Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Energiewacht Tour

The first women's stage race of the European season, Energiwacht Tour begins on Wednesday the 4th of April at Appingdam in  Groningnen. It's not an especially well-known race outside the Netherlands and the world of women's cycling; however, since it brings together the very cream of the crop for six stages (one split), it ought to be: the 2011 edition, won by Adrie Visser, was one of the highlights of the season. Take a look at the placings - with riders such as those finishing in the top 20, it was top-notch racing all the way.

Fast and furious - last year's edition

This year, the race has grown to five days - a promising sign in these times when so many races are disappearing for lack of sponsorship or, worse, interest. There's not much in the way of hills in this part of the world (in fact, at a few points along the way the riders will be below sea level), which makes some people think the race will be boring. That couldn't be further from the truth - flat stages such as these promote breakaways and attacks, leading to a fast and furious sort of race, and with a large field of well-matched riders we can expect some very exciting competition. In the final stage, we're likely to see a different sort of racing in which good team trial tactics work well: it's a parcours made up of several very long, very straight and very fast sections where the best plan is also the simplest - stick with the team, get your head down and concentrate on turning the pedals. A full list of the teams and riders (subject to change - Martine Bras and Irene van den Broek definitely won't be there) is available here.

So, unless you only like mountains, this race pretty much has everything covered. Unfortunately, there seems to be no live coverage of the race but video may appear online after each stage - if it does, it'll be added to the daily stage reports on this blog. Local TV station RTL7 has some limited coverage, details can be found at the bottom of this article.

The Stages
Stage 1 - click to enlarge
(image credit: Energiwacht Tour)
Stage 1 (Wednesday 6th) is a 15.1km individual time trial heading west out of Appingdam (53°19'13.91"N 6°50'48.52"E) and through the flat pastureland to Garrelsweer (53°18'48.25"N  6°47'0.82"E) where it turns east to head back, following the canal past some grand country houses. With good roads and no hills, it promises to be a very fast parcours indeed - definitely territory for the time trial specialists.

Stage 2 - click to enlarge
(image credit: Energiwacht Tour)
Stage 2 (Thursday 7th) starts and ends at Bad Nieuweschans (53°10'60.00"N 7°11'60.00"E). It takes us further out into the countryside, covering 107.3km over four circuits of the route and making a sortie over the border into Germany. Once again, there are no hills, which makes this an ideal parcours for a breakaway - a group of fast riders who manage to get away early on and keep going might just succeed in escaping the peloton for the rest of the race, but with the flat run to the finish they'll have their work cut out for them as the stage reaches its climax.

Stage 3 - click to enlarge
(image credit: Energiwacht Tour)
Stage 3 (Friday 6th) consists of six laps of an 18.4km circuit  around the Oldambtmeer lake (53°10'16.18"N 7° 1'31.82"E). It begins on Hoofdstraat by a church (53°11'40.37"N 7° 0'36.38"E), then heads briefly south before rounding the southern edge of the lake. When at the eastern end, they turn north and follow the N967 to Oostwold and then west along Huningaweg, back to Hoofdstraat and on to the finish line located at the same point they started. It's another very flat parcours, with a straight and slightly downhill initial section that will promote fast starts and encourage breaks. If they don't, expect attacks aplenty - especially in the last lap as the riders try to gain an upper hand before it's too late.

Stage 4a - click to enlarge
(image credit: Energiwacht Tour)
Stage 4a (Saturday 7th) both starts and ends at Winsum, a town sometimes termed the treasure of the north according to the Tour website - with two traditional Dutch mills and what is reputed to be The Netherlands' oldest pub (Der Gouden Karper) set among quintessentially Dutch countryside. The parcours leaves Winsom to the north, travelling up to Baflo and then taking a long, fast loop west and south-west to Mensingeweer. Next, it heads east along a road called the Wildeveldseweg (which must sound fantastic in a Dutch accent). Just visible to the south-west from this point is Ezinge, the oldest continually-inhabited village in the country. Long before the ancient tribes who would become the Dutch worked out how to drain the boggy landscape, they would create artificial islands upon which to live (now known as terps and, since drainage, resembling low hills) - the example at Ezinge is still evident and is now occupied by the village's 13th Century church. During the early 20th Century, worked who dug peat for fuel began finding strange objects that were obviously of great age in the area, soon attracting the attention of archaeologists who found many more - including Roman artifacts and part of a sword almost identical to another dicovered at the Sutton Hoo ship burial in Great Britain. By dating the objects, they determined that people have lived in Ezinge since at least 600BCE, making it among the oldest continually-inhabited villages anywhere in Europe. The riders will complete five laps of the route, which should allow Ezinge to be seen even if there is early morning mist, bringing them up to a total of 76.6km.

