There was little precious time for Luca Paolini (Katusha) to savour his victory in Sunday’s storm-lashed Gent-Wevelgem. Less than 48 hours after slipping away from Geraint Thomas, Niki Terpsta et al in the finale, the veteran Italian found himself pinning on a dossard on the North Sea coast, back in action at the Three Days of De Panne. Such is life during Belgian cycling’s Holy Week: race, rinse, repeat.
"I was quite tired afterwards and the first day of De Panne was a tough day too because of the wind," Paolini admitted to Cyclingnews when he lined up for the start of stage 2 in Zottegem on Wednesday morning. "I’ll do today’s stage as well but then I think I’ll pull out and rest up for a few days ahead of Flanders."
Paolini will certainly not be alone in bidding farewell to the Three Days of De Panne on Wednesday evening – the final day’s split stage traditionally provokes an exodus of riders – but his withdrawal is perhaps less surprising than most, as his has been a notably full schedule to date.
Only one other rider – his close friend Filippo Pozzato – arrived at the spring classics with more days of racing in his legs since the start of the season. Paolini amassed base miles in January and February in Argentina and the Middle East, going so far as to train alone in the mornings before stages of the Tour de San Luis, and his own two days of De Panne is an exercise in maintaining race sharpness ahead of the Tour of Flanders on Sunday.
"I did all the endurance work I need between January and mid-February. Since then I’ve done more specific work at home, and I came up here to Belgium feeling very good, and very pleased with how I’ve worked up to this point," he said.
Twelve months ago, Paolini and his Katusha stable-mate Alexander Kristoff arrived as outsiders for the Tour of Flanders, with the Italian noting beforehand that they would have to be inventive in order to gate-crash the podium. A year on, the lie of the land is rather different.
For one thing, Kristoff’s maturation as a Classics rider has continued apace and he lines up in Bruges on Sunday as one of the favourites for victory. The absence of Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara through injury, meanwhile, means that the Ronde looks set to be a far more open race than has been the case to date on the finale in Oudenaarde.
"This time around, we need to defend ourselves rather than invent something because we’ve got Alex, who can win the race in a sprint," Paolini said. "There’ll still be two or three teams who will look to control things, like Saxo, BMC and Sky. I think Etixx will make it an attacking race since they don’t have Boonen, so we’ll see how it goes on the finishing circuit. Whatever happens, it’s going to be a strange Tour of Flanders, certainly different to recent years."
On paper at least, the teams cited by Paolini has greater depth to their rosters than Katusha, but few other teams boast a double act as cohesive as the one he forms with Kristoff. While Bradley Wiggins (Sky) has queried whether all of Etixx-QuickStep’s chiefs can find common cause, no such questions seem to hover over the co-existence of Paolini and Kristoff.
"You just need to be professional," Paolini said. "I know how far I can go, I know what I can and can’t do, and I know that I’m riding with a champion who can win these Classics. So when Alex is going well, I just put myself entirely at his disposal. I take my own chances when there’s a possibility – I had one at Gent-Wevelgem and I played my cards well there. You just need to be realistic, honest and professional."
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