All it took was about 750 meters of cobblestones to transform Le Samyn, previously a sprinter-friendly affair (and lesser known for that very reason), into a midweek thriller on the French border in Wallonia, Belgium. You’ll want to tune in for this modest semi-classic on Wednesday.
Granted, there are actually four cobble sectors in the local lap, which is ridden four times (three and three last year), but it’s the last one that really stings. Rue de Belle Vue comes 2.6 kilometers from the finish in Dour. The muddy stones detonated a moderately large peloton, resulting in a group of eight, which Kris Boeckmans out-sprinted in 2015.
The thing about these cobbles (and other races’ similarly decisive features) is that they inject frantic aggression into the game as teams jockey for position ahead of the final passage. This made the final kilometers of last year’s race so thrilling.
The 47-year-old event that was named in memory of its first winner José Samyn, who died in a different race the following year (eerie coincidence: Wouter Weylandt also won Le Samyn), added those decisive cobbles in 2015. Previously, sprinters like Magnus Backstedt, Robbie McEwen, and Jimmy Casper enjoyed a smooth cruise to the line for early-season victories.
“We added these pavé to highlight them and because we are in the midst of Flanders classics season, where pavé are normal,” Le Samyn’s Jean-Luc Vandenbroucke said last year at the route presentation.
Apart from all the usual reasons for cobblestones in the spring, their romantic sense of tradition and brutal difficulty, the more decisive course highlights lesser-known riders.
Lotto – Soudal’s Boeckmans won Schaal Sels and a trio of stages in UCI 2.1-categorized stage races, but he had precious few results on his palmares before Le Samyn. Last season turned out to be pretty fruitful for the 29-year-old Belgian. He went on to win the GC at the Tour de Picardie and the World Ports Classic, as well as Nokere Koerse. However, his 2015 campaign ended with a horrible crash in the Vuelta a Espana and his return to racing is still uncertain. Philippe Gilbert is the only returning winner in the 2016 men’s edition.
On the women’s side, Chantal Blaak will be back to defend her title. She out-sprinting some elite company in Anna van der Breggen in 2015. The Boels – Dolmans Dutchwoman went on to win a stage at Euskal Emakumeen Bira in Spain. But more importantly, she earned second place at Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (behind world champ Lizzie Armitstead), indicating she’s ready for another dose of Wallonia cobbles come Wednesday.