The route of the 40th edition of the Three Days of De Panne has been announced this week, and the Muur Van Geraardsbergen is set to make its first ever appearance in the race.
The steep cobbled climb, which has reached near mythical status among fans, will be ascended twice on the opening stage and will form part of what is set to be a very challenging first day of racing.
"For the first time in our existence, and on our 40th anniversary edition, we will do the mythical ascent of the Muur de Geraardsbergen," said race director Jurgen Van de Walle, according to Het Nieuwsblad. "This operation is to give more presence and force to our opening stage. The remaining kilometres to the finish, after the Muur, will run over undulating roads."
Organisers have also planned a De Panne café where fans will be able to go for free, stating that they are taking ‘the normal fans' into consideration.
Perhaps the inclusion of the Muur is a statement of intent from the race organisers. Bruno Dequeecker, the new chairman of the organising committee, confirmed that they were targeting WorldTour status. "We are 40 years young but still burning with ambition," he said.
"Above all, we made the application to promote our stage race at the WorldTour. We have always had a positive rapport with the UCI. Our success rate is so big; financially there is no problem."
The Muur became famous as one of the key climbs of the Tour of Flanders after it was introduced in 1950. The cobbled ascent is just over a kilometre long and averages 9.3 per cent with a maximum gradient of 19.8 per cent. Between 1988 and 2011, it was the penultimate climb of the race but it was removed when the finish moved from Meerbeke to Oudenaarde in 2012. It was subsequently included that year’s E3 Harelbeke and has regularly been a part of the Eneco Tour since then.
The Three Days of De Panne sits between Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders. In recent years, many of the key Flanders contenders have stayed away from De Panne because of its often chaotic nature. However, Alexander Kristoff claimed overall victory and three stages en-route to winning the Tour of Flanders.
The 2016 edition of the Three Days of De Panne - or Driedaagse de Panne, as it is known in Belgium - will begin in the city that gave it its name, De Panne. The opening stage will then head north of Roeselare before cutting south again, through Oudenaarde and out to Geraardsbergen. The riders will then complete two laps of a finishing circuit, climbing the Muur twice before finishing on Zottegem with a tricky downhill run to the line. A total of 11 climbs will be tackled on the opening stage.
Day two sees the riders reverse their direction, beginning in Zottegem and heading back to De Panne. The 211km stage will skirt along the border with the French coast, taking on five climbs, including the Kemmelerberg. Once in De Panne, they will complete three circuits around the city with a sprint finish likely on this day.
As usual, the final day will be split in two with a road stage in the morning and a short time trial in the afternoon. The road stage is 111.5km long and will head north towards Middlekerke before looping back Diksmuide and back to De Panne.
The time trial is a 14.2km tight and technical affair around De Panne that has often proved decisive in the overall classification.
The Three Days of De Panne will run from March 29-31.