After 41 editions, race organisers were forced to reduce Driedaagse De Panne (Three Days of De Panne) to a one-day UCI 1.HC event in 2018. The loss of two days of racing for the men's peloton, however, turned into a gain for the women's field as organisers announced they would host a round of the Women's WorldTour on March 22, starting in Bruges and finishing in De Panne.
Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde is one of three new additions to the women's series and will benefit by bringing in the top 15 teams in the world. Despite the strong line up of teams, however, many of the series front runners will be absent.
It marks the fourth round of the Women's WorldTour that is currently led by Katarzyna Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM). Anna van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans) won the opening round at Strade Bianche and her teammate Amy Pieters won the second round at Ronde van Drenthe. Niewiadoma moved into the series lead after she won the third round at Trofeo Alfredo Binda-Comune di Cittiglio last weekend.
Niewiadoma leads with 350 points while world champion Chantal Blaak (Boels Dolmans) is in second with 250 points and Marianne Vos (Waowdeals) in third with 210 points.
Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde marks the first of a string of cobbled classics in Belgium and the Netherlands. At 151.7km, Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde is one of the longest one-day races on the Women's WorldTour.
It offers a flat parcours with two intermediate sprints, challenging cobbled sectors and two city circuits that should give the fans an exciting, highly-anticipated bunch sprint at the finish in De Panne. Bad weather and strong winds could play the biggest factor in the outcome of the race.
Being a new race on the circuit means that there are, arguably, more historic and prestigious events coming up at Gent-Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders, Amstel Gold, La Flèche Wallone and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Niewiadoma has decided to sit out this round with a focus on the Ardennes Classics - Amstel Gold, La Flèche Wallone and Liège-Bastogne-Liège - later this spring. Blaak and Van der Breggen are not confirmed on the start line in Bruges.
Even though the cast is lacking in star quality, there are still a series of powerful riders to watch.
Boel Dolmans team will field a strong line-up that includes Pieters, and although former world champion Amalie Dideriksen was initially registered, she became ill and had to pull out of the race.
Mitchelton-Scott will line up with Belgian champion Jolien D'hoore, and the team includes classics specialists Gracie Elvin and Amanda Spratt, who won the Santos Women's Tour.
Lisa Brennauer will make her second appearance in her new outfit Wiggle High5 after placing 14th at Ronde van Drenthe.
Former multi-discipline world champion Marianne Vos showed promising form after placing third at Trofeo Alfredo Binda-Comune di Cittiglio on Sunday and will line up with her team Waowdeals.
Denmark's Christina Siggaard (Team Virtu), who took a surprise win at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in February, will look for her first Women's WorldTour victory in De Panne.
Team Virtu director Carmen Small noted the unpredictability of a new race and the importance of staying ahead of potential crashes.
"It's hard to go into a new race, because you don't know how teams will race it. Normally you look at the history and get an idea of how the race will end, but doing a race for the first time, you don't know what will happen. You can look at the men's race, but we normally race so much different. It's hard to say how the race will unfold, but we will try to keep to our plan.
"We are taking a strong group to the race. But we still need to keep riding as a group, and as I also told the girls after Drenthe, sometimes bike racing happens and certain things like crashes you can't control, but as long as they are riding in the front they are safer, and then you are there at the key points and making the key selections. I think if we keep doing that, we will end up with a good result."
Team Sunweb will field Omloop van het Hageland winner Ellen Van Dijk, last year's Tour of Flanders winner Coryn Rivera and Lucinda Brand. They give the team versatility, capable of winning in De Panne-Koksijde from a late-race attack or a bunch sprint.
Chloe Hosking (Ale Cipollini) has come up short in the classics this season, so far, placing fourth at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, second at Omloop van het Hageland, and third places at both Drentse 8 and Ronde van Drenthe. She will no doubt be looking for a victory this weekend.
Alexis Ryan is coming straight off a victory at Drentse 8, and she also took second places at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Ronde van Drenthe, making her a favourite for the win.
Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio and Lotta Lepistö will lead Cervelo-Bigla, the latter winning Gent-Wevelgem last year and has a shot at winning in De Panne.
There are always outside chances at podium success and so other riders to watch include Shannon Malseed (Tibco-SVB), Thalita de Jong (Experza-Footlogix), Maria Giulia Confalonieri (Valcar PBM), Marjolien Van 'T Geloof (Lotto Soudal Ladies) and Alicia Gonzalez (Movistar).
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