Since 2010, Scheldeprijs has taken place on the Wednesday between the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, providing a bit of downtime and easier racing between those two mighty Monuments. This year, however, with the rescheduling of Paris-Roubaix to October, it is a long wait before they get that final chance to land a cobbled Classic this year.
Not that the cobblestones that feature in Scheldeprijs are in any way comparable to the famously rough surface found in the Hell of the North. Although there is a stretch of pavé called the Broekstraat featuring in the finishing circuit, the cobbles here are easy to manage, and rarely have a significant impact on the race.
Instead, Scheldeprijs is a Classic for the sprinters. The parcours is flat and the race almost always comes down to a bunch sprint, as is apparent from the list of past winners, which is dominated by the great fast men, particularly in recent decades. Marcel Kittel holds the record with five titles, which he picked up in the space of just six years between 2012-2017. Before him, Mark Cavendish and Tom Boonen both claimed multiple victories, while Mario Cipollini and Erik Zabel are among the winners from the 1990s.
As one of the oldest races on the calendar – dating back to 1907 – many of the great names from yesteryear also have Scheldeprijs on their palmarès, from Rick Van Looy to Roger De Vlaeminck and Eddy Merckx.
Perhaps cautious of the race becoming too formulaic, the organisers have sought to mix things up. In 2018, the start was moved across the border to the Dutch town of Terneuzen, and the first half of the race held in the flat, exposed province of Zeeland, which meant one thing: crosswinds.
As hoped, in both 2018 and 2019 the wind added extra excitement to the racing, with echelons galore forming, although both races did nevertheless come back together in time for a bunch sprint come the finishing circuit at Schoten. The 2020 edition was reorganised as a circuit race due to the pandemic.
The 2021 edition measures 194km, once again starting in Terneuzen and finishing with four laps of the 16.7km circuit around Schoten. Early forecasts suggest the wind could significantly shape the race by the time the riders emerge from Zeeland over onto Belgian soil.
Whether or not the wind blows this year, Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-QuickStep) will be the top favourite to take victory. The Irishman has been the outstanding sprinter of the season so far, winning five WorldTour races already. He also rode brilliantly in the crosswinds at Gent-Wevelgem to make the main selection, before a combined hunger flat and sickness derailed his hopes.
Not only that, he’s also part of a Deceuninck-QuickStep team that have won four of the last five editions. Their most recent victor, Fabio Jakobsen, will miss out as he continues rehabilitation from his shocking injury last year, but Florian Sénéchal is an able deputy should something happen to Bennett, while former winner Mark Cavendish also rides, having recently come close to his first victory in over three years.
In the absence of Trek-Segafredo, who skip the race as a COVID-related precautionary measure, Alpecin-Fenix look the team best equipped to take the race to Deceuninck-QuickStep. Their sprinter Tim Merlier has been prolific in the Belgian semi-classic sprints this spring, winning Le Samyn, GP Jean-Pierre Monseré and Bredene Koksijde Classic, while Jasper Philipsen, who was second behind Bennett at Classic Brugge-De Panne, provides another option.
In past years you’d have backed Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Elia Viviani (Cofidis) to compete with anyone in a bunch sprint but both have lacked form lately, although there are signs that’s changing, with Viviani at last claiming his first win for Cofidis at Cholet-Pays De Loire last week.
Cees Bol (Team DSM) and Giacomo Nizzolo (Qhubeka Assos) have both already won bunch sprints this year and ought to be in the mix in Schoten, while Hugo Hofstetter (Israel-StartUp Nation) and Kristoffer Halvorsen (Uno-X Pro Cycling) are decent shouts for a high finish.
In the event that the winds wreak havoc on the race and results in a reduced bunch contest for the honours, expect tough sprinter-come-classic specialists like Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ), John Degenkolb (Lotto-Soudal) and 2015 winner Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) to emerge at the forefront.
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