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During our live coverage of the third stage of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, we will keep you informed on what's happening in the race known as the World Championships for the sprinters

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SCHELDEPRIJS VLAANDEREN

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08.04.2015 @ 15:15 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The Paris-Roubaix favourites get a chance to spin their legs ahead of next Sunday's Hell of the North while the sprinters take center stage in tomorrow's Scheldeprijs semi-classic. Known as the sprinters' world championships, the flat race around the city of Schoten is one of the most important spring events for the fast finishers and has a history of producing one of the most exciting and competitive bunch sprints of the season with a high-level line-up that usually includes all the biggest names on the sprinting scene.

 

The series of cobbled races in Flanders comes to a close with an event that is slightly different from the ones that have dominated the past few weeks. The Scheldeprijs may be a Flemish race, take in a few cobbles and be held in the holy period of Belgian cycling but it takes place in a different part of the country, far from the hellingen that characterize the other major Flemish one-day classics, and so offers another kind of racing.

 

With a flat parcours, the Scheldeprijs makes for a perfect transition from the hilly Flemish races to the flat pavés of the Paris-Roubaix. Like the French classic, the race is entirely flat and its main challenges are a few flat cobblestone sectors but apart from that the races are completely different. While Paris-Roubaix is one of the most selective races of the entire season, Scheldeprijs finds itself at the opposite end of the spectrum. The Broeckstraat pavé - the main feature of the race - is not hard enough to make any significant difference and so the race is one of the most coveted events for the sprinters.

 

The calendar is loaded with flat one-day races for the sprinters but the Scheldeprijs is in a league of its own. No big sprinter can be completely satisfied with his career if he hasn't added the race known as the world championships of the sprinters to his palmares. What marks the race out from the other flat races is its long history. Held for the first time in 1907, the Scheldeprijs is one of the most historic races and in fact it is the oldest race in Flanders.  The victory list contains the names of most of the sport's fastest finishers and with the likes of Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel, Tyler Farrar, Alessandro Petacchi and Tom Boonen all former winners of the race, many of the current generations' top sprinters have already made their mark in the traditional finish in Schoten just outside of Antwerp. As most other Belgian races, it was dominated by the home nation in its first years but as the sport became more international and the race gained prestige, its list of winners became more diverse and now the race hasn't been won by a Belgian since Tom Boonen won the sprint in 2006.

 

While most of the big Belgian one-day races take place in a very small area in the Flemish Ardennes, the Scheldeprijs is different. Its centre is the small city of Schoten just outside of Antwerp and this part of Belgium is entirely flat. Wind and the few pavés may play a role but it is now wonder that this race has become an affair for the sprinters.

 

Held on the Wednesday after Paris-Roubaix, the race was the final race of the cobbles season for many years. With just a small number of kilometres on the rough surface, the biggest classics specialists had, however, limited opportunities to force a selection, and the main stars of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix often chose to end their spring season in the Roubaix velodrome three days prior to the Scheldeprijs. Instead, it became somewhat of an adjunct to one of the most exciting periods of racing that was held at a time when many of its potential contenders were fatigued.

 

In a general reshuffle of the Belgian spring calendar in 2010, the Scheldeprijs took over the calendar date of Gent-Wevelgem on the Wednesday between the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, and this proved to be a wise decision. Instead of being a superfluous end to a long spring season, the race now offers the classics specialists an opportunity to keep their legs going and put in one final test on the pavés ahead of their major target on Sunday. The Brabantse Pijl has taken over its previous date, making a much more natural shift from the cobbles to the hillier races in the Ardennes.

 

As a consequence, the race has been able to attract a much stronger field that is not just dominated by the sprinters. Nowadays, the biggest sprinters mingle with the favourites for Paris-Roubaix but they have completely different ambitions in the race. While the likes of Sep Vanmarcke, Stijn Vandenbergh, Greg Van Avermaet, Bradley Wiggins and Peter Sagan may test their legs on the cobbles before they drop back or even abandon, sprinters like Andrea Gaurdini, André Greipel, Elia Viviani, Danny Van Poppel, Sam Bennett and Tom Van Asbroeck have marked it out as one of their most important races and will go all out for victory, making the race is a strange combination of preparation and highlight. Unfortunately, it has often been marred by a lot of crashes and it is always a delicate affair for the Roubaix contenders to decide whether to do the race or not.

