The race finished in a reduced bunch sprint last year, where Rick Zabel beat Dylan Groenewegen and a surprise Magnus Cort, and the big question is if it will come down to a sprint one again. Before last year's course redesign, the U23 race followed the tradition of the men's race where a rider or very small group would go to the finish and it would be decided in either a solo break or a little sprint. Last year's bunch gallop came about because of some ill-timed mechanicals as well as no one being quite strong enough to stay away from the combined effort of teams banking on a sprint. Belgium tried their best to get Stuyven away for the win but it wasn't to be. You can bet the home team will be wanting to get the glory again this year.
Full course, turn by turn.
The course will feature 165.7 kilometers of cobbles, wind and hilly terrain reeking of cow shit. Unlike the professional men, there really is no 100 kilometer flat section that deadens the legs because the first climb, the Kluisberg, comes in just 20 kilometers into the race. The race will then dip into Wallonie for a brief second to Mont de l'Enclus, which featured in Triptyque Monts et Chateaux. 8 kilometers later, the Knokteberg will be summited quickly followed by the Muziekbos and the Pottelberg.
The race kicks off in earnest on the Valkenberg, which starts off at 77 kilometers to go. After another climb, the cobbled Molenberg at 60 kilometers to go will kick off the heavy cobbles, which will feature prominently the rest of the race. Following the Molenberg is the Kerkgate, which is a 3000 meter section of cobbled that is quite jarring from experience and are not the flattest section from my memory. Rough times. After more cobbles on the Kattenberg, the race enters into Oudenaarde and begins the two city loops featuring the Steenbeekdries, Taaienberg and Eikenberg. Within 8 kilometers, the race will go over all three times and then hit the Kattenberg cobbles again through Ename before doing the 23 kilometer loops again. After doing the climbs once again, the race will just have another 8 kilometers before heading back into Oudenaarde for the finale.
How will it play out?
Now that is up to the racers. Last year, Alexis Gougeard went out on an all-day escape and was the main impetus for the majority of the race. Last year's course was hard but there was no rider that was able to lead a breakaway without eliciting a strong reaction from the chasing group. I could see a breakaway with 1 to 4 riders making it to the line or I could see some negative racing with teams trying to keep it together for a sprint and a bunch sprint for the finale.
Well let's see what we can come up with here...
Full startlist can be found here courtesy of Flanders Classics. Due note there are some scratches on the list as of now.
-Magnus Cort was leading out Kristian Haugaard here last year and when Haugaard wasn't able to come around him, Cort held on for 3rd place on his own. Then he went on a complete tear for the last 11 months. He is a big favorite to break away on the final climbs or win a small sprint with a reduced peloton. Probably my pick for the win.
-Ignazio Moser has been seen as the next Italian classics man for some time now but it is put up or shut up time for the son of Francesco and he will need to deliver on Saturday. The Italians will have a good team with Liam Bertazzo and Paolo Simion, amongst others, and have options for a breakaway or sprint.
-Owain Doull has been on fire as of late and his Triptyque win was a big exclamation point. Doull has ability to use his pursuiting skills to time trial away from people as well as sprint amongst the best in the U23 class.
-Tanner Putt finished in the front group at the Volta Limburg Classic and was also the youth classification winner at the Volta ao Alentejo. His USA team will be rather strong with some young blood coming in along with some experienced riders.
-Tiesj Benoot was on form at Triptyque Monts et Chateaux with two 2nd place finishes as well as being a player in the final stage breakaway, where he ended up 7th. Benoot is a strong favorite alongside Dieter Bouvry, U23 RR Champ Jens Wallays and Bert Van Lerberghe.
-Dylan Groenewegen will be looking to improve on his 2nd place from last year but will most likely be banking on a sprint. The Dutch will also have Mike Teunissen, who will be a good asset in the attacks later in the race.
-Ruben Zepuntke will lead the German charge into Belgium under DS Ralf Grabsch with Jan Dieteren there if it comes down to a sprint.
I'll do an updated preview when I can get a full start list but it looks like it is going to be a thrown-down in Oudenaarde come Saturday.