After last week’s E3 Saxo Bank Classic and Gent-Wevelgem, the Flemish classics and the build-up to the Tour of Flanders continue on Wednesday at Dwars door Vlaanderen.
Not all riders like to race in the week leading up to Flanders, but, owing perhaps to the doubts surrounding Paris-Roubaix and the coronavirus situation more generally, the start list is stacked this year.
That’s without Bora-Hansgrohe and possibly Trek-Segafredo, whose participation remains up in the air. Both teams were forced to miss Gent-Wevelgem due to coronavirus cases but only a few Trek-Segafredo riders were deemed to be 'close contacts' with positive cases and so may still be able to race.
The COVID-19 cases and quarantines are another reminder that that the floor can fall away from a rider’s season at any moment. Coupled with the dominance of Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert, and Julian Alaphilippe, riders have to take opportunity to win.
Van Aert is the exception here. Off-colour at E3 Saxo Bank Classic but imperious at Gent-Wevelgem, he is the major absentee by choice, meaning we won’t have a preview of the highly-anticipated showdown with Alaphilippe and Van der Poel until Sunday's the Tour of Flanders.
The so-called ‘big-three’ locked horns at Strade Bianche, Tirreno-Adriatico, and Milan-San Remo, but the last time they all lined up against each other on Belgian soil remains last year’s Tour of Flanders.
While Van der Poel, who won the last edition of this race two years ago, starts as the favourite, it will be fascinating to see how Alaphilippe fits into the equation at Deceuninck-QuickStep, who were everywhere at E3 but nowhere at Gent-Wevelgem. At last year’s Tour of Flanders the team seemed happy for Alaphilippe to open the race early and fight it out with Van Aert and Van der Poel.
In the past few days it has become clear that Zdenek Stybar, Yves Lampaert, Florian Sénéchal and, above all, Kasper Asgreen are on flying form. Stybar sits this one out but they still have Omloop winner and fast-finisher Davide Ballerini. The numbers game worked to great effect on Friday, and the rainbow jersey might have to be just another QuickStep jersey.
Beyond Van der Poel, Van Aert, and QuickStep, Trek-Segafredo are the only team to have bagged a win so far this Classics season, but they’re campaign has been disrupted by the COVID-19 cases. What’s left are a string of Classics contenders yet to really ignite their season with success, plus a number of sprinters hoping that Dwars door Vlaanderen can still yield a bunch kick even in its modern format.
That format changed in 2018 when Dwars door Vlaanderen moved forward a week to act as the main precursor to the Tour of Flanders. Once a 200km affair, it was reduced to around 180km so as not to put anyone off, although the number of short climbs in the Flemish Ardennes has remained the same. This year, in fact, it has gone up one, with 13 on the menu.
The 184km race sets out from Roeselare but the atmospheric start in the central Grote Markt square has fallen victim to coronavirus restrictions and so the race will start from the empty stadium of the KSV Roeselare football team.
The opening 40km of the race take the riders to the finish line in Waregem, at which point they’ll continue out into the heart of the Flemish Ardennes. As was the case in the first edition of the revamped format two years ago, the climbing kicks off with the Kluisberg at kilometre 72. After doing the Nieuwe Kwaremont, which was the first climb last year, they’ll return to the Kluisberg before the Knokteberg (aka Côte de Trieu).
There’s a short respite before a crucial phase of the race begins with 65km to go. The Kortekeer, Steenbekdries, Taaienberg, and Berg Ten Houte appear in the space of 11km and are sure to produce a selection. What’s more, the organisers have upped the ante compared to the last edition by adding the Kruisberg with 40km to go.
The final is familiar enough, with the Knokteberg appearing again with 35km to go, followed by the Varent cobblestone sector and the Vossenhol and Holstraat climbs. The Nokereberg – the emblem of Nokere Koerse – is the 13th and final climb and is followed by a 10km run-in, punctuated by the Herlegemstraat cobbles.
The road swings right onto the wide finishing straight in front of another football stadium, that of SV Zulte-Waregem.
Alaphilippe is the star attraction in the Deceuninck-QuickStep lineup but just about any of their riders could win this race.
Asgreen was staggeringly strong with his solo attacks at E3, while Sénéchal arguably claimed his best result in sprinting for second. Lampaert has been chasing after the facts so far but doing so with a sense of frustration that indicates he’s capable of more. Stybar sits this one out, but in Davide Ballerini, they have a finisher and once again just about every key you could hope for.
Van der Poel, meanwhile, is more of a focal point at Alpecin-Fenix.
They do, however, have fast finishers in Tim Merlier and Jasper Philipsen, who may well provide incentive for Van der Poel to open the race early as he did two years ago – not that he usually needs much incentive.
With Trek-Segafredo and Bora-Hansgrohe seemingly out of the equation, the AG2R Citroën duo of Greg Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen look like the next strongest collective. Although they were chasing all day at Gent-Wevelgem, they both made the six-man selection at E3, even if they appeared a level below Van der Poel and QuickStep.
Team DSM also have a double act yet to fire in Tiesj Benoot and Søren Kragh Andersen, while Ineos Grenadiers line up with Tom Pidcock, sparkling all season but subdued at E3, and Dylan van Baarle, who rode well on Sunday. Matteo Trentin was third in Wevelgem and looks in better shape than his UAE Team Emirates co-leader Alexander Kristoff, though the Norwegian can never be discounted.
Anthony Turgis has established himself as Total Direct Energie’s best hope and will line up alongside Niki Terpstra and Edvald Boasson Hagen, while Sep Vanmarcke returns for Israel Start-Up Nation, having left Gent-Wevelgem early due to a recent illness. Tim Wellens drops in for Lotto Soudal as Philippe Gilbert takes a break, and another rider towards the climber end of the scale is Dylan Teuns (Bahrain Victorious).
As for the sprinters, Giacomo Nizzolo (Qhubeka Assos) will be full of confidence after placing runner-up at Gent-Wevelgem, and it would be no surprise to see his teammate Victor Campenaerts on the early offensive as he was at E3. Arnaud Démare – perhaps the fastest pure sprinter in the field – wasn’t in that lead group on Sunday but Stefan Küng was, and those two will spearhead Groupama-FDJ in a similar way.
Elia Viviani lines up alongside Christophe Laporte after winning his first race for Cofidis at the weekend, while other fast finishers to watch include David Dekker (Jumbo-Visma), Bryan Coquard (B&B Hotels pb KTM), Luka Mezgec (BikeExchange) and the Israel Start-Up Nation duo of Andre Greipel and Hugo Hofstetter.
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