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Will Kristoff continue his winning streak in the Driedaagse van De Panne?

Photo: Muscat Municipality/Paumer/Kåre Dehlie Thorstad




29.03.2016 @ 13:41 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

As usual, the 3 Days of De Panne will kick off with its hardest stage which offers the classics riders their best chance to distance the time triallists before Thursday’s final battle against the clock. This year the opener has been given an interesting twist as the riders will return to the famous Muur van Geraardsbergen in the finale and with bad weather conditions also on the menu, we can expect a more selective opening day than we have usually had.


The course

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.


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.





The weather

As in every Belgian race, the weather will play a huge role in determining the outcome of the race and it seems that things are set for a relatively tough 2016 edition of the three-day race. Tuesday is forecasted to be cloudy with a 50% chance of rain and a maximum temperature of 11 degrees.


There will be a relatively strong wind from a southwesterly direction which means that it will be a crosswind in the first half of the stage. On the circuit, it will mostly be a crosswind and it will be a cross-tailwind from the top of the Muur to the finish. In the final kilometres, it will be a mix of cross- and tailwind and it will be a tailwind on the short finishing straight.


The favourites

One of the big question marks for the 3 Days of De Panne is always how selective the opening stage will be. Will it be possible for the classics contenders to get rid of the time triallists? The opening stage is always the final real chance for the Flanders contenders to test their form for De Ronde and it is the best chance for GC riders to gain some time before the time trial.


In the last two years, the opening stage has been largely unchanged and it has always been possible for a small group to make it to the finish with a small advantage. This year the course has been changed and it is very hard to gauge what impact it will have on the race. On one hand, the addition of the Muur means that the final circuit includes a much tougher climb than it has done in the past. On the other hand, there is a pretty long distance from that ascent to the finish and there is plenty of time for a regrouping to take place. The riders will go up the Muur twice but the first passage comes way too early for the best riders to make their move and it will all have to be decided on the three main climbs during the final lap.


The weather always has a big impact on the race and tomorrow the conditions will make things even harder. It will be a crosswind almost all day and there is a solid chance that the riders will also face some rain. This could make the race selective already very early and riders could be dropped even before we get to the circuit. In any case, it will be a very nervous day where it will be important to stay in front almost all day.


The first stage of this race is always extremely aggressive and the racing is very animated on the circuit. First of all, it will probably take a long time for the break to be formed as history shows that presence in the early group may allow one to get to the finish in a small group with the biggest specialists. That will set the scene for a fast race and from there the nervousness will only be enhanced on the crosswinds which means that the break is unlikely to get much of an advantage.


History shows that riders often try to attack from afar on the final circuit where different groups usually go up the road and the situation constantly changes. This year there is no obvious favourite and this means that aggression pays off. Katusha will try to control things but they don’t know how Alexander Kristoff will be feeling so they may try to ride aggressively instead. Lotto Soudal definitely want to blow the race apart and Astana also want to use their strong team to gain some time on Tony Martin.


As usual, Etixx-QuickStep have the key to the Belgian races. Their main goal is to win the race with Tony Martin so they will probably have a less aggressive approach to the stage than they have had in the past. Their main goal will be to avoid any time losses for the big German and as they have one of the strongest teams here, it will be harder to make a difference. On the other hand, the weather conditions will make things harder and it won’t be easy to control things.


Much will depend on what happens when we have passed the final three climbs. We can expect attacks from classics riders like Lars Boom, Scott Thwaites, Jens Keukeleire, Ian Stannard, Luke Rowe, Sylvain Chavanel, Florian Senechal and Filippo Pozzato. Tony Martin will try to go with the best and if he makes it, there is a big chance that a group will make it to the finish. Otherwise, Etixx-QuickStep will try to bring things back together. If Alexander Kristoff has failed to make the selection too, Katusha will contribute to the chase too and then it’s likely that we will get a reduced bunch sprint. Otherwise a small group has a big chance on a day that will be marred by bad weather.


Last year Alexander Kristoff won this stage and he would usually be the overwhelming favourite. As a Tour of Flanders winner, he is one of the best on the hellingen and even though the Muur is definitely too steep to really suit him, he has the power to be close to the best. However, he has just returned from illness and his form is very uncertain. He was climbing really well in Sanremo where he had his best feelings ever so the form is definitely there. However, it remains to be seen how the illness has affected him. It clearly had a big impact on his performance in E3 and he had to skip Gent-Wevelgem.


Kristoff did some intervals on Monday and even though he fears that he won’t be able to repeat last year’s results, he doesn’t seem to be completely without confidence. We don’t expect him to be riding at the same poor level as he did in Harelbeke and it will be easier for him to be with the best in a race that is much less competitive. One would maybe expect the tough weather conditions to make it more difficult for Kristoff but it could actually be an advantage. The Norwegian shines in races of attrition and it could be more about endurance than explosiveness on the Muur. If that’s the case, Kristoff won’t be far behind the best. In general, Kristoff can win this race from two scenarios. He can both make it into a small group and he will be the big favourite in a reduced bunch sprint as he is usually almost unbeatable in a sprint at the end of a hard race. If he misses the move, Katusha will be chasing hard and they have a strong team. This means that Kristoff should have a solid chance regardless of the circumstances in the finale and he must be the favourite to win the stage.


