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Will Tony Martin conquer the Driedaagse van de Panne in his debut at the race?

Photo: Sirotti

CLASSIC BRUGGE-DE PANNE

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29.03.2016 @ 13:40 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 triallists.

 

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 offers 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, Alessandro Ballan and Alexander Kristoff 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, Jurgen Roelandts, 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.

 

However, the organizers had probably hoped for things to change. The race has always featured prominently on Alexander Kristoff’s calendar and he has enjoyed lots of success here long before he became a classics star. Last year he became the first rider since Ballan to make the De Panne-Flanders double, thus again adding some weight behind the claim of the organizers that this is the place to prepare for the first cobbled monument. There’s no reason to change a winning formula so Kristoff will be back in 2016 as he lines up alongside Ian Stannard, Luke Rowe and Lars Boom who all buck the trend. They are expected to play prominent roles in the biggest cobbled classics and will use the race to keep their legs going. Kristoff has always been going full gas in this race while Boom has the skills to win this race but it remains to be seen 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 won’t be present but André Greipel, Marcel Kittel and Kristoff will headline a formidable list of fast finishers. Elia Viviani, Andrea Guardini, Sacha Modolo, Erik Baska, Marc Sarreau, Luka Mezgec, Nicola Ruffoni, Phil Bauhaus, Michael van Staeyen, Adrien Petit, Eduard Grosu, Chris Opie, Raymond Kreder, Jakub Mareczko, Michael Carbel, Amaury Capiot and Bert van Lerberghewill 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 and includes some of the climbs known from the Flemish classics - albeit rarely 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 Alexander Kristoff turned himself from outsider to favourite for the Tour of Flanders by dominating the event. First he proved his form by making it into a six-rider group that decided the hilly opening stage and he easily beat Jens Debusschere to take his first win. He went on to win the next two sprint stages to put him in pole position for the time trial. That was the only stage he failed to win as he was unable to match Bradley Wiggins but he still did the time trial of his life to take a surprise third place. That was enough to take the overall victory with an unusually large winning margin of 23 seconds over Stijn Devolder and 42 seconds over Wiggins. Kristoff will be back to defend his title but there will be no Devolder or Wiggins who will of course be absent as he has turned his attention to the track.

 

The course

As said, the race follows a very fixed format and there are no major novelties in store for the 2016 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.

 

In 2014 and 2015, the opening stage got an interesting twist. The final circuit was mostly identical to the one used in previous years but included 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 has been changed to include the famous Muur van Gerardsbergen which will probably make the race harder and more selective than it has been for years. Stages 2 and 3a are largely unchanged and the time trial hasn’t been changed at all. Depending on the weather conditions, it seems that this year’s race will be more selective than usual.

 

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 third 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 2016 won't change that trend.

 

The first part of the 198.2km 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 51.2km 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 73.2km 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.

 

After the Haaghoek, the riders do the Leberg (950m, 4.2%, max. 13.8%) whose top comes 110km from the finish. 5.6km later they reach the top of the Berendries (936m, 7.08%, max. 12.34%) from where they head to the first passage of the finish line and the second intermediate sprint which comes with 97.6km to go

 

The riders now start the first of their two laps of the 48.8km finishing circuit that is located on the southern outskirts of Zottegem. The first 13.8km are flat and lead to another passage of the Berendries (936m, 7.08%, max. 12.34%) which is followed by the Ten Bosse (450,, 6.9%, max. 8.7%) just 5.2km later. Then the terrain levels out but it will all be a hectic build-up to the famous Muur van Geraardsbergen (1075m, 9.1%, max. 20%) which makes a welcome return to the finale of a major bike race. It comes 17.8km from the finish and leads to a mostly flat final part. However, as it has been the case in the last two years, the riders will face the small Klemhoutstraat (720m) whose top comes just 5.3km 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 completely. Only the Berendries and the Klemhoutstraat remain from the old circuit and instead the Muur and the relatively easy Ten Bosse have been added. The Muur is simply brutal and will do a lot of damage but last year’s circuit had climbs closer to the finish. Nonetheless, the stage can be expected to be more selective than it was 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 has not been overly selective, the classics specialists have not allowed themselves to wait for the final few climbs if they want to make things tough for their rivals. This year it will all come down to the Muur where the selection will be made but there will be more time for a regrouping to take place. In the end, a small group is likely to decide the race in a sprint. The time gaps will probably be bigger than they have been in the past but the group could be a bit bigger. 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. As always the weather plays a huge role in determining the difficulty of the race.

