By Susan Westemeyer
The Eneco Tour through the Netherlands and Belgium will be one for the sprinters, with such names as Tom Boonen (Quick Step), Juan Jose Haedo (CSC), and Robert Förster (Gerolsteiner) being featured among the speedy men. The Tour winds its way for 1,122.2 kilometres through the "Low Countries", and the riders will face everything from steep hills to the wind on the North Sea flats.
The race features all 18 ProTour teams plus two wildcard invitees, the Professional Continental teams Cycle Collstrop and Skil-Shimano. Jose Ivan Gutierrez of Caisse d'Epargne will look to defend his title from last year, but will face stiff opposition from such riders as Française des Jeux's Philippe Gilbert and Quick Step's Stijn Devolder.
The Tour opens with a flat 4.4-kilometre prologue in Sittard/Geleen in the Netherlands, before hitting the first Dutch climbs the next day. Thursday's Stage one runs 173,8 km from Beek to Roermond, and after only 12.4 km the riders will face the famous Cauberg, as the first of the day's three climbs.
The peloton keeps heading north in the second stage, from Roermond to Nieuwegein, over a flat 173.2 kilometres. From there they head south, from Nieuwegein to Terneuzen and will probably come into some cross wind - but not when they pass through the Westerschelde Tunnel, only 25 kilometers before the finish.
The fourth stage brings them across the border to Belgium and introduces three more climbs underway. It is also the race's longest stage, 212 kilometres from Terneuzen, Netherlands, to Ardooie, Belgium. The latter part of the stage will be familiar to Classics specialists, as it is has been used in the Ronde van Vlaanderen, the E3 Prijs and the Omloop Het Volk. The second climb is the Oude Kwaremont.
Monday's fifth stage from Ardooie to Oostende, 167 kilometres, should bring some more wind as it ends on the Belgian coast. The sixth stage is a rolling one, which combines the finales of the Ronde van Vlaanderen and the Brabantse Pijl on its 186 kilometres from Maldegem to Brussels.
The final decision may fall in the closing time trial, 18.3 kilometers through the historical city of Mechelen, on a flat city course.
The race's combination of sprint finishes and Spring Classics courses is a tough one which will demand an all-around performance to take the overall title.
Stayed tuned to Cyclingnews for more coverage of the Eneco Tour which starts today.
(Additional editorial assistance provided by Susan Westemeyer.)