Correndon Circus rider Mathieu van der Poel will line up for his first one-day race of the season at the Danilith Nokere Koerse on Wednesday.
The reigning cyclo-cross world champion will now follow a road programme that includes the GP de Denain, Gent Wevelgem and Dwars door Vlaanderen before his big goal of this spring – the Tour of Flanders on April 7.
By reputation alone, the cyclo-cross star starts at Wednesday's Belgian one-day 'semi-Classic' as one of the favourites, although it's a race that usually goes the way of the sprinters.
"He's going to be named as a favourite at every race he goes to," Correndon Circus team manager Michel Cornelisse told hln.be on Tuesday. "But he has no pressure on him from the team.
"Mathieu has completed an internship [on the road], and is starting a new chapter from tomorrow [Wednesday]," continued Cornelisse, who confirmed that Van der Poel's big goal is Flanders, but reiterated that there are no expectations of the 24-year-old, who is also the current Dutch road race champion, and son of former pro Adri van der Poel, who won the Tour of Flanders in 1986.
"Racing 260 kilometres on those typically Flemish roads can't be underestimated," Cornelisse warned of Flanders. "We'll see where we end up with Mathieu and the rest of the team. Anything's possible, but there's no expectation on our part."
As Van der Poel 'warms up' on Wednesday at Nokere Koerse – a race whose past winners include Freddy Maertens, Gerrie Knetemann and the late Wouter Weylandt – he'll be up against the likes of Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), Lotto Soudal's Adam Blythe, and a hungry Deceuninck-QuickStep team who have any number of riders capable of taking victory.
Bouhanni won this race in 2017, and is apparently after one more tough hit-out ahead of this Saturday's Milan-San Remo, after finishing outside the time limit on the opening team time trial stage of Tirreno-Adriatico last week.
The second-placed rider behind the Frenchman two years ago, Adam Blythe, is back with new team Lotto Soudal, and in his first race since the UAE Tour. And while there's no Fabio Jakobsen – last year's winner – the Dutchman's Deceuninck-QuickStep team will nevertheless arrive in Deinze, in East Flanders, with a squad brimming with talent.
It includes Tour Colombia 2.1 stage winner Alvaro Hodeg, an in-form Pieter Serry, this year's Le Samyn winner Florian Sénéchal and rising Belgian star Remco Evenepoel, with the 19-year-old neo pro returning from a crash at the UAE Tour and starting his first race as a professional in Flanders.
Corrected to reflect Van der Poel's participation in the Tour of Antalya earlier this season.