From Riemst to Bilzen, the Benelux Tour got harder on Friday, and Stefan Küng already made the most of it! After a lively final in stage 5, the Swiss rider crossed the line in 17th position, just behind Jake Stewart (13th), within a small peloton. Above all, he took the lead of the overall standings after his main competitors experienced difficulties along the road. The Groupama-FDJ’s rider will start the decisive weekend with a margin of two seconds over his closest competitor.
“It was essential to be positioned today”, Jussi Veikkanen
After three completely flat stages and a very fast time trial, the first hills of the Benelux Tour were to be tackled on Friday in stage 5. It was therefore a first test for the GC contenders through the typical Belgian climbs. Among the fifteen featuring on the day’s course, the first one was located after about forty kilometres of racing, and three men started it with a small advantage over the peloton. “There was a big fight for 20 kilometres or so before the break could go,” Jussi said. “We also followed 2-3 moves that were quite dangerous. Eventually, the good move went before the climbs. Most of the peloton wanted the break to establish itself at that point, so everyone was kind of happy to let three guys go.” Up front, Casper Pedersen (Team DSM), Jack Bauer (BikeExchange) and Hugo Houle (Astana) never enjoyed a big gap however, as the leader’s team tried to keep things under control. When the peloton got to the finish line for the first time, 80 kilometers from the end, the gap was only two minutes. In the big loop around Bilzen, the first few attacks occurred but did not create real damage. Everything was then back in order starting the two laps of the small circuit (20 kilometres) including the Keiberg and Letenberg.
“There were no particular dangers regarding the wind,” said Jussi. “There was a little acceleration before the golden kilometre but the breakaway managed to stay away and took all the bonus seconds, which was pretty good for us. We also knew the final circuit, as we often came in the area. The goal was to be well positioned in the last two laps, especially starting the last one. The guys made a good effort together to be there at the key moment. It was essential today, because the race was mostly decided this way. On the last lap, the climb located ten kilometres from the finish made some damage. Benjamin and the others did a good work to put Stefan and Jake in the best possible conditions, and then there were splits everywhere”. A few other attacks happened again in the last few kilometres, but it did not prove enough to create a breakaway. However, many riders dropped from the back and that also included the leader himself Stefan Bissegger. In the opposite, Stefan Küng was in the front group while Kasper Asgreen suffered a mechanical problem. The Swiss rider eventually finished in the first bunch, in 17th position, and thus went on the podium this Friday evening to collect the leader’s jersey.
“I’m pretty confident”, Stefan Küng
“I wasn’t expecting it,” he said. “I thought the GC would likely change on the stages of Saturday and Sunday, but when we did the briefing today, we knew that we always had to stay in front on this circuit, with these climbs and the corners. This is what I tried to do, as well as avoiding trouble as much as possible. I was calm all day, I put myself in a good position with the help of the guys on the last lap. Then I just held on. Bissegger was not in a good day, Asgreen had a mechanical problem, but I was focused on my race only. The goal was not to lose time, to stay in front and I took the jersey only by doing that”. “It was not planned,” confirmed Jussi Veikkanen. “We thought the race would be slightly more packed”. Caleb Ewan took the stage win in a slightly uphill finish while Jake Stewart, a bit too far back in the last kilometres, had to settle for thirteenth on Friday. “The major goal for the day was the overall with Stefan, so the job has been done, even though Jake unfortunately couldn’t do his sprint as he wanted,” added the Finnish sports director.
Ahead of the final weekend, Stefan Küng then lead the general classification for two seconds ahead of his runner-up and six over the third. “We will see how to proceed from now on,” commented Jussi. “We will know tomorrow night whether it was an advantage or a disadvantage to have taken the jersey today. Anyway, we know the circuit and the guys are definitely motivated to defend the jersey”. Stefan Küng won’t say the opposite. “It won’t be easy to enter the stage as the GC leader because everyone will try to attack me, but I will do my best to keep the jersey and I know the whole team is behind me,” he said. “I know all the climbs around Houffalize. This is already my seventh participation in this race. I’ve done this stage a few times so I know what to expect and it’s going to be really tough! I was up there two years ago, so I’m pretty confident and I feel good. Tomorrow, it will be really difficult against the pure punchers but I will be more on my terrain on Sunday”.