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The race suits one rider more than any other. Defending champion Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) is a master of Flemish racing and one of the world's leading time triallists.

Photo: Sirotti


















25.03.2013 @ 16:36 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

With the Tour of Flanders less than a week away, the classics specialists spend these days finalizering their preparations. 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.


The Driedaagse van de Panne is one of the most debated races. Taking place just days before the Tour of Flanders, it is on paper the perfect preparation race for the biggest race on Flemish soil, and in the past it has been able to assemble most of the strongest classics riders in the small seaside town of De Panne.


However, the trend during the last decade has seen many of the biggest stars avoid the three days of racing. Nervous racing has often turned the race into a crash-fest, and nowadays many prefer to avoid any unnecessary risks just days before one of their biggest season objectives.


The trend has been bucked somewhat this year. With Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) still in need of extra racing kilometres, the defending Ronde winner is scheduled to start the race for the first time since 2009 (however, his crash in yesterday's Gent-Wevelgem has put his participation up in the air), and he will be joined by the likes of teammate Sylvain Chavanel and Peter Sagan (Cannondale) meaning that three of the biggest favourites for De Ronde should line up on the start line in Middelkerke tomorrow.


However, it would be a big mistake to see the race as just a preparation event. With many of the sport's greatest classics riders on its winner's list and plenty of important UCI value points at stake, the race is highly prestigious in its own right and a target for plenty of the sport's greatest riders. This is the case for strong time triallists with overall ambitions and for a string of the peloton's fastest sprinters. While we will take a closer look at the GC favourites in a separate section below, names like Mark Cavendish, Andre Greipel, Marcel Kittel, Peter Sagan, Elia Viviani, Aidis Kruopis, Leigh Howard, Andrea Guardini, Barry Markus, Romain Feillu, Kenny Van Hummel, Alexander Kristoff, Roberto Ferrari, Arnaud Demare, Sebastien Turgot, Francesco Chicchi, Sacha Modolo, Michael Van Staeyen, Alessandro Bazzana, Jacobe Keogh, Gerald Ciolek, Danilo Napolitano and Stefan Van Dijk mean that we should be in for some great sprint battles in the coming days.


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 typical of Flemish racing 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.


Sylvain Chavanel is certainly a formidable exponent for all three attributes, and it was no surprise that the Frenchman secured his biggest stage race victory in last year's edition of the race. In an unusually sunny and calm edition, he crushed the opposition in the final time trial to refer Lieuwe Westra (Vacansoleil-DCM) and Maciej Bodnar (Liquigas) to the lower places on the final podium.


The course

The build-up of the Driedaagse van de Panne follows a traditional script with very little variation from year to year. The race always starts out in the coastal city of Middelkerke to head into the Flemish Ardennes for a finish in either Zottegem or Oudenaarde. This year's opener will end in the former city after 199,8km with 13 of the famous hellingen along the way. The first kilometres take place in completely flat terrain, but with 100 kilometres remaining the riders need to turn on their climbing legs. The Edelare, Leberg and Berendries are appetizers ahead of the final 2 laps on a 45,1km finishing circuit. With the Leberg, Berendries, Valkenberg, Tenbosse, Eikenmolen and the cobbled stretch of Haaghoek all to be tackled, those final 90km of stage 1 are the only place to make a selection ahead of the final time trial if the wind does not make its presence felt in the final two days of racing. The climbs are not among the hardest in the region, and the race often ends in a sprint from a reduced peloton with Peter Sagan taking the win last year in this fashion.


The second stage is the race's longest and always brings the riders back to the coast and the city of Koksijde. The 204,2km take the riders back to this Sunday's Gent-Wevelgem terrain along the French-Belgian border with the passage of Monteberg and Kemmelberg both scheduled midway through the stage.  With almost 100km still remaining after their passage, the famous climbs do never play any role in the final outcome, and the winner is often determined in a bunch kick. However, riders need to stay aware since crosswinds have sometimes turned the stage into an epic battle of survival.


The racing on the final day is split into two half-stages. The morning challenge consists of a 110km completely flat route around the city of De Panne and is the final chance for sprinters to go for glory in the race. However, the GC riders once again have to be aware as what is most often a calm spin of the legs ahead of the afternoon's decisive stage may take away all victory chances if echelons open up in the coastal terrain.


