I say annual but there have been interruptions. The race wasn’t held during both world wars, only periodically during 1982-1990 and not at all from 1991-2001. However, from 2002 it has once again been a regular fixture on the annual cycling calendar. In 2005, following the start of the UCI ProTour, it looked as if the race might be merged with the Eneco Tour, but it survived and is now a fixture on the UCI Europe Tour.
Nine riders have won the Tour of Belgium twice and only two – one of whom’s Eddy Merckx – have achieved consecutive wins.
The organisers have made a few changes to both the race’s jerseys and its format this year, as follows: the leader’s jersey will be red, not black, the most combative rider (in the sprints) will be awarded a black jersey, a white jersey will be awarded for the best young rider and the points jersey will now be yellow. Bonus seconds will be awarded – except for the time trial – as follows: ten, six and four respectively on the finish line and nine, six and three respectively at the Synergie Supersprint point approximately 12km from the finish.
What kind of race is it?
As you might expect, winding farm roads, cobblestones, short sharp bergs and plenty of wind make racing in Belgium hard. Three flat stages, some cobbles, a hilly queen stage and a technical individual time trial will favour the hard Classics men – but with only one decisive stage, the winner could come from almost anywhere. The race generally attracts a top-heavy Belgian contingent and 2012 will be no exception. 21 teams have been invited: seven are UCI ProTeams, eight are Professional Continental teams and six are Continental squads. 12 of the 21 ten-man teams in attendance are Belgian and contain almost all the stars of the Belgian racing scene, with the exception of the current King of Belgium, Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step). However, last year’s winner Philippe Gilbert (BMC) will be lining up at the start and wearing number one on his back.
The most recent winners of the race are:
2007: Vladimir Gusev (Discovery Channel)
2008: Stijn Devolder (Quick Step)
2009: Lars Boom (Rabobank)
2010: Stijn Devolder (QuickStep)
2011: Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma Lotto)
What happened last year?
Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) took possession of the leader’s jersey on stage three, won the following day’s queen stage and hung on to take the overall – his first stage race victory.
Lieuwe Westra (Vacansoleil-DCM) took the opening 5.6km technical prologue with Gilbert as runner-up, one second adrift. The sprinters put on a good show with Tom Boonen (Quick Step) and Andre Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto) finishing respectively eighth and ninth, leaving themselves ideally placed to assume the lead in the following sprint stages.
Greipel prevailed in the first full stage ahead of Kenny Van Hummel (Skil-Shimano) on the final uphill sprint, thereby stripping Westra of the race leader’s black jersey. The German had been distanced with 50km to go by the fierce crosswinds but benefitted from Quick Step’s pursuit to rejoin the front group, allowing him to contest the sprint.
The following day, Lithuanian Aidis Kruopis (Landbouwkrediet) took the biggest victory of his nascent career ahead of Stefan Van Dijk (Veranda’s Willems-Accent) and Pim Ligthart (Vacansoleil) into Heist. Thanks to time bonuses, the overall lead race passed to Greipel’s teammate Gilbert.
Gilbert triumphed in a four-man sprint in the finale of queen stage three’s 202km Ardennes Classics-type route, extending his general classification advantage and all but assuring his overall victory. Gilbert outkicked Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), Bjorn Leukemans (Vacansoleil-DCM) and Bert De Waele (Landbouwkrediet) who had been part of a larger group formed on the run in to the finish and who followed Gilbert when he attacked, with 30km remaining, to register his eighth win of the season.
Greipel won the final stage into Putte, his second win of the race, with assistance from Gilbert who successfully defended his jersey to take the overall. Indeed, the leader board remained unchanged. Van Hummel played bridesmaid again, with Kruopis initially in third place until he was relegated for sprint irregularities. Greipel won the points jersey, Marcus Burghardt (BMC) the sprints jersey while Vacansoleil-DCM were top team.
1. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 16:48:46
2. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) +0:20
3. Bjorn Leukemans (Vacansoleil-DCM) +0:36
4. Bert de Waele (Landbouwkrediet) +1:03
5. Pim Lighart (Vacansoleil-DCM) +1:16
6. Niki Terpstra (Quick Step) +1:19
7.Maarten Wynants (Rabobank) +1:21
8. Joost Van Leijen (Vacansoleil-DCM) +1:29
9. Jens Keukeleire (Cofidis) +3:12
10. Maxime Vantomme (Katusha) +3:26
This year’s race
The first four stages of this year’s event take place not too far from the windy northern coastline. Stages one to three will be the usual sprint-fests, albeit stage two finishes with a slight uphill ramp. As always, the sprinters’ teams will need to be vigilant and guard against breaks in the peloton provoked by crosswinds.
Stage four, the results of which is likely to decide the overall, is an Ardennes Classics-type stage with plenty of short steep climbs to stretch the legs and the peloton.
The final stage will be a technical individual time trial.
Who to watch
We’re in Belgium, and the race’s winners are typically home-grown, provided by one of their immediate neighbours or race for a Belgian squad. There’s nothing to suggest that this year will be any different. I’m sure Philippe Gilbert will be looking to defend his crown and he’ll be supported by some of BMC’s Classics men like Manuel Quinziato [is that Kitty swooning again? – Ed] and Marcus Burghardt.
Looking to maintain their 2012 winning record, Omega Pharma-Quick Step are bringing world time trial champion Tony Martin, Classics tough men Gert Steegmans and Niki Terpstra plus, should the weather prove particularly tricky, they also have cyclo-cross champ Zdenek Stybar.
Lotto-Belisol’s Andre Greipel will be looking to add to his sprint tallies, while Vacansoleil with former winner Stijn Devolder will be looking for more than just the top team prize. Former winner Lars Boom is also bringing a strong team which includes emerging talent Bauke Mollema.
It’s hard to look beyond the WorldTour teams for stage wins and the overall, although many a young Belgian will be hoping to catch someone’s eye so expect those teams to animate the race by getting into the breakaways.
One such rider might well be number 87, Baptiste Planckaert (Landbouwkrediet), who is a member of the Planckaert cycling dynasty [I can feel another cycling families article coming on – Ed] and while he’s impressed at the junior and under-23 level in smaller Belgian races, he’s yet to really make his mark, although he has had a promising start to 2012.
May 23rd: Stage 1 – Mechelen to Buggenhout, 162km
May 24th: Stage 2 – Lochristi to Knokke-Heist, 169.5km
May 25th: Stage 3 – Knokke-Heist to Beveren, 163km
May 26th: Stage 4 – Turnhout to Arendonk, individual time trial 20.5km
May 27th: Stage 5 – Clavier to Engis, 212km
The Tour of Belgium starts on Wednesday 23rd April and concludes on Sunday 27th. For live coverage check cyclingfans.com.
Link: Official website