Belgium, 1-day Road Race (Lotto Cycling Cup), 112.8km
|2012 victor Liesbet de Vocht, pictured
at the 2012 Olympics
Chances are the weather will be, at best, only marginally better - the parcours follows a similar route with a 52.3km main section running from Knokke-Heist and inland via Bruges then along the coast to the first of five laps of a 12.1km circuit, leaving the riders at the mercy of the wind all the way. This wasn't the only race in which Rabo seemed almost without challengers in 2012 and they remain one of the most well-drilled outfits in cycling, a troop of riders who bring their specialist skills and strengths together to form one of the most effective teams women's cycling has ever seen. However, other teams have been working long and hard to put themselves into a position from which they can take Rabo on and win. So, while horrible weather seems virtually certain, the outcome of the 2013 edition is anything but.
This is not a hilly race - in fact, with the highest point anywhere along the route being just 11m above sea level and several points below sea level, the climbers will stay at home and let the cobbles specialists and sprinters have a day in the spotlight. With much of the parcours running through open, arable land, there is very little shelter from the wind: if it's blowing in from the North Sea, the peloton will be driven through the first few kilometres by a tailwind, but as soon as they turn south-west they'll have to deal with potentially very powerful crosswinds for most of the section leading to Houtave, then a headwind to Wenduine and an even stronger crosswind along the coast past De Haan to the finish of the main parcours.
|Main parcours altimetry - click to enlarge
|Main section - click to enlarge
Westkappellestraat forks after 2.25km; the riders keep right and need to avoid a raised traffic-calming device in the middle of the road. 1.55km ahead is another right on a brickwork section by a white house with a red roof - bollards on the edge of the road present a hazard and the route bends to the left a third of a kilometre ahead, then arrives at a junction 190m later. Having turned right and continued for 150m, they arrive at another junction and turn right again to join Dudzelestraat, a smooth fast road that leads for 2.76km to a roundabout and then onward for another 0.8km, crossing the picturesque Leopold's Canal just before the road forks. Riders keep right again, joining the Havenrandweg Zuid and reaching another roundabout 0.48km later before continuing for 3.58km to Dudzeelse Brug crossing the Boudewijnkanaal. Like the last bridge, the road remains wide and should cause no problems; as the race leaves it behind, the riders have covered 13.3km from the start line.
After the bridge, the peloton stays left and crosses a motorway flyover before coming to a junction with the main Zeelaan road, a technical section with several raised islands and concrete blocks lining the road. The race turns right here, but the riders get to enjoy the benefits of a major road for just 230m before turning left onto Stationsweg, this junction being made tight by another traffic island where the two roads meet. Stationsweg is much narrower than Zeelaan and any rider who wants to remain at the front of the pack will need to make sure she's one of the first through the corner - or, as sprinters are capable of doing, elbow her way through. 0.38km from the junction is a level crossing with two sets of tracks, the road between the them being made of wood and extremely slippery when wet; the road then continues for 0.65km - along the side of the road is a narrow footpath, separated from traffic by a strip that, towards the end, turns from grass to some very rough-looking cobbles. The section ends at a junction where the riders turn right for the Blankenbergsesteenweg, at which point they are 15.5km from the start line.
Blankenbergsesteenweg is smooth, wide, fast and runs NNW for 1.2km, making it a good stretch for riders to bridge to a lead group if one has got away by this stage or for the peloton to catch them. Their time on it ends with an easy left turn at the Kruiskalsijde bar, after which they continue for 1.35km along the fast but for much of its length very exposed Nieuwesteenweg before turning left on smooth and regularly-sized cobble to take Blankenbergsedijk Zuid south-east (hence a possible tailwind) for 2km ending at a crossroads and a tight right-hand turn for Blauwe Torenstraat. The crossroads marks 20km since the race began, after it Blauwe Torenstraat runs north-west through exposed country where the race may face strong headwinds for 1.46km ending with a tight left onto the narrow Heerweg, promising more crosswinds for the following 0.6km to the next left turn onto Brouwerijstraat - the turn isn't especially tight, but a rider who took it too fast and lost control might easily end up in the ditch running along the fields either side of the road. The road forks after 0.22km with the riders keeping right to take Klinkestraat as it winds its way over the next 2.56km, passing farms - always bringing the need for caution as farm vehicles frequently damage road surfaces and leave various slippery substances on the asphalt - and becoming Zuienkerkestraat at some point roughly halfway along. This section is narrow but flat and heads south-west, meaning that a tailwind is likely here; if a break has not yet been successful in escaping the peloton, this may well be the ideal place for one to do so in the hope of getting away so as to be able to enter the circuit with a healthy and potentially race-winning advantage - we can expect to see determined and repeated attacks by the lesser-known riders and teams here, aided by the fact that with the narrowness of the road the top teams might not be able to get chasers through to the front of the peloton in order to go after them.
