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Starting at 14.30 CEST you can follow what could be an epic first stage of the Driedaagse van de Panne on CyclingQuotes.com/live

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CLASSIC BRUGGE-DE PANNE

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02.04.2015 @ 10:27 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

With the Tour of Flanders less than a week away, the classics specialists spend these days finalizing their preparations and they have one final chance of doing so in racing conditions. This week's Driedaagse van de Panne offers the usual last opportunity to gauge the form but as always many of the biggest favourites for De Ronde avoid the often crash-marred event. Instead, it will be a battleground for an excellent sprinting field and a host of strong time trialists.

 

The holy period of Belgian cycling is all about one-day racing but one event bucks the trend. The Driedaagse van de Panne takes in many of the same roads that are used for the classics and offer much of the same kind of racing but is the only race with a time span of more than one day.

 

Organized by the local cycling club in the small coastal city of De Panne, the race was first held in 1977. With the 1978 edition being the only exception, the race has always been held in the week leading up to the Tour of Flanders and this quickly made it a popular event. Offering three days of fast quality racing to keep the legs going ahead of De Ronde, the race has always been an obvious choice for the classics contenders. They may not always have raced for the win but the organizers have often been able to welcome a very strong line-up for the event.

 

This is reflected in the list of winners. Sean Kelly already won the race in 1980 and even though the race was dominated by Belgian and Dutchmen in the 80s, the race has become a much more international affair. Classics stars like Michele Bartoli, Johan Musseuw, Peter van Petegem, Nico Mattan, George Hincapie, Stijn Devolder, Leif Hoste, and Alessandro Ballan have all added the race to their palmares but the dominant rider is Eric Vanderaerden who won the race 5 times in the late 80s and early 90s.

 

In recent years, however, things have changed a bit for the 2.HC race which is one of the most debated events on the cycling calendar. Nervous racing, narrow roads, and road furniture have often turned the race into a crash-fest, and no one can allow themselves to throw away months of careful preparation because of a stupid crash in a sprint stage in De Panne. Nowadays many prefer to avoid any unnecessary risks just days before one of their biggest season objectives and so the nature of the race has changed a bit.

 

In the past, the race was often won by the Flanders contenders but they are now either absent or prefer to play in safe. That doesn't take anything away from the racing though as the race instead has become a target in its own right. Always offering two flat stages, the race always attracts one of the strongest sprint fields of the entire season while the time trial specialists get a rare chance to go for glory in a major stage race without having to overcome any big climbs.

 

This year's edition doesn't seem to buck the trend. There will be no Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, Sep Vanmarcke, Peter Sagan, Geraint Thomas, Greg Van Avermaet, Zdenek Stybar, John Degenkolb, Jurgen Roelandts, Ian Stannard, Niki Terpstra or Stijn Vandenbergh on the start line when the race heads out of De Panne tomorrow. They all prefer to stay safe and recover after a heavy weekend of racing instead of risking anything in the three-day race. The recent schedule change that saw Gent-Wevelgem getting moved to the Sunday before Flanders has only made it even more important for the riders to rest as most of them now have two heavy WorldTour races in the legs.

 

Alexander Kristoff, Luca Paolini, Arnaud Demare, Bradley Wiggins and Lars Boom are the riders that buck the trend. They are all expected to play prominent roles in the biggest cobbled classics and will use the race to keep their legs going. Kristoff and Demare have always been going full gas in this race while Paolini has traditionally been playing it safe. Wiggins and Boom both have the skills to win this race and it remains to be see if they will go for the overall victory.

 

The event's prestige and UCI points, however, have again attracted a fabulous list of sprinters. Mark Cavendish has decided to take a rest and Marcel Kittel still hasn’t returned to racing after his health issues but André Greipel and Kristoff will headline a formidable list of fast finishers Cavendish but due to his broken collarbone Greipel has had to withdraw from the race. Arnaud Demare, Elia Viviani, Jens Debusschere, Andrea Guardini, Roberto Ferrari, Sacha Modolo, Davide Cimolai, Mark Renshaw, Adam Blythe, Leigh Howard, Danny van Poppel, Francesco Chicchi, Theo Bos, Sam Bennett Kristian Sbaragli, Russell Downing, Jakub Mareczko, Raymond Kreder, Antoine Demoitie and Juan Jose Lobato will all be ready to battle it out in the high-speed finales.