 

Last year Alexander Kristoff, Stijn Devolder, Sven Erik Bystrøm and Sean De Bie joined early attackers Jens Debusschere and Lars Bak after an attack relatively far from the finish. The sextet managed to stay away and unsurprisingly Kristoff beat Debusschere in the sprint.

 

In 2014, 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.

 

 

 

 

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 211.1km, this year's stage will be a bit shorter than last year’s and it follows the well-known formula. In 2016, 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 Kortrijk and Wevelgemreach Ieper after 75km of racing. From here they continue in a southerly 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%) 113.6km from the finish. It is followed by the Monteberg (1000m, 7.3%, max. 13%) which comes 99.6km 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 91.3km from the finish.

 

The riders now follow the border in a northerly direction as they head along flat roads towards the sea. They will cross the finish line for the first time after 177.5km of racing, contesting the first intermediate sprint here.

 

The stage ends with 3 laps of a modified 11.2km almost rectangular finishing circuit that brings the riders along the coast from Koksijde to Oostduinkerke before travelling back along another road. Last year, the organizers have added some extra turns in the city centre and moved the finish to this technical part of the course which made the sprint a lot more technical. This year things are a lot more straightforward as the finish has been moved from the city centre to the road that leads the peloton out of Oostduinkerke. Now the penultimate turn comes more than 5km from the finish and the final right-hand turn comes with 2km to go. From there, it is a straight,, slightly descending road to the finish.

 

Compared to last year's stage, this one is slightly shorter. The first part has some minor changes but the hilly zone and the distance from the climbs to the finish are unchanged. The main change is the modifications to the finishing circuit which will make it a much more straightforward 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 in 2014 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 2013 editions all ended in big bunch sprints, with Denis Galimzyanov, Marcel Kittel and Mark Cavendish taking the wins, and it was the same last year when Alexander Kristoff won the stage.

 

 

 

 

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 completely unchanged. At 111.5km, 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 mainly southeasterly direction until they pass the city of Handzame where they will start the journey back towards the sea. Having headed west to 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.

 

Compared to last year there have been a few small modifications in the first part but the final 50km are unchanged.

 

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 in 2013 and 2012 while Jacopo Guarnieri and Tyler Farrar won in 2011 and 2010 respectively. In 2014 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. Kristoff returned to the top in 2015 by beating André Greipel in a very close photo finish.

 

 

 

 

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. In 2014, there was a slight modification at the end of the stage that reduced the distance by 450m and this same version was used again in 2015 and will be so again in 2016.

 

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. In 2014, 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. It was the same last year when Bradley Wiggins again won the stage but third place was enough for Alexander Kristoff to win overall as he had won all the road stages. 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 – but the wind created a bit of selection in the second stage in 2014. Last year the riders had expected a very windy first stage but there was never any real danger. The 2010 race proves what a tough affair this race can be if the conditions are right.

 

The weather forecast for the 2016 edition is pretty mixed. Tuesday is forecasted to be cloudy with a 50% chance of rain and a relatively strong wind from a southwesterly direction. There will be a maximum temperature of 11 degrees.

 

Things will be a big better on Wednesday where there is only a 25% chance of rain on what will be another cloudy day. The maximum temperature will again be 11 degrees and there will again be a relatively strong wind from a westerly direction.

 

Thursday will also be a cloudy day and there is little chance of rain in the morning. For the road stage there will only be a light wind from a northeasterly direction and maximum temperature of 9 degrees. In the afternoon, there’s a 40% chance of a shower and the wind will have picked up as there will be a relatively strong wind from a northeasterly direction.

