The increasingly monolithic Flanders Classics continues its domination of the Belgian spring, and the Three Days of De Panne has paid the consequences. Velo Club De Panne has withstood fierce pressure from the Tour of Flanders organisers in recent years to move from its traditional pre-Ronde slot on the calendar, but for 2018, Wouter Vandenhaute and company have their wish.
After 41 editions as a three-day, four-stage race in the week directly before the Tour of Flanders, the Three Days of De Panne is a rather diminished version of itself in 2018, though Wednesday’s one-day race between Bruges and De Panne at least has the merit of keeping the flame alive.
Back in 2014, Flanders Classics was pushing for the Three Days of De Panne to move to July. An impossibility, said the De Panne organisation, who pointed out that Belgium’s North Sea coast hotels are booked solid for holiday season.
Last year, however, Flanders Classics successfully lobbied the UCI to have Dwars door Vlaanderen bumped up to WorldTour level and its date was moved by a week to the Wednesday before the Tour of Flanders. Despite threats of legal action, Velo Club De Panne had little choice but to give up its traditional slot.
Organising a three-day race in the week leading up to E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem was always unlikely, but Velo Club De Panne tried, at least, to host racing on three successive days by adding a women’s WorldTour event, which will take place on Thursday.
They had initially intended to hold two men’s races, but plans for a so-called ‘sprint classic’ on Tuesday came to nothing. While the old name, Driedaagse van De Panne-Koksijde, remains, it is an obvious misnomer: this year’s event is a one-day race of 200 kilometres, from Bruges to De Panne.
Over the past 20 years or so, Flemish races have increasingly couched themselves as miniature Tours of Flanders, but the new-look Three Days of De Panne has opted to eschew the Flemish Ardennes preferred by the Ronde.
Although the race sets out from the Ronde’s former start line in Bruges’ Grote Markt, the route does not make for the area of cobbles and hills between Oudenaarde and Kortrijk, preferring instead to chart a more northerly course and take in a different – but also familiar – smattering of climbs around the midway point on the Franco-Belgian border.
The Monteberg, Kemmelberg – the heart of Gent-Wevelgem – Rodeberg, Viaigneberg and Sulferberg follow in quick succession between kilometres 80 and 100, and this staccato burst of climbs should break up the peloton ahead of the flat and potentially wind-blasted run towards the finish. The finale feature two laps of a 25.7km finishing circuit around De Panne, Koksijde and Veurne, before the finish on De Panne’s Zeelan.
In the WorldTour era, the Three Days of De Panne’s pulling power had appeared to be waning, only to enjoy the beginnings of a resurgence over the past three years as first Alexander Kristoff (2015) and then Philippe Gilbert (2017) won the Tour of Flanders 72 hours after taking the overall title in De Panne. Neither man is on the start list for Wednesday, nor indeed are any of the top echelon of Tour of Flanders contenders.
Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors) lines up with the number 1 dossard, and backed by a squad that includes Fabio Sabatini, Max Richeze and Remi Cavagna, the Italian will be the favourite to claim the spoils in De Panne.
With Luke Durbridge and Mat Hayman listed to start, Mitchelton-Scott have one of the stronger line-ups, together with Lotto Soudal, who can count on Jens Keukeleire, Jens Debusschere and Moreno Hofland. Former Three Days of De Panne winner Guillaume Van Keirsbulck features for Wanty-Groupe Gobert alongside Yoann Offredo. Viacheslav Kuznetzov – third at Gent-Wevelgem two years ago – and Alex Dowsett are of a useful Katusha-Alpecin squad.
Krists Neilands (Israel Cycling Academy), best supporting actor on the Poggio at Milan-San Remo, also features, while the Belgian eyes will likely be on cyclo-cross world champion Wout Van Aert (Verandas-Willems Crelan), so impressive at Strade Bianche.
And yet while the miserable weather forecast may yet create a more selective race, the fast men will likely fancy their chances of duking it out for victory in De Panne at day’s end. The aforementioned Viviani and Debusschere, as well as Adam Blythe (Aqua Blue Sport) and Bryan Coquard (Vital Concept) will all expected to be in the mix come the finale.