 

As it is reflected by the name, the race spans over three days and it follows a very fixed format. The first stage is a hilly affair in the Flemish Ardennes that includes some of the climbs known from the Flemish classics - albeit not the hardest ones. The second stage is a tribute to Gent-Wevelgem as it passes the famous climbs of Monteberg and Kemmelberg and travels along the coast in what can either be an easy sprint stage or a brutal crosswinds battle. The race ends with a morning sprint stage and a flat, technical time trial which has a major impact on the final general classification. In the past, the time trial has been held on the opening day but since 1993, the organizers have made it the decider at the end of the race.

 

The race is traditionally won by riders with three key attributes. Anyone with overall ambitions needs to be able to handle the short, steep hellingen that litter the final part of the race's difficult first stage. Then he has to handle the risk of crosswinds which has often changed the two remaining road stages from calm sprint festivals to epic battles of survival. And finally, excellent time trial abilities are needed when the key race against the clock sort out the order of the remaining contenders.

 

In calm weather, the race often comes down to a battle of seconds scored in the final time trial but if the wind wreaks havoc on the peloton, the race is about much more than TT skills and is decided by minutes instead of seconds.

 

Last year Guillaume van Keirsbulck took the biggest win of his career after making a big surprise in the final time trial. Having originally played the domestique role for big favourite Niki Terpstra, he made it into the small lead group in the hilly opening stage and he again made the selection when the peloton split in the crosswinds on stage 2. In the final time trial, everybody expected Terpstra to take the overall victory but the in-form Dutchman was set back by a mechanical. Instead, the Belgian did the ride of his life to finish 5th in the TT and move into the overall lead, with Luke Durbridge and Gert Steegmans completing the podium. This year the Belgian can expect a protected role when he returns to defend his title and he will again be up against Durbridge who has done nothing to hide his ambitions to win this race. Steegmans will also be back in the race, trying to improve on last year’s result.

 

The course

As said, the race follows a very fixed format and there are no novelties in store for the 2015 edition. Even though the stages vary slightly from year to year, the overall layout of the race is the same. On the opening day, the riders head from the coast to the Flemish Ardennes and end the stage with a few laps on a circuit that include some well-known hellingen. On the second day, they head back to the coast - passing the Kemmelberg and Monteberg along the way - and end their journey by doing a few laps on a circuit in the city of Koksijde. The final day includes a flat morning stage starting and finishing in De Panne which again has a circuit finish, and a technical time trial in the same city.

 

Last year the opening stage has got an interesting twist. The final circuit was mostly identical to the one used in previous years but was given a twist to include an extra climb even closer to the finish. This turned out to be enough for a small group to get clear and made climbing legs more important than they usually have been. This year the circuit changes a bit but has an identical finale. Stages 2 and 3a is largely unchanged and the time trial hasn’t been changed at all. Everything will depend on the weather conditions but the course will be very similar to last year’s.

 

Stage 1:

Keeping with tradition, the race starts with its toughest stage that brings the riders from the North Sea to the Flemish Ardennes. In the past, the race has started in Middelkerke on the North Sea coast but for the second year in a row, the riders will take off from the city that is the centre of the race, De Panne. The stage has often finished in either Zottegem or Oudenaarde in the heart of the Flemish Ardennes but in recent years the former city has been the preferred choice and 2015 won't change that trend.

 

The first part of the 201.6km stage consists of a long easterly run from De Panne towards the Flemish Ardennes. This part of Belgium is entirely flat and the terrain won't provide any kind of obstacles for the riders. The only noteworthy point comes at the 53.3km mark when the riders do the first intermediate sprint with bonus seconds on offer but they are likely to be swallowed up by early escapees.