 

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 often 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 2016 things could be different. The first two days will be pretty windy and there will be crosswind for most of the day on the opening stage and in the finale of the second stage. Furthermore, the addition of the Muur has made the opening stage harder so there is a solid chance that we will have more selection before we get to the time trial. Classics skills could 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 big.

 

Furthermore, it remains to be seen what impact the harder first stage will make. The addition of the Muur really opens the door for the best classics riders to make a difference. On the other hand, there’s a long way from the top of the key climb to the finish so even though we may have bigger time gaps from the first to the last rider, it may be a bigger group than usual that sprints for the win.

 

This 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 can no longer expect an easy ride for the first two days before they can battle it out in the final test against the clock.

 

The race is also hard to gauge because it is not a big objective for the Tour of Flanders contenders. Many prefer to stay safe and abandon before the final day. Peter Sagan has often had success on the first stage of this race but has never made it to the finish. Last year an in-form Lars Boom was one of the big favourites but he never played a role at all.

 

As opposed to this, some riders really target this race. One of them is Tony Martin who has made a late decision to include the race as part of his cobbles campaign. The German may not have had much time trial success in recent years but he is still clearly the best time triallist in this race. He has often had a hard time in the really short time trials but the length on the final test in De Panne should make it possible for him to win rather comfortably even though the course is a bit too technical for his liking.

 

The challenge for Martin will be to remain in contention by the time we get to the TT. He doesn’t have much experience in the cobbled races and he is not an explosive rider who is suited to the Muur. However, Martin is great in the fight for position and he is supported by a team that knows how to handle these races. In the E3, he wasn’t far off when the key selection was made on the Taaienberg and in that race he had even been doing all the positioning work for the team. In this race, he will be the protected rider and we have no doubt that he will be one of the best on the Muur. He may not follow the real specialist but he will have time to get back by using his enormous power. His form is clearly great and Etixx-QuickStep will be the ones to benefit if the race splits in the crosswind. If he makes it to the finish with the best in stage 1, Martin should win this race and he is clearly our favourite.

 

Another rider who is targeting this race is Lieuwe Westra who has never been a classics specialist but has a great track record in this race. He was second in 2011 and 2012 and he was fifth in 2010 and when he last did the race in 2013. In the last few years, he has skipped the event as he has largely avoided the cobbles but this year he is back in an attempt to finally take that elusive win.

 

Westra was once known as one of the very best time triallists in the world and h has never been worse than third in the TT in this race. In the last few years, he has lost the edge but he has been adamant that he wants to return to his former level. He showed that he is getting there by doing a very good prologue at Paris-Nice which indicates that he is back on track.

 

In general, Westra has been much stronger in 2016 than he has been for a couple of years. He claims to have lived like a monk during the winter and his numbers are reportedly as good as there were when he finished second in the 2012 Paris-Nice. He has been riding strongly throughout the year but has been marred by bad luck, most notably in Paris-Nice where he was taken out of contention in the queen stage. We never got the chance to see what he could do on the climbs and whether he really is as strong as he claims to be.

 

Westra arrived in Belgium for the first cobbled classics and tested his legs in the break at Gent-Wevelgem. When the group was brought back, he saw up, probably to save energy for De Panne. He has done nothing to hide that this is the race he really wants to win during the classics season.

 

Westra is not a real specialist on the cobbles but he can defend himself. He is no master in positioning so the first two stages could be a challenge. However, he is supported by a very strong Lars Boom who is probably the best rider in the peloton for these races alongside Alexander Kristoff. It remains to be seen whether Boom will be riding for victory himself but otherwise Westra will have a domestique deluxe. Being a great climber, he may even gain some time on some of his rivals in the first stage but it will probably mostly be about getting safely to the time trial. If he can produce a ride like he did in Paris-Nice, he will be one of the best. Then it all depends on whether he can get rid of Martin on the Muur.

 

Sylvain Chavanel has dominated this race in the past but he has been absent for the past two years while he was at IAM. Now he will return to a race that he really loves. As he is both a cobbled classics specialist and a time trial specialist, it is no wonder that he has had so much success here and this race is simply tailor-made for him.

