With the dust barely settled on the Tour of Flanders, the 2010 Classics season heads north for the 98th Scheldeprijs. Sandwiched this year on the Wednesday between Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, the race will be the final event in Belgium before the Ardennes Classics, and an opportunity for the sprinters to share in some northern European spring glory.
Like fellow semi-Classic Gent-Wevelgem, the 205.4 kilometre Scheldeprijs has shifted position on the calendar and is being held a week earlier than past editions. Its newfound proximity to both Flanders and Roubaix could prove to be a double edged sword.
The main Roubaix contenders are not likely to risk too much in the lead-up to the 'Queen of the Classics', but, on the other hand, the race formerly known as Scheldeprijs Vlaanderen is likely to garner a spike in interest from spectators happily infected with their 2010 dose of Classics fever.
Irrespective of the change to the date of the event, Scheldeprijs looks set to once again present an enthralling contest for the fast men in the peloton. Alessandro Petacchi's 2009 victory broke Mark Cavendish's two-year stranglehold on the top step of the podium and the Italian will once again return as one of the favourites for the event.
For the second season in succession, Cavendish will forgo the event with André Greipel to fly the flag for HTC-Columbia.
On form, Greipel will be the man to beat. He'll be backed by Mark Renshaw, who will be competing in his biggest race since his recovery from Epstein Barr virus. Gent-Wevelgem winner Bernhard Eisel could give the team a significant second option in the finale.
A scan of the race's history quickly demonstrates the quality of rider required to win the event; the names Robbie McEwen and Tom Boonen are two prominent examples.
McEwen's European home is situated in the province adjacent to where Scheldeprijs is held, and the 2010 race will be another important step in the banishment of what was a horror 2009 season for the Australian. He was one of a number of riders to come down heavily in the closing stages of the race last year, but being at the top of Katusha's roster on the start list is an indication he'll be ready to go for his 'home' Classic.
Truly local rider Boonen will start on Wednesday and, after a run of frustrating second place finishes at Milan-San Remo, E3 Prijs-Harelbeke and the Tour of Flanders, looks in the sort of form that could see him add to his two past wins at the event (2004, 2006).
However, Boonen is one of those who may decide to save themselves for Roubaix. Others in that likely category include Saxo Bank's Fabian Cancellara and Matti Breshel, George Hincapie (BMC Racing Team), Thor Hushovd (Cervelo TestTeam), and Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky).
If the Classics' titans do decide to take it easy on Wednesday, it could open the opportunity for a host of riders to benefit from their teams' support. Baden Cooke (Saxo Bank), Theo Bos (Cervelo), Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions), and Sky's Greg Henderson and Chris Sutton will all be in with a sniff in the expected sprint finish.
And last year's runner-up, Kenny Van Hummel (Skil-Shimano), has expressed his desire to go one better this season, and the trend of his results has been on an upwards trajectory.
The course itself generally favours a bunch sprint, with the finish circuit in the Antwerp suburb of Schoten giving the sprinters' teams plenty of opportunity to organise their lead-outs. The three 16.4km closing loops will be preceded by a 172km trip from the centre of Antwerp up to Meerle, near the Dutch border, before turning south to travel past Turnhout and then back in towards Schoten.