 

After 85.3km of racing, the riders reach the feed zone in the city of Oudenaarde where the Tour of Flanders will finish in less than a week. Unsurprisingly, this signals a change of the terrain as the riders head straight into the hills as they go up the Edelareberg (1525m, 4.2%, max. 7%) 7km further up the road. It is followed by the Haaghoek pavé sector which features in most of the Flemish classics as the riders are now on the circuit that will be the scene of the final action.

 

After the Haaghoek, the riders do the Leberg (950m, 4.2%, max. 13.8%) whose top comes 101.3km from the finish. 5.7km later they reach the top of the Berendries (936m, 7.08%, max. 12.34%) after which the riders deviate from the finishing circuit to get a flatter approach to the first passage of the finish line and the second intermediate sprint.

 

It comes 89km from the finish and the riders now start the first of their two laps of the 44.5km finishing circuit that is located on the southwestern outskirts of Zottegem. The first 11.6km are rather easy but then the riders reach the Haaghoek for the second time. They now go up the Leberg and the Berendries again but instead of heading straight back to the finish as they did the previous time, they add a few extra kilometres to the circuit to include three additional climbs.

 

The first one, Valkenberg (875m, 6.06%, max. 15%) comes 5.2km after the Brendries and is followed by a longer flat 9.2km section before they hit the Eikenmolen (450m, 6.9%, max. 8.7%). In 2013, the top of that climb was located 10.9km from the line but like last year the course has been modified. The distance to the finish has been shortened to 9.5km and furthermore the riders go up an additional helling, Klemhoutstraat (720m), whose top comes just 4.4km from the finish.

 

From there the roads are slightly descending all the way to the finish in Zottegem, with only very slight rises coming 1.5km and 500m from the finish. At the 1.4km to go mark, the riders turn left and then there is a sweeping left-hand bend 600m from the finish. With 400m to go, the road bends to the right and history proves that it is very important to be well-positioned at this point of the race as the downhill run makes the pace very fast and makes it difficult for riders to pass each other on the short finishing straight. The final intermediate sprint comes at the finish after the completion of the first lap.

 

Compared to last year, the distance is virtually unchanged and in general the stage is very similar. The flat run from De Panne to the finishing circuit is largely unchanged, with only very few modifications along the way. However, the finishing circuit has been altered. The Langendries had been replaced by the Berendries and the Valkenberg will take the place of Ten Bosse. The two new climbs are both harder than the previous ones but on the other hand, the distance between the Valkenberg and the Eikenmolen is much longer than the distance between Ten Bosse and the latter climb. In general, however, the stage seems to be a bit harder than the one they tackled 12 months ago.

 

The stage is usually an extremely aggressive affair with constantly changing situations and several different groups going up the road at different points of the race. The race favourites have often tested each other a bit further out and double race winner Sylvain Chavanel has often gone on the attack from afar. As the course is not overly selective, the classics specialists cannot allow themselves to wait for the final few climbs if they want to make things tough for their rivals and if the right group goes clear, the peloton may never see it again. In the past, it has been a very good idea to anticipate the favourites and in the end, a combination of late and early attackers have often arrived at the finish. The stage has a lot of possible scenarios and as always the weather plays a huge role in determining the difficulty of the race.

 

Last year, a 7-rider group of riders that had attacked on the finishing circuit – including later overall winner Guillaume van Keirsbulck – was still clear at the bottom of the Eikenmolen. On that climb, Peter Sagan, Oscar Gatto, Niki Terpstra and Gert Steegmans bridged the gap. Steegmans and Van Keirsbulck sacrificed themselves for Terpstra and managed to keep a strong chase duo of Luke Durbridge and Arnaud Demare at bay. In the sprint, Sagan tried to lead Gatto out but he slowed down too late and so he won the stage ahead of his teammate. Demare and Durbridge followed at 11 seconds while Marcel Kittel led the peloton home 8 seconds later.