Stage 4b - click to enlarge
(image credit: Energiwacht Tour)
Stage 4b takes place on Saturday afternoon, a 26.5km team time trial located at Veendam some way off to the south-east from 4a. After beginning in the centre of the town on JG Pinksterstraat (53° 6'19.91"N 6°52'27.74"E), the teams pass through the streets and cross the canal, then the N33 motorway as they head into the flat fields. A route made up of fast straights punctuated with 17 right-angled bends and corners will make for a fast stage, but one in which a slower rider could very easily be dropped off the back of the squad and never find her way back. When they arrive at Oude Pekela, they follow Feiko Clockstraat into town, then turn left to arrive at the finish on Raadhuislaan (53° 6'17.39"N 7° 0'24.65"E).

Stage 5 - click to enlarge
(image credit: Energiwacht Tour)
Stage 5 (Sunday 8th) covers 103.3km in total with riders completing three laps of a parcours made up of numerous long, flat stretches with sharp bends between them - not dissimilar to an extended version of Stage 4b, in fact, and almost a stage for a sprinter. The riders set out from the museum in Fraeylemaborg along a street lined with the sort of houses that in the USA are called Dutch Colonial (and here, presumably, "Dutch") and then almost immediately comes to a tight and, by the looks of it, potentially slippery left corner - with the peloton still closely packed just metres from the start, this is a point with an obvious likelihood of accidents. A road called Schlocterdiep leads to a village, Denemarken, and over a canal into a short twisty section before arriving at Eemskanaal. From this point, the route is almost entirely arrow-straight and pancake flat (well, near enough - according to Aerodata International Surveys there are a number of "hills" as high as 80cm along the way!) - this is the sort of road where clever tactics make little difference and everything comes down to which rider, or more likely which team since this is ideal territory for drafting, can ride the fastest. With the left turn at the end out of the way, the remainder of the circuit is formed of a pair of long, fast U shaped roads leading through Harkstede and to the finish line, which is 16.6km away where the stage began.

2011 winner Adrie Visser, now riding for Skil-1t4i
(image credit: Highroad Sports)
At this end of the race, it seems hard to see past Rabobank, probably the most well-drilled team in women's cycling right now - especially since the team reported on Tuesday afternoon that Marianne Vos has recovered from the illness that kept her away from the Ronde van Vlaanderen and will be back for this race. We've seen that this is a parcours that favours attacks and sprints, and when it comes down to transmitting sheer power through the chain and back wheel into the road, Vos is without equal. Rabo hasn't put all its eggs in one musette, either - should Vos be forced to abandon, Iris Slappendel and Annemiek van Vleuten are more than capable of taking the race. AA Drink-Leontien.nl are a squad worth watching too, as would be any team that was sending both lightning fast Lizzie Armitstead and Kirsten Wilde. Specialized-Lululemon have Ina-Yoko Teutenberg, another experienced rider who specialises in power, and Clara Hughes - anyone who rememebers Hughes' spectacular solo break at the Copenhagen World Championships will not be surprised if she picks up points and perhaps even a stage win. GreenEDGE have been on a winning streak since the start of the season and with Loes Gunnewijk (second place last year) and Judith Arndt onboard, that state of affairs may continue. Nicole Cooke of Faren-Honda is another rider who is very good at riding bikes very fast - she too is likely to do well. Finally, Skil-1t4i, the team led by last year's winner Adrie Visser.

To sum up, Vos is top choice (just as she is in any race, regardless of the terrain); but there are numerous riders who will chase her all the way - and when conditions are right, each of them is capable of performing exceptionally well.

RTL7 coverage
Note times are CET - minus 1 hour for BST
(image credit: Energiwacht Tour)

Stage 1 / 2 / 3 / 4a-4b / 5 / Guide / Video Vault

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