We’ve already had an introduction to the northern Classics with late February’s Opening Weekend and after Paris-Nice, Tirreno-Adriatico, and Milan-San Remo, the Oxyclean Classic Brugge-De Panne signals the start of the Belgian spring Classics on Wednesday.
E3 Saxo Bank Classic will follow on the Friday, Gent-Wevelgem on the Sunday, Dwars door Vlaanderen the next Wednesday, and before we know it we’ll be in Antwerp for the start of the Tour of Flanders on Easter Sunday.
Brugge-De Panne might not have the same supply of cobblestones, climbs, or star names as those other races, but your memory only has to extend a few months to be aware of the spectacle it can create.
Wind blew the peloton to smithereens in the rescheduled 2020 edition in October. A race that has grappled with its identity in recent years seems to have struck upon something special in the form of De Moeren – a patch of exposed polder land near the North Sea coast that has a fearsome reputation for blowing bike races apart.
Brugge-De Panne will pass through three times, as the circuit-based route of last year’s rescheduled edition, which avoids cobbles and climbs almost entirely, is retained.
There’s also the new name, with the organisers finally letting go of ‘The Three Days of De Panne’ moniker now it has definitively morphed into a one-day WorldTour event. It was last run in its three-day, four-stage format in 2017, when Philippe Gilbert shone just a few days before winning the Tour of Flanders. That’s when Flanders Classics decided they wanted Dwars door Vlaanderen on the pre-Flanders Wednesday, leaving the Velo Club De Panne unceremoniously shunted from their slot on the calendar.
The race continued in 2018 and 2019 but as a one-day affair on the Wednesday before E3 and Gent Wevelgem. It already eschewed the heart of the Flemish Ardennes where most of the other races are played out, but in its October 2020 running, it decided to avoid even the outlying western cobbled climbs like Kemmelberg and Monteberg in favour of laps around De Panne and De Moeren.
It was such a hit that we’ve got pretty much the same on tap on Wednesday, although the weather gods will dictate what sort of racing ultimately plays out. If the wind is up, we could see scenes like last year, where fewer than 50 riders finished the race and Mathieu van der Poel was blown into a ditch. If not, a relatively straight forward bunch sprint is on the cards.
The race route totals 203.9km, largely based on a 45.1km circuit around De Panne and Veurne, to be ridden three times.
The opening 50 or so kilometres are largely a preamble, as the race makes its way west from Bruges, starting out in the Grote Markt square that used to host the start of the Tour of Flanders. They’ll reach Veurne and join the circuit, crossing the finish line in De Panne for the first time after 68.6km, with three full laps remaining.
From De Panne, the circuit heads south into De Moeren, which is where the race will be expected to blow apart if the wind is up.
The prevailing wind is usually from the west, meaning a direct crosswind as they head down, and again when they turn to head north again to Veurne. The town centre will provide a brief shelter before the route continues on to the coast and turns west along the beaches for the run-in to De Panne.
Early forecasts suggest a moderate westerly wind – perhaps not strong enough for a repeat of last year’s carnage, but in De Moeren there’s always a chance of splits.
Sprinters dominate the start list, with the majority of the thoroughbred cobbled Classics riders keeping their powder dry for Friday’s crucial pre-Flanders outing at E3.
The pick of the bunch is Sam Bennett, who already has four wins to his name this year. He’s the leading hope for a Deceuninck-QuickStep team who won last year’s race through Yves Lampaert and are so often the reference point for the spring.
Bennett has his lead-out man Michael Morkov, while the Belgian team a back-up sprinter in the form of Alvaro Hodeg. There’s no Lampaert, nor Julian Alaphilippe, Zdenek Stybar, or Kasper Asgreen, but Florian Sénéchal is likely to have licence to ride a more attacking race.
Tim Merlier is absent from Alpecin-Fenix's line-up but they can count on Jasper Philipsen, while Arnaud Demare has been included in Groupama-FDJ's squad where British talent Jake Stewart offers another sprint option.
Cees Bol got the better of Bennett on one occasion at Paris-Nice and spearheads Team DSM’s ambitions, while European champion Giacomo Nizzolo leads Qhubeka Assos.
Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe), Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates), and Elia Viviani (Cofidis), all had difficult seasons last year and will be searching for their first victories of 2021 in De Panne. Cofidis have another option in Christophe Laporte. David Dekker (Jumbo-Visma) is certainly in with a shout after his impressive WorldTour debut at the UAE Tour last month.
Others to watch include Bryan Coquard (B&B Hotels), Nacer Bouhanni (Arkéa-Samsic), Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Victorious), Edward Theuns (Trek-Segafredo), Gerben Thijssen (Lotto Soudal), and Timothy Dupont (Bingoal-WB).
Several teams have still to confirm their final line-ups.
Cyclingnews will have full live coverage of Oxyclean Classic Brugge-De Panne on Wednesday, with exclusive news and interviews.
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