Belgium, 4-stage Road Race, 332.5km
If you want to be rich, women's cycling is not the place to go seeking your fortune - most of the teams operate on notoriously tiny budgets and riders can never be certain that their sponsors won't suddenly announce they're ending their links with the sport which, in all too many cases when the team is unable to find a new sponsor, means the end. Fortunately, there are a few companies out there that are willing to ignore the bean-counters and put in large amounts of money for returns that, as women's cycling doesn't receive anything like the exposure that men's cycling does, often seem not to make sound financial sense. Rabobank proved itself to be a company that genuinely cares when it elected to continue sponsoring a women's team after pulling out of men's cycling entirely; Boels, a plant machinery firm, is another example, one that sponsors a team and three races (the Boels Ronde van Drenthe, which took place in March, the Boels Hills Classic in May and Boels Ladies' Tour, previously known as the Holland Ladies' Tour and one of the most prestigious events on the Elite Women's calendar, which will take place early in September). There is also Lotto, the Belgian national lottery, and Belisol, a Belgian manufacturer of solar panels, doors and windows - together, they sponsor the Lotto-Belisol men's and women's teams and this race, the Tour of Belgium.
Unlike the Tour de France, which has stages that start in one town and end in another, the Belgium Tour is more like a rock band's tour - it visits a different town each day and the riders then compete on a circuit that starts and ends at the town. This has numerous advantages, chiefly that costs are cut by having each stage consist of several laps rather than one long parcours and fans get to see the race pass by several times, either by remaining at the same point or by moving around to see it from different places.
Stage 1: Warquignies-Angreu (23.08.2013, 19.7km Team Time Trial)
View Tour of Belgium Stage 1 2013 in a larger map
The only non-circuit stage of the race, Stage 1 will see the teams putting their bike handling skills to the test with a series of very sharp corners in the first two kilometres, where it'd be very easy indeed to lose a couple of riders to unfortunate crashes and end up with insufficient numbers to even be awarded a time - which would mean race over. Once through, there's a forested section (which always increases the likelihood of punctures, which can be disastrous when racing against the clock) with a climb of around 70m in 2.5km, then a long and flat straight section running south-west along the Av. du Haut-Pays where the fastest squads will be able to get their heads down and find a serious time advantage against those who haven't been practicing their TTT tactics quite so much as they ought. Another very sharp bend then leads onto the remaining part of the parcours, finishing 19.7km (which is why it's a stage rather than a prologue; a prologue in an Elite Women's race cannot be longer than 4km according to UCI rule 2.6.006).
Stage 2: Angreau (24.08.2013, 110.16km)
View Tour of Begium 2013 Stage 2 in a larger map
Stage 2 both begins and ends at the Place d'Angreu, where Stage 1 also finished. From the start line, the riders head into a 12.24km circuit taking them first south to Roisin; they then travel north-east to the first GPM climb of the race - the Cote du Autreppe (5.48km from the start, points awarded at 5.48km, 29.96km, 54.44km, 78.92km, 103.4km), where points will be awarded during the 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th and final lap. There are also four intermediate sprints, each of which begins as the riders cross the finish line during the 2nd, 4th, 6th and 8th laps (24.48km, 48.96km, 73.33km, 97.92km).
A tight left-hand turn leads onto the narrow Rue d'Autreppe, at which point the parcours will be familiar to the riders as it now follows the same route via Onnezies (including the 300m Rue des Juifs cobbles), Angre, Honnelles and back to Angreau.
Riders must complete nine laps of the circuit; the Cote, though neither high nor steep, will have a considerable cumulative effect and there'll be some sore knees on the final passage.
View Lotto-Belisol Belgium Tour 2013 Stage 3 in a larger map
The place names reveal that the Tour has left Wallonia behind and is now in Flanders, perhaps the most cycling-obsessed region in the world. Many of the little towns that dot the flat landscape have produced famous riders, including Nijlen where the race begins - it was the birthplace of Victor van Schil, trusted lieutenant of Eddy Merckx and winner of the 1968 Brabantse Pijl (sadly, van Schil took his own life in 2009 at the age of 69), Bjorn Leukemans (who may have won far more had he not have crashed so often) and Nick Nuyens, winner of the 2011 Ronde van Vlaanderen and husband of Evy van Damme, Belgian Road Race Champion in 2000 and 2001.
Most of the great Flemish races have taken place in warm, dry conditions in recent years, but for many people racing in this part of the world will always be associated with cold winds and driving rain. The parcours is far enough from the coast to avoid the worst, but with the topography being as flat as it is any wind blowing in from the North Sea rips across the land and still has plenty of power by the time it reaches Nijlen - crosswinds on the section heading west between Herenthout and Kruiskenberg and headwinds on the section heading north between Heikant and Nijlen may create some problems. Riders must complete nine laps of the 14.49km circuit, making the stage
There are no GPM points on offer on this, the flattest stage of the 2013 edition; the feed zone passes through an area known as Kruiskenberg, which sounds dauntingly like one of the brutally steep climbs for which Flemish racing is infamous, but which is in fact an undemanding hillock rising no higher than 20m with an average gradient of around 1.5% (maximum 3.5%). There are, however, four intermediate sprints. Each begins at the Cafe de Max located at Bevel-Dorp 160 in Bevel and points will be awarded on the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th laps (10.59km, 39.57km, 68.55km, 97.53km).
