After one of the most memorable Milan-San Remo races in recent memory the one-day focus shifts to Belgium with Dwars door Vlaanderen kick-starting a three week period of racing that will take in E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
Defending championNiki Terpstra will lead a fearsome Omega-Pharma QuickStep team keen to assert a dominant foothold on their spring campaign. Sylvain Chavanel, a breakaway partner of Terpstra’s last year, is also due to start the race and can never be ruled out. However his heroics in Milan-San Remo leave questions marks over how quickly the Frenchman can recover in time for Wednesday. Whether Chavanel recovers or not, Lefevere and his team will aim to use Dwars Vlaanderen’s 199.7km battleground as a test for the remaining cobbled Classics. With three Dwars door Vlaanderen titles in the last six years anything but a win will be a disappointment.
With Peter Sagan and his Cannondale team recovering from an exhausting Milan-San Remo and BMC also keeping their powder dry, Omega Pharma’s main challenge comes from different sources.
Juan Antonio Flecha will lead Vacansoleil-DCM and after a disappointing outing at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (89th) the Spaniard will be keen to stake his leadership credentials ahead of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
RadioShack Leopard has named Fabian Cancellara as a reserve leaving Stijn Devolder with an opportunity to lead the team. The Belgian, a two-time winner of the Tour of Flanders, has been off the boil for a number of years but a return to his roots and partnership with Dirk Demol may yet inspire the 33-year-old into form. Teammate Tony Gallopin will be looking to bounce back after an underwhelming performance in Paris-Nice.
Another rider with a point to prove this spring is Matti Breschel. After two injury hit years at Rabobank the Dane has returned to Team Saxo-Tinkoff and Bjarne Riis. A winner of the race in 2010, he has yet to demonstrate the promise he showed as Cancellara’s Classics understudy three years ago.
Geraint Thomas (Team Sky), who was second two years ago, will be smarting from his late crash in Milan-Sano Remo and is expected to lead the British team.
Finally, Koen de Kort, third last year, also returns and despite breaking a collarbone earlier in the year, will lead Argos-Shimano in the absence of Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb.
As in previous years the first few hours of the race take in flat country roads from the start in Roeselare before the first climb, the Nieuwe Kwaremont at 93 kilometres.
Typically a break will have formed at this point but with the Kattenberg and Leberg coming in quick succession, the pace will likely ramp up as the strongmen and their teams battle for position at the front of the peloton. The two cobbled sections – Holleweg and Haaghoek – between the Kattenberg and the Leberg may also prove decisive.
However, the most challenging sections are yet to come, with the Berendries (123km), the Valkenburg (128km) in quick succession.
The Eikenberg, at 141 kilometres, then starts a run of five bergs in 40 kilometres of racing, with the Paterberg at 169 kilometres sure to see fireworks. But another key point could arrive just after the Paterberg, with a two-kilometre stretch of cobbles leading into the final set of climbs. Hesitation or a moment of brilliance could see a rider escape and hold off the chasing pack.
There are three more climbs before the finish: the Vossenhol, Hostraat and Nokereberg, with the climb summit seven kilometres from the finish in Waregem.
As with San Remo and the flurry of Belgian races on the horizon, the weather will be crucial but after Gerald Ciolek's thrilling win last weekend a number of teams will be sensing a similar result.