The box office names may be at home resting their limbs ahead of Sunday's Tour of Flanders, but Omega Pharma-QuickStep's best supporting actor Sylvain Chavanel was happy to test himself on stage one of the Three Days of De Panne.
The French champion put in a fierce acceleration on the slopes of the Leberg, and his teammate Niki Terpstra was also an active presence in the lead group, but Omega Pharma-QuickStep's recent sequence of wins on the cobbles was ultimately interrupted by Peter Sagan's (Liquigas-Cannondale) ferocious sprint in Oudenaarde.
"We tried but we didn't have a sprinter in the main group. The only sprinter we have here is Chicchi but it was a bit hard for him today," Chavanel told reporters near the finish in Oudenaarde's picturesque main square. "Afterwards we tried to see what we could do, but the finale came down to a sprint."
After missing Milan-San Remo due to bronchitis, Chavanel offered firm reassurances about his recovery with a fine second place at Dwars Door Vlaanderen last week. Widely expected to be among the candidates for overall victory at De Panne, he explained that the opening stage had proved to be less selective than a cursory look at the roadbook would have suggested.
"It was an interesting circuit but there was very little wind so you couldn't really make a selection today," he said. "I wasn't super today. I showed myself a bit and I tried to make the race of course, but you had teams that were shutting things down, like Liquigas and Astana. I wanted to make an acceleration on the Leberg but a group of ten riders came with me, including around four Astana."
Fewer riders than normal have been eliminated from overall contention on the opening day of De Panne after 50 riders contested the sprint finish in Oudenaarde, and Chavanel said that wind conditions would decide if the situation remained unchanged come Thursday's concluding time trial.
"Tomorrow is a day for the sprinters I think, but it depends on the wind. There is always a chance of a big echelon at De Panne, possibly on the morning stage on the last day, but normally tomorrow would be a sprint."
Once a staple of Tour of Flanders preparation, fewer and fewer Ronde contenders have been lining up at De Panne in recent years. Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, Philippe Gilbert et al are among those enjoying a low-key build-up to Sunday, far from prying microphones and biting North Sea winds, but Chavanel feels that neither approach has more merit than the other.
"In the past there were more riders who prepared by doing De Panne, but you see that they're staying at home because De Panne is really a bit of stress," Chavanel said. "You use up quite a bit of energy that way but then last year, I was fourth in De Panne and then second at Flanders after that, so why not ride? It's hard to know what is the best preparation. You just try to do your best."
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