Tucked between the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, Scheldeprijs offers a brief change of pace in the middle of cobbles season and the prospect of a change of script in a Classics campaign utterly dominated by the Quick-Step Floors team.
The men in blue will not be without ambition on the road to Schoten, but the rider to beat will be a Quick-Step alumnus. Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin) has won five of the past six editions of Scheldeprijs and, after an uncertain start to life on his new team, the German looks poised to add to that running tally on Wednesday.
In each of the past two seasons, Kittel was expertly delivered to victory by Quick-Step's well-drilled lead-out train, and he struggled to find such cohesion with his new cohort at Katusha in the opening weeks of this season. A brace of stage wins at Tirreno-Adriatico has altered the tenor of Kittel's campaign, however, and he lines out in Terneuzen as the short odds favourite for a sixth Scheldeprijs victory.
The form book suggests that Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) will provide the stiffest opposition. The Dutchman has already clocked up five wins in 2018, including a fine victory in Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne. Winner on the Champs-Élysées on last year's Tour de France, Groenewegen now belongs among the top tier of sprinters, and LottoNL has worked to assemble a lead-out train to match his status.
Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) will undoubtedly race with an eye to Paris-Roubaix on Sunday, where he is looking to bridge a 21-year gap to the last French win, but his sprint form makes him an obvious contender here, together with Phil Bauhaus (Sunweb), winner of a stage at the Abu Dhabi Tour in late February.
With Classics A-listers Philippe Gilbert and Niki Terpstra resting up for Paris-Roubaix, Patrick Lefevere has given youth its chance for Quick-Step. They initially had Fernando Gaviria slated to lead the line at Scheldeprijs, but a crash at Tirreno-Adriatico ruled him out of the Classics, and his fellow Colombian Alvaro Hodeg is perhaps the team's best option here, together with Nokere Koerse winner Fabio Jakobsen.
Others who will hope to shine on the notoriously fraught finale in Schoten include Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe), Kristoffer Halvorsen (Sky), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data), Adam Blythe (Aqua Blue Sport), Magnus Cort (Astana) and Jens Debusschere (Lotto Soudal).
The behemoth that is Flanders Classics has never been shy about tinkering with tradition, and this year's Scheldeprijs is a case in point. First held in 1907, Scheldeprijs is the oldest still-existent bike race in Flanders, but this year's event will not start in Antwerp or its hinterland, but rather across the border in the Dutch town of Terneuzen.
Indeed, some 130 of the race's 200 kilometres will take place in the Netherlands. The race sets out from the town hall in Terneuzen, and the neutralised zone will include a crossing of the imposing 6.4km Western Scheldt Tunnel, before the official start across the Scheldt estuary in Borssele.
The early part of the race takes the peloton through the flat roads of Zeeland, which are exposed to the North Sea winds, and there is the potential for early echelons and splits if the wind rises – as the Tour de France peloton discovered when it visited the area in 2015.
After winding through Middelburg, Kappelle and Reimerswaal, the route crosses into Belgium at Putte before skirting Antwerp en route to the traditional finishing circuit around Schoten. As has been the case in recent years, the race will conclude with three rapid laps of the 16.8km circuit, which features the cobbled section at Broekstraat.
The run-in is usually a fraught affair, and the finish on Churchilllaan rarely for the faint of heart. Kittel has missed out on victory on this finale only once, on his debut in 2011, and he will aim to maintain that remarkable record here. "I have never really been focused on such records," Kittel said. "But it is a race that suits me very well."
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