It's a new dawn for Dwars door Vlaanderen. Having previously been held on the first Wednesday of the Belgian cobbled classics fortnight, 2018 will be its first running in the pre-Tour of Flanders slot.
Organisers Flanders Classics, who also run De Ronde, fought hard for this, pushing the Three Days of De Panne into a one-day format in their previous slot, much to the frustration of an ultimately helpless Veloclub De Panne.
The aim was to boost the stature of Dwars door Vlaanderen, which previously acted as an introduction to the main cobbled classics period in Belgium, but a dispensable one in the eyes of many of the top riders. Now, after achieving WorldTour status last year, it acts as the only stepping stone between Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders on Sunday.
As such, the start list is meatier, with Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) in attendance, though there are still two very notable absentees in the last two winners of Tour of Flanders, Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe).
The price to pay for the higher-quality line-up, however, is a shorter, stripped-back parcours. Previously 200 kilometres in length, the organisers were keen not to scare off the Flanders favourites and have dropped it down to 180km, making it the second shortest one-day race on the UCI WorldTour calendar. They've also had to wave goodbye to the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg, which act as the finale in the Tour of Flanders.
Dwars door Vlaanderen, like Gent-Wevelgem, is often a fine balance between the attackers and the sprinters. Last year the race exploded early on courtesy of Gilbert, with his teammate Yves Lampaert going on to take a solo victory. The year before Jens Debuscherre won from the bunch after Van Avermaet was caught a couple of hundred metres shy of the line.
It remains to be seen how the race plays out in its new format. Some reckon the shorter distance makes it less of an elimination race, favouring a large bunch finish, while others suggest that, with the same number of climbs (12) packed into a more condensed container, it could actually intensify proceedings.
The weather could also play its part. Rainy conditions are expected Wednesday afternoon, along with a not-inconsiderable tailwind blowing in the final phase of the race – two factors that could swing it away from the sprinters.
The race starts in Roeselare and finishes in Waregem. Only 20 kilometres separate the two West Flanders towns, but the race will head south-east to the network of cobbles and climbs that is the Flemish Ardennes.
The riders set off from Roeselare's Grot Markt just after midday and actually head into Waregem and through the finish line before turning towards Kluisberg for the main difficulties of the day. The Kluisberg is in fact the first of 12 climbs on the menu, appearing after 83 kilometres. It's paired with the Knokteberg climbed from the Walloon side (Côte de Trieu), and the riders will come back to tackle them both again as the race starts to intensify.
After coming down off the Knokteberg for the second time, the riders head for a potentially decisive phase of the race. The Kortekeer, Steenbekdries (and its Stationsberg descent), and Taaienberg all appear in the space of less than 10 kilometres. Those looking for a selective race will surely have to make use of that stretch, which closes with just over 50km remaining.
There are 10km until the next climb, the Kruisberg, and a further 10km back to the Knokteberg for a third time. The organisers clearly want the climb to become the emblem of the race in its reimagined format, and it could prove a crucial launchpad with 33km to go.
The race then returns to its familiar route in the final 20 or so kilometres, with a flat sector of cobbles at Varent ahead of the Vossenhol and Holstraat climbs in quick succession. That leaves just one climb, the Nokereberg, which tops out 9km from the line and is shortly followed by a final difficulty in the form of 800 metres of flat cobblestones along Herlegemstraat.
Gilbert and Sagan have decided against it, but pretty much all the other major favourites for De Ronde will be lining up in Roeselare.
Greg Van Avermaet has had a quieter spring than last year so far, but his third place at E3 Harelbeke and presence in the lead group at Gent-Wevelgem suggest there's no real cause for concern. A selective race and he'll surely be in the mix. Likewise, fellow Flandriens Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal), Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale), Sep Vanmarkce (EF-Drapac), and Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo), who have all been solid if unspectacular so far in Belgium.
The keys to the race, as is so often the case, may well lie with Quick-Step. Gilbert, who has shown glimpses of form but hasn't yet been let off the leash, is absent, but the Belgian behemoth still have 2017 champion Yves Lampaert and dominant E3 Harelbeke winner Niki Terpstra, alongside Zdenek Stybar. That trio will likely be on the offensive as they were at E3, but Quick-Step also have Elia Viviani waiting in the wings for a sprint, along with riders to support him in the finale in Max Richeze and Alvaro Hodeg (who won the Handzame Classic and a stage in Catalunya last week). Quick-Step curbed their attacking instincts in the lead group at Gent-Wevelgem in order to set up Viviani and, after coming up short to Sagan in the sprint there, the Italian will be eager to make amends.
Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) failed to make the selection over the Kemmelberg at Gent-Wevelgem, but would still be contenders if a sprint did come about, while Edward Theuns is one to watch in a Sunweb line-up that doesn't include Michael Matthews. Further sprint outsiders come in the form of John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo), Christophe Laporte (Cofidis), Magnus Cort (Astana), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data), Niccolo Bonifazio (Bahrain-Merida), and Dan McLay (EF-Drapac).
In terms of others who'd want to avoid a mass finish, Luke Durbridge (Mitchelton-Scott) and Alexey Lutsenko (Astana), both made the four-man final selection 12 months ago, though neither has shown many signs of top form so far. Luke Rowe is back on the cobbles after his remarkable recovery from a broken leg last summer, and he's in there with Gianni Moscon for Team Sky, who also have fast-finishing neo-pro's in Chris Lawless and Kristoffer Halvorsen. Wout Van Aert (Veranda's Willems Crelan) continues to impress on the road and a good showing here would only heighten the anticipation ahead of Flanders.
Finally, watch out for the flyweights in a field full of heavyweights. Movistar and AG2R have decided Dwars represents a good opportunity to test their Tour de France leaders on the cobbles ahead of the pavé stage of this year's Tour de France, and so Nairo Quintana, Alejandro Valverde, and Romain Bardet are all in attendance. Quintana did the same three years ago and survival will again be the aim of the day, though the other two are likely to fare better. Bardet was hugely impressive in finishing runner-up at Strade Bianche three weeks ago, even if the more explosive cobbled climbs of Flanders are a world away from the gravel tracks of Tuscany. There's even a sneaking suspicion that Valverde could be a contender. He's in remarkable form after winning the Volta a Catalunya and what he lacks in experience on this terrain he makes up for with a fierce punch, a neat sprint, and a wealth of one-day pedigree.