At midday today Tom Boonen will fire the starting gun for the inaugural Eneco Tour of Benelux, the next stage race on the ProTour calendar. The race is an amalgamation of the former tours of the Netherlands and Belgium, and so you'd expect it to be high on the young Belgian sprinter's list of season priorities, but Boonen is still recovering from the injuries that put him out of the Tour de France last month.
A lot is riding on the success of the Tour of the Benelux, which was added to the ProTour calendar to fill the gap left by the original exclusion of any stage race in the cycling hotbeds of Belgium and the Netherlands. Organisers say that they intend it to be the best stage race in the world within three years.
A lofty ambition, and organiser Henk van Mulukom admits no race can compare to the Tour de France, "but organizationally we can become the best," he told ANP. "The Tour has become a great circus that wears everyone out over three weeks. We have a tour in which we can offer the riders and spectators a better service. We share the ambition to be the best with our Belgian colleagues."
To that end, the organisation plans to put riders in good hotels close to race finishes. "They have it hard enough on the bike already," said van Mulukom.
Top riders who will be enjoying the Benelux tour's improved hospitality include Italian speedster Alessandro Petacchi (Fassa Bortolo) who is a favourite for stage wins in the absence of Tom Boonen; local hero and 2004 Tour of the Netherlands winner Erik Dekker (Rabobank), who can be expected to go for a stage or two in his inimitable wily manner; Erik Zabel (T-Mobile) who still cannot be written off in sprint finishes; Bobby Julich (CSC) who may be hitting a second season peak after working for Ivan Basso in the Tour de France; and Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) who will be looking to pick up some ProTour points in the absence of series leader Danilo Di Luca.
The Eneco Tour of the Benelux starts today, Wednesday, August 3, with a 5.7km prologue in Mechelen, Belgium. The action then moves to nearby Geel where Boonen will again pull the trigger on a 192km stage to Mierlo in the Netherlands, the first of several border crossings as the race flits between Belgium and the Netherlands.
Stage two covers a mostly flat 178.5km between Geldrop and Sittard, both in the Netherlands, but just to keep things international, the race nips across the border into Germany for a few kilometres toward the end of the stage.
Stages three and four are expected to be crucial as the race moves into Spring Classics terrain of southern Netherlands and northern Belgium. Stage three's 206.3km journey from Beek to Landgraaf in the Netherlands assaults the riders with a series of short, steep climbs in the area east of Maastricht used for the Amstel Gold race. But that's just a softening up for the following day's queen stage, 232km from Landgraaf in the Netherlands to Verviers, Belgium. Taking in some of the roads - and climbs - used in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, stage four throws seven KOM summits at the riders.
If that weren't enough, stage five backtracks through the same terrain from Verviers to Hasselt, though its 194km parcours doesn't seek out the hills quite so assiduously. Stage six's final road stage covers 196km from St Truiden to Hoogstraten before the race finishes with a 26.3km individual time trial at Etten-Leur.
- Prologue - August 3: Mechelen (Bel), 5.7 km
- Stage 1 - August 4: Geel (Bel) - Mierlo (Ned), 192 km
- Stage 2 - August 5: Geldrop (Ned) - Sittard/Geleen (Ned), 178 km
- Stage 3 - August 6: Beek (Ned) - Landgraaf (Ned), 206 km
- Stage 4 - August 7: Landgraaf (Ned) - Verviers (Bel), 232 km
- Stage 5 - August 8: Verviers (Bel) - Hasselt (Bel), 194 km
- Stage 6 - August 9: Sint-Truiden (Bel) - Hoogstraten (Bel), 196 km
- Stage 7 - August 10: Etten-Leur (Ned) ITT, 26.3 km