Lars Boom (Belkin Procycling) returns on Monday the 12th of August to defend his 2012 Eneco Tour title with the able support of his Belkin team. With the in-form Wilco Kelderman and the unrelenting Maarten Tjallingii at his side, he will remain a strong candidate for back to back wins.
BMC Racing are also bringing a strong team with Philippe Gilbert, Alessandro Ballan and Taylor Phinney all legitimate challengers for stages or the overall classification. Similarly, Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma–Quick Step), Maxim Iglinsky (Astana), Moreno Moser (Cannondale), and Bjorn Leukemans (Vacansoleil) all have potential to surprise.
The Sprint Stages
Stages 1-4 present the likelihood of four big bunch sprints. Although crosswinds and possible gutter action are an ever-present possibility in Dutch and Flemish territory, more often than not the final outcome is a sprint.
With Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano), Andre Greipel (Lotto Belisol), Danilo Napolitano (Accent jobs – Wanty), Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp), Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEdge), Theo Boss (Belkin) and Alessandro Petacchi (Omega Pharma – Quick Step) all lining up, these early stages should still prove a real treat.
After four Tour de France stage wins, Kittel will be looking to keep his momentum going and confirm his spot ahead of Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma–Quick Step) as the world's fastest man. But one man keen to put a halt to this transition will be Petacchi, the man charged with delivering Cavendish to the line.
Petacchi 'retired' earlier this season in order to sidestep UCI transfer regulations and move to Quickstep to serve under the Manx missile. Finally free of red tape, the 39-year-old Italian makes his debut for Quickstep and will be looking to win sprints on his own this Eneco Tour in the absence of Cavendish.
It wouldn't be a northern European race without traffic furniture causing a little chaos and there's no doubt the odd island in the middle of a 60km/h sprint adds to viewer excitement. Watch for rider's bunny hopping curbs and taking bike path detours in order to reach the front in the final kilometres. With talk from the UCI about outlawing this behaviour next year, perhaps riders will attempt to get one last fill.
The Time trial
The 13.2km stage 5 time trial around Sittard-Geleen is shorter than Bradley Wiggins would like. Nonetheless, it remains a valid benchmark for his progression on the way to the world championships later this year in Florence. Having abandoned the Giro and missing the Tour de France, Wiggins showed an impressive resurgence by winning the Tour of Poland time trial by nearly a minute over Fabian Cancellara.
After claiming the fourth stage of the Tour of Poland with an indefatigable final attack, Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing) has also shown that his time trial legs are not lacking, and the shorter nature of ths course should be to the advantage of the former individual pursuit World Champion.
Stage 6: from Amstel Gold to Liège–Bastogne–Liège
Stage 6 from Riemst to La Redoute starts just out of Maastricht, Holland, the start town for the Amstel Gold Race. Riders then race deep into the Belgian Ardennes, the battleground where Liège–Bastogne–Liège takes place each year.
After 90 kilometres of racing,riders face the Côte de La Redoute for the first of three times in the stage. Riders complete two more 30 kilometres circuits and finish on the 3rd ascent of the legendary Côte. Overly aggressive finishing loops often have a nullifying effect on a race with riders often being too cautious. The relatively short nature of this stage, however, of 'just' 150km, lends itself to attacking racing.
World Champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) is on home turf on the Côte de La Redoute and will be keen to impress his local fans who always turn out in force. Having complained about his Tour de France duties where he was forced to play domestique to a sub-par Cadel Evans and Tejay van Garderen, Gilbert will be hoping to buck the trend of a thus far winless 2013.
Stage 7: a stage for the Tour of Flanders purists
A season of racing without a WorldTour ascent of the Muur van Geraardsbergen is sacrilege. Nary can a rocky road mean so much to a peoples, but witness the outpouring of emotion at the removal of the Kapelmuur from the Tour of Flanders and you will understand the importance of this scrubby slippery slope. Thankfully the Eneco Tour organisers have picked up the slack and will again ascend the famous cobbles after the positive feedback they gained last year.
Owing to team tactics on the day, expect regular one day specialists such as Chavanel, Stijn Devolder (RadioShack Leopard) or Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil–DCM) to be on the move.
The peloton will ascend the Muur once in the early part of the stage and then revisit it twice with the third ascent doubling as the finish line. With 208km of wind, cobbles and crosswinds on the cards the final stage of this year's Eneco tour will prove to be a classic finish to a classic tour.