 

In recent years, the race has been dominated by the two sprinters who have been the fastest riders for almost a decade. Marcel Kittel and Mark Cavendish have both won the race thrice but this year they will both be absent. Kittel is still recovering from the virus that has taken him out of the entire spring season while Cavendish has opted for a small break after a hectic start to the year. As riders like Arnaud Demare, Nacer Bouhanni and Giacomo Nizzolo are also absent, the line-up looks less stellar than it has done in the past.

 

Last year, Marcel Kittel once again proved that he is one of the fastest riders of the current generation as he powered to a record thid consecutive win in the classic that suits him the most and it is only fitting that the world's fastest rider is a trip winner of the world championships for the sprinters. In the absence of both Mark Cavendish and André Greipel, the German was in a class of his own as he powered down the finishing straiht in Schoten and he almost made it look easy when he distanced Tyler Farrar and Danny van Poppel who completed the podium. As said, Kittel won’ t defend his title but Farrar and van Poppel will be both be chasing glory in the oldest Flemish cycling race.

 

The course

The course follows a very traditional format and even though it varies slightly from year to year, there are never any major surprises in store for the contenders. The key points are always the same. After an opening big loop, the race finishes with three laps of a finishing circuit that includes the Broeckstraat pavé and this part of the race is unchanged from year to year.

 

A closer look at the 200.0km course immediately reveals why the race is known as the sprinters' world championships. The race takes place in a completely flat part of Belgium near the Schelde river, and the riders completely avoid the Flemish Ardennes which characterize most of the Belgian spring races.

 

The race has had a few different starting points but the neutral start is now back where it all started, in the major city of Antwerpen. From there it heads to the nearby town of Schoten in which the race will kick off properly and where it will all end later in the day.

 

The first part of the race consists of a big, completely flat 150.8km loop in the area northeast of the city. From the start, the riders head northeast along straight roads before zigzagging their way back south to the first feed zone at the 97.4km mark. From there, they head straight west back towards Schoten, passing their first 1000m of pavé after 131km of racing.

 

At the 140-6km mark, the riders reach the city of Wijnegem for the first time at here they go over the race's main feature, the 1700m Broeckstraat pavé. They are now on the finishing circuit and make a right-hand turn to head back to Schoten in an easterly direction.

 

After 150.8km of racing, the riders cross the finish line for the first time and they end the day by doing three laps of a 16.4 flat finishing circuit. It is almost rectangular and mostly has the riders travelling in westerly or easterly directions. It is mostly non-technical and the only real challenge is the Broeckstraat pave which comes inside the final 10km of the circuit. From there, the race mostly follows a straight road and the finish is located at the end of a long straight road on the Churchilllaan in Schoten.

 

Compared to last year, the course is virtually unchanged and only a few minor modifications in the big loop have reduced the overall distance by 900m.

 

The race generally pans out as a traditional sprint stage in a major Grand Tour, and an early breakaway will take off and take center stage in the opening part of the race. The battle becomes more intense, as they pass the finish line in Schoten for the first time where the battle for position intensifies.

 

It is important to be well-positioned for the Broeckstraat. Even though the rough surface is rarely enough to force any major selection, some of the riders with ambitions for the Paris-Roubaix often use the opportunity to test their legs on the three passages of the pavé. They move to the front and accelerate on the cobbles while riders struggle to keep in contact behind.

 

As they exit the zone, the race often calms down again, thus allowing dropped riders to get back on, and the sprinters' teams continue their pace-setting in an attempt to reel in any breakaways. The race may be a bit more aggressive than a grand tour sprint stage, with a number of late moves being launched. Successful escapes are extremely rare, and it would be a surprise not to see the major teams bring everything back together for a final bunch kick in Schoten.

 

 

 

The weather

In the past, Scheldeprijs has often been marred by very bad weather which has made the cobbles slippery and the sprint finishes extremely dangerous. We have seen some rather bad crashes but hopefully we will be spared so incidents in the 2015 edition.

 

After the dramatic Gent-Wevelgem and Driedaagse van de Panne, the riders had nice weather for the Tour of Flanders. The pleasant Belgian spring weather that turned De Ronde into less selective affairs, is set to continue for the foreseeable future and tomorrow should be another perfect day for a bike race. After a cloudy morning, tt will be a beautiful sunny day and the temperature is expected to reach a maximum of 15 degrees by the time the riders reach the finish line in Schoten for the final time.

 

There will be a light wind from an easterly direction which means that the riders will first have a cross-head wind and then a crosswind on the big circuit. In the final part, they will turn into a tailwind.

