Usually raced at the beginning of August, the Eneco Tour enjoys a later slot in the calendar this season due to the Olympic Games. With the World Championships also set for a later-than-usual appearance, the Eneco Tour provides the perfect bridge from the Vuelta a Espana, Tour of Britain and GPs Quebec and Montreal, to the racing in Qatar.
The Eneco Tour usually attracts many of the top Belgian and Dutch riders, but its new slot in the calendar means that many of the World Championships favourites are due to line up in Bolsward in the Netherlands for the opening road stage. Chief of that all-star line-up is the reigning world champion and new European champion Peter Sagan (Tinkoff), who will be looking to close out his reign in the rainbow stripes – and perhaps set himself up to spend another year in the fabled jersey.
It will be Sagan's first appearance at the race and getting him there is a big coup for the organisers, who went as far as agreeing to fly him from the European championships on a private plane on Sunday night. The Slovakian has looked strong in his recent appearances in Canada, taking victory in Quebec and second in Montreal, and he will hope to carry that into the Eneco Tour. With the route often resembling the Classics he so likes at the start of the season, Sagan will go into the race will a fair amount of confidence.
Joining Sagan on the list of top riders are Olympic road and track champions Greg Van Avermaet (BMC). The Eneco Tour has been good to Van Avermaet in recent years with second place overall last season and a stage win in 2014. After a short break, he has come out of his Olympic road race victory in strong form with success at the GP de Montreal at the start of the month. If he can keep that going, he is going to be hard to beat in the overall classification.
Van Avermaet will be going up against the man who beat him last year, two-time defending champion Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal). There is something about this race that brings out the best in the young Belgian and, as well as overall victory, he has secured a stage win for his efforts in the past two editions.
Many of the Classics riders will fancy their chances at this race, so long as they can pull out a half-decent time trial, with an individual and team event to contend with. There are plenty of potential podium contenders to choose from, with Sagan, Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-QuickStep), Dylan van Baarle (Cannondale-Drapac), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), Wilco Kelderman (LottoNL-Jumbo), Geraint Thomas (Team Sky), and Lars Boom (Astana) all in with a shot of the top three.
The sprint competition will also be tough with riders such as Andre Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) lining up alongside Sagan. Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) and Elia Viviani (Team Sky) are late withdrawls but Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep), Michael Mathews (Orica-BikeExchange), John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin), Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) and Marcel Kittel (Etixx-QuickStep) plus many others are all set to ride. They have been attracted by the slightly flatter parcours this year - with the race keen to act as a pre-Worlds stepping stone - and we should see an indication of how things will play out couple of weeks later in Doha.
The Eneco Tour is a race of two countries - the Netherlands and Belgium - and is the only one on the UCI calendar that is assigned dual nationality. This year, it is also the penultimate round of the WorldTour, with only Il Lombardia to come at the start of October.
To complement the new pre-Worlds slot, race organisers have made some slight changes to the formula of the race, with more on offer for the sprinters, and a team time trial for only the second time in the race's modern history. On top of that there's the customary individual time trial and a number of tough Classics-style stages that are so characteristic of the race. They should shape the general classification but the golden kilometre is back again (with three sprints inside a single kilometre offering bonus seconds) and so could also play a part.
The race begins with a 184km out-and-back stage from Bolsward in the far north of the Netherlands. On paper, it should be a bunch sprint but the Eneco Tour is never straight forward, and coastal winds could force some splits in the bunch. The individual time trial comes much earlier than usual this year with the riders racing against the clock in Breda on stage 2. It is a largely untechnical course that will suit power riders such as Tony Martin but some sharp bends at the midway point will be a bit of a wake-up call for some.
Stage 3 brings the riders into Belgium for the first time with a 186km ride from Blankenberge to Ardooie. It should be another sprint, but the rolling roads could provide the platform for a brave breakaway attempt. Things begin to get tougher on stage four with plenty of cobbles and a climb to contend with. The ride to the finish will exclude many of the fastest men, but riders such as Sagan and Matthews should stand a chance.
The team time trial straddles two countries, but not the two that you would expect in this race. Beginning in Sittard in the very south of the Netherlands, the course dips briefly into Germany before coming back over the border and towards Sittard again. There are a couple of very tight bends in the opening kilometres, but the riders will be able to stretch their legs on the ride into Germany. It gets technical again once back in the Netherlands and with some tough stages to come, this could set up the final two days perfectly.
Stage 6 and it's back into Belgium, but only just, as the course hugs the Dutch border. Six climbs lie ahead as the peloton takes on two short loops through Riemst and Lanaken. The steep finish is a prime opportunity for a rider to take some time on their rivals with a late attack.
The race finishes with a visit to Geraardsbergen, almost ensuring the battle for the overall classification to go down to the wire. There are four climbs to contend with before that famous uphill stretch of cobbles known as the Muur. Van Avermaet has won here in the past and will be a favourite to do so again this time out.
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