The Minerva Classic Brugge-De Panne is not what it used to be. Before Flanders Classics rearranged the furniture of the Belgian Spring to its liking in 2018, this was a three-day event that had proudly served as the final warm-up for the Tour of Flanders since 1977.
The Ronde organisers, however, wanted the build-up to their marquee event to themselves, and so Dwars door Vlaanderen, another race from their stable, was shifted to the Wednesday before the big day with the blessing of Belgian Cycling.
Under the stewardship of the late Bernard Van De Kerkhove, the Vélo Club De Panne had, in the manner of Asterix’s indomitable village, held out for years against such a move. The organisation bowed to the inevitable four years ago, agreeing to swap weeks with Dwars door Vlaanderen and downsizing from a stage race. Perhaps as a quid pro quo, the race was upgraded to WorldTour level the following year.
That first one-day edition in 2018 was still hopefully tagged as the Three Days of De Panne, and the addition of a women’s race means that two days of competition have at least been retained, but this event is very different in character to its long-running forebear.
The old race openly wore its status as a Tour of Flanders preparation race. It usually consisted of back-to-back 200-kilometre stages, the first of which went deep into the Flemish Ardennes, before a split stage on the final day. A short, fast run-out on the final morning was followed by a concluding time trial in De Panne, which – hardly by accident – was often roughly the same length as the distance from the top of the Bosberg to the finish in Meerbeke on the old Tour of Flanders course.
The new event, by contrast, skips the cobbles and hills of the Flemish Ardennes altogether, preferring instead to follow a more straightforward route from Bruges towards the plat pays of the North Sea coast, immortalised in song by Jacques Brel. The 207km race sets out from the Markt in Bruges, which served as the grand backdrop for the Tour of Flanders start before Antwerp took over in 2017.
After trekking southwest for 60km or so, the race hits a 45.1km finishing circuit around De Panne and Veurne, which is tackled three-and-half-times. The obstacle comes not so much from the terrain as from the elements. The roads in the finale, especially in the marshy area of De Moeren, are wickedly exposed to the North Sea wind, and the multiple changes of direction on the local circuit offer ample opportunity to create echelons.
In the pandemic-delayed edition of 2020, Yves Lampaert escaped to claim a solo win in De Panne, but the three other editions of this iteration of the event have ended in bunch sprints, with Elia Viviani, Dylan Groenewegen and Sam Bennett emerging victorious on Veurnestraat.
Three of those riders were competing for QuickStep, and their challenge will be led on this occasion by Mark Cavendish. The Manxman showcased his form with victory at Milano-Torino last week, though he revealed afterwards that he had never even been considered for the QuickStep-AlphaVinyl line-up at Milan-San Remo. He will be eager to prove the point all over again on Wednesday, even if Fabio Jakobsen seems likely to get the nod for Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday.
Last year’s winner Sam Bennett returns in the colours of Bora-Hansgrohe. The Irishman, still to reach top speed after an injury-blighted 2021, missed Milan-San Remo through illness, but this race offers him a chance to get up and running.
Another former winner, Dylan Groenewegen is here with new team BikeExchange-Jayco, while Pascal Ackermann (UAE Team Emirates) will race with confidence after getting off the mark for the year at the Bredene Koksijde Classic.
Other dangermen include Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ), who survived the winnowing process better than most sprinters at Milan-San Remo, Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix), Nacer Bouhanni (Arkea-Samsic), Cees Bol (DSM) and neo-professional Arnaud De Lie (Lotto Soudal), already winner of two races this season.
Beyond the fast men, there are a number of riders who will line up in Bruges with the aim of banking valuable racing miles ahead of E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem later in the week, including Gianni Moscon (Astana-Qazaqstan), Niki Terpstra (TotalEnergies), Florian Vermeersch (Lotto Soudal) and Florian Vermeersch (Lotto Soudal).
Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) also makes a quick return to action after illness forced him to miss his defence of his Milan-San Remo title. The Belgian has designs on shining at the Tour of Flanders. “I want to go really deep here for the most important races,” Stuyven told Het Laatste Nieuws of the Minerva Classic Brugge-De Panne.
The race has changed utterly, but some of the old spirit lingers on in its new format all the same.
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