Tuesday 26 March 2013

Dwars door de Westhoek 2013

21.04.2013 Official Site
Belgium, One-day Road Race, 125.08km
UCI 1.1

Though not one of the better-known races outside Belgium, the Dwars door de Westhoek is a race full of interest: it takes place in a fascinating region full of history and, with numerous sharp corners, technical sections, tough climbs and - the Dwars' speciality - fast and dangerous descents along its compact 125.08km parcours, it's an easy-to-watch introduction to the fast and thrilling character of Flemish racing.

The first and second editions, in 2010 and 2011, were won by the Belgians Liesbeth de Vocht and Grace Verbeke, then the Dutch rider Kim de Baat took the honours in 2012. With 18 UCI teams, twelve clubs teams and national teams taking part, the 2013 edition promised to be another fine battle between the Belgians, the Dutch and the rest and generated a noticeably greater buzz on Twitter, suggesting that this is a race that's going to grow and get better in the coming years.

The Race
(Parcours guide below)
Being as far as they are from the finish line, the climbs select a group from which the eventual winner will be drawn in the Dwars door de Westhoek rather than allow any one rider to build up an insurmountable lead (had it have been otherwise, with the climbs making up more of the parcours or simply nearer to the finish, there's a good chance that Senger's Maaike Polspoel would have taken the top step on the podium - the 24-year-old Belgian looked by far the strongest whenever the road pointed skywards). This year, they did it in cruel fashion by taking fifty riders out of contentention altogether, leaving only two-thirds of the starters to deal with the final rolling 80km.

With unusually good weather, the attacks started the minute the hills had been left behind but these appeared to be attempts by the teams to test the water and put a little more pressure onto rival outfits' sprinters rather than genuine attempts to get riders out in front and none of them came to anything. By the time the last of the four finishing laps began, a bunch sprint still looked the most likely outcome - then Megan Guarnier (Rabobank) exploded out of the pack with what looked like enough strength to take victory. However, with the flat terrain and straight, fast sections left on the final approach, the other teams knew that they could work together to bring her down and did so, catching her with 4km to go.

2013 winner Jolien d'Hoore
With all the remaining riders still together and a fast, cobbled straight to the finish, the stage had been set for a chaotic blast to the line and several riders elected to sit back and ride it out rather than risk a last attack, among them Vera Koedooder (Sengers) who, though she's the sort of rider capable of creating a path through the pack and accelerating to a race-winning pace that allows her wheels to skip over the cobbles, was undoubtedly feeling the effects of her victorious efforts at the Omloop van Borsele, and Lauren Kitchen who, like other members of her Wiggle-Honda team, has been suffering an allergic reaction brought on by the dusty conditions encountered at the Belgian Classics this season. Pauline Ferrand-Prevot (Rabobank), meanwhile, fancied her chances and laid down the power, looking for a moment as though she might win solo; however, Jolien d'Hoore (Lotto-Belisol) and Martine Bras (Boels-Dolmans) were instantly on her case and turned out to have sufficient strength to overpower her, leaving her to take third place while they took first and second.

Top Ten
1 Jolien D'HOORE (Lotto-Belisol)
2 Martine BRAS (Boels-Dolmans)
3 Pauline FERRAND-PREVOT (Rabobank-Liv/Giant)
4 Ine BEYEN (Topsport Vlaanderen-Bioracer)
5 Katarzyne PAWLOWSKA (GSD Gestion-Kallisto)
6 Lucy GARNER (Argos-Shimano)
7 Christelle FERRIER-BRUNEAU (Faren-Let's Go Finland)
8 Elena KUCHINSKAYA (RusVelo)
9 Annette EDMONDSON (Orica-AIS)
10 Loren ROWNEY (Specialized-Lululemon)
Full result

Video credit: CyclingFlash

Video credit: Mr Kittekat

Click to enlarge
Looking at Boezinge today, it's difficult to believe that less than a century ago it was almost completely destroyed: lying just to the north of Ieper (better-known to English-speakers as Ypres) it was heavily shelled by both sides during the First World War - there are no fewer than nine British military cemeteries within the town's environs with 5,003 graves, and there are more in the town churchyard. The inhabitants stayed during the First Battle of Ypres but fled during the Second Battle; when the conflict ended, they returned to find virtually nothing was left and had to build wooden huts to live in while they rebuilt the town.

