By Jeff Jones
Starting with a 5.8 km time trial in the Dutch town of Den Helder, the Eneco Tour (August 16-23), the next stop on the ProTour calendar, looks set to keep the interest level up until the very last stage, which finishes in Ans, Belgium. The eight day race features four Dutch and four Belgian stages, and even includes a stage finish in world champion Tom Boonen's home town of Balen.
After the prologue in Den Helder, the first stage takes the riders between on a flat 177 km course Wieringerwerf and Hoogeveen, via the narrow 30 km dyke across the Ijsselmeer. Stage 2, 195 km between 's Hertogenbosch and Sittard-Geleen, is also flat, and includes a short trip into Germany. The third stage heads from Beek into Westmalle (Belgium), and is a 185 km sprinters stage.
The general classification will be decided more in the last half of the Tour, with stage 4 a difficult 16.1 km time trial between Landgraaf and Heerlen and back. The fifth stage is an all-Belgian affair, taking the riders 183 km between Hasselt and Balen, where Tom Boonen will hope to give his local fans something to cheer about.
The sixth stage crosses several Belgian provinces on its 214 km journey between Bornem and Sint-Truiden, with two climbs featured. But the final stage starting and finishing in Ans is the killer: a shorter version of Liege-Bastogne-Liege over 201 km, featuring the climbs of the côte de Wanne, Stockeu, Haute Levée, Andrimont, La Redoute, Tilff, St Nicolas and several more. The general classification looks set to remain alive until the finish line is reached in Ans.
The start list includes the 20 ProTour teams plus Chocolade Jacques, Unibet.com and Skil-Shimano, making for a sizeable and competitive field. Defending champion Bobby Julich will lead the CSC squad with Karsten Kroon, and will find challengers in the likes of Jose Ivan Gutierrez (Caisse d'Epargne), Thomas Dekker (Rabobank), George Hincapie and Yaroslav Popovych (Discovery Channel), and Maarten Tjallingii (Skil-Shimano).
The list of sprinters is headed by Tom Boonen (Quick.Step), who will find plenty of competition in the likes of Danilo Napolitano and Daniele Bennati (Lampre-Fondital), Robert Förster (Gerolsteiner), Baden Cooke (Unibet.com) and Gert Steegmans (Davitamon), while Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner), Philippe Gilbert (FDJ), Aart Vierhouten (Skil-Shimano) and Belgian Champion Niko Eeckhout (Chocolade Jacques) will be danger men in breakaway finishes.
Prologue - August 16: Den Helder (Ned) ITT, 5.8 km
Stage 1 - August 17: Wieringerwerf (Ned) - Hoogeveen (Ned), 176.9 km
Stage 2 - August 18: 's Hertogenbosch (Ned) - Sittard-Geleen (Ned), 194.6 km
Stage 3 - August 19: Beek (Ned) - Westmalle (Bel), 185.0 km
Stage 4 - August 20: Landgraaf (Ned) - Landgraaf (Ned) ITT, 16.1 km
Stage 5 - August 21: Hasselt (Bel) - Balen (Bel), 183.1 km
Stage 6 - August 22: Bornem (Bel) - Sint-Truiden (Bel), 213.9 km
Stage 7 - August 23: Ans (Bel) - Ans (Bel), 201.2 km