 

Furthermore, he has had his best start to the year for a few seasons. He rode strongly in Paris-Nice where he almost made race-winning move with Sep Vanmarcke and he has done some good time trials recently. On paper, only Martin will be stronger than him in the time trial. Chavanel was once one of the best riders for the cobbled classics but he is no longer a winning candidate for the big races. However, he is still strong in this terrain and has a chance to make a difference on the Muur.

 

However, Chavanel has not had the best build-up for this race. He has to skip both Dwars door Vlaanderen and E3 due to illness and he was clearly not at his usual level in Gent-Wevelgem. With a bit of racing, he will only get better but of course he will not be at 100% for this race. On the other hand, his form can’t have disappeared completely and as he is usually one of the very best in a TT over this distance, he is one of the big favourites.

 

Lars Boom is the big question mark in this race. With his great performance in E3, there is no doubt that he is in great form and this race suits him down to the ground. Unfortunately, he went down in Gent-Wevelgem just when the race split in the crosswinds so we never got the chance to see what he could do there. Now he lines up in De Panne like he did last year but it remains to be seen what kind of ambitions he has.

 

Last year Boom went into this race as probably the biggest favourite but he never targeted the GC and mainly used it as preparation. His ideas may be the same this time. On the other hand, Astana have mentioned him as a GC candidate and if he decides to go for the win, he will be one of the favourites. He is probably the best rider on the Muur and could gain time on his major rivals already on the first day. Then it will all come down to the time trial. He has had mixed experiences in TTs. He was once a real specialist but in recent years he has not been at the same level. Last year he seemed to be back to his best but things have again turned around in 2016. His form is great and the TT course suits him so if he has his 2015 level and goes for the win, he can win this race.

 

Johan Le Bon has done well in this race in the past. He has always been a bit of a TT specialist but like the rest of the FDJ team he has made major strides in 2016. Few had expected him to finish second behind Cancellara in the Tirreno-Adriatico time trial but on that day he beat many of the biggest specialists, including Tony Martin. Whether it’s because of the new TT bike or a dedicated effort is unknown but Le Bon and his teammates have improved a lot in 2016.

 

At the same time, Le Bon has a taste for the cobbled classics. He showed great promise in his first pro years but unfortunately he has been unable to back it up. He hasn’t been riding very well in the first classics of the year so it remains to be seen whether he can avoid any time losses in the first stage. However, he has shown that he has the potential to finish with the best on day one and if he can produce a TT like he did in Tirreno, the overall win is within reach.

 

Maciej Bodnar has always been a solid time triallist but in the last few years he has improved his skills against the clocks massively. He is former winner of the De Panne TT and nowadays he is always in the top 10 in the flat time trials over this kind of distance. Most recently, he did a very good TT in Tirreno and he will be eyeing a rare chance to go for some personal success in De Panne.

 

Bodnar will definitely be one of the best in the TT but his big challenge will be to survive the hilly stage. He has never been able to follow the best on the climbs and even though he is a strong rider, he has to hope for a less selective stage. He hasn’t been on top of his game in the first classics either but if he can get through the road stages without any time losses he will be one of the favourites.

 

Last year Alexander Kristoff went into the race as an outsider but he reached De Panne as the clear winner. The Norwegian was in the form of his life and completely dominated the road stages. That provided him with a solid buffer for the time trial where he was expected to be on the defensive but he ended up gaining time on his nearest rivals by taking a hugely surprising third place.

 

This year Kristoff is again an outsider. He rode poorly in E3 Harelbeke, probably because of the illness that cost him the chance to win Gent-Wevelgem. He has been cleared to do this race but he won’t be as strong as he was in 2015. Furthermore, he hasn’t done a great time trial since last year’s race and to win the race he needs to back up that performance with a similar ride. Furthermore, the return of Marcel Kittel means that it will be much harder for him to win the sprint stages and so he is unlikely to take as many bonus seconds as he did last year. We doubt that he has the form to repeat his TT of last year so it will be harder for him to win.

