The margins are tight as the BinckBank Tour reaches its decisive concluding stages, but it remains to be seen whether Matej Mohoric (Bahrain-Merida) can be divested of the green leader's jersey as the race winds its way through Limburg and the Flemish Ardennes this weekend.
Mohoric moved into the overall lead after he was part of the winning break that surprisingly remained clear on the finishing circuit in Antwerp on stage 3, and the Slovenian has avoided all pitfalls since to maintain a lead of three seconds over Sean De Bie (Veranda’s Willems Crelan) and 22 over Stefan Küng (BMC Racing Team).
The Sunweb pairing of Michael Matthews (fifth at 30 seconds) and Søren Kragh Andersen (eighth at 37 seconds) remain an obvious threat, while a number of lofty names – including Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal), Niki Terpstra, Yves Lampaert (Quick-Step), Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) – are all still within a minute of Mohoric and just about in contention.
The opening phase of the BinckBank Tour was about producing a solid time trial on stage 2 and then staying out of trouble in the days that followed – a formula neatly summarised by Matthews: "It's been a hectic week so far. Not very much has happened but there's been a lot of stress in the peloton."
Saturday and Sunday, by contrast, should inspire greater aggression among the overall contenders, although it is not clear if stage 6, through the hills of Limburg, will be difficult enough to provoke real differences at the top end of the standings. Wellens has been among the riders to decry the absence of a stage in the Ardennes of the kind he won in Houffalize in 2015 and 2017.
While stage 6 to Sittard-Geleen has been advertised as an Amstel Gold Race-style stage, BMC directeur sportif Valerio Piva – a resident of the start town of Riemst – suspects that its billing has been a little exaggerated. Although there are some 20 climbs on the parcours, the race shies away from the toughest ascents of Amstel Gold.
"It's a mini Amstel Gold Race with the emphasis on 'mini' because there aren't any of the famous Amstel climbs. We pass through the Valkenburg area, but the race goes fairly directly towards Sittard," Piva told Cyclingnews. The finishing circuit is around 40km with a few small climbs but I don’t think you can make a very big difference there. It depends a bit on the weather, but, at the moment, there isn't a lot of wind."
The stage concludes with two laps of a 45.5km finishing circuit, which includes the ascents of Bergstrasse, Schatsberg, Weg langs Stammen, Windraak and Watersley, but each climb is short and the gradients relatively gentle. Mohoric will expect to come through unscathed.
"Saturday's stage is not such a big problem," Mohoric said after defending his jersey in Lanaken on Friday. "Then Sunday's stage has cobblestones, and I have no experience with them. But I'm not afraid of them; I'm actually looking forward to them."
The final stage to Geraardsbergen appears to be a pale imitation of the real thing. At 215km in length, the stage has the distance of a semi-Classic, and the terrain to match. The beating heart of the stage – and of the entire BinckBank Tour – is the finishing circuit that takes the race over the Muur van Geraardsbergen on no fewer than four occasions.
"With the distance, that's basically like a Classic at the end of a stage race, so I'd expect some big fireworks on Sunday," Matthews said of the final stage.
The Bosberg, Onkerzelestraat and Denderoordberg also feature on the demanding 25.6km circuit, while the summit finish atop the Muur has been a part of the BinckBank Tour since 2012 (then known as the Eneco Tour)– the year it was removed from the finale of the Tour of Flanders.
"The hardest stage is definitely the one on Sunday, with the circuit over the Bosberg and Muur on the cobbles. Traditionally, something has always happened on that stage," said Piva, although he is unsure if Mohoric can be dislodged from the overall lead, despite his lack of experience on the cobbles.
"Mohoric has shown he's riding very strongly. On Thursday, he took some bonuses, too. He's never raced on the cobbles, but, with the condition he has, I don't know if we can put him in any difficulty on this route."
BMC have two options at their disposal in the shape of Küng and Van Avermaet, although both riders have complained of fatigue on emerging from the Tour de France and European Championships.
The BMC squad are staying at the Hotel Malpertuus in Riemst, run by Piva's in-laws, although he was not sure which of his riders would be lodging in 'lucky' room 11, which has hosted Michele Bartoli, Joaquim Rodriguez and Dani Moreno on the eve of Classics victories, as well as Mario Cipollini before the 2002 Worlds.
"Maybe we'll put Greg or Stefan in there. I hadn't even thought about it, to be honest," Piva smiled. "This year, we had Astana in the hotel, and they won Amstel with Michael Valgren, so maybe it still brings luck."
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Barry Ryan is European Editor at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.