Stage 4: Geraardsbergen (26.08.2013, 87.47km)
View Lotto-Belisol Belgium Tour 2013 Stage 4 in a larger map
Rather than several identical laps like the earlier stages, Stage 4 consists of a total of four laps around three circuits; the first is 29.16km in length with one GPM climb and will be completed once, the second is 19.17km with no GPM climbs and will be completed once and the third, which is 19.57km in length and features one GPM climb, will be completed twice. There are also intermediate sprints when the parcours crosses the finish line for the first, second and third times.
The first circuit begins at marketplace in Geraardsbergen, a town that will be familiar any riders who took part in Gooik-Geraardsbergen-Gooik back in May - it's also been a feature in many editions of the Ronde van Vlaanderen over the years. Very soon after heading out into the neutral zone they'll catch glimpses of what, to cyclists, is Geraardsbergen's most famous feature, Kapelmuur, but for the time being they can concentrate on other things. Racing gets underway 1.9km from the start on Verhaegenlaan and the parcours remains unchallenging until Parikeberg, a 0.6km climb offering GPM points, with an average gradient of 5.8 and maximum of 7%; it is 21.44km from the end of the neutral zone. The remainder of the circuit runs back into Geraardsbergen, with several tight and potentially risky corners leading into the town. The riders will take the last (non-GPM) climb to arrive at the start line at the market place, then continue to the first T-junction where earlier they turned right; now they turn left and follow Vesten, passing the finish line and contesting the intermediate sprint for the first time.
|Riders tackle the Muur van Geraardsbergen|
during the 2006 Ronde van Vlaanderen voor
To begin Circuit 3, the riders turn right before reaching the Oude Steenweg junction used in Circuit 2 and follow Oudebergstraat, a route that takes them directly to and over the notorious Kapelmuur - the reason that Geraardsbergen has featured in so many legendary races, Kapelmuur is, according to some, the toughest climb in East Flanders. With cobbles as large as steps and a maximum gradient of 19.8% (average is 9%), it's proved decisive many times and may well do so again today, even on the first lap of the circuit if one rider manages to get away and a crash in the peloton holds everyone else up - when that happens, many riders find it impossible to get going again on the steep slope and have to run up instead. Once over the top, the parcours takes Oudeberg and Dreipikkel for the short distance to Oude Steenweg and turns right, the remainder of the circuit following the route of Circuit 2. By the time the finish line approaches, those climbs will have taken their toll and there might not be any sprinters left in contention, in which case the race will be fought out by the climbers - unless, of course, one of them has built up a sufficient solo lead to win ahead of the pack.
|Altimetry, Circuit 1 and Circuits 3/4|
Ellen van Dijk
Sofie de Vuyst
Marijn de Vries
Ann Sophie Duyck
Celine can Severen
Annelies van Doorslaer
Monique van der Ree
Tessa de Moyer
Nel de Crits
Tibco-To The Top
Elisa Longo Borghini
Cecilie Gotaas Johnsen
Sarah Lena Hofmann
Anouska Helena Koster
Janine van der Meer
Wielerclub De Sprinters Malderen
Steffy van den Haute
Mixed Team (Rabobank-Liv/Giant, Autoglass Wetteren, Group Solar, FCS)
Tamina Kate Oliver
Thalita de Jong
Adeline de Vestele
Napoleon Games-St Martinus-Kerksken
Endura Lady Force
iris van der Stelt
Rowena van de Klundert
Natalie van Gogh
Demi de Jong
Mary Rose Postma
Nathalie van Katwijk
Femke van Kessel
Bianca van den Hoek
Nathaly van Wesdonk
Water, Land en Dijken
Marleen de Kroon
Sofie van Horik
Domenique van Santen
Nina van Tol
Yvonne van Dam
Les Filles Racing Team
Mixed Team (Boretti, Matrix, Vanderkitten)
RC Jan van Arckel
Samantha de Riter
Further details to be announced; check Women Cycling Fever for regular updates.
Following the race
As is the case with the majority of Belgian races, getting to the Tour is a simple process from anywhere in North-Western Europe - including from the United Kingdom: traveling by ferry from Dover to Dunkirk with a car costs as little as £74 return (check online for deals; Hull to Zeebrugge, a better choice for much of Britain's population, is for some reason far more expensive - around £200 with a bike rather than a car) and none of the Tour towns are more than 180km from the port. Better still, travel by bike - port to race is a day's ride for a fit cyclist, two at a more comfortable pace and, with the Belgians' legendary love for bicycles and cyclists, you'll be sure of a warm welcome. None of the towns are tourist traps, so accommodation will also be affordable.
If you can't get there, the choices for following the race are typically limited to Twitter feeds. Hitec Products-UCK manager Karl Lima provides regular updates on the progress of his team and the rest; Boels-Dolmans mechanic Richie Steege and photojournalists Bart Hazen and Anton Vos (who may attend regarless of whether or not his sister Marianne Vos is there with the Rabobank-Liv/Giant team) are also good choices.