 

on the finishing circuit, the riders will mostly have a tail- or headwind. It will be a headwind for the first part, then a tailwind and finally a headwind for the final few kilometres back to Schoten. The riders will have to tackle a headwind when they power down the long finishing straight for the sprint on the Churchilllaan in the Flemish city.

 

The favourites

Whenever a race is seen as a race for the sprinters, it often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. A few teams use the race merely to prepare for Sunday's Paris-Roubaix but every team which has any kind of competitive ambitions in tomorrow's race, line up a strong sprinter and a solid team to support him. As the event is one of the most prestigious one-day races that can be won by a sprinter, most of the fast finishers have made it a clear objective for which they have specifically prepared. They won't let this opportunity slip away and most teams line up with the clear plan of bringing things together for a big bunch sprint.

 

With most teams gunning for a sprint finish, the only thing that can really create some selection is the wind or the many crashes that have often marred the event. The Broeckstraat cobbles will sap the energy from the riders' legs and may cause a loss of position for some of the fast finishers while some of the riders at the rear end of the peloton may be send out the back door. However, history proves that even hard accelerations on this pavé sector is not enough to create any major gaps and so it is mainly a testing ground for Paris-Roubaix contenders with little impact on the result of the race.

 

With tomorrow set to be a beautiful sunny day and with the riders having mostly a tail- or headwind on the finishing circuit, it is hard to imagine that the wind will play any major role. Unless crashes take some of the fast finishers out of contention, we can expect the race to come down to what it is really all about: one of the greatest sprint battles of the year.

 

In fact we can expect the race to pan out much like a traditional sprint stage of a grand tour with an early break that is kept under control by the sprint teams, mainly Lotto Soudal, Astana, Sky, Katusha and Giant-Alpecin. As it is the case for most one-day races, we may see a few more attacks near the end and the Broeckstraat should create some spectacular racing when the Roubaix riders test their legs on the cobbles. Otherwise, the racing should be a pretty straightforward affair.

 

A few weeks ago, the race was set to offer probably the most important sprint battle between Marcel Kittel, Mark Cavendish, and André Greipel before this year's Tour de France but again we have been deprived the opportunity to see the sprinting giants battle it out. With Kittel out due to a virus and Cavendish taking a rest, Greipel will be the only of the three sprinting giants who will be at the start in Schoten.

 

André Greipel has an outstanding palmares but he has actually never been in contention in Scheldeprijs. He has only done the race thrice and achieved his best result when he last did the race in 2012. Back then he could only manage 12th and his lack of results in the biggest one-day race for the pure sprinters confirms the fact that he has had a hard time in the classics. He has desperately tried to win races like Gent-Wevelgem, Milan-Sanremo and Vattenfall Cyclassics but has always come up short and his biggest one-day win has come in the Brussels Cycling Classic.

 

However, Greipel is currently in outstanding condition. His performance in the Tour of Flanders was very eye-catching. Despite launching several attacks throughout the entire second half of the race and working hard in the main group in the crucial phase of the race, he still had enough left in the tank to finish in the group that sprinted for 15th where he dutifully won the sprint. The performance underlines how much his endurance and climbing has improved and he has suddenly marked himself out as an outsider for Paris-Roubaix.

 

While he will go into the Hell of the North as an underdog and a teammate, he will be the leader in Scheldeprijs. He finds himself up against an in-form Alexander Kristoff but despite the Norwegian’s excellent condition, Greipel is still the faster of the two. He proved that when he nearly beat the Katusha leader in the final road stage in De Panne. At the end of a fast, easy race, it is more about speed than endurance and this clearly favours Greipel.

 

The Lotto Soudal leader has never been very good at positioning himself, especially in rainy conditions, and he will be favoured by the good weather. The team has decided to give Marcel Sieberg and Jurgen Roelandts a rest and so he will miss a big part of his famous lead-out train. However, he will team up with his final lead-out man Greg Henderson for the first time this year and the experienced Kiwi has proved that he knows how to deliver his captain. With a less strong lead-out, they will have to approach the sprint a bit differently than usual and there is a pretty big risk that Greipel will again get boxed in. If he can start his sprint from a reasonable position, however, he will be the man to beat.

 

Greipel may be in good condition but the in-form rider at the moment in certainly Alexander Kristoff. The big Norwegian has been unstoppable during the past week and he hasn’t been beaten in a road race since he rolled across the line in 9th in Gent-Wevelgem. While many Roubaix contenders skip Scheldeprijs, Kristoff always does the full program and he will again be on the start line in Antwerpen.