The race ends with its key stage, the 14,7km time trial in the streets of De Panne. The course has been unchanged since 2009 and is a completely flat, rather technical affair. The stage will sort out the classification between the riders who have been able to stay in contention throughout the three opening challenges.


The weather

The weather is always the key factor in the Driedaagse van de Panne. As it was the case last year, sun and a lack of wind can turn the race into a calm affair for sprinters and time triallists. On the contrary, David Millar will doubtlessly remember the brutal conditions in which his 2010 victory was founded. That year wind, rain and cold caused havoc on an epic edition of the race in which only 14 riders finished inside 10 minutes of the time of the Garmin rider.


With the weather having a major impact on most racing this year, it is no surprise that forecasts point to another harsh affair. Luckily, the riders should be able to race in dry - maybe even sunny - conditions, but they will have to work hard to keep warm in the cold conditions. The temperatures are not expected to raise above the 5 degrees mark, and with a strong wind blowing from an easterly direction, it will feel like freezing cold.


That wind may play a crucial role in the race. While the riders will face a headwind in the opening stretch of stage 1, there will be plenty of opportunities for crosswinds on the 45,1km finishing circuit. Attacking riders will even be aided by a cross-tailwind on the run-in from the final climb to the finish in Zottegem making it even more likely that any attack will stick to the end.


The second stage could also be heavily afflicted by the wind. While a strong tailwind provides the script for a furiously fast start, the stage may become a drama when the riders head north in the city of Nieuwkerke with 107km remaining - just before they hit the Kemmelberg and the Monteberg. 70km of strong crosswinds are now on the menu before the riders hit the finishing line for the first time to start the first of 3 laps on an 11,7km finishing circuit.


Things should calm down a little ahead of the final day of racing, but riders will certainly have to keep aware during the morning's stage since the circuit race allows for crosswinds regardless of the wind direction.


The favourites

The race suits one rider more than any other. Defending champion Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) is a master of Flemish racing and one of the world's leading time triallists. As a genuine contender for the Tour of Flanders, he will be almost impossible to drop on the climbs, he never misses the first echelon in the crosswinds - his strong team will probably even be the one to force the selection - and no one watching the Paris-Nice, Milan-Sanremo and the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen will doubt that he is in blistering condition.


Once again, the key attribute is his strength in the race against the clock. He has always been a strong time triallist, but back problems made it difficult to compete among the very best for a number of years. However, they were sorted out ahead of last season, and he made marked improvement in the discipline to enter the world elite. His victory in the time trial in De Panne last year was followed by a 5th in the long time trial of the Criterium du Dauphine, a 3rd in the opening prologue of the Tour de France, a 5th in the first long time trial in the French grand tour and a very narrow second in the prologue of Paris-Nice earlier this month, and this marks him out as a very difficult man to beat on the final day in De Panne. Even though his major objectives are scheduled for the next two Sundays, a repeat win in De Panne is a clear target for the Frenchman, and where the likes of Boonen and Sagan will probably abandon at some point to save their strength for the weekend, the Frenchman will go all out for the victory.


Chavanel will face two main rivals in his quest for being the first to take back-to-back victories since Eric Vanderaerden won 4 consecutive editions from 1986 to 1989. The first of those is his nearest challenger in last year's race, Lieuwe Westra (Vacansoleil-DCM). The race in De Panne has always been dear to the Dutchman's heart, and he has made it clear that victory on the Belgian coast is on his to-do list. He has been close twice in a row and was only narrowly relegated to the runner-up position in 2011 and 2012 by incredible time trial performances by Sebastien Rosseler and Chavanel, respectively. He hopes that third time is a charm, and once again enters the race with great ambitions.


He returned to action in yesterday's Gent-Wevelgem after a short break to digest a disappointing Paris-Nice where a lacklustre performance in the Col d'Eze time trial destroyed a week's near-perfect work. It was no surprise to see him abandon the cold of his chosen preparation race, but he should be ready to take on the sole leadership role of his Dutch team in this week's race. He went head to head with Chavanel in the Paris-Nice prologue where they ended  up 2nd and 3rd respectively, and his formidable abilities against the clock is his strongest point. He does not have Chavanel's experience in racing on the Belgian hellingen, and he is not backed by the super team of Chavanel in case of havoc in the crosswinds, but he has shown on numerous occasions that he is able to fight for himself in such conditions.