 

In 2013, Sagan won the stage from a 10-rider group while Andre Greipel led a 57-rider group across the line 9 seconds later. In 2012, the stage was slightly different as it finished in Oudenaarde, with Sagan winning a 50-rider sprint. In 2011, Greipel won a sprint of more than 100 riders while the most recent really selective edition of the Zottegem finish was in 2009 when Filippo Pozzato beat Frederik Willems in a two-rider sprint. With the final circuit being a bit harder, there is a chance that things may split up a bit more but there is also a big chance that a rather big group will arrive at the finish.

 

 

 

 

Stage 2:

The second stage usually brings the riders from a start in either Oudenaarde or Zottegem in the Flemish Ardennes back to the coast and a finish in Koksijde, the neighbouring city of De Panne. This stage is usually the longest of the race, with its 210-220km making it great classics preparation.

 

At 217.2km, this year's stage will be longer than last year’s and it follows the well-known formula even though it has been given an interesting twist in the finale. In 2015, the point of departure will be Tuesday's finishing city of Zottegem and from there the riders head straight west as they start their journey back to the sea. They avoid all the climbs in this hilly area and pass south of Oudenaarde to leave the Flemish Ardennes.

 

From there, the riders continue in the same direction along flat roads as they pass Kortijk and reach Roeselare after 60km of racing. From here they continue in a southwesterly direction as they head towards the French-Belgian border and the climbs that are known from Gent-Wevelgem.

 

Having reached the hilly area, they zigzag their way to go up all the important ascents. First up is the Mesenberg (1100m, 3.2%, max. 8%) 113.8km from the finish. It is followed by the Monteberg (1000m, 7.3%, max. 13%) which comes 99.8km from the finish and afterwards the riders go straight up the feared Kemmelberg (700m, 7.8%, max. 17.0%). 5.4km later it is time for the Rodeberg (1700m, 4.8%, max. 13.0%) while the climbing comes to an end with the Vidaigneberg (175m, 4.6%, max. 10%) whose top is located 91.5km from the finish.

 

The riders now follow the border in a northerly direction as they head along flat roads towards the sea. The first intermediate sprint comes 49.5km from the finish and 10.8km further up the road, they pass the finish line for the first time, contesting the second intermediate sprint.

 

The stage ends with 3 laps of a slightly modified 12.9km almost rectangular finishing circuit that brings the riders along the coast from Koksijde and Oostduinkerke before travelling back along another road. In the past, it has been a non-technical affair with three roundabouts and only three sharp turns. This year, however, the organizers have added some extra turns in the city centre and moved the finish to this technical part of the course which could significantly alter the nature of the sprint. The riders will turn tight in a roundabout just before the 2km mark and do a similar maneuver just before the flamme rouge. Then two sharp left-hand turns follow in quick succession inside the final 500m before the riders get to the 250m finishing straight. The circuit is almost completely flat, with only two very small rises and descents inside the final kilometre.

 

Compared to last year's stage, this one is slightly longer and has been given an extra twist by the addition of the Mesenberg in the hilly zone. The main change, however, is the modifications to the finishing circuit which will make it a much more technical sprint. The climbs are located too far from the finish to make much difference and even though some riders may stretch their legs on the Kemmelberg, there's rarely too much action on the climbs. The stage usually pans out as a traditional sprint stage unless the wind wreaks havoc on the peloton. This happened in 2010 when Sebastien Turgot won on a very rainy day and last year the combination of wind and climbs made the group split in the hilly zone. 32 riders made up the first group and they managed to stay clear, with Sacha Modolo beating Arnaud Demare and Alexander Kristoff in the sprint. The 2011, 2012 and 2013editions all ended in big bunch sprints, with Denis Galimzyanov, Marcel Kittel and Mark Cavendish taking the wins.

 

 

 

 

Stage 3a:

The riders kick off the decisive final day of the race with the usual short stage starting and finishing in De Panne and compared to recent years, it is almost complete unchanged. At 111.4km, it is a short affair and even though there are a few smaller climbs along the way, it is an almost entirely flat one.

