Like a hardened Flandrien domestique, the behemoth that is Flanders Classics has shown no qualms about using its elbows to position its events precisely where it wants them. Over the past decade, the Belgian Classics calendar has been gradually reshaped to meet the wishes of Flanders Classics owner Wouter Vandenhaute, starting with the 2010 decision to move Gent-Wevelgem to the Sunday preceding the Tour of Flanders. It was only a matter of time before attention turned to the prime real estate in the week leading up to the Ronde, occupied by the Three Days of De Panne since 1977.
For years, the Velo Club De Panne, rather like Asterix and his village of indomitable Gauls holding out against the Romans, gamely resisted the pressure to concede their slot on the calendar to Dwars door Vlaanderen, another Flanders Classics event, but they were eventually compelled to lay down arms last year. The rebranded Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne, now a one-day event, moved to the Wednesday after Milan-San Remo, a blow softened only in part by its elevation to WorldTour status this year, as well as the addition of a women’s WorldTour race.
Dwars door Vlaanderen, which previously marked the beginning of a 10-day countdown to the Tour of Flanders, is now stationed as the final tune-up for Belgian cycling’s most hallowed day. Coming just four days before De Ronde, its distance was shaved back accordingly last year, though its difficulty and prestige remain undiminished.
Yves Lampaert claimed his second successive victory in a rain-soaked Waregem last season, and the Belgian champion returns at the head of a strong Deceuninck-QuickStep team this year. The race’s proximity to the Ronde – combined, perhaps, with the miserable weather forecast – means that Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team), Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and E3 BinckBank Classic winner Zdenek Stybar (Deceuninck-QuickStep) are notable absentees, but a stacked field will once again set out from Roeselaere’s Grote Markt on Wednesday morning. At this time of the year in Flanders, every available prize is worth winning.
After being caught on the back foot for much of Sunday’s high-speed edition of Gent-Wevelgem, Deceuninck-QuickStep will surely look to dictate the terms of engagement in the Flemish Ardennes on Wednesday. Lampaert, Philippe Gilbert and Bob Jungels lead the line for Patrick Lefevere’s team and will again be the team to beat. Lampaert and Gilbert, in particular, will be itching for an opportunity to claim a win after finding themselves in supporting roles in recent weeks.
Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale) rode cannily to finish on the podium at Gent-Wevelgem and the terrain on offer here is infinitely better-suited to his talents. Niki Terpstra (Direct Energie) has claimed Dwars door Vlaanderen on two previous occasions but has yet to win in the colours of his new team. It would be a fine place to start.
World champion Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) has raced Dwars door Vlaanderen on two previous occasions; in 2014, to ready himself for the cobbles on that year’s Tour de France, and last season, as preparation for a later postponed Tour of Flanders debut. Valverde will eventually make his Ronde bow this year, and on Wednesday, he might well improve on last year’s 11th place at Dwars door Vlaanderen.
Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus) showcased his ability on the road with fourth place at Gent-Wevelgem, where he seemed to relish the prospect of duelling with cyclo-cross rival Van Aert, and he should be to the fore again here. Mike Teunissen leads for Jumbo-Visma in Van Aert’s absence, and he caught the eye with his aggression at Gent-Wevelgem.
Tiesj Benoot and Jens Keukeleire carry Lotto Soudal’s hopes, while Jasper Stuyven, Edward Theuns and Mads Pedersen lead a Trek-Segafredo squad that finally showed signs of improvement at Gent-Wevelgem after a disappointing spring to this point. Sep Vanmarcke is still unsure if he can return to action for EF Education First after crashing out of E3 BinckBank Classic, where Alberto Bettiol claimed an impressive fourth. The US-registered team has Sebastian Langeveld, Taylor Phinney and Sacha Modolo in its provisional line-up.
UAE Team Emirates saved their spring with Alexander Kristoff’s Gent-Wevelgem win, and the Norwegian is again joined by Fernando Gaviria and Jasper Philipsen here. Luke Rowe highlighted his form when he bridged across to the break at Gent-Wevelgem, and the Welshman heads a Team Sky squad that also includes a hitherto subdued Gianni Moscon.
Dimension Data have endured a wretched Classics campaign to date, but Michael Valgren, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Julien Vermote will look to kick start the recovery on Wednesday. 10 days out from Paris-Roubaix, Arnaud Démare and Stefan Küng will hope for the same at Groupama-FDJ.
The 2016 winner Jens Debusschere (Katusha-Alpecin) is among the riders hoping for a group finish in Roeselaere, together with Bryan Coquard (Direct Energie), Christophe Laporte (Cofidis) and Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida). On last year’s evidence, however, reduced distance of the parcours ought to lead to a more aggressive and selective race. The expected rain and single-digit temperatures on Wednesday will make the road from Roeselaere to Waregem all the harder.
The start on Roeselaere’s striking Grote Markt is one of the most boisterous of the entire Flemish campaign – another sort of a warm-up for the main event in Antwerp on Sunday morning. After being flagged away from the start, the peloton race for 82 kilometres before hitting the first of the day’s eleven climbs, the Nieuwe Kwaremont.
The redrawn Dwars door Vlaanderen’s principal difficulties, however, are shoehorned into the final 65 kilometres. The race gets very hard very quickly with 60km to go, when the Knokteberg and Kortekeer are followed in rapid-fire succession by the cobbles at Maria Borestraat, the climb of Steenbeekdries, the Stationsberg cobbles and the ascents of the Taaienberg and Berg Ten Houte.
Those obstacles are all crammed into a breathless stretch of 15 kilometres or so, and this is where the principal selection of the race should be formed. Any riders who do manage to get back on before the second ascent of the Knokteberg, with 35km remaining, will surely be running on fumes by that point.
Unlike at the E3 BinckBank Classic or Gent-Wevelgem, the cobbles and hills continue deep into the finale of the race on the road to Waregem. The stretch of pavé at Varent comes with 25km remaining, before the climbs of Vossenhol and Holstraat. The final climb, the Nokereberg, is just nine kilometres from the finish, while the stretch of cobbles at Herlegemstraat provide another possible springboard in the finale.
Dwars door Vlaanderen may be ‘only’ 182 kilometres long, but the reduced distance does little to dampen its difficulty.
Dwars door Vlaanderen – climbs
1 Nieuwe Kwaremont 82km
2 Kluisberg 111km
3 Knokteberg - Trieu 118km
4 Kortekeer 126km
5 Steenbeekdries 129km
6 Taaienberg 132km
7 Berg Ten Houte 135km
8 Knokteberg - Trieu 149km
9 Vossenhol 162km
10 Holstraat 166km
11 Nokereberg 174km