Chavanel's other big rival should be Luke Durbridge (Orica-GreenEdge). After dropping out of contention for a place on the Australian track team for the Olympics, Luke Durbridge made his European debut on the highest level in De Panne last year and surprised many by staying in the mix throughout the race to end up 7th. This year he arrives after a much better preparation with his participation in the Tour de Langkawi followed by his first taste of Flemish racing in the Dwars door Vlaanderen and E3 Prijs Vlaanderen. He abandoned both, but the experiences could become important in what should be a much harder edition of De Panne than his debut race last year.


His form may be a bit of an unknown, but unlike Chavanel he has no ambitions in the Tour of Flanders, and this week's racing is the main goal during this stay in Belgium. With his victory in the prologue of the Criterium du Dauphine and in the time trials of Circuit Cycliste Sarthe and Tour du Poitou Charentes last year, the former U23 world time trial champion burst onto the scene, and he is one of the very select few with a realistic chance of challenging Chavanel in the final race against the clock. However, he may face problems remaining in contention ahead of that final test, and even though he is surrounded by experienced riders for this type of racing, he is an obvious victim in case of any crosswinds action. Furthermore, his climbing abilities are not on par with those of Chavanel and Westra, and so he may struggle in the first stage too.


Andriy Grivko (Astana) could pose a threat to the three major favourites. The Ukrainian champion has been in blistering condition all season. Usually not known as a climber, he was very close to an overall top 10 finish in the Paris-Nice, and he played active, aggressive roles in the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen and especially in Gent-Wevelgem. He is a strong time triallist, and as his performances last week show he knows how to handle racing on Flemish roads. He was 6th in de Panne last year and will hope to use his good form to make an even better performance this time.


Another challenger could be young Tom Dumoulin (Team Argos-Shimano). The young Dutchman is a very talented time triallist and a good climber, and his impressive showing in the epic penultimate stage of the Tirreno-Adriatico indicates that his condition is good. However, he has no experience at all in the Belgian classics, and it could be a tough challenge for the Dutch team to bring their preferred GC rider to the final time trial within striking distance of the overall victory.


A dangerous dark horse is current U23 world time trial champion Anton Vorobyev (Katusha). The neoprofessional has travelled to Belgium only to participate in De Panne and thus provide his Russian team with a GC contender. With only three races as a professional in his legs, he may struggle to remain in contention throughout the race,  but if he has not been distanced when he rolls down the start ramp on Thursday, he may be a serious threat. Two days ago he was only beaten by an in-form Adriano Malori (Lampre-Merida) in the time trial of the Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali, and this clearly indicates that the Russian is coming into form.


A dangerous pairing could be the Cannondale duo of Kristijan Koren and Maciej Bodnar. With Sagan in all likelihood stepping into the background, his usual domestiques get a chance to go for personal glory. Elia Viviani will relish the opportunity to be supported by the Slovakian in the sprints while Koren and Bodnar will be the team's GC options. Both are talented time triallists and have plenty of experience in Flemish racing. Bodnar's showing in yesterday's Gent-Wevelgem marked out his strong condition, and Koren finished in the Boonen group in the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen after working hard for Sagan earlier in the race. Bodnar was 3rd last year after an attentive hunt for bonus seconds was followed by a good time trial, and there is no doubt that both riders are highly ambitious ahead of this week's racing.


A final mention should go to Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-Quick Step). The Dutch champion has all the attributes to be a serious contender in De Panne, and his 5th place in last year's race is testament to that. However, indications are that the talented Dutchman is not nearly as strong as last year, and he was clearly struggling in both Dwars door Vlaanderen and E3 Prijs Vlaanderen. With his first big goal just days away, he will hope to turn around his condition during this week's racing, but it may very well be too late.


***** Sylvain Chavanel

**** Lieuwe Westra, Luke Durbridge

*** Andriy Grivko, Tom Dumoulin, Anton Vorobyev, Maciej Bodnar, Kristijan Koren,

** Niki Terpstra, Tomas Vaitkus, Jens Mouris, Damien Gaudin, Artem Ovechkin, Marcel Kittel

* Guillaume Van Keirsbulck, Michael Hepburn, Dmitriy Muravyev, Roger Kluge, Andre Greipel, Mark Cavendish


Stage profiles


Stage 1: Middelkerke-Zottegem (199,8km)



Stage 2: Oudenaarde-Koksijde (204,2km)



Stage 3a: De Panne-De Panne (109,7km)



Stage 3b: De Panne-De Panne (14,75km)


Click on the profiles to enlarge



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