 

The riders start in the seaside city of De Panne and follow the coast to Wednesday's finishing city of Koksijde. Having reached Oostduinkerke, they take on a big circuit that takes them along the coastal road to the city of Middelkerke after 20km of racing. Here they turn right to leave the coast and continue in a southeasterly direction until they pass the city of Ichtegem. Another change of direction brings them in a southerly direction to Kortemark where they start their journey back to the coast. After the city of Diksmuide, the roads become more winding and the course a bit more technical until the riders end their circuit 16km from the finish.

 

Back in Oostduinkerke, they turn left and contest the only intermediate sprint in Koksijde 13.6km from the finish. They follow the same road as they did earlier in the day back to De Panne where they cross the line 8.4km from the finish. The stage ends with a lap of an 8.4km non-technical, rectangular finishing circuit that includes three roundabouts and only two sharp turns. The final one, however, comes at the end of a long straight road just 300m from the finish and leads onto the cobbled finishing straight. History proves that this is a very nervous finish where the real sprint takes place before the final corner as the stage winner is always one of the three first riders to go through that turn and the sprint has often been marred by crashes.

 

The wind may wreak havoc on the peloton in this stage but usually it is a pretty straightforward affair for the sprinters as the GC riders are keen to save energy for the afternoon time trial. Alexander Kristoff has dominated this sprint as he has taken it twice in a row while Jacopo Guarnieri and Tyler Farrar won in 2011 and 2010 respectively. Last year Kristoff’s dominance was broken when Sacha Modolo made it two in a row by holding off Andrea Guardini and Kenny van Hummel while the Norwegian could only manage 8th.

 

 

 

 

Stage 3b:

The hills and the wind may have produced some time differences but the single most decisive stage is usually the final time trial. No one will win the race without possessing solid time trialing skills to negotiate the final 14.2km in the city of De Panne. The course is well-known for the riders as it has been largely unchanged since 2010. Last year, however, there was a slight modification at the end of the stage that reduced the distance by 450m and this same finish will be used in 2015.

 

The course is entirely flat and suits the big specialists who can produce great power on the long, flat stretches that characterize most of the course. However, there is a technical middle section that makes things more complicated and requires acceleration skills and the riders often have to battle a rather strong wind.

 

From the start, the riders do a few early turns until they reach the coastal road that they will follow for a few kilometres. This part suits the specialists but they will be challenged a bit more in the next section. After 3km the riders turn right and go straight until they make their first U-turn 1km further up the road. 5.4km from the finish, they turn right before making another U-turn to head back along the same road and again turn right. A little further down the road, they do the same little trick with a right-hand turn and a subsequent U-turn. They are now back on the coastal road and from there it is a long straight journey all the way back towards the start-finishing area. When the riders turn left 1.2km from the finish, things again get a bit more technical as the final part includes several corners.

 

It says a lot about the importance of the time trial that the winner of the final stage and the overall was the same from 2009-2013. Sylvain Chavanel did the double twice in a row and was preceded on the list by Sebastien Rosseler and David Millar. In 2009 the trend was bucked when Frederik Willems took the overall win despite only finishing 30th in the time trial which was won by Bradley Wiggins. The Belgian had taken enough time in the hilly opening stage to hold off defending champion Joost Potsthuma by 19 seconds. Last year it was another unusual edition as Maciej Bodnar won the stage while Guillaume van Keirsbulck had gained enough time in the selective first two stages to win the race overall despite only finishing fifth. The list of winners indicates which riders excel on this course: this is one for the real TT specialists.

 

 

 

 

The weather

As we have already indicated, the weather plays a huge role in this race. If there is little wind and no rain, the race is mostly decided by the time trial but the wind may wreak havoc on the peloton to make it a race about minutes and not seconds. The last few editions have not been overly selective – in 2013 the riders enjoyed a nice break from an otherwise brutal spring and had almost summerlike condition – even though the wind created a bit of selection in the second stage 12 months ago. The 2010 race proves what a tough affair this race can be if the conditions are right and if the riders will be fighting with wind like in Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem, it is not hard to imagine how tough it can be.

