By Gregor Brown
The KBC Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde (Three Days of De Panne) is expected to give those riders who are in with a chance for Ronde van Vlaanderen a last opportunity to polish off their form. The three-day, four-stage race, run in West Flanders, was in fact won last year by Italian Alessandro Ballan, who three days later went on to win the big daddy of Flanders.
The parcours for the four stages of De Panne, located on Belgium's North Sea coast, is similar to that of 2007, with the final day consisting of two semi-stages.
On Tuesday's stage one, the riders will race inland 192 kilometres from the coastal town of Middelkerke to Zottegem. It was here last year that Italians Luca Paolini and Ballan got the critical 11-second gap that decided the overall race. Wednesday, from Zottegem to Koksijde, the riders head back towards the coast with the longest stage of the race at 228 kilometres. However, the finale of the stage is flat and should suit the sprinters that can handle the winds coming off the water.
The race will conclude with two stages on Thursday: stage three, a 119-kilometre circuit starting and ending in De Panne, and stage four, a 13.7-kilometre time trial in the same city.
Tom Boonen has never won this race, but will not be ruled out as the favourite for the race's white jersey. His Quick Step team-mate, Gert Steegmans, should also be considered. Other riders who will be honing their form for Flanders and have a good chance in De Panne include Ballan, Leif Hoste (Silence-Lotto) and Stijn Devolder (Quick Step). Hard man-type sprinters who could win the overall are Robbie McEwen (Silence-Lotto), Tomas Vaitkus (Astana) and Luca Paolini (Acqua Sapone-Caffè Mokambo).
Cyclingnews will be in De Panne for daily coverage of this Flemish classic.