Eneco Tour preview

The Eneco Tour of Benelux is a week-long WorldTour stage race, and is being held this year from Monday 6th to Sunday 12th August. It started as the Tour of the Netherlands in 1948, but now takes in Belgium and Luxembourg too – albeit the latter in name only.

It is usually a flat race – unsurprising given the territory in which the race runs. But there will be a greater focus on this year’s eighth edition in its current guise, as two-time Tour de France winner Alberto Contador‘s suspension ends the day prior to its start, and will ride.

What kind of race is it?

The race takes place in the Benelux region (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

The race is usually entirely pan-flat. Often a short time trial decides the overall winner, with the remaining stages happy hunting grounds for any sprinters wanting to pad out their palmarès. It is normally a race perfectly suited for the likes of two-time winner Edvald Boasson Hagen (although he won’t be defending his title this year), who can both contest bunch sprints and time trial well. The most recent winners of the race are:

2007: Ivan Gutierrez (Caisse d’Epargne)

2008: Ivan Gutierrez (Caisse d’Epargne)

2009: Edvald Boasson Hagen (Columbia-HTC)

2010: Tony Martin (HTC-Columbia)

2011: Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky)

What happened last year?

The final podium (image courtesy of enecotour.com)

Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen took the overall win, as well as the points and young rider jerseys in a domination of the race. Omega Pharma-Lotto’s Philippe Gilbert finished second, with Garmin-Cervelo’s David Millar third.

The race got under way with a short 5.7km prologue around the Dutch city of Amersfoort, Utrecht. Taylor Phinney‘s (BMC) time of 6:57 was enough to don the leader’s jersey, with the young American benefiting from dry conditions after slick roads hampered early runs. Eventual winner Boasson Hagen went seven seconds slower in second place, with Millar a further second back.

Two typical Eneco Tour stages followed, which left the sprinters – principally Andre Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto) – licking their lips. The German won both stages, as the only real GC movement saw Boasson Hagen cut the deficit to Phinney to just three seconds.

Stage three saw Belgium’s new cycling hero Gilbert impress once more, when a move 7km from the finish saw him take the win with the national flag on his back, and the race lead too. He finished eight seconds ahead of a chase group of main favourites, with Boasson Hagen and Millar staying second and third, five and 13 seconds back respectively. Taylor Phinney dropped to eighth, over half a minute in arrears.

But the Belgian champion’s lead was as short-lived as the next day’s time trial. It may have only been 14.7km long, but it was enough to dislodge the Ardennes triple winner from the top of the general classification. Young Kiwi Jesse Sergent (RadioShack) furthered his time-trialing credentials with the stage win, with Boasson Hagen moving into the race lead. Gilbert fell to second, 12 seconds back, with Millar 18 seconds behind in third.

The two remaining stages saw no movement on the podium, with Matteo Bono (Lampre-ISD) winning from a breakaway on stage five, and Boasson Hagen capping his success on stage six with a sprint win.

1. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) 22:54:22

2. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +0:22

3. David Millar (Garmin-Cervelo) +0:28

4. Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing Team) +0:35

5. Jos van Emden (Rabobank) +0:57

6. Joost van Leijen (Vacansoleil-DCM) +1:04

7. Dominique Cornu (Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator) +1:07

8. Dries Devenyns (Quick Step) +1:08

9. Ben Hermans (Team RadioShack) +1:09

10. Linus Gerdemann (Leopard Trek) + 1:13

This year’s race

The race organisers have this year added a couple of much-needed variants to spice up a race which isn’t usually known for its excitement. While the majority of the stages are still flat, the prologue has been replaced by a 203.9km opening road stage in the Netherlands, from Waalwijk to Middelburg.

In another break from the norm, stage two is a 18.9km team time trial around the Dutch city of Sittard, and is followed by the edition’s first stage on Belgian soil. The race takes in 188km from Riemst to Genk, and despite featuring the Amstel Gold Race’s Cauberg amongst other climbs, they are short and early enough in the stage to allow for a bunch finish.

Two sprint finishes should unfold in the following two stages as well, as the race travels 213.3km from Heers in Belgium to Bergen op Zoom in the Netherlands on Thursday before crossing the border again on Friday, in a 184.6km stage from Hoogerheide to Aalter.

It is the final two days in which the race will be won and lost. On Saturday the usually decisive individual time trial will run around the West Flandrian municipality of Ardooie in a 17.4km blast, but unusually is followed up by a thrilling final stage. Talk about saving the best until last, the final stage is the longest – 214.5km from Maldegem to Geraardsbergen – and looks more like the profile of the Ronde Van Vlaanderen.

The Hurdumont, Valkenberg and Muur amongst others are included – with the brutal Muur (featuring a max gradient of 19.8%) being taken in twice, with less than 10km of the stage remaining. Any last-ditch bids for glory will occur on this climb, and there will most definitely be fireworks.

Who to watch

Alberto Contador will be riding the race, but almost certainly won’t have ambitions of overall classification success on such flat terrain. The Spaniard will be looking to ride himself into fitness ahead of his home Grand Tour which gets under way later in the month.

The strongest team in the race is undoubtedly Omega Pharma-Quick Step, who have brought a full team of stage and overall contenders. Tom Boonen will look to continue his stellar season with sprint successes, and may have his eyes on the tough final stage, having won the Ronde Van Vlaanderen three times – including this year.

On the same squad is Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel, who, along with teammate – and most likely team leader – Tony Martin will look to use the time trialing kilometres to put themselves in contention. Martin does have history in this race, having won it twice before. Strong rouleur Niki Terpstra will be riding on home soil, and is also worthy of a mention.

Rabobank’s Lars Boom is a strong rider on hilly terrain, having made his name as a Classics specialist over the last couple of seasons. He will likely lead his team’s charge, with the Dutch outfit having a strong sprint contingent in Mark Renshaw and Theo Bos.

BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet finished fourth at this year’s Ronde Van Vlaanderen, and will head a strong outfit which boasts the aforementioned 2011 prologue winner Taylor Phinney and British sprinter Adam Blythe, as well as Ronde podium finisher Alessandro Ballan.

Other riders capable of the overall win include Sky’s Thomas Lovkvist, Vacansoleil’s short race specialist Lieuwe Westra, Tour de France stage winner Jelle Vanendert (Lotto-Belisol), Sebastian Langeveld (Orica-GreenEDGE), Linus Gerdemann and Jan Bakelants (RadioShack-Nissan) and David Millar (Garmin-Sharp), while the likes of Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano) will contest the sprints.

Race details

August 6th: Stage 1 – Waalwijk – Middelburg, 203.9km

August 7th: Stage 2 – Sittard – Sittard, 18.9km team time trial

August 8th: Stage 3 – Riemst – Genk, 188km

August 9th: Stage 4 – Heers – Bergen op Zoom, 213.3km

August 10th: Stage 5 – Hoogerheide – Aalter, 184.6km

August 11th: Stage 6 – Ardooie – Ardooie, 17.4km individual time trial

August 12th: Stage 7 – Maldegem – Geraardsbergen, 214.5km

The Eneco Tour starts on Monday 6th  August and concludes on Sunday 12th. Live action will be shown daily on Eurosport. For other channels check cyclingfans.com.

Link: Official race website

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