Zuienkerkestraat ends with an easy left onto the Oostendse Steenweg followed immediately by a more difficult right onto the Ossenstraat - a combination of factors including narrowness and poor-quality road surface (which in places exposes the old cobbles below the asphalt) makes this a dangerous corner. After 0.54km, at a junction, Ossenstraat becomes Molenweg and leaves the riders at the mercy of the crosswinds for the next 2km to the left turn onto Mareweg: the junction between the two is made interesting by an unusual hazard - a tiny chapel, narrower than a large car, standing right in the middle of the road as though dropped there by a passing giant. Mareweg then continues for 1.85km, taking in some tight bends and passing more farms on the way to the next junction (30km from the start) where the riders will turn right to take the Oosternieuwweg-Zuid, a wide and mostly straight road that will carry them north for 3.95km, where a simple left takes them 4.4km to Wenduine on the coast - a fast section if the weather's calm, a long slog in the more probable headwind.
At Wenduine, the parcours turns left over a pedestrian crossing and takes Ringlaan heading west. This being an urban area, the road is the best quality since Westkappelle and - an even more welcome prospect for the riders - is sheltered from the wind by the surrounding buildings; however, at just 0.48km in length, it doesn't provide much of a window of opportunity for breaks to be caught or to escape. It ends where it crosses the Leopold II-Laan, becoming the very exposed coastal Koninklijkebaan running south-west along the sand dunes and through De Haan for 6.65km to a wide left turn onto the Vosseslag road by a flyover, at which point the race is just shy of 45km from the start line and dips back inland for the last section of the main parcours. Vosseslag is straight, in parts downhill and heads roughly south for most of the next 2.12km; a combination that, now that the entry into the circuit is only a few kilometres away, will generate some high speeds even if the expected tailwind isn't blowing, perhaps enabling a lead group to build up a good advantage that, provided they can work together to combat the wind during the five laps to come, could even win them the race. Over the last third of a kilometre before the next junction Vosseslag becomes Dorspstraat, then an easy right takes a road that the race book calls Zuid-Oostwijk and maps call Duiveketestraat; it's exposed to crosswinds for the next 1.6km where it ends at a crossroads and the riders turn right onto what definitely is Zuid-Oostwijk. After another 1.1km fighting the headwind, the race turns onto Batterijstraat for a short 0.29km section, then takes an easy left onto Koerslaan leading for 1.17km into Onze-Lieve-Vrouwe-ter-Duine, a town contiguous with Bredene-an-Zee. At the end of Koerslaan riders turn left on regularly-sized cobbles before following Kapelstraat for the remaining 1,150m to the finish line located by No.133, a bar called De Nieuwe Artiesten.
|Circuit - click to enlarge
Having continued for 0.91km from the finish line, the riders come to an intersection between Kappellestraat and Koninklijkebaan, turning right on regular, brick-shaped cobbles and then right again to head north-east, following the road for 3.8km to a right turn onto Vosseslag where they'll repeat the same parcours as earlier to return to the finish line. With the coastal sections being so exposed to crosswinds, it's likely that most teams will want to remain together and form echelons; keeping the peloton together right into the final lap before trying to get their sprinters into place for a bunch finish.
|Circuit profile - click to enlarge
To be confirmed
More information closer to race day
How to follow the race
Here's an idea that might appeal to some British fans: why not actually go to see the race? Belgium is far closer to the United Kingdom than many people realise and the race takes place within walking distance of the ferry terminal at Zeebrugge. Sailing as a foot passenger or with a bike from Hull on P&O on the 3rd of May and returning after the race on the 4th would cost £203. Calais to the finish line is only 84.9km, an easy distance on a bike and one that could be very simply tailored to visit some other famous cycling towns such as De Panne and Koksijde - sailing from Dover to Calais on the 2nd of May and returning on the 6th (thus leaving time to ride to and from the race), again with P&O, can cost as little as £19.50. If you go by bike rather than by car you can be certain of a warm welcome from the cycling-obsessed Belgians; if time is of the essence the Eurostar can get you to France in no time at all and driving the remaining distance to the race won't take much longer.
If you can't get to the race, following it is limited to Twitter - however, the good news is that the Lotto Cup has recently launched an official Twitter account, promising updates from and information on all the six races that make up the series. At the time of writing, they have only 79 followers - add yourself to the list and show more race organisers that Twitter is a great way to keep fans informed and that they need to follow the Cup's example.
Karl Lima (manager of the Hitec Products-UCK team) and Richard Steege (Boels-Dolmans mechanic) are both passionate fans of women's cycling and provide regular, informed updates from the races in which their teams take part. Bart Hazen (photographer and journalist) and Anton Vos (brother of Marianne) may also be at the race and are both worth following.