 

Looking at the weather forecast, it seems that the 2015 edition could turn into the most dramatic in the history of the race and there is a big chance that we will see a repeat of the epic conditions that made Gent-Wevelgem a memorable race. On Tuesday, the wind will be just as strong as it was last Sunday, coming from a westerly direction. This means that the riders will have a strong tailwind for most of the day but on the finishing circuit, there will be several crosswind sections. There will be a mix of showers and sunshine and the temperature will be about 10 degrees.

 

The conditions should be almost similar for Wednesday’s stage but there should be fewer showers and more sunshine. This time the riders will mostly have a fierce headwind but after the hilly zone, they will turn into a long crosswind section that will probably rip the race to pieces. On the finishing circuit, there will mostly be a tail- or a headwind.

 

The wind is forecasted to abate for the final day where a light wind will be blowing from a northerly direction which means that the racing should be more straightforward. However, it should be a cold and rainy day, with a temperature of just degrees.

 

The favourites

As said this race usually comes down to a combination of three skills: time trialing, climbing ability in the opening stage and handling of potential crosswinds in any of the three road stages. With 10, 6 and 4 bonus seconds on the line in the first two road stages and 6, 4 and 2 seconds in Thursday's first half-stage, sprinting ability may come into play as well. Depending on the weather conditions, the first three stages usually whittle the number of contenders down and they battle it out in the final time trial to find the winner of the race.

 

Traditionally time trialling skills are by far the most important in this race but in 2015 things could be different. With the weather forecast for the first two days being reminiscent of the one that turned Gent-Wevelgem into one of the most epic races in recent years, the 2015 edition of the Three Days of De Panne should turn into a very selective affair. Crosswinds are set to mar the first two road stages which could both turn into races of attrition. In this race, classics skills will be a lot more important than they usually are and the number of remaining contenders by the time we reach Thursday afternoon could be significantly reduced. The difference between the best riders will probably still be seconds but further back, the time gaps can be extremely big.

 

This also makes it more difficult to find the favourite for the race and it is no longer just a matter of finding the best time triallist. This year a much more complete rider is likely to excel in De Panne and the time triallists cannot longer expect an easy ride for the first two days before they can battle it out in the final test against the clock.

 

With the classics riders expected to shine, some of the Tour of Flanders contenders should come to the fore. One of them is Lars Boom who will make his debut in a race that suits him down to the ground. The Dutchman is looking to finally prove himself as one of the best classics riders in the world and is ready for a big cobbled classics campaign.

 

Unfortunately, he got it off to a very bad start as he crashed out of E3 Harelbeke at a time when he had launched what could potentially be a race-winning move. He was about to bridge the gap to the four leaders and looked impressively strong when he rode away from all his rivals on the Oude Kwaremont. After a quite March, Boom proved that he is in perfect condition for the classics.

 

The crash was a setback and he had to skip Gent-Wevelgem. However, he has suffered no major injuries and should be ready to shine in this race. The Astana leader has all the skills to do well here. He is probably the strongest rider in the hilly terrain and he excellent in the crosswinds too. He should be able to make the selection in the first two stages and with his fast sprint, he may even pick up a few bonus seconds, mainly in stage 1 which could be potential opportunity to take a stage win. Furthermore, he is a solid time triallist. He is no longer as strong as he once was and there are definitely better time triallists than him in this race. Among the ones who are left in contention for the final stage, however, he could be the strongest.

 

The main issue is whether Boom will be riding for the overall win and whether he will go full gas in what could be dangerous conditions so close to the Tour of Flanders. However, he missed out on some important racing these last few days and we expect him to test himself in the first stage. If he finds himself in a winning position, he is unlikely to hold anything back and this makes him our favourite to win the race.

 

Manuel Quinziato is usually a loyal domestique but in this race he will get his chance to ride as a leader. The Italian has done well here in the past as he was second in 2008 and fourth in 2009. Back then, he was a great time triallist but for some years he seemed to have lost the edge in the race against the clock.

