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Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, the donkey race

By:
Brecht Decaluwé

Second race of Flandrian opening weekend a revenge event in its own right

The 2009 podium in Kuurne

The 2009 podium in Kuurne

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Traditionally, the semi-classic Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne forms the second half of the Belgian opening weekend, often used as a rematch for those who failed at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad one day earlier. Nicknamed "ezels", or donkeys, the inhabitants of Kuurne are not ashamed by the race's reputation as it still provides plenty of prestige for the town that now takes pride in the analogy to the reliable farm animal.

The 63rd edition of Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne won't be much different and 25 teams are expected to line up, with the allowed maximum of 13 Pro Tour teams present. Last year's winner Tom Boonen will be at the start in the Kuurne hippodrome in a bid to add a record third win to his already impressive palmarès.

The only other former winners taking part this year are Nick Nuyens, Roy Sentjes and George Hincapie. The race opted not to hop on the newly formed Flanders Classics train and kept its independence. The start and finish remain the same, although the two local laps were heavily modified.

After the more selective Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the 194 kilometers-long race in Kuurne offers a chance for both the classics specialists as the stronger sprinters, with the cold and wet weather conditions often being more than enough to separate the men from the boys.

When leaving Kuurne at the outskirts of Kortrijk in the province of West-Flanders, the riders start a 176 kilometers-long loop through the typical hellingen-zone in the province of East-Flanders. Eight hellingen, or hills, are bound to create an automatic selection in the peloton and - as in the Ronde van Vlaanderen - the first cut is often made during the ascent of the Oude Kwaremont, after 121 kilometers of racing.

That cut ended up being a deep one during the 2009 edition for the Silence-Lotto team, now called Omega Pharma-Lotto and one of the two Belgian top teams. None of their riders featured in the group of 23 who left the peloton behind on the long, cobbled climb last year. The team needed a long time to recover from a poor opening weekend in their home country and the whole Spring Classics season ended up being disappointing.

This year, the Belgian team opted to ride with the same in-form team on Saturday and Sunday, except for Philippe Gilbert who'll be replaced by Gerben Löwik for Kuurne. Leif Hoste, one of the team's protected riders during the Spring Classics season, confirmed that the squad was motivated to do much better than in 2009. "We don't want this to happen a second time," Hoste said.

The Nokereberg is the last climb of the day and from then on the remaining 48 kilometers are flat and wide. The two local laps have been modified to a length of 13,5 kilometers. The finish is still on the Brugsesteenweg but due to a cooperation with the city of Kortrijk, the course loops through this town two times.

Boonen's sprint victory from last year came after an impressive performance from the Quick Step team, led by Sylvain Chavanel and Maarten Wynants. Boonen's team-mates countered several attacks, especially from an impressive Heinrich Haussler who was making a name for himself with several accelerations throughout the hill zone. Late solo attempts from Nick Nuyens and Juan Antonio Flecha were also neutralized, and in the sprint Boonen finished the job by holding off Bernhard Eisel and Jeremy Hunt.

The favorites for the win in Kuurne are the same than in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, although some typical differences are noted. A Dutch proverb claims a donkey never stumbles against a rock twice and thus the favorites who disappointed in the Omloop on Saturday tend to show much better performances on the next day in donkey-town Kuurne.