The cobbled classics season may have officially begun nearly a month ago with the 'opening weekend' of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, but there's a sense that it all kicks off in earnest on Wednesday at Dwars door Vlaanderen – the beginning of a three-week period that's as eagerly anticipated as any of the Grand Tours.
Once the riders roll out of Roeselare's Grote Markt, the cobbles and hills of northern Belgium come thick and fast, with E3-Harelbeke following on the Friday ahead of Gent-Wevelgem on the Sunday, and the Three Days of De Panne leading into the pinnacle of Belgian cycling that is the Tour of Flanders. From there it's on to Scheldeprijs before Paris-Roubaix provides a thrilling climax across the border on the third Sunday.
Dwars door Vlaanderen hopes to move to De Panne's pre-Flanders spot in a couple of years' time, but progress this year has come in the form WorldTour status, meaning a richer array of top-tier riders and teams on the start line. With WorldTour teams not obliged to attend the newcomers to the WorldTour calendar, it's just Team Sky and Dimension Data who have declined the invite.
Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet and Tom Boonen are among a number of Flanders and Roubaix favourites saving themselves for later in the week – something the organisers hope to address with the move to the pre-Flanders slot - but there is still a strong line-up for the race's WorldTour debut.
As Boonen pointed out when discussing his preference for Roubaix over Flanders earlier this year, the kassein and hellingen – cobbled sectors and sharp climbs – that characterise the route of De Ronde can be found at numerous races across the spring. And Dwars has been referred to as a sort of 'Flanders-light' – a 200-odd kilometre foray into the Flemish Ardennes that gives the riders a taste of the likes of the Oude Kwaremont, Paterberg, and Taaienberg a week and a half ahead of the big day.
In terms of the parcours, the format remains largely the same in the race's debut WorldTour iterance, though the organisers have added an extra cobbled sector in the closing phase of the race. As a race that has a reputation for being one of the more sprint-friendly of the Belgian one-days, the addition of the 800-metre Herlegemstraat, coming with under 7km to go, shifts the balance that slight bit further favour of the Classics men who will seek to break the race up into smaller groups.
The hills and cobbles are all reserved for the second half of the day as the race starts out in benign fashion from Roeselare, with the first climb of the day, the Nieuwe Kwaremont, appearing after 91km. The short Kattenberg comes after 110km followed by the Holleweg and Haaghoek cobbled sectors, before a trio of climbs in the space of 10km – Leberg, Berendries, and Valkenberg. The Eikenberg comes after 142km, followed by the Taaienberg, before the riders take on the Oude Kwaremont-Paterberg combination that's so key to De Ronde.
The Varent cobbles precede the Vossenhol and Holstraat climbs that will further shake up the race in the final 20km with the Nokereberg acting as the final climb of the day with just 10km to go. That will be barely out of the legs by the time the riders hit Herlegemstraat, ahead of a flat and tarmacked 6km run to the line in Waregem, just 20km from where they set out.
Fernando Gaviria climbs the Oude Kwaremont during the 2016 Dwars door Vlaanderen (Getty Images Sport)
Boonen will escape the spotlight that accompanies his every move in the countdown to his final bow at Paris-Roubaix, preferring to save himself for E3 and Gent-Wevelgem. Plenty of others have done the same, including Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet and former Flanders champion Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin). There had been some excitement when Bora-Hansgrohe erroneously announced that Peter Sagan would be on the start line, but that turned out to be an admin error and Sagan will also save his legs for the weekend.
John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) is one of the few major Classics contenders set to turn up in Roeselare, and will be looking to demonstrate the good form that he believed he had at last weekend's Milan-San Remo. In the absence of Boonen and Van Avermaet, who command the lion's share of media attention here, Sep Vanmarcke (Cannondale-Drapac) leads a home contingent that still oozes strength. Lotto Soudal have the winners of the two previous editions in their ranks, in Jens Debuscherre and Jelle Wallays, with young hope Tiesj Benoot and fast-finishing Dutchman Moreno Hofland also in there.
Philippe Gilbert has sharpened his focus on the cobbled Classics since moving to Quick-Step, and he shoulders the responsibility for the Belgian team, whose every pedal stroke will be scrutinised over the coming weeks. As is customary, they have a range of options, with Fernando Gaviria a proven bunch sprint winner but also tipped as one of the top spring classics riders of the future by Boonen himself. Zdenek Stybar and former winner Niki Terpstra add to the enviable level of strength and versatility.
Oliver Naesen leads the line for AG2R-La Mondiale and, after a stellar second half to last season, along with top 10 finishes at Omloop and Kuurne last month, has to be considered a danger man.
Along with Gaviria, there are a host of sprinters who'll be hoping for a bunch finish, though they're all of the sort that can roll with the many punches dished out in Belgian one-day racing. Arnaud Demare sits somewhere in the middle of the sprinter-classics rider Venn diagram and leads FDJ, while it will be interesting to see how Caleb Ewan fares – the young Orica-Scott rider being probably the fastest – and lightest – on paper but still irrelatively inexperienced in this setting, though he took heart from finishing in the top 10 at his first Milan-San Remo, the longest race he's ever done. He's flanked by a big strong team, with home rider Jens Keukeleire, who also packs a zippy finish, providing another option.
Michael Matthews (Sunweb) is always a threat in reduced bunch finishes, though he has very little experience on the cobbles, while Dutch champion Dylan Groenewegen gives LottoNL-Jumbo a solid option in the event of a sprint, along with Bryan Coquard for Direct Energie. Astana have a former winner in their ranks in Oscar Gatto, and Bahrain-Merida have sprint options in Sonny Colbrelli and Niccolo Bonifazio, while the Belgian Pro Conti riders are never to be underestimated.
The weather looks set to be fair, though it's uncertain at this stage how strongly the winds will blow. Either way, Wednesday will set the tone for a rollercoaster three weeks.
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