 

Last year he found back to his best level in the time trials, doing some really strong rides in the Tour of Austria, Tirreno-Adriatico and the Eneco Tour. Furthermore, he is a great classics rider who has finished in the top 10 in Paris-Roubaix. He is excellent at positioning himself and should have no trouble handling the crosswinds.

 

Unlike Boom, there is no doubt that Quinziato will be extremely motivated for this race which will be his chance to chase some personal success. There is a solid chance that he will beat Boom in the time trial but his main challenge will be to stay with Boom in stage 1. The Dutchman is much stronger on the hellingen but if Quinziato can limit his losses here, he will be one of the big favourites.

 

If the weather forecast had been similar to last year’s, Bradley Wiggins would have been our favourite to win the race. Being the reigning world champion, he is obviously the best time triallist in this race and we will be hugely surprised if he doesn’t win the final stage.

 

However, Wiggins’ big goal is Paris-Roubaix and he won’t take any risks so close to his big objective. That’s why he abandoned Gent-Wevelgem and with the conditions set to be equally dangerous, we don’t think he will make the selection in the first two stages. He will probably still win the time trial but he could be far back in the GC at that time.

 

If he decides to target the win, however, he will be the favourite. He is very good at positioning himself and an in-form Wiggins will never be dropped in the crosswinds. He is not as explosive as Boom on the climbs but no one can deny that he has great climbing legs. If he is still in contention at the start of the time trial, he will probably win the race.

 

Alexander Kristoff has always done very well in this race and he has won several stages in the past. Two years ago he even did an excellent final time trial to finish the race in second overall. This year he may have an even better chance to win the race as the windy conditions should make the race really hard and this will come in handy for one of the best classics riders.

 

No one will be able to drop Kristoff in the crosswinds and he will be the obvious favourite to win what could be a very hard stage 2. He may lack the explosiveness to stay with the best on the climbs in stage 1 but in last year’s Tour of Flanders he proved that his skills here shouldn’t be underestimated. Kristoff could potentially win the three road stages and that would give him a handy buffer ahead of the time trial. If he can reproduce the ride he did two years ago, it will be hard for the specialists to take back all that time.

 

Yves Lampaert has had a great start to his time with Etixx-QuickStep and has already made a big impression in the classics. Despite working for his teammates, he was among the best in both E3 Harelbeke and Dwars door Vlaanderen and he has a huge potential in the hardest one-day races.

 

Furthermore, he is a solid time triallist who has often led Topsport Vlaanderen in this race and so he has all the skills to shine in this race. He is also fast in a sprint which should provide him with opportunities to pick up bonus seconds. He should be among the strongest in the difficult condition and then it will all come down to the time trial. On paper, he may not be at Quinziato’s and Boom’s level but he can definitely produce a surprise.

 

Defending champion Guillaume van Keirsbulck will be keen to make it two in a row in a race where he will get a rare chance to ride for himself. However, the Belgian is definitely not the favourite to win the race. He is a solid time triallist but there are several riders who are better in the race against the clock. He is a great classics rider who will be hard to drop in the crosswinds but he lacks the skills to stay with the very best on the hellingen.

 

However, van Keirsbulck has the right aggressive spirit to anticipate the likes of Lars Boom in stage 1 and if he can avoid any time loss in the opening day, he will be in contention. Last year he proved that he can produce an outstanding time trial and if he can repeat that performance, a repeat win is possible.

 

Luke Durbridge has done nothing to hide that he wants to win this race. Last year he got very close when he finished second and this year he hopes to improve. However, Durbridge is no longer the time triallist he once was. Destined for greatness, he took several impressive wins in his first pro year but since then he has lost the edge. Nowadays, he rarely finishes in the top 10 in the time trials.

 

On the other hand, Durbridge has improved his climbing skills and he is generally a much stronger rider. This should come in handy in the first two stages which should be really hard. In the past, he would probably have been dropped but now he has a chance to stay with the best. If he can rediscover his best legs for the time trial, he may finally take the win.

