While the Easter Weekend offers up the Tour of Flanders for the pros, as well as a hattrick of U23 one day races in Italy, this weekend also offers the first stage race in Europe for U23s this season: the Triptyque de Mons et Chateaux. This is also the first European U23 race where riders race for their trade teams rather than their national teams. The race is comprised of four stages over three days, and the stage 3a time trial is quite likely to decide the overall, along with bonus seconds accrued in the other stages.
Last year, the race was the first in a series of scalps for Jasper Philipsen, who won a sprint from a smaller group on stage two after the previous stage had been a mass sprint won by Austrian Daniel Auer. On the split stage, Axeon Hagens Berman dominated the ITT, with Neilson Powless winning, as the American team put three riders in the top four. Philipsen was in fifth, just three seconds down though, so kept the GC lead. The second part of the split stage would also come down to a sprint, with Philipsen coming 4th and safely securing the GC, 11 and 13 seconds clear of Axeon duo Eddie Dunbar and Powless respectively.
This year, the organisers have mixed things up slightly. Stage one could be a reduced sprint or late attack, as the profile resembles the stage Philipsen won last year. Stage two is a nailed-on bunch sprint. However, while day three remains a split between a TT and a road race, both are very different to last year’s. The ITT is just over 9.5km long, but features two climbs on the route that will shake things up before the same two climbs form part of a tough circuit in the short afternoon stage, which will bring the final pre-U23 Tour of Flanders tune-up race to its conclusion.
The race’s startlist (which is subject to last minute changes) is comprised of a lot of local Belgian teams, from which Lotto-Soudal U23 stand out, headed by sprinter Gerben Thijjsen and GC rider Stan Dewulf. In the foreign teams, Hagens Berman Axeon (now a Pro Conti team) are back, this year with the rider who beat them last season while he was with BMC Devo, Jasper Philipsen. Philipsen is supported by Will Barta, Ian Garrison, Michael Rice, Joao Almeida and Maikel Zijlaard. SEG Racing also bring a strong squad, headed by Julius Van Den Berg and Edoardo Affini, whilst Wiggins bring on from Gabriel Cullaigh and James Fouche and Sunweb are led by a strong team consisting of Marc Hirschi, Max Kanter, Nils Eekhoff and three supporting riders. ColoQuick from Denmark take a strong team including Mathias Larsen, Frederik Rodenberg, Jonas Vingegaard and hand a season debut to Junior World RR champion Julius Johansen. Leopard (Pit Leyder), Tirol (Tobias Bayer), Vendee U (third place in Gent-Wevelgem Mat Burgaudeau), Akros-Renfer (Justin Paroz) and Belgian Conti team AGO-Aqua Service (Tom Wirtgen and Lionel Taminiaux) round out the other teams worth mentioning.
Stage 1: Pecq-Flobecq (137.1km)
The stage features six categorised climbs, the last of which is located just under 30km from home. There are intermediate sprints at kilometres 20, 48.5 and 97. The first climb comes with 28.5km raced and is the cat one Cote de Mont Saint Auber (1.4km at 7.2%). 63.5km in brings the next cat one climb, the 800m long Cote du Mont de l’Enclus, which averages 6.6%. From kilometre 82 to 109, four categorised climbs are tackled: the cat two Cote de l’Arabie is at 82km raced and is 1.3km at 6.2%, before the Mont Else cat one climb is tackled just 7km later, 1.2km long at 5.3%. 31.5km from home sees the arrival of the cat one Cote du Paradis, 1km long at 5.6% and just 3.5km later, Mont Else is tackled from the other side, which is 1.2km at 5.4%. both of those climbs are tackled again close to the line, but there are no KOM points on offer at the top. Putting the climbs in at the end should see a group of no more than 30 make it to the line.
Stage 2: Tournai – Leuze-en-Hainaut (168.5km)
This stage features two sections of cobbles, as well as a few climbs, but the obstacles are tackled with just over 60km to go. The first obstacle is the 200m long drag up the cat two Chateau d’Antoing, which averages 5.5% and comes 35.5km into the stage. Kilometres 77 and 92 bring the final climbs of the day, wit the cat one Chemin de Champs (1km at 6.6%) followed by the cat two Trou Robin (600m at 6.7%). The day’s final hurdle is the flat 800m long cobbled section of the Rue du Foucaumont. There is an intermediate sprint in between the final climb and the last cobbled sector, followed by two more sprints at kilometres 115 and 135. This stage will be a bunch sprint, and it will be very interesting to see how Lotto-Soudal’s Gerben Thijssen does after a quiet start to the season.
Stage 3a: Frasnes-Les-Buissinal – Saint-Sauveur (9.5km ITT)
The ITT starts off with 1.8km of flat roads before turning onto the 700m long cat one climb of the Cote de la Croisette, which averages 7.4%. after the descent, there is more flat roads before the uncategorised climb of Beau Site (more on this hill in stage 3b) begins at roughly 1.5km to go and lasts 1km. The final roads to the line are slightly downhill after that. This is considerably different to the flatter TT won by Powless last season, given Beau Site is 1km long at 8.3%.
Stage 3b: Moulbaix – Saint-Sauveur (91.5km)
From memory, this short stage is the first summit finish, coming at the cat one climb of Beau Site (1km at 8.3%). The stage is flat to begin with and the day’s only intermediate sprint is found at 34.5km in, offering one final chance before the finish to recoup time lost in the morning’s ITT. The climbs come thick and fast after, with the cat one Cote des Papins (800m at 7.6%) up first at 40.5km. The Cote du Bourliquet comes next with 52.5km raced, and is 1km long at 7.3%. following that, just 5km later the riders go up Beau Site for the first time. This will serve as the first passage of the line. Following some false flat at the top and then the descent, there is an uncategorised climb before the riders take on the Cote de la Croisette from the morning’s ITT with 21km to go. 4km later, they will have completed Beau Site for the second time. They repeat the same circuit of the uncategorised climb, the Croisette and Beau Site, which will be the finish line this time, but there are no KOM points on offer on the final two climbs this time.
