Nothing comes easy at the BinckBank Tour, and a glance at the palmarès confirms as much. The most recent winners are Matej Mohoric, Tom Dumoulin, Niki Terpstra, Tim Wellens and Zdenek Stybar, and, on each occasion, the race was decided by mere seconds.
A constant in the WorldTour since it succeeded the old Tour of the Netherlands in 2005, the BinckBank Tour – formerly the Eneco Tour – is something of a point of confluence in the cycling calendar. In mid-August, WorldTour riders tend to be in one of two camps: recovering from the Tour de France or still feeling their way back into action after missing out on the big show in July.
As ever, the race offers a sample of spring Classics terrain, with a short, stiff leg in the Ardennes on stage 4 and then a demanding trek around the cobbles and hills of Flanders on the final day. In between, there is a short, flat time trial in The Hague, while the four flat stages rarely run quite as smoothly as the profile in the roadbook would indicate.
In this corner of the world, Deceuninck-QuickStep always expect to animate proceedings, and their challenge will be led by three riders who sat out the Tour de France: Stybar, Philippe Gilbert and Bob Jungels. The Luxembourger ran through the scales to good effect at the Tour de Pologne, and his pedigree as a time triallist, not to mention his wins at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, make him an obvious overall contender.
Other notable Classics men confirmed for next week’s race include Tour of Flanders winner Alberto Bettiol (EF Education First), Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet (CCC), Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale) and Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First). While the BinckBank Tour is a goal in itself for these men, it also a step along a road that leads towards September’s World Championships in Yorkshire.
Although Michael Matthews, second overall a year ago, is an absentee this time out, his Team Sunweb squad includes Søren Kragh Andersen and neo-professional Marc Hirschi, who so impressed at the Clasica San Sebastian last week.
Dylan van Baarle, a strong performer in support of Egan Bernal at the Tour in July, will lead the Team Ineos challenge.
Jumbo-Visma were perhaps the outstanding team of this year's Tour de France, and three of their top performers are on show at the BinckBank Tour, with Laurens De Plus, early maillot jaune Mike Teunissen and sprinter Dylan Groenewegen all in action. Other fast-men in the BinckBank Tour field include Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe), Phil Bauhaus (Bahrain-Merida), Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) and Alvaro Hodeg (Deceuninck-QuickStep). The sprinters will hope for better fortune than a year ago, when escapees denied them on three of the race’s four flat stages.
The BinckBank Tour will be a poignant affair this year as it marks the first major race in Belgium since the tragic death of Bjorg Lambrecht at the Tour de Pologne earlier this week. Cycling in the country remains in a state of mourning, and there will be generous support from the roadsides for the efforts of Lambrecht’s Lotto Soudal teammates. With Victor Campenaerts, Tiesj Benoot and two-time winner Tim Wellens among their number, they have the quality to play a decisive role.
All of the traditional staples of the BinckBank Tour – sprint opportunities, a time trial, a hilly stage and the grand finale on the Muur – are on the 2019 route, but their running order has been tweaked just enough to add a little variety to proceedings.
The race sets off from Beveren near Antwerp on Monday for the first of three seemingly identikit stages of approximately 100 miles each – 167.7km, 167.9km and 166.9km, to be precise – that should favour the fast-men. As last year’s BinckBank Tour showed, however, at this point in the season, there is no longer any guarantee that the sprinters’ teams will have the physical or mental freshness required to reel in motivated breakaways.
No matter, the cadre of sprinters in the BinckBank peloton will expect to contest the spoils at Hulst, Ardooie and Aalter on the opening three days, though the multiple changes of direction throughout each stage seem designed expressly in the hope of triggering echelons on flat roads prone to North Sea winds. Belgium is as Belgium does.
After that opening sequence in East Flanders, the BinckBank Tour peloton makes the long transfer south into the Ardennes for a short but explosive stage around Houffalize. Stage 4 is just 96.2km in length, but there is scarcely a metre of flat on a parcours that takes in the Côte de Saint-Roche and the Côte Achouffe on three occasions. Tim Wellens won here in 2015, when he also won overall, and again in 2017. This will be a pivotal day for the general classification contenders.
The race finally crosses from Belgium to the Netherlands on stage 5 – a 190km haul from Riemst to Venray that presents the sprinters with one final opportunity ahead of the decisive final weekend.
This year, the race’s lone time trial is an individual one, and it has been held back until the penultimate stage. Although only 8.35km in length, the stage 6 time trial in The Hague is still long enough to make a telling impact on a race where the GC is traditionally decided by just a handful of seconds.
The last stage, meanwhile, is something of a classic.
The Muur van Geraardsbergen has been a fixture on the BinckBank Tour since 2012 – the very same year that it was excised from the finale of the Tour of Flanders. More often than not, the stage in the Flemish Ardennes has served as the concluding instalment to the race. A year ago, Michael Matthews claimed the stage while Matej Mohoric held onto the overall lead after a thrilling denouement on the last lap, and the organisers will expect a similar grandstand finish this time out.
The stage sets out from Sint-Pieters-Leeuw and tackles the Berendries, Leberg, Valkenberg and Ten Bosse before reaching the finishing circuit around Geraardsbergen, where the Bosberg and Muur van Geraardsbergen are climbed three times before the finale on the cobbles at Vesten, right at the foot of the Muur.
It's a flavour of spring deep in summer.