 

Most of the Roubaix favourites take a very relaxed approach to this race and even sprinters like Peter Sagan decide not to test themselves in the bunch sprint. Kristoff has always been different and has always given it a go in the bunch sprints. He has finished in the top 3 thrice, most recently in 2013 when he was 5th.

 

Last year, however, he could only manage 15th and with his new favourite status for the biggest races, he may be unwilling to take a few less risks in this race. We wouldn’t be surprised if he decides to support Russian champion Alexander Porsev in the sprint to pay back his teammates for some of their hard work.

 

On the other hand, Kristoff has a very competitive nature as he proved in De Panne and there is definitely a big chance that he will be in the mix. He can rely on an exceptional lead-out and Jacopo Guarnieri has turned into one of the best lead-out men in the business. Furthermore, Kristoff is brutally strong and knows how to keep a position near the front and he is almost never boxed in. He can do a long sprint, even in the headwind they will have for this race, and if Greipel is not right behind him, he will be very hard to beat.

 

Elia Viviani has always been extremely fast as he proved when he beat Mark Cavendish twice at last year’s Tour of Turkey. However, he has never been able to capitalize fully on his speed as he has been very bad at positioning himself.

 

This year, however, he has joined Sky and that has made massive difference for the talented Italian. The team is intent on focusing much more on sprinting and has built a formidable lead-out train to support their fastest rider. In this race, Viviani can rely on the firepower of Andy Fenn, Bernhard Eisel, Geraint Thomas, Ian Stannard, Luke Rowe and Bradley Wiggins in the finale and that is probably the strongest formation in the field.

 

The lead-out train proved its worth in the early part of the year when Viviani went head-to-head with Mark Cavendish in Dubai and he even managed to beat the Brit on one occasion. In this race, Sky won’t have to fight against the Etixx-QuickStep train and Lotto Soudal don’t have their best train either. This could allow Sky to dominate the finale and Viviani is fast enough to finish it off.

 

For several years, Andrea Guardini has been regarded as one of the biggest sprinting talents but for some reason, his progress stalled after the excellent start to his career. Last autumn he showed signs of improvement when he won a couple of races, including a stage of the WorldTour race Eneco Tour. This year he has taken another step up and he has been one of the most consistent riders in the bunch sprint.

 

In February, Guardini was unstoppable and finished on the podium in almost all the sprints in Dubai, Qatar and Oman. He only managed to win a single sprint in Oman but the performance boosted his confidence significantly. It underlined that he has both become a lot stronger in the hard races as he made it into the leas group on very tough days in Qatar and that he has improved his weak point of positioning.

 

Guardini took several wins in Langkawi but as expected the European classics have been too hard for him. The only classic he can really target is the Scheldeprijs which suits him down to the ground. The good weather should make it a pretty easy race and this suits him perfectly. At the end of such a race, he is extremely fast and now he also knows how to position himself. That is a lethal cocktail and tomorrow may be the day when Guardini adds a classic to his growing palmares.

 

In 2014, Sam Bennett proved his sprinting talent on numerous occasions but it was at the start of the 2015 season that he got his big breakthrough when he beat most of the big sprinters in the final stage of the Tour of Qatar. He has been unable to repeat that performance but he has been sprinting consistently well and he will be targeting the win in this race.

 

Bora-Argon 18 have done a lot to build a train for their talented Irishman but the German team have not been able to do things completely right in their first races. Bennett has often been slightly out of position at the start of his sprints but on paper, they have lots of firepower. Bennett is fast enough to win this race and it all comes down to a question of positioning.

 

In the absence of Kittel and John Degenkolb, Giant-Alpecin will be supporting Ramon Sinkeldam or Nikias Arndt in the sprint. On paper, the Dutchman is the fastest of the pair and he also seems to be in a better condition. We expect the German team to focus on Sinkeldam and in the past he has proved that he can be up there with the best. He doesn’t get may opportunities to sprint for himself but in this year’s Tour of Oman and last year’s World Ports Classic he proved his speed.

 

Sinkeldam’s biggest advantage is the fact that he will be supported by a big part of the very strong Giant-Alpecin lead-out train. They have worked pretty poorly in 2015 though and things still have to really come together for them. However, they have the firepower to dominate the finale and if Sinkeldam can be delivered in the perfect position, he is fast enough to continue their winning streak in Schoten.

 

As said, we are a bit uncertain about Kristoff’s plans in this race and if the Norwegian decides to take it a bit easier, Alexander Porsev may get his day in the spotlight. The Russian champion has improved massively in the last few months and looked very strong before he broke his collarbone last autumn. This year he started very strongly in Dubai but unfortunately he is no longer in his best condition.

