sprint option, but I don’t think Lotto-Soudal will be starting the race looking for a sprint. They have great attacking options to use on the cobbles, if the attacks fail, then they ride for a sprint.
QuickStep are severely depleted; they won’t be dominating the race like normal. They still have quality, but they won’t have the usual numbers in the front group. Other teams who’ll hope to have a big say in the race are Arkéa Samsic and Uno-X. The French team have been strong recently, and the Norwegians always seem to do well in these races.
So, will we get another sprint finish? The cobbles, narrow roads and wind strength give me hope this one doesn’t end in a big sprint. Fingers crossed for an attacking race.
Tim Merlier – the former Belgian champion must start as the favourite, he’s the fastest in the race. He took one win over in Tirreno, his current form is good. In these races, Merlier doesn’t always wait for the sprint, he also likes to take some chances and attack. We’ll have to wait and see if he’s tired after Tirreno or enjoying a nice bounce after a hard week of racing.
Lotto-Soudal – they’ve got De Lie for the sprint, with Campenaerts and Vermeersch as attacking options, which puts them into a very strong position. Most will be looking at the Belgians to control the race, which I expect them to do. Campenaerts started the season in great form but had to pull out of Tirreno as he was still experiencing pain from his crash in Omloop. If he is now 100%, he’ll be one of the men to beat.
QuickStep – Ethan Vernon for the sprint, Van Lerberghe as an attacking option. This isn’t a stellar QuickStep team, but don’t underestimate a rider like Van Lerberghe. He went well in Le Samyn; this is a perfect race for him.
Jordi Meeus – current form doesn’t look great, but that can all change in an instant. The uphill cobbled finish is very good for him.
Pascal Ackermann – instead of sending him to Milano-Torino, the team have sent him here, I like it! The German is in Belgium for the next series of races, I’m hoping to see him back to near his best. He ended 2021 in good form, but he’s not looked at his best in recent races. He won’t fear the cobbles, if it ends in a sprint, he’ll have a good chance of winning.
Cees Bol – winner here back in 2019, the finish is perfect for him. He’s not managed to net a result yet this season, but he’s only had one opportunity to sprint. His teammates might be a little young, but Hvideberg and Van Uden are strong riders. I’m hoping to see Bol remind everyone of just how good he is.
Hugo Hofstetter – he’s in the form of his life just now, but the wins are just out with his grasp. The Frenchman only has two wins in his career, I think he’s ready to take a few more. Arkéa Samsic have started the season in sparkling form, they’ll look to make the race as hard as they can, in the hope of setting up the Hot Stepper for a win.
Rasmus Tiller – always a big threat in cobbled races, particularly those where the very best riders are racing. He’s another who’ll love the finish, he’s got the power required to win the sprint.
Gage Hecht – keep your eye out for the young American riding for Human Powered Health, he’s a former USA cyclo-cross champion. This is his first race for the team, I’m interested to see how he compares to the top-level riders at this race.
Here Comes the Hotstepper! A win from a small group for Hugo Hofstetter.