When the peloton gathers in Roeselare’s Grot Markt on Wednesday morning for the start of Dwars door Vlaanderen, there is a sense that the countdown to the Tour of Flanders can finally begin in earnest. The white knuckle drama of Milan-San Remo has dissipated, and for the next two weeks, Flanders and its cobbles are at the very epicentre of the cycling world.
Dwars door Vlaanderen is the first instalment in the ten-day sequence of cobbled races that lead in to the Ronde, the first foray into a hyper-real environment where the importance of every pedal stroke and utterance seems to magnify as Flemish cycling’s day of days draws closer.
The twelve hellingen on the twisting 200km road to Waregem form something of a miniature Tour of Flanders – a change that has taken hold gradually over the years, tilting the balance from the sprinters to classics hunters – and while the 2012 shift of E3 Harelbeke to a Friday date has whittled away at the number of star names lining up each year, there is still more than enough quality in the field for this to be a reliable form guide for the first two Sundays in April.
As ever in this postage stamp of cobbles and hills, and even without the injured Tom Boonen, the road to victory in Waregem runs through Etixx-QuickStep. Last year’s winner Niki Terpstra leads the line, and world champion Michal Kwiatkowski makes his sole outing on the pavé this spring, while Iljo Keisse showed his form in leading QuickStep’s sweep of the podium at the Ronde van Zeeland at the weekend. Mark Cavendish will have designs primarily on victory in Gent-Wevelgem at the weekend, but it’s worth noting that a sizeable bunch contested the sprint for second place last year.
Lars Boom is in his debut season as an outright classics leader at Astana and will look to lay down a marker here, while Belgian cycling’s two great enigmas – Stijn Devolder and Geert Steegmans – fly the flag for Trek Factory Racing in the absence of Fabian Cancellara.
BMC, too, have elected to hold Greg Van Avermaet back for the weekend’s WorldTour racing, meaning that Marcus Burghardt has a rare chance to lead. Sep Vanmarcke is another absentee, freeing the way for youngsters Moreno Hofland and Tom Van Asbroeck to show their mettle for LottoNL-Jumbo.
Lotto-Soudal have had a decent spread of winners thus far in 2015, with Belgian champion Jens Debusschere a particular dangerman in the event of a large group finish, while Jens Keukeleire, Mat Hayman and Adam Blythe are on hand for Orica-GreenEdge.
Matti Breschel (Tinkoff-Saxo) won the race in 2010 and will surely be eager to prove a point after Oleg Tinkov’s public criticism in the wake of Milan-San Remo – though it remains to be seen what impact the suspension of Bjarne Riis has had on the morale of the squad.
2013 winner Oscar Gatto (Androni Giocattoli), Thomas Voeckler (Europcar), Damien Gaudin (Ag2r-La Mondiale) will all harbours ambitions of shining, while the MTN-Qhubeka squad lines up with a number of potential leaders, including Theo Bos and Matt Goss, though Tyler Farrar (second last year) seems the most reliable option on this terrain.
The day’s great curiosity will be the presence of Nairo Quintana (Movistar), who makes his competitive debut on the cobbles in preparation for the pavé at July’s Tour de France. Twelve months ago, his teammate Alejandro Valverde followed a similar preparation and wound up performing very strongly indeed at Dwars door Vlaanderen. One imagines that Quintana will be simply glad to emerge unscathed from his first dose of cobblestones but his progress will be followed with interest.
Roeslare and Waregem are scarcely 20 kilometres apart, but the route takes the peloton on a winding course through the Flemish Ardennes before doubling back for the finish in front of the stadium of FC Waregem. The opening half of the race is largely flat and allows plenty of time for the early break to take shape before the peloton hits the first climb of the day, the Nieuwe Kwaremont after 88 kilometres.
The Kattenberg, Leberg, Berendries and Valkenberg form the softening up process before the endgame begins with the combination of the Eikenberg and Taaienberg with 60 kilometres remaining. The next brace of climbs the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg – is of course, something of a dress rehearsal for the Tour of Flanders finale, and should force the greatest selection of the afternoon, before the denouement over the Hellestraat (181km), Holstraat (185km) and Nokereberg (192km) in the finale.
And even after the finish in Waregem, that rocky road keeps on rolling, via Harelbeke, Wevelgem, De Panne and Bruges, all the way to Oudenaarde and the finish of the Tour of Flanders on April 5.