The race begins at the marketplace by the church, which was turned to rubble by shelling, with the riders first heading NNE along the Katspel for 80m until they reach the first left turn - because this is Flanders and the Flemish like their races punishing, this first section is cobbled. Around the corner, on Boezingestraat, the central part of the road is tarmac but there are more cobbles on the right. The road continues SE for 1.34km to a crossroads with Reningsestraat, marking the end of the neutralised section and the beginning of racing just past a row of cottages on the left; a wide right-hand bend just ahead leads into Tuinwijk and Elverdinge, home to an impressive chateau (or kasteel, as they're known in Flemish), where the riders take a wide left-hand bend past a Dexia bank and find themselves on Steenstraat. 75m ahead, at a crossroads, the road becomes D'Ennetieresplein; 160m later a left turn leads onto Sint-Livinusstraat, then 85m after that another right turn carries the race onto Vlamertingsestraat, with a small climb up to and through the wooded section, then a small descent. Just past the woods, on the right, is Vermuelen's Molen - at 29m, the tallest windmill in West Flanders, offering such good views of the surrounding landscape that it was put into use as an observation tower by the Nazis during the Second World War. The mill has been without its sails since 1909, when it was converted to run on electrical power.
Main route profile - click to enlarge
Vlamertingsestraat isn't wide, but the good surface and long straights interspersed by occasional sweeping bends are likely to generate the highest speeds seen so far in the race, making it the ideal place for the peloton to catch and swallow up any early breakaway groups; however, it's also very exposed and wind could create problems. Once in Vlamertinge the road becomes Guido Gezellestraat, then Hugo Verriesstraat after a crossroads as it begins an uncomplicated journey to Reningelst. Bellestraat starts after a level crossing and continues south out of the town with the riders going straight ahead at a roundabout and onto a fast, straight section of 4km to Ouderdom, 10.19km from the start, then another 1.5km to Reningelst - where an annual cycling festival is held. As the riders arrive at the town, a tight right corner leads onto Zevekotestraat; the road surface is covered in tarmac but, in places, it's worn away to reveal the old cobbles beneath - some of which look more than capable of causing punctures. Opposite the church, 340m ahead, is a far less technical left onto Heuvellandsweg, a wide and fast road that will carry the race for 2km to Poperingestraat, becoming Westouterstraat towards the end.

Poperingstraat is also wide and fast, presenting no challenges on the way into Westouter (where the international Edvald Boasson Hagen fanclub is based, incidentally); in the centre of town, just past the AXA bank on the right and before the church on the left, the surface changes from tarmac to cobbles. Reasonably smooth at first, they become rougher after the road forks and the riders keep left for Schomminkelstraat (with the suddenly much narrower route having the potential to cause problems if the entire peloton tries to get down it at once), but the tarmac starts again only a few metres ahead past the patisserie. Schomminkelstraat then passes out of town and into the countryside; it's flat for the first 0.4km, then the race begins climbing Schomminkelberg for the first time, gaining more than 65m over the last 1.1km - an average gradient of 4.4% that reaches 14% at the steepest section. The first riders to the top win the first GPM points of the race - under the name Rodeberg West, the climb is more familiar as one of those in the Gent-Wevelgem race, as is the Rodeberg itself, which continues to climb to 138m above sea level just around the left turn onto Rodebergstraat. Though the road beyond the junction is wide and smooth, it's a challenging climb in its own right and reaches 11% before the woods at the top.

Vermeulen's Molen, the tallest windmill in
West Flanders
Whatever fears Schomminkelberg holds for the sprinters, the Rodeberg descent has greater terrors for the climbers who, being small and lacking the weight needed to control a bike on a fast descent, tend to dislike sharp declines: the 0.9km to the sharp right turn leading onto Dikkebusstraat is even steeper than the ascent, with one part rated -17.6%. If a climber got away on the way up, she could see her advantage turn rapidly into a big disadvantage as heavier riders plunge away. Any rider could see their chance at finishing the race vanish if she fails to brake in time for the corner - not only is it tight, there is plenty of street furniture to hit as the route turns toward Loker, where another cobbled section begins by the church; the cobbles continue after the left turn onto Kemmelbergweg, then end at the right turn onto Godtschalkstraat, a narrow but smooth road running for 1.35km to another right onto Koenraadstraat, 20.6km from the start. Narrow and rough, Koenraadstraat is little more than a farm track; riders stay on it for a kilometre until they reach the smoother two-lane Lettingstraat, then turn left to begin climbing the Monteberg - another hill familiar to fans from Gent-Wevelgem; the average gradient is 7%, the maximum is 13%, just like Schomminkelberg, there are some very steep sections on the descent.

