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Hello and welcome to Cyclingnews' live race coverage from the one day race Scheldeprijs.
Hello and welcome to our live coverage from Scheldeprijs the 204.2 km race perfectly suited to the sprinters. Sandwiched between the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix it's a rare opportunity for the fast men to come to the fore on the spring cobbles, and after a missed opportunity at Gent-Wevelgem due to Peter Sagan's stellar ride, there will be plenty of sprinters hoping for better today.
The race began a few minutes ago in Antwerp and so far there's not been a break from the peloton. We'll take the opportunity to look over the race route.
Starting in the main square in Antwerp the race heads north, up towards Meerle before zig zagging down south towards Lille - the Lille in Belgium not France - before a rush towards Schoten.
The riders will pass through the finishline twice before the final sprint for the line.
The finishing straight is flat but there are cobbles and on the wet it can be treacherous to say the least. There's a slight curve before the line so timing and positioning will of course be critical.
Right now Gregory Rast and Matt Brammeier are leading to separate groups on the road, with the peloton at 1:30. It's highly likely that these two groups will form and that the peloton will ease up.
Those two groups have indeed made contact and they've established a 3;20 lead over the peloton with 180km of racing left. We'll bring you the full list of names in the break shortly.
Grégory Rast (RadioShack-Leopard), Matthew Brammeier (Champion System Pro Cycling Team), Jacobus Venter (MTN – Qhubeka), Mart Ojavee (Champion System Pro Cycling Team), Kenneth Van Bilsen (Topsport Vlaanderen – Baloise), Stefano Borchi (Vini Fantini), Arman Kamyshev (Astana), Christopher Juul Jensen (Saxo Bank), and Koen Barbe (Crelan - Euphony).
Rast was an integral part of the RadioShack team that won the Tour of Flanders last weekend and is clearly in inspired form. The team don't have a dedicated sprinter in the race so they'll be trying to launch men up the road today and of course hone their form for Paris-Roubaix next weekend.
The gap to the bunch is now at 3;55.
Brammeier has been in a number of breaks this spring, including Dwars Door Vlaanderen and on the first stage at De Panne. The Irish national champion has made no secret of his desire to return to the WorldTour ranks and although today isn't a race he can win, he's doing the right thing and getting himself noticed.
Koen Barbé is no stranger to long breaks either. The 32-year-old is one of the most experienced Belgian riders in the lower pro ranks. He's actually a former national U23 champion but his career never really kicked on after that.
Jacobus Venter might be on an African team but he has roots in Belgium too, having spent a year riding for the Veranda's Willems team in 2011. Like Barbe he's another former U23 national champion, for South Africa, of course.
Kenneth Vanbilsen, he won the U23 version of the Tour of Flanders last year.
Mark Cavendish, a three-time winner of this race, the last time was in 2011, is back at the race. The former world champion is the red hot favourite for today and proved in de Panne that he's on form.
He missed the race last year due to the birth of his daughter, but he'll be hungry to win a record breaking fourth title today.
His team could certainly do with a morale boosting win after a tough spring that has seen them luck out in the major Classics. Chavanel has another de Panne title to his name but compared to last year the team have fallen way short, mainly due to the injury and form problems surrounding Tom Boonen. A win today would certainly readdress the balance to some degree.
A Cavendish win isn't a formality though and there are a number of other sprinters who will be hoping the Manxman has an off-day.
Marcel Kittel, last year's winner, is here to defend his title. Despite a decent start to the year the German fastman has suffered in recent weeks. A virus picked up in Paris-Nice meant he missed training for 8 days and he was constantly dropped in de Panne. He'll be hoping that his legs have found some speed since then and the finishing straight certainly suits his powerful style.
Tyler Farrar is another sprinter on the start list who has won this race. Back in 2010 the American crossed the line first and he's been on the podium's other steps too.
So far this season the Garmin rider has struggled though, and he crashed out of contention in Milan-San Remo last year. Like Argos and QuickStep, Garmin could really do with a result today after disappointing Classic campaigns but Farrar hasn't shown the best sprinting legs this year.
The gap between the peloton and the bunch is now at 4:30.
Theo Bos is also on the startlist and today is another big opportunity for the 29-year-old to take on the best sprinters in the world. The Blanco man already has four wins to his name this year, including a win at the criterium International a couple of weeks ago. This race marks the first time he'll go up against Mark Cavendish this year, so it's a big test for him. Greame Brown and Mark Renshaw are likely to lead him out, although there's also a chance that Renshaw will be given the chance to ride his own race...
