The Flanders classics are in season, not only for the professionals but also for budding cyclists. The Under-23 Nationsâ€™ Cup opens on Saturday with the Ronde Van Vlaanderen, the Juniors Nationsâ€™ Cup on Sunday with Paris-Roubaix.
These reduced versions of the two legendary races create vocations and serve as a springboard, as can be seen by Peter Saganâ€™s third place in the â€śHell of the Northâ€ť in 2008 and the podiums achieved by Nick Nuyens and Stijn Devolder in the â€śRondeâ€ť before the two Belgians won the same event in its UCI WorldTour format.
Ronde Van Vlaanderen: competition for the Belgians
The Under-23 Ronde Van Vlaanderen course is different from the one ridden by the professionals one week earlier. Covering 169.7km around Audenarde, it is punctuated by 15 â€śbergsâ€ť: the narrow, abrupt and sometimes cobbled climbs. As the race nears its end, the Taaienberg and the Eikenberg have to be tackled twice before nine kilometres of flat asphalt leading to the finish line.
Twenty-four national teams will be at the start. The Australians, second in 2003 and 2010, will not be present this year, but the New Zealanders can hope to carry the flag for the Southern Hemisphere with Michael Vink. Meanwhile, the terrain will be a revelation for the Japanese riders taking part.
Switzerlandâ€™s Stefan Kung and the American Larson Craddok, winners last week in UCI events, are among the favourites, as is the German Rik Zabel, who won a stage in the recent Tour de Normandie. The French, Dutch, Italians and also the Russians will be lining up with riders who are usually at home on this sort of course.
But the Belgians, racing in front of their own public, will once again be the favourites. Winners 11 times out of 16, they took the top two places in 2012 with Kenneth Van Bilsen and Sean de Bie. This year they have some interesting contenders, including Jasper Stuyvens who has just come to the fore in the Volta ao Alentejo in Portugal.
An extra motivation for the Belgians on Saturday will be the desire to win points in the Under-23 Nationsâ€™ Cup: they came second overall last year behind the French and ahead of the Italians.
The Ronde Van Vlaanderen is the first European round of the Under-23s Nationsâ€™ Cup. The calendar includes six events as well as the Continental Championships in Africa, Asia (which have already taken place), America and Europe. Points won by each nation help determine the number of riders who will have the right to compete in the UCI Road World Championships.
Paris-Roubaix: an opener for the professionals
On Sunday, the Juniors Paris-Roubaix race will take place three hours before that of the professionals. The young competitors are carried along by a large and passionate public, and the last 87.4km of the 128.3km course are identical to those ridden by the peloton in the UCI WorldTour. The Juniors tackle 28.1km of cobbles including the Mons-en-PĂ©vĂ¨le and Carrefour de lâ€™Arbre sectors, before reaching the Roubaix Velodrome.
Among the 18 national teams taking part, France has a very successful history in the event (three wins in 10 years) as has Belgium and the Netherlands. Great Britain is also often in the running (two victories with Geraint Thomas and Andy Fenn, as well as three podiums).
Since last year, Denmark has been getting a name for itself as a hotbed of impressive young riders and, after Mads WĂĽrtz Schmidtâ€™s victory in 2012, the Nordic team appears to have a very real chance of repeating its winning performance. It can count on Mads Pedersen, 10th last year, and Mathias Krigbaum, 5th in the time trial at the UCI World Championships.
Denmark won the overall 2012 UCI Juniors Nationsâ€™ Cup with a comfortable lead over France and Belgium.
The Juniors Nationsâ€™ Cup includes six rounds with the addition this year of the TrophĂ©e Centre-Morbilhan in France at the beginning of August. The programme also includes the road races at the African, Asian, PanAmerican and European Continental Championships as well as the road race and individual time trial at the UCI World Championships.
Photo: Three hours before the pros, the Juniors battle it out on the cobbles of Roubaix (credit Etienne Garnier)