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Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne: Choose your own adventure

If the sprinters can survive, they win Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. Seems a bit boring, on its face. But that tension, watching the fast men hang on for dear life as the classics stars smash them over Belgium’s cobbled spine, is part of the race’s allure.

The final outcome of Kuurne is as much dependent on the motivation of the field, its desire and ability to shed the fast men, as it is on the talent, form, and tactics of any one rider. This separates it from the more difficult classics, where raw strength, in sufficient quantities, can triumph. Much like Milano-Sanremo a month later, Kuurne’s character is binary. Big bunch sprint, or tiny group sprint. Rarely is it anything in between.

Kuurne features nine hellingen, those steep, cobbled climbs that mark the best Belgian races, across 197 kilometers. It is the second half of the classics’ opening weekend, featuring much of the same terrain as Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. But there is a crucial difference: At Kuurne, the cobbled climbs end over an hour’s ride from the finish line.

That gives sprinters, and their teams, a chance to regroup, regain contact with the front of the race if the hellingen have sent them off the back, and set up for victory. So it was in 2012, when Mark Cavendish (Etixx-Quick-Step) sprinted to victory out of a group of 110 riders.

The race is nothing like a flat grand tour stage, though. It’s not a mere parade until the sprint trains ramp up. A motivated team or bad weather can fracture the race beyond repair, as Tom Boonen (Etixx-Quick-Step) and company did last year.

Omega Pharma-Quick Step (now Etixx-Quick-Step) and Belkin (now LottoNL-Jumbo) hit the gas over 70 kilometers from the finish line in 2014, splintering the peloton and sending many of the fastest finishers off the back, never to return. Boonen was first across the line, sprinting out of a group of 10 that included only two riders not from either Omega or Belkin. The main peloton, 39 riders strong, was led across the line by Alexander Kristoff (Katusha).

The weather can play an equally important role. A cold peloton is often a complacent one. Bobbie Traksel, now retired, used this to his advantage in 2010, slipping off the front with Ian Stannard (Team Sky) amid bitterly cold conditions to take a surprise victory. The forecast for this weekend doesn’t look good — temperatures in the mid 40s with rain sometime Saturday night and into Sunday. There’s a good chance that either Omloop or Kuurne, or both, are affected by the showers.

A few riders and teams to keep an eye on this Sunday:

Going for the double: Alexander Kristoff
Kristoff is the favorite for Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and has a real shot at picking up the Omloop/Kuurne double this weekend. He’s a danger regardless of the race’s character, perfectly capable of winning out of a large bunch and likely strong enough to keep up with the rouleurs if they try to split the field across the back of the Kwaremont.

If history is any guide: Tom Boonen
Boonen has a hat-trick in Kuurne, from wins in 2007, 2009, and 2014. Like Kristoff, he can win out of a bunch or off the front. He has Mark Cavendish at his side this year, providing Etixx with two potent and tactically dissimilar options. If it blows up, Boonen can be there. If it stays together, there’s always Cav, waiting in the wings. That takes pressure off both riders; one plus one can equal more than two in tactical calculus.

Saving it for another day: André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal)
Greipel came down sick this week, citing a throat infection. He could certainly have contested the win if the race stayed relatively compact, though his absence opens the door for a teammate like Marcel Sieberg to give it a go — the German was second in 2007.

Team with options: Team Sky
Etixx always has the numbers up front, but Sky’s lineup of Bradley Wiggins, Ian Stannard, Elia Viviani, and former Kuurne winner Chris Sutton gives the team myriad options across a variety of race scenarios. Stannard has proven his ability to shrug off bad weather, Wiggins can never be underestimated, Viviani has been sprinting well since the Tour of Dubai, and Sutton has done it before.

Something to prove: MTN-Qhubeka
The team now has three solid classics riders in Gerald Ciolek, Edvald Boassen Hagen, and Tyler Farrar. The latter two are new to the squad and coming off lackluster 2014 seasons. They will want to prove their value, and prove that last year was a fluke, as quickly as possible. Farrar is well-suited to the parcours and should have a bit of form from the Vuelta a Andalucia. Boassen Hagen can be there if the field detonates. Ciolek is likely focused a bit later in the season, but don’t discount his finishing kick.

VeloNews’ darkhorse pick: Yauheni Hutarovich (Bretange-Seché Environment)
Second behind Cavendish in 2012, Hutarovich can be there if the race stays largely intact. He’s already won three times this year, albeit at the smaller La Tropicale Amissa Bongo race, but the confidence gained from any win should not be underestimated, nor should the desire to put it to the WorldTour juggernauts with his Pro Continental squad.