The gap is down to 3:42.
And the gap is continuing to fall, it's now at 2:10 with Omega setting the pace on the front of the peloton.
The pace in the bunch has caused the peloton to split in two.
The gap to the leaders is now just 51 seconds with the peloton a further 40 seconds down. It could all come back together at this rate.
Away from the race, we have this tech feature looking at a number of the pro bikes used at the Tour of Flanders.
While, away from Belgium altogether, Andy Schleck has talked about his current form with one eye on the Tour de France in July.
The break has been reeled in but we still have these two main groups with the peloton split. Names in the front group include Cavendish, Keisse, Maes, Steegmans, Velits, Vandenbergh en Van Keirsbulck zijn present. Een aantal andere namen: Kittel, Farrar, Rosseler, Bagdonas, Guardini, Bozic, Guarnieri, Bos, Wagnes, Vanmarcke, Renshaw, Boucher, Haller, Selig, Stannard, Rowe, Hayman, Cantwell, Van Hummel, Mol, Caethoven, Kluge, Van Hoecke, Salomein, Van Dousselaere.
All according to Sporza.
It's all going to come back together though, the gap between the two groups is just 8 seconds.
Cancellara and sprinter Kristoff, who won a stage in De Panne and is in with a very good chance today, are in that second group.
87 km to go and the race is already back together. There's a good chance we'll see a number of counter attacks now but the sprinters' teams are going to have to concentrate on who they let go up the road, even at this stage.
Brammeier again lauches a move off the front, this time taking two other riders with him. The Irishman is clearly in form and the WorldTour teams will be watching him.
The Irish champion, Borchi, who was also in the early move, and Vandousselaere have 15 seconds on the bunch.
A bit of leeway for the three riders, who now have a 34 second buffer from the peloton.
The gap continues to rise, and it's now at 1 minute. The bunch have relaxed and are willing to grant the three riders a few more seconds.
Crash and it's Cancellara, the winner of Flanders and favourite for next weekend's Roubaix. He's back up but it looks like he's got a few cuts and bruises and his shorts are ripped.
And the peloton speed has dropped, so the leaders now have 1:45 of a gap.
The bunch pass through the feedzone and there's a good chance Cancellara will call it quits.
Borchi punctures so he'll have to chase hard to get back to the two leaders.
Blanco now lead the peloton with the gap at 2:36.
The three leaders are back together again and working nicely to maintain their pace
Cancellara is still in the peloton so his injuries arent serious it seems.
The three leaders now have a gap over 3 minutes. There's no sign of Omega on the front of the bunch with Blanco and a few Garmin riders doing most of the pace setting.
The gap has gone out to 3:27 and there's a bit more urgency from the peloton as they begin to start their chase.
Cancellara is back with the team car and talking to his DS. It looks like he's going to continue.
The Tour of Flanders winner is right at the back of the peloton though, which is probably the most dangerous place to be. Does he really need these final 80km of racing in his legs before Paris-Roubaix?
Up at the front of the peloton, Cavendish's men start to make their presence felt.
72km to go and the gap to the three leaders is at 3:16
Garmin, Argos and Omega Pharma have all moved to the front now to join the Blanco team in setting the pace. It's had an instant effect with the gap dropping to 2:35.
Lotto also move their team to the front of the action too. Greipel isn't racing today as the team are saving him for Paris-Roubaix so Kenny Dehaes is their sprinter for the finale.
The bunch is begging to be stretched out but the lead is still just over 2 minutes. The peloton are in complete control even at this stage though.
There's more activity on the front of the peloton with a few small digs. The main field are still together but the pace keeps increasing. The gap is just 1:11 now.
We've talked about the main favourites for today but Yauheni Hutarovich, Andrea Guardini, Arnaud Demare are all here too.
The three leader are coming up to the finishline for the first time, their lead at around the 50 second mark.
48km to go and we're still on the for expected bunch sprint as Blanco again move to the front and set the pace from the bunch.
Stannard swings off from the peloton. Is he sick or simply saving himself for Paris-Roubaix?
Eisel has been near the back of the peloton for a while now, he has been sick in the last week or so.
The leaders are taking on some food and they've still managed to hold the peloton at the 1 minute mark. By the next time through the finish line we should see a more concerted effort from the main field though.
36 seconds for the leaders now and Blanco continue to do all the work on the front of the bunch. There's little sign of Cavendish's teammates at the moment but they're all there. it will be interesting to see who leads Cavendish out today. They tried with Trentin earlier this year but with mixed results. Fenn, Steegmans are both here and so is Keisse.