Winner Candidates: Jasper Philipsen (Hagens Berman Axeon), Marc Hirschi (Sunweb Devo), Julius Van Den Berg (SEG Racing)*
*For reasons unknown to us, SEG withdrew Van Den Berg before the race began.
Podium Contenders: Tom Wirtgen (AGO-Aqua Service), Stan Dewulf (Lotto-Soudal U23), Gabriel Cullaigh (Wiggins)
Outsiders: Lionel Taminiaux (AGO-Aqua Service), Edoardo Affini (SEG Racing), James Fouche (Wiggins)
Philipsen is in red hot form right now ahead of his first big goal in Flanders next weekend. 3rd against the pros in the Brugge-De Panne race, 11th in Gent-Wevelgem U23 on Sunday, as well as making the split in Nokere Koerse all show his good form. He is probably the favourite to win the reduced sprint in this race once more and is in a great spot to take bonus seconds. He is not a bad ITT rider either, although he may lose more time than last year with the climbs. The only real question mark is how he will handle Beau Site. If he can win both sprint stages, he should have more than enough bonus seconds to win this race overall again, but it will be very interesting to see how he does.
Marc Hirschi has been taking the U23 world by storm since last seson, when he was one of the riders on the BMC Devo team that helped deliver Philipsen to GC victory in this race. Now, he is the star in a strong Sunweb team that has Nils Eekhoff and Max Kanter as possible back up plans, with the Dutchman targeting the TT and Kanter the road stages. Hirschi is great on a TT bike and has proven in races like Gent-Wevelgem and Tour of Flanders that he can handle the cobbles. He should e right up there in the GC battle, but Philipsen does have the edge given he is faster, meaning he may be able to accrue the bonus seconds required to win the race over his former Swiss teammate.
Julius Van Den Berg arrives at this race leading SEG Racing and is in great form, having taken the queen stage at the Tour de Normandie, before finishing the race 4th on GC and Best Young Rider. The Normandie race is great Classics prep due to the harsh weather and winds in that area, so he should be suited to the Classics racing here. Furthermore, he is the current U23 Dutch ITT champion, so the TT, while it is short and difficult, should be to his liking. His form and skillset make him a man to watch here.
After taking 8th on GC here last season, Tom Wirtgen has swapped Leopard for AGO-Aqua Service and is back to do better in this race. A phenomenal time triallist, he coped well with the climbs on the TT in the U23 Worlds last season, where he was 4th and missed a medal by just 2 seconds. There are still doubts against how well he will climb on stage 3b too. He hasn’t shown himself to be an amazing Classics racer yet, but if he can be protected by his Belgian team (who should be proficient Classics riders), he will be a favourite here. He has ridden solidly so far in Croatia and Normandie, so he should be coming into shape for this race, which is his first goal of the season.
Stan Dewulf was fourth overall last year as part of a season where he announced himself as a very promising Classics rider and stage racer in hilly and TT filled races. He was ill a few weeks ago, but Lotto-Soudal U23 believe he is back to full fitness for this race, where he is the GC leader for the team. The hills in the TT should actually suit him better than a flat TT, and Beau Site shouldn’t scare him if he is truly back to full fitness. However, his team is comprised of two first year Espoirs, as well as two sprinters. There is a question of how well his team can protect him on stages 1 and 3b. if he can stop himself losing time, before day three, he has the chance to go even better than 4th on GC here, with the win not being out of the question.
Gabriel Cullaigh has started the season on fire and will probably be in contention to win all three of the road stages, given his sprinting and cobbles ability. Like Philipsen, he may be high on GC and bonus seconds can keep him right up there, but the TT may prevent him from winning. He didn’t ride a particularly good TT in Alentejo a few weeks ago, and although the climbs on the course suit him, he may lose too much time. If he can pull a blinder out of the bag though, his bonus seconds will definitely mean a podium could be within his grasp.
Wirtgen’s teammate Lionel Taminiaux is a pretty good Classics rider and he packs a fast finish, as shown by his 9th place on the final day’s bunch sprint in the Istrian Spring Trophy. He knows the Belgian roads well and can deal with bad weather should it come his way, after taking 17th in the epic edition of Le Samyn last month. His big goals are coming up soon with U23 Flanders and Roubaix, so a good performance here will be good for morale. I don’t believe his ITT is good enough to win the GC, but a strong overall result is doable if he performs well in stages 1 and 3b.
Edoardo Affini has struggled for results a little so far this season, but the Italian loves Classic races and should go well here. 19th in Dwars door West-Vlaanderen show his ability on the cobbles, although abandoning Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday shows his form is maybe not the best. However, his great ITT ability (4th in the Euros, 8th in Worlds, 3rd in the TT in this race last year), coupled with his Classics talent and ability to handle hills in stage races (6th overall Olympia’s Tour last season) mean that if he finds his legs, he is a great back-up plan for SEG if Van Den Berg loses time.
Should Cullaigh falter, James Fouche is more than capable of stepping up. The young New Zealander has told PEZ Cycling that he hasn’t spent much time on his TT bike, but that area of cycling isn’t a glaring weakness for him, so he may actually be OK. He handled the cobble brilliantly in his first U23 Nations Cup race last week in Ypres, so that bodes well for Beau Site. Furthermore, Fouche has a fast finish that may have him up there on stages 1 and 3b, provided he doesn’t have to lead out or protect Cullaigh. Fouche is young and is riding these U23 races for the first time, but it will be very interesting to see how he rides here overall ahead of Flanders next week.