De Panne preview: Van Keirsbulck takes on Wiggins in title defence

Kristoff, Greipel and Démare lead the sprinters

Situated in the run up to the Tour of Flanders, the Three Days of De Panne should be the perfect warm-up to de Ronde. It once was with many winners of the short stage race also winning Flanders at some point in their career, and some, such as Peter van Petegem (1999) and Alessandro Ballan (2007) winning them in the same year.

However, many of the current favourites for Flanders chose to skip it, put off by its reputation as a crash fest – even De Panne stalwart Niki Terpstra (Etixx-QuickStep) will not line up this Tuesday. Changes in the calendar and how riders train for their big goals have also had an impact on the number of big names turning up to race. Nevertheless, the three-day race provides us with some exciting and unpredictable racing that keeps our cobbles appetite whetted as we await the big two, Flanders and Roubaix.

The race follows its traditional format with two open stages set the scene, before an often GC-deciding split stage to round out the race – with an opening stage in the morning and a time trial in the afternoon. Day one throws the riders straight into it with no less than 13 Flemish hellingen to tackle en route from De Panne to Zottegem. The 201.6 kilometre course is perfect for riders to make the last little step up in form ahead of Flanders at the weekend. Peter Sagan has won in Zottegem for the last two years, but with his Tinkoff-Saxo team not riding in De Panne it’s a change for someone else to take that honour.

With only five climbs, stage 2 is an opportunity for the pure sprinters to get a win on the board. Picking up where they left off, the riders will start in Zottegem and wind their way out towards the coast and Koksijde. Nothing is a foregone conclusion at De Panne, and get your line wrong into the final corner and you could hand the victory to one of your rivals.

The final-day split stage keeps the general classification battle open until the last. It’s an early enough 9:30 roll-out for the riders on the morning out and back ride from De Panne. Another one for the fast-men, it’s a chance to take some bonus seconds for the general classification. They’ll need as many as they can before the race-closing 14.2-kilometre time trial. It’s a lumpy and technical ride around the streets of De Panne that more often than not proves the difference between success and failure in the overall standings.

The contenders

Defending champion, Guillaume Van Keirsbulck will enjoy sole leadership of Etixx-QuickStep, with Terpstra omitting the race from his calendar for the first time in years. Van Keirsbulck took a surprise win 12 months ago, with a strong performance in the time trial paired with Terpstra’s bad luck in the same stage. The win also sealed his position in the Tour of Flanders squad.

Joining Van Keirsbulck in the fight for the general classification is Bradley Wiggins, who is making his first appearance at De Panne since 2011. Wiggins’ form is a mystery after he failed finish Gent-Wevelgem this weekend. However, his time trialling ability makes him a serious threat and he’ll want to get one on the board before his tilt at Paris-Roubaix next week. Team Sky also bring Andy Fenn and Elia Viviani for the sprints.

Luke Durbridge (Orica-GreenEdge) finished second to Van Keirsbulck in last year’s race, unable to pull back sufficient enough time on the Belgian in the time trial. He’s had a tricky build-up to the race, after crashing on Sunday but he should be considered a contender for the title. Michael Hepburn gives GreenEdge options should Durbridge still be feeling the effects of his previous excursions.

Katusha are bringing their big guns to the mid-week race with Gent-Wevelgem winner Luca Paolini and star sprinter Alexander Kristoff leading the Russian team. Kristoff came close to winning the race in 2013, leading the standings going into the time trial before being nudged off the top spot and into second by Sylvain Chavanel. A strong performance in the opening three stages could see Kristoff vying for the victory again.

André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal), Theo Bos (MTN-Qhubeka), Arnaud Démare (FDJ), Davide Cimolai (Lampre-Merida) and Andrea Guardini (Astana) will be rubbing shoulders with Kristoff in the sprint, hoping to deny the Norwegian of a stage victory.

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