Fabian Cancellara crashed earlier in the race. After winning the E3 Harelbeke and especially the Tour of Flanders last Sunday he's the top favourite for Paris-Roubaix next Sunday. “It happened when echelons were formed. He could not escape the crash. It’s good that he could continue his race. We’ll have to examine the injuries after the race to see how it will inflict Sunday’s race,” Radioshack team director Dirk Demol said.
34km to go and the gap is just 30 seconds.
The three leaders come over the finish line again. The roads are dry by the way, but the bunch are just behind them with the gap well under 30 seconds now.
The three leaders know the game is up, the gap just at 18 seconds, but they continue to pull through and take their turns.
QuickStep in their black rain jackets are now starting to move to the front. Cavendish is sitting nicely in the middle of the pack for now but he'll be moving to the front soon. Can he make it a record breaking fourth win in this race?
29km to go and the catch is about to be made, with the leaders holding less than 100 meters on the bunch.
Borchi is the last man out there but he's about to be caught by the field too. So it's all back together with 26km to go.
FDJ who were so strong in parts of De Panne and Flanders hit the front for their sprinter.
QuickStep follow the FDJ train but with 25km to go the French riders are hitting the front a bit to early. This will play into Quickstep's hands.
On the right, Argos are starting to mount their challenge, they have the defending champion in their team, while on the left Europcar are starting to wind things up.
But it's FDJ who continue to do the lion share of the work on the front of the peloton, with 20 km to to. Garmin, with Farrar, are in the background.
As now Argos swing to the middle of the road and we have three distinct trains. Argos, Lotto, Omega all on the front.
Over the finish line one more time. The next time and we'll have the 2013 winner of the race.
And Blanco, despite all the previous work, have moved back to the head of the field.
Maes is on the front for Cavendish now and the Omega team are starting to take control.
Brown has a puncture. That's bad news for Blanco, and that will surely change their plans for the sprint.
13km to go and Vanmarcke has dropped back to help Brown.
Sky have also moved up towards the front of the peloton and at the back riders are starting to pop off the back due to the pace.
As Brown makes it back to the bunch. Now he has to move all the way to the front and find Bos before the finish. Easier said than done.
Just 9 km to go now.
Astana hit the front, with Sky following. There are so many teams here with legitimate sprint chances it's going to be so hard to control on the run into the finish.
Stijn Vandenbergh is on the front now for Omega Pharma as Bozic pulls over having done his work for Astana. Sky are working for Sutton.
Just 5 km to go .
Blanco on the left, Sky on the right as Cancellara sits up
Argos, Sky, Lotto, Blanco all positioning their men on the front.
There are maybe 50 riders left at this point.
A tight right hand bend and Sky and Blanco take control, forcing the other teams to take a wider line and work hard to come back.
It looks like Steegmans is going to be Cavendish's last man.
3km to go.
Here come Omega on the right as a number of teams start to splinter
2 km to go and there's little organisation on the front now.
Cavendish looks out of it.
Argos launch it.
Now Lotto lead
Kittel takes it from Cavendish.
That's what it looked like on the line.
The German was much better placed coming to the line and although Cavendish was closing on him he had too much to do.
Kittel is getting the hugs, but Cavendish deserves some credit simply for the turn of speed. He was back in 8th place with 200 to go.
But he and Omega gave themselves too much to do and Kittel simply had the better leadout. If the line had been 5 meters further it might have been a different ending but the German is the worthy winner and takes his second title in as many years.
Barry Markus took third.
Here's the provisional top ten:
1 Marcel Kittel (Ger) Argos-Shimano
2 Mark Cavendish (GBr) Omega Pharma Quick Step
3 Barry Markus (Ned) Vacansoleil-DCM
4 Andrea Guardini (Ita) Astana
5 Alexander Kristoff (Nor) Team Katusha
6 Tyler Farrar (USA) Garmin-Sharp
7 Kenny Dehaes (Bel) Lotto Belisol
8 Theo Bos (Ned) Team Blanco
9 Romain Feillu (Fra) Vacansoleil-DCM
10 Michael Van Staeyen (Bel) Topsport Vlaanderen - Baloise
Bos was in the mix at the end but seemed to put his hands up before the line, perhaps he was protesting..
Looking at the replays, I'm not sure what happened with Cavendish but he was outside of the top 20 with 200 meters to go and he was there all by himself, with no teammates. His team rode a great race until the final kilometre, the most important kilometre. It perhaps shows that even if you have the strongest team you don't have the strongest leadout. Work to be done there, certainly.