 

Stijn Devolder is a former winner of this race which suits him down to the ground. However, the Belgian is no longer the rider he once was. Last year he was very strong at this time of the year but this year he has been far from his best. Furthermore, he had a bad crash in Dwars door Vlaanderen and even though he managed to get through the E3 Harelbeke, his build-up hasn’t been perfect. The harsh conditions should suit him well but he will have to return to his former level in the time trial to win the race.

 

Kris Boeckmans has had an outstanding season. In Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, he was among the very best on the hellingen and since then he has taken two uphill sprint wins in Le Samyn and Nokere Koerse. He has had bad luck with crashes in his recent races and his condition for this race is a bit uncertain. However, he should relish the harsh conditions and he has the speed to win the sprints. In the Etoile de Besseges, he proved that he can time trial too and if he has a few bonus seconds as a buffer, this could turn him into a contender.

 

Arnaud Demare is known as a sprinter but he is a very good classics rider too. In the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, he confirmed that he can be with the best on the hellingen and he looked solid in Gent-Wevelgem too. He has not had a lot of success in the sprints but he has proved that he has the speed and the poor performances have mostly been due to bad positioning. He should be among the best in the harsh conditions and has a chance to stay with the best in stage 1 too. Last year he did a surprisingly good time trial in Tirreno-Adriatico and a repeat of that performance and a few bonus seconds could turn him into a contender.

 

The same goes for André Greipel who should be the fastest rider in this race. The German is solid in the classics terrain but the harsh conditions could be a bit too much for him. He is a decent time triallist but he will definitely lose time to the best. If he can pick up a lot of bonus seconds in the road stages, he could create a surprise.

 

Elia Viviani is another sprinter who could do well in this race. In Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, he proved that he can stay with the best in the classics terrain and in Tirreno-Adriatico he proved that he has improved a lot in the time trials. To win the race, he needs to score a lot of bonus seconds but this year he has both been climbing and sprinting really well. A couple of stage wins and the time trial of his life could make him a contender.

 

On paper, this race suits Johan Le Bon perfectly and the talented Frenchman has been on the podium in the past. This year, however, he doesn’t seem to be in his best condition and in recent years he has not been at his best in the time trials. However, he suddenly did a very good prologue in Tirreno-Adriatico which may indicate that he can return to his former level. At this best, he is a good classics rider but it remains to be seen if he has the condition to survive the elimination in the first two stages.

 

Jasper Stuyven is destined for greatness in the classics but due to a crash in Strade Bianche, he has not had perfect build-up. He used the first part of Volta a Catalunya to get back up to racing speed before he headed home to prepare for the classics. He will use this race to fine-tune his condition and if he is again close to 100%, he should be among the best in the bad weather. He is fast in a sprint and even though he is not a time trial specialist, he did a very good final time trial in last year’s Vuelta.

 

On paper, Jesse Sergent is one of the best time triallists in this race and if it had been a usual edition of the race, he would have been one of our favourites. With the tough conditions, however, we doubt that he will be in contention by the time we get to the time trial. If he is, however, he will be one of the favourites.

 

***** Lars Boom

**** Manuel Quinziato, Bradley Wiggins

*** Alexander Kristoff, Yves Lampaert, Guillaume van Keirsbulck, Luke Durbridge

** Stijn Devolder, Kris Boeckmans, Arnaud Demare, Elia Viviani, André Greipel, Johan Le Bon, Jasper Stuyven, Jesse Sergent

* Julien Vermote, Michael Hepburn, Nelson Oliveira, Sean de Bie, Christian Knees, Alexey Lutsenko, David Boucher, Matthieu Ladagnous, Filippo Pozzato, Damien Howson, Jens Keukeleire, Campbell Flakemore, Stefan Küng, Aleksandr Porsev, Gert Steegmans, Jasha Sütterlin, Jimmy Engoulvent, Sonny Colbrelli, Mauro Finetto 

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