 

Taylor Phinney is again finding his form after he broke his legs almost two years ago. He is slowly getting better and had a decent classics debut in Gent-Wevelgem where he made the selection in the crosswinds and did a lot of work for his teammates. However, there are still some doubts about his level which makes him of a favourite for this race than he would usually have been.

 

On paper, the race suits him really well. In his heydays, he would have been Martin’s big rival for the TT. However, he has not done a good TT since his comeback. Furthermore, he will never be a real specialist for the Flemish classics. He has a great potential for Pairs-Roubaix but he is probably not climbing well enough to be a contender in Flanders. For him, it will be a case of limiting his losses on stage 1 and then try to make the difference in the TT. He still hasn’t convinced us that he can do this but he has the potential.

 

Martin is not the only Etixx-QuickStep card. In fact, most of the riders in the team are suited to this race. Lukasz Wisniowski is probably number two in the hierarchy after his great performances in the first part of the year. He did a very good TT in West Flanders and has been riding very well on the cobbles. In the classics, he has been riding for his teammates but here he will be one of the leaders. If he can gain some time in the first stage or in the crosswind, he is definitely capable of a good GC because of his solid TT skills.

 

Tom Bohli won the TT in West Flanders but failed to defend his lead in the road stages. He set a new course record in the Flemish race which proves his huge potential as a time triallist. However, it will be a challenge for the young Swiss to stay with the best in the first road stage where he will be under pressure. Furthermore, BMC don’t have the strongest team here so it will be hard for them to keep him in a good position if Etixx-QuickStep attack in the crosswind. However, if he is still there for the time trial, he will be a big winner candidate.

 

On paper, Jan Barta is one of the best time triallists in this race but his form is not at its best yet. He has been off the pace in the previous TTs and even though he is getting better, we doubt that he has the form to win this race. He usually needs longer and less technical time trials and there is big chance that he will have lost some time before we even get to the TT. Due to his skills against the clock, he is an outsider for the race.

 

A few years ago, Luke Durbridge would have been a favourite for this race but nowadays he is only an outsider. His form is great as he proved with his great ride in Waregem and he is getting stronger and stronger in the classics. However, he is no longer the time triallists he once was and he rarely finishes in the top 10 of the TTs. Most recently, he was off the pace in Tirreno and we have to go a long way back to find his last really competitive TT performance. That is unlikely to have turned around for this race.

 

Guillaume Van Keirsbulck is a former winner of this race but it won’t be easy for him to repeat that performance. He doesn’t seem to be in his best condition and he won’t be able to follow the best on the Muur. If a small group goes clear on the first day, he will have to anticipate the favourites. Furthermore, he is not a real TT specialist even though he has done well in this TT before. He is part of a strong team and should be up there in the top 10 but winning will be a complicated task.

 

Sean De Bie won the Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen which is a very similar race. However, the level here is a lot higher and it will be hard for him to repeat that performance. He can do a good time trial but he needs to gain time in the road stages to win the race. However, he is constantly getting stronger and it won’t be impossible for him to gain some seconds in the first stage which could set him up for a top result.

 

Finally, Alexey Lutsenko deserves a mention. The Kazakh is very inconsistent and you never really know what you get from him. However, he has all the skills to do well in this race. He has the potential to do well on the cobbles as he showed in De Ronde 12 months ago and even though he is not a specialist, he has won short, flat time trials in the past. His performance in Paris-Nice proves that his form is good so if he can gain some time in the road stages, he will be able to defend himself well in the TT.

 

***** Tony Martin

**** Lieuwe Westra , Sylvain Chavanel

*** Lars Boom, Johan Le Bon, Maciej Bodnar, Alexander Kristoff, Taylor Phinney

** Lukasz Wisniowski, Tom Bohli, Jan Barta, Luke Durbridge, Guillaume Van Keirsbulck, Sean De Bie, Alexey Lutsenko

* Stefan Küng, Nils Politt, Marcin Bialoblocki, Davide Martinelli, Jack Bauer, Marcel Kittel, Dmitriy Gruzdev, Patrick Bevin, Ryan Mullen

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