Belgian/Dutch race an important tune-up for Vuelta's start in Assen
The Eneco Tour offers up a paradise for the sprinters over its eight stages, giving our fast men a nice little warm-up in the week before the Vuelta a Espana. Conveniently, the Vuelta makes its Dutch depart in Assen just four days and 150km from the Eneco Tour's final stage in Amersfoort.
Taking in some of the best riding across the Netherlands and Belgium, this stage race is often decided on the final time trial, and frequently by a matter of mere seconds.
The opening prologue will closely mirror that of the Vuelta, and will be an important test for any rider hoping to hone his form for the flat, fast opener of the Spanish Tour.
For the past two years, it has been Spaniard José Iván Gutierrez who has taken home the overall prize in the Eneco Tour, although the race also serves as a prime morale booster for the sprinters as they prepare for the Spanish Grand Tour.
And who could use a morale boost more than Quick Step's Tom Boonen? After a glorious spring where he once again took home the famed cobble for winning Paris-Roubaix, he tested positive for cocaine and had to sue his way into the Tour de France.
Through either fate or fatigue, Boonen failed to make a show at all in July and dropped out of the Tour with a virus. Despite his party-boy image, he is still quite popular in his home country and will have plenty of supporters looking to see him get back to winning in the Eneco Tour.
The prologue will clearly favour Gutierrez, who has shown his form in a similar start last year. But thanks to the proximity to the Vuelta, he'll have some strong competition.
Garmin's Bradley Wiggins, Columbia-HTC's Edvald Boasson Hagen and Tony Martin, the rejuvenated Hungarian turned Frenchman Laszlo Bodrogi (Katusha) or even dual track world champion Alex Rasmussen could all have a shot at taking the first leader's jersey in the 4.5km test.
Stage 1 will do little to spread out the general classification as riders head down to East Flanders for a mainly flat couple of loops. The course will tickle the fringe of the Flemish Ardennes, but will head back east to finish on a flat but technical finishing circuit in Ardooie.
On stage 2, the riders will head from Ardooie to Brussels, taking on some of the Ronde Van Vlaanderen course, including the famed Kapelmuur and Bosburg climbs and with plenty of cobbled sectors to boot. Still, the finish in Brussels will likely come down to a sprint, being some 26.5km the final berg.
The third stage is another day for the sprinters as they head from Niel to Hasselt - both cycling meccas which also host cyclo-cross events. The 158km stage will be flat to rolling, and it will be the wind and the weather that could prove to be decisive on the day.
From there, the race heads a long way down into Wallonia on an epic 221km journey from Hasselt to Libramont. The long day in the saddle will also be the hilliest by far. If the weather is in any way disagreeable, the sprinters may let a break go clear and save their legs for the flatter stages to come in the Netherlands.
Riders get a bit of practice on the transfer front with a 200km trip up to Roermond for the start of stage five - although this pales in comparison to the 1500km trip from Liege to Spain which they'll face in the Vuelta.
The Eneco Tour competitors will have plenty of flat ground to shake the hours on the team bus out of their legs before they have to take on some of the famous bergs from the Amstel Gold Race, including its finish climb the Cauberg. This Tour, however, takes pity on our sprinters and finishes some 50km down the road with a few shorter and less steep bergs peppering the final 15km.
A last blast for the sprinters comes on the penultimate stage from Genk back to Roermond before the riders swap out the road machines for their time trial bikes.
The last day's 13.1km test around the Amersfoort city center looks more like a maze on paper than a time trial course, and the technical nature of the stage will certainly become more pronounced should it rain. If the GC is close, riders who plan to start the Vuelta may choose not to take any risks, opening the door to an outside contender to steal the win.
The Eneco Tour is only in its fifth year, but the presence of the Vuelta nearby will bring its best field yet, and will be a key indicator of who is on form and who is not ahead of the Spanish Grand Tour.
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