After the tension and celebration of the 100th edition of the Tour of Flanders and a few days before Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix, the riders lined up for the Scheldeprijs race and were a little more relaxed, with most hoping for a quiet day in the peloton before the usual high-speed sprint.
Race favourites Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal), Marcel Kittel (Etixx-Quickstep) and Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) are expected to fight for victory in the sprint finish but for Fabian Cancellara (Trek Segafredo), Ian Stannard (Team Sky), Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep) and Tour of Flanders winner Peter Sagan (Tinkoff), Scheldeprijs is a chance to see how their legs are feeling after the Tour of Flanders and get in one more ride before heading to northern France to recon the pave one last time before Paris Roubaix.
The riders gathered in the shadows of the Mas Port Pavilion in the restored Antwerp dock area. The morning started with a tepid sun and warm temperatures but a westerly wind was blowing. It chilled the air and dragged grey clouds across northern Belgium.
The riders signed autographs and signed on before gathering for the start. There was little talk of attacks with everyone expecting a high-speed dash to the lane despite the changes to the final three kilometres and the inclusion of two extra corners designed to line out the peloton and so avoid the risk of another high-speed crash. Safety is still on the riders’ minds after the tragic death of Wanty-Groupe Gobert rider Antoine Demoitié.
Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) had one simple goal: “Beat Kristoff…” he said before defecting any responsibility for controlling the race from his reduced squad.
“You need a good sprint to win here and you need a strong team to ride the final,” he said. “Renshaw’s out with a bruise, so we're down to seven men but we’ll see what we can do. I think Tyler (Farrar) is good, I’ve won here three times. Of course Kittel is here for it, so he’s the man to watch.”
Farrar confirmed that Cavendish is Dimension Data’s protected sprinter. “Cav is without question our guy. I think he looks good, he’s got a lot of speed coming off the track and has done some good work on the road since track worlds, so I expect him to be good today,” he told Cyclingnews.
"I’m interested to see the new finish, I’ve only seen it on paper. I think it looks good. There’s a good chance it will make the sprint safer, the corners will stretch things a little bit more. It was such a long straight and with about 600 metres to go the leadouts would tend to stall up and you’d get a big swarm from behind. So hopefully adding the two turns will string it out enough that that doesn’t happen. I’ve crashed once in one of the big pile-ups here, it’s often a messy sprint here, so hopefully this cleans it up today.”
Kristoff is feted as last year’s winner on the race posters and programme but he also has his eye on Paris-Roubaix.
“I'm racing here because otherwise I had to do a big training anyway. It's a good training for Roubaix but I'll also try to get a good result but Sunday is more important,” he said honestly.
“I saw the new finish in the newspaper. We're passing there a couple of times so we'll see. Winning here will not be easy. There's a lot of fast men here. Kittel beat me in De Panne, and there’s also Viviani. Greipel and Cavendish are also here. They're usually fast. It'll be difficult to win but I hope to be among the best.”
Greipel was in the break at the Tour of Flanders and has been slowed by a fractured rib this spring but he can never be discounted in a sprint.
"I hope I recovered well from the Ronde. Recovery is very important and I took care of myself,” he said. “Scheldeprijs is not such an easy race as it used to be. There's a bit of wind. We'll see how interested the other teams are to get a bunch sprint. Having less riders in the peloton here is better for us, there's less fighting. At the finish we will see if there are less crashes.”
Kittel arrived late after the call to line up at the start, with key lead out man and body guard Fabio Sabatini with him. Both were focused rather than relaxed.
“If you look at the start list it’s hard to beat the names on that list,” the German sprinter said. “It’s not a very difficult race, it’s all about the final, the last lap, to be in position with your team. That makes it highly competitive; everyone’s fresh and can show how fast they are. The confidence is there, and high. Especially with my teammates, we’re doing a good job even though we’re new together.”
Kittel was in favour of the extra corners in the finale, even if it will create a chicane effect.
“There’s definitely a difference now with the final, the last 1.5km you have to be in front; if you’re not there there’s no space to move up,” he pointed out. “On the one hand it’s good because crashes have happened in the past, but on the other hand you’re chance can be gone there.”
Ireland’s Sam Bennett (Bora-Argon 18) was involved in the crash last year and posted a photo of his road rash on social media.
“I’ll just try and forget about it [last year’s crash],” he told Cyclingnews. “There might be a bit of wind out there. We’ll see how it is in the final, hopefully it’s not too dangerous. I’m just looking to get a result and build the morale again.”
Andrea Guardini (Astana) could be an outsider today but knows he will have to take advantage of the other teams in the final kilometre He will also be watching fellow Italian Elia Viviani of Team Sky.
“I’m feeling food, in good condition after De Panne. We didn’t take good results there but I was at the front for the sprints, and I think today’s a good opportunity for me,” he said.
“Elia is really strong and for sure he has a good sense of positioning. I’ll try to do like he did in the second stage of De Panne. There are a lot of sprinters here, with the likes of Kittel, Greipel and Cavendish the favourites. We’ll see who is the powerful train for taking the wheels.”
Peter Sagan has been mobbed whenever he leaves the Tinkoff hotel in Kortrijk since winning he Tour of Flanders. It was no different in Antwerp, with the Belgian fans keen to secure his autograph. He opted to wait until the riders had rolled through the start before starting his race.
He was keen to test the bike he will use at Paris-Roubaix and will work for young teammate Erik Baska, perhaps sitting up before the hectic sprint finish.
“Erik is the team leader for the day, he’s very fast. We’ll see, it’s a good opportunity for him,” he said before joining the Scheldeprijs peloton.