The sixth edition of the women's Dwars door Vlaanderen will see the race finally gain UCI status. Since the inaugural race in 2012, it has developed from a kermesse-style race to a full-blown Classic, but it is only in 2017 that it has been awarded a 1.1 categorisation.
Aside from the upgrade, little has changed from last year's parcours, which was won by Amy Pieters. There is one less climb for the riders to contest with but the race is 11 kilometres longer, and there is an extra cobbled sector thrown into the mix.
What the promotion does mean for the organisers is a wealth of top teams will line up in Tielt on Wednesday. Wiggle-High5 and Lotto Soudal were both in action in 2016, but this year the start list will feature riders from Team Sunweb, Cylance, Alé Cipollini, Orica-Scott, Canyon-SRAM, Cervelo-Bigla and WM3 Pro Cycling as well as Wiggle High5 and Lotto Soudal.
Boels Dolmans' Jip Van Den Bos will race alongside a selection of Dutch riders. However, Pieters will not be back to defend her title. Pieters has dominated Dwars door Vlaanderen, winning the last three editions of the race, and her absence will open the door for a new champion. There is no lack of sprinting and Classics talent due to make the journey to Tielt on Wednesday morning and this year's race could be the best one yet.
Lucinda Brand has been firing on all cylinders this season, ever since her win at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad at the end of last month. She will be joined by Ellen van Dijk and former podium finisher Flortije Mackaij.
Last year's runner-up Jolien D'hoore heads the Wiggle-High5 team, and with the Garner sisters Grace and Lucy, the team has plenty of options. Chloe Hosking will be also be hoping for a bunch gallop for Alé Cipollini. Orica-Scott's Annemiek van Vleuten has had a number of close calls this season and will be looking to nail her first win in Europe. We can expect Van Vleuten and her teammates Amanda Spratt and Katrin Garfoot to shake things up as they did at the weekend at the Trofeo Alfredo Binda.
Canyon-SRAM also has some serious firepower with Tiffany Cromwell as an option from a small group, while Hannah Barnes or Barbara Guarischi can mix it up in a sprint finish. Cylance will not bring former champion Kirsten Wild to the race but they do have Le Samyn winner Sheyla Gutierrez Ruiz to look to for another spring win. WM3 Pro Cycling brings Kasia Niewiadoma, but it is perhaps Anouska Koster that could be their better option on this flatter of courses.
As it did in 2016, the race will roll out from Tielt just west of Ghent. The early trip to the Nokereberg has been done away with, and it is a flattish run to the first cobbled climb at the 79-kilometre mark. Prior to that, the riders will make the first passage of the finish line after 44 kilometres. They will not see it again for almost 70 kilometres.
First up for the riders is the Oude Kwaremont, a climb that needs no introduction. The 1.5-kilometre stretch of cobbled road averages 4.2 per cent with a maximum gradient of 11 per cent and will soften the legs up nicely for what is to come. Last year the Kwaremont broke up the peloton and saw a 12-rider group try to make it to the finish. It was unsuccessful but with so many more strong riders in the bunch this year it is possible that a move could stay clear.
Following the Oude Kwaremont is the Paterberg, a shorter but much steeper ascent with a maximum of 20 per cent. A 2km cobbled sector comes next before two paved hellingen Vossenhol and Holstraat. The Nokereberg is the last of the climbs, a 500m cobbled ride that plays host to the finish of the Nokere Koerse. To spice things up a little more this year, the organisers have decided to throw in one last cobbled sector. The 800m Herlegemstraat comes with just six kilometres to go and could be the springboard for an attack.
All things considered, the 2017 women's Dwars door Vlaanderen should be the best we've seen so far.