 

However, Porsev is a very fast rider and Katusha are one of the strongest teams in this race. If he is the rider at the back of the train, he may get the lead-out of his life. This could make the difference that allows him to take a breakthrough win on the biggest scene.

 

Theo Bos has had a disastrous start to the season. In fact, bad luck has prevented him from doing a single sprint all year and now he is determined to turn things around. Scheldeprijs is perfectly suited to a pure sprinter like Bos who is a former podium finisher in this race. Furthermore, the MTN-Qhubeka lead-out train has shown its potential in recent races and even though they don’t have all their best riders in this race, they still have a lot of firepower. If he has recovered from his De Panne crash, Bos is usually one of the fastest in this kind of sprint.

 

If Bos is not up for the challenge, MTN-Qhubeka may switch their attention to Tyler Farrar who is a former winner of the race and finished second in 2014. The American was very strong at this time of the year in 2014 but in 2015 he has had a harder time. He has both been off the pace in the classics and in the sprints and it will be hard for him to repeat last year’s performance. On the other hand, he sprinted very well at the end of the 2014 season which proved that he still has the legs to mix it up with the best.

 

Etixx-QuickStep may be one of the best sprint teams but with Cavendish and Tom Boonen both absent, the big home team will have a hard time in this race. They have a formidable line-up of in-form classics contenders but they miss the sprinter who can finish it off. Mark Renshaw will join the classics crew for this race and will probably be their leader in the sprint. The Australian is very good at positioning himself but in De Panne it was evident that he lacks the speed to match the best.

 

LottoNL-Jumbo are still looking for their first win and they are going into this race with three potential leaders. Tom van Asbroeck, Moreno Hofland and Barry Markus can all play a role in the sprint and the leader won’t be fixed until late in the race. Van Asbroeck and Hofland have both been set back by injuries while Markus has shown good form recently. However, van Asbroeck already seems to be back at a solid level and has been riding well in the classics. For this kind of sprint, we would expect the Belgian to have the best chances and last year he proved his great consistency in the sprints. With a much better lead-out, it may be the time for van Asbroeck to take the biggest win of his career.

 

Yauheni Hutarovich was once known as one of the best riders for these sprint classics and he has finished on the podium in both Scheldeprijs and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. However, he is clearly no longer the sprinter he once was. On the other hand, he gained lots of confidence by a solid 2014 season and he has got his Bretagne career off to a reasonable start. He will share sprining duties with an in-form Romain Feillu but for this kind of sprint, the Belarusian is probably the best choice.

 

Danny van Poppel finished third in this race in 2014 and this year he will be hoping to do even better. The Dutchman has already won a stage in the Three Days of West-Flanders and seems to be riding well at the moment. He can count on his brother Boy to lead him out but things haven’t really worked too well for the Trek lead-out which will be without Gert Steegmans in this race. Van Poppel is probably not fast enough to win the race but with a good position he may achieve another good result.

 

Finally, Jakub Mareczko deserves a mention. The Italian is extremely talented and proved his worth both in San Luis and Langkawi where he mixed it up with the best. Most recently, he was fifth in the final stage in De Panne which proves that he can also be there at the highest level. In this race, he can count on Alessandro Petacchi’s vast experience and he has shown that he is great at positioning himself. It may be too early for him to win this race but he can definitely create a surprise.

 

UPDATE: André Greipel has decided to skip the Scheldeprijs which moves Kristoff to the top of our list of favourites

 

***** André Greipel (won't participate)

**** Alexander Kristoff, Elia Viviani

*** Andrea Guardini, Sam Bennett, Ramon Sinkeldam, Alexander Porsev

** Theo Bos, Tyler Farrar, Mark Renshaw, Tom van Asbroeck, Yauheni Hutarovich, Danny van Poppel, Jakub Mareczko, Matteo Trentin

* Barry Markus, Moreno Hofland, Nikias Arndt, Boris Vallee, Greg Henderson, Romain Feillu, Francesco Chicchi, Michael van Staeyen, Marc Sarreau, Dylan Groenewegen, Nikolai Trusov, Michael Mørkøv, Ken Hanson, Maxime Daniel, Nicolas Marini, Eduard Grosu, Ruben Zepuntke, Edward Theuns, Frederique Robert, Tom Devriendt, Michael Carbel, Yannick Martinez, Yohann Gene, Jasper De Buyst

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