Lotto Soudal head to the Three Days of De Panne this week with dual ambition of claiming sprint wins with André Greipel and setting up Sean De Bie for a tilt at the overall. Greipel is continuing his recovery from a broken rib that has seen the German miss several of the cobbled classics having started the season with two wins at the Challenge Mallorca. De Bie, 24, won the overall at Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen earlier this month and is looking to improve upon his fifth place of 2015.
"This race is of a higher and more international level than the Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen for instance. The participants of this race all have a busy schedule in this period of the season. Some riders consider this race as their final preparation for the Ronde Van Vlaanderen, others will start with the ambition to win this race. As usual, it will be a tough and nervous race," sports director Frederik Willems reflected.
The stage race features the iconic Muur van Geraardsbergen climb on the opening day which is likely to rule several riders out of GC contention. Stage 2 is expected to finish in a bunch sprint before the final day split stage in De Panne with the morning's racing suited to the sprinters and the afternoon 14km time trial set to decide the overall standings.
"Sean De Bie will get a free role in the first stage. If a bunch sprint takes place, we have André Greipel," Willems said of the team tactics ahead of the race. "Also in the next two stages we can go for a sprint with André. Lars Bak and Sean De Bie are two guys who can ride a decent time trial. Whether we're aiming for a good position on GC will depend on the first stage. After that it will depend on how the race evolves."
Following his Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen victory, De Bie finished 71st at Nokere Koerse-Danilith Classic, 93rd at Handzame Classic, 101st at Dwars door Vlaanderen and was a DNF at E3 Harelbeke, but is hopeful of rediscovering his form.
"The previous races were very tough. During the E3 Harelbeke I didn't have a great feeling but still I was able to do some useful work for the team," De Bie said. "My general condition is better than last year, but I'm not in top shape yet. One race, I feel very well, the other I am less good. Sometimes that frustrates me a bit. I hope that I have the same feeling during this race as in the Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen, where I took home the overall victory.
"The Muur van Geraardsbergen needs to be climbed this year, that's a hill which suits me. There will certainly be attempts and then you need to react. I see the first two stages as Classics because the scenario is very similar to such races."
The Belgian added that he believes the race will be decided in the final day time trial on a parcours that suits his characteristics.
"Also the closing time trial is something I like, although I prefer to ride a prologue," he said. "But it's a tortuous course and there are a lot of pace changes, that suits me. This winter we optimized my position on the time trial bike. The past few days I rested well, that's very important during such period. I aim for a good result in this race with regard to the Ronde Van Vlaanderen. I really look forward to it."
Lars Bak offers the team a second card in the time trial with Pim Ligthart and the young duo of Jasper De Buyst and Frederik Frison completing the squad.
Jens Debusschere is being assessed by the team's medical staff after his crash at Gent-Wevelgem, suffering "a bruise on the lower back muscles, a bruised junction between the collarbone and shoulder blade, a mild concussion and some abrasions", with his appearance in the Tour of Flanders on Sunday dependent on his recovery from his injuries.
Lotto Soudal for the Three Days of De Panne: Lars Bak, Sean De Bie, Jasper De Buyst, Frederik Frison, André Greipel and Pim Ligthart.