At Kemmel, a left turn leads onto Reningelstraat, a fast 5.8km road ending at a left turn onto Vlamtingerseweg at Reninghelst; 0.2km later the riders arrive back at the right turn onto Zevekotestraat, following the same route as earler via Heuvellandseweg and back to Schomminkelberg and Monteberg. After climbing Monteberg for the second time 41.2km from the start, they turn right on Lettingstraat, heading along Smijterstraat. Just over 820m in length, Smijterstraat's maximum gradient is -6.8%; steep but not excessively so. However, "straat" is somewhat misleading - from the entrance opposite the cafe at the top of Monteberg, it looks more like a narrow footpath than a road, and just a few metres away it drops so suddenly away that it becomes invisible. While the surface is good, the prospect of tackling it among a large pack of riders all travelling at speed is enough to strike fear into the hearts of even the bravest descender, and there are thick, thorny hedges along the first part - a crash caused by a puncture here could send the entire peloton into chaos. It ends with a tight right turn onto Kruisabelestraat, a much wider road where riders who found themselves pushed to the back on Smijterstraat have a chance to fight their way back to the front of the pack. A very tight - but, due to the width of the roads, not especially technical - left carries the race onto Dranouterstraat, 3.5km of smooth, straight tarmac leading to Nieuwkerk and a sharp left onto Seulestraat, which becomes Nieuwkerkstraat after a few metres and remains so for 3km to Wulvergem where an easy right turn finds Dorpstraat some 50km from the start.

Dorpstraat becomes Mesenstraat just outside Wuvlergem, with two small climbs en route for Mesen. The race turns left at a sharp corner on the outskirts of the town, made more dangerous due to the possibility of diesel spillages from trucks visiting the depot just over the road, then progresses along Kruisstraat for 1.85km before coming to an easy right onto Wulvergemstraat, a straight and fast road to Wijtschate. At the end of the road, left leads onto Sint-Medardusplein, a wide urban route with cobbles at the edges of a tarmac central section. Once the riders have left the town behind, the road becomes known as Vierstraat and, after crossing the N331 road, passes through an industrial area. 1.74km from the crossroads is a left turn onto Hallebaststraat; a right turn at another crossroads 0.75km ahead is a right turn leading over Dikkebussweg and into the tiny village of Hallebast where the road becomes Ouderdomseweg. At the end of an unchallenging 1.95km stretch the race turns right onto Vlamertingeseweg; this soon becomes Bellestraat and reverses the same route as earlier to lead into Vlamertinge and over the level crossing (marking 70km from the start), then continues past Vermuelen's Molen into Elverdinge and Tuinwijk before taking Boezingestraat to a point 450m past the official start where a sharp right leads onto the narrow Hynderickstraat - another potentially dangerous spot if too many riders try to take the corner at the same time. A left 1.3km ahead finds Kapellestraat, which continues for 0.9km into Boezinge and a left turn onto Diksmuidseweg and arrives at back at the cobbled start of the neutralised zone after 976m, 78.68km from the start.
Local circuit map - click to enlarge
At the start line, the riders begin the first of four laps of an 11.6km local circuit continue straight ahead for 540m to a left turn onto Ravestraat, following it through countryside for 1.95km to a T-junction with Steenstraat. At the junction they turn left, taking Steenstraat for 3.7km back to Elverdinge where another left leads back onto the Boezingestraat through Tuinwijk, then via the official start and the right turn onto Hynderickstraat to return to the start of the neutral zone in Boezinge. There are numerous good places from which to watch the race along the circuit.
Local circuit altimetry profile - click to enlarge

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