As said, much will depend on whether Tony Martin joins the escape on the Muur. If the German is there, there is a big chance that a small group will make it to the finish, especially in these conditions. Martin is unlikely to win the stage as he will be riding for GC and doesn’t have a fast sprint but it opens the door for one of the best classics riders. The star rider on the cobbles is definitely Lars Boom who is likely to be the strongest rider on the Muur. He looked impressive in E3 and he definitely has the form to blow the race to pieces.


Much will depend on his approach to the stage. Last year he only used the race for training but this year he missed the chance to test his form in Gent-Wevelgem where he was taken out of a crash. He may want to have a solid hit out before De Ronde and then he will be a big winner candidate here. He is actually pretty fast in a sprint from a small group which makes him an obvious winner candidate.


Scott Thwaites has had a bit of breakthrough as a classics contender in 2016. He has been up there in almost every cobbled race and most recently he was one of the best riders in Dwars door Vlaanderen. He still can’t follow the best on the hellingen but in a race like this he is one of the strongest. Furthermore, he is very fast in a sprint and can even mix it up in bunch sprints, especially at the end of hard races. If he is in a small group that sprints for the win, he is an obvious favourite.


Jens Keukeleire has many of the same characteristics. The Belgian is a great rider for the cobbled classics who proved his big potential at last year’s Paris-Roubax. Surprisingly, he has had less success in the Flemsih races which should actually suit him a bit better. He hasn’t been at his best yet in the 2016 classics and there is no guarantee that he will be up there in the finale. However, his form seems to be growing and if he makes it, he should be one of the fastest in a small group.


The same goes for Filippo Pozzato. The Italian is clearly better than he was in 2015 but he is still not at his past level. He was strong in Sanremo but he is not able to go with the best on the cobbles. However, the level is lower in this race and this means that Pozzato should be closer to the best. If he is in the group that sprints for the win, it is likely that he will be the fastest unless Kristoff is there.


Sky go into the race with their two classics stars Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard. As it was the case for Boom, it remains to be seen whether they will go for the win in this race. If they do, they will be among the very strongest on the Muur and they will add considerable firepower to a small group. They are likely to have strength in numbers and even though there are faster riders than them, it will give them options. Rowe is probably the best candidate as he is the fastest of the pair.


Sylvain Chavanel is really suited to this stage. He is one of the best on the hellingen and he can win sprints from small groups. He has been in great form all year but he has not had a great build-up for the race. He had to skip both Dwars door Vlaanderen and E3 Harelbeke due to illness but he managed to get through Gent-Wevelgem. With one race in his legs, he should be more competitive and the form was definitely there a few weeks ago.


André Greipel has also had a complicated build-up to this race. The German broke a rib in Algarve and had to abandon Paris-Nice and skip Milan-Sanremo. Nonetheless, he managed to sprint to third in a tough stage in Paris-Nice and he claims to be pretty competitive. He failed to survive the tough Gent-Wevelgem but this is definitely a stage that a strong Greipel can win. If the race comes down to a reduced bunch sprint, he may still be there and then he will obviously be one of the favourites.


We have been very impressed by Florian Senechal. The Frenchman was extremely strong in Waregem where he was the only rider to follow Benoot and Van Avermaet the final time up the Paterberg. In this race, he will probably be one of the best on the climbs. He has a fast sprint but there is a solid chance that he will be up against faster riders at the finish.


Alexey Lutsenko has shown glimpses of talents for the cobbled classics and most know that he can be brutally strong when the form is right. He is very inconsistent though and you never know what you will get. He has the aggressive mindset to attack from afar which could be his ticket to a small group in the finale. With his fast sprint, he will be a winner candidate in such a scenario.


If it comes down to a reduced bunch sprint, Sacha Modolo, Danny Van Poppel, Sonny Colbrelli and Luka Mezgec all emerge as contenders. They have all shown good condition in recent races and should be able to handle this kind of stage. Of course it won’t be easy to beat Kristoff but if the Norwegian is not at 100% yet, they definitely have the speed to challenge the Norwegian.


Finally, Marcel Kittel deserves a mention. On paper, the stage is too hard for him and we doubt that he will be there in the finale. However, he is sometimes capable of delivering surprisingly strong rides on the hills and he has the power to get over most of the hellingen. It will be a race of attrition so power is unlikely to be enough but it’s not impossible for him to be there at the finish. The late climb will make it difficult for him to win the sprint but you can never rule him out completely.


CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Alexander Kristoff

Other winner candidates: Lars Boom, Scott Thwaites

Outsiders: Jens Keukeleire, Filippo Pozzato, Luke Rowe, Ian Stannard, Sylvain Chavanel, André Greipel

Jokers: Florian Senechal, Luka Mezgec, Danny Van Poppel, Sacha Modolo, Alexey Lutsenko, Sonny Colbrelli, Marcel Kittel



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