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Will Greg Van Avermaet continue his winning streak in Dwars door Vlaanderen?

Photo: RCS Sport - ANSA / PERI - ZENNARO

DWARS DOOR VLAANDEREN

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22.03.2016 @ 22:29 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Milan-Sanremo started the series of spring classics and now the centre of the cycling world moves to the cobbles in Northern Europe. For the next two weeks, Belgium and Northern France will be the scene of some of the most exciting racing of the entire season as a series of one-day races make up a very unique part of the cycling calendar. On Wednesday, it all starts with the Dwars door Vlaanderen which is a small appetizer of what is to come and allows the riders to reacquaint themselves with the roads and hellingen that will determine the fate of their classics season.

 

The time of preparation for the cobbles specialists is finally over. No excuses are valid anymore. All their hard work has to pay off during the coming three weeks where a number of opportunities present themselves.

 

With Milan-Sanremo done and dusted, the classics circus moves to the north for three weeks of intense racing on the Belgian and French cobbles. The first battle in this series of highly prestigious races is the semi-classic Dwars door Vlaanderen which takes place on Wednesday

 

The race opens a very exciting part of the cycling season. Over the next three weeks, the riders will do numerous races on the same roads and climbs in Flanders that have been the scene of some of the greatest action of the cycling history. At this time of the year, those narrow roads, their cobbles, and climbs are at the centre of the cycling world but for some reason they are barely used for the remainder of the season.

 

Dwars door Vlaanderen is the first one in the series and while it is a nice race to have on the palmares, it is also the smallest and least prestigious of the Belgian classics. That status is not for a lack of history though as it was first held in 1945 and has been held every year, with 1971 being the only exception. The race was originally a two-day stage race but since 1965, it has been held on just a single day.

 

From the start, the race was mainly a Belgian affair, with Dutchmen gradually starting to make their presence felt over the years. However, it took some time for the race to attract international attention and it wasn't until 1993 when Olaf Ludwig took the win that the race got its first non-Belgian or non-Dutch winner. However, the real internationalization is a new phenomenon but nowadays it is regarded as a top-level race and an important event for most of the teams that target the cobbled classics.

 

Despite being given a 1.HC status, however, the race remains the smallest of the cobbled races. As a mid-week race coming at the start of the race series, many riders see it more as a warm-up race and a chance to get accustomed to the cobbles and familiarize themselves with the roads that will be used for the major, upcoming races. The race is a nice opener but it won't make or break the classics season for the big teams.

 

Two years ago, a reshuffle of the calendar meant that E3 Prijs Vlaanderen was granted WorldTour status and moved from its usual Saturday slot to the Friday following Dwars door Vlaanderen. With another WorldTour event, Gent-Wevelgem, taking place on Sunday, plenty of points for the world rankings are available in the coming days, and this convinced a number of the biggest names to skip the Dwars door Vlaanderen to keep their powder dry for the more important battles ahead.

 

With Milan-Sanremo also rescheduled, this tendency was reinforced in 2013, but this year the race has attracted more stars than usual – maybe because La Primavera was again held on a Saturday. The names of Alexander Kristoff, Tom Boonen, Zdenek Stybar,Fabian Cancellara, Sep Vanmarcke and Peter Sagan will still be absent from this year's start list but Greg Van Avermaet, Niki Terpstra and Tiesj Benoot will all do this race while also being favourites for the cobbled monuments.

 

The less star-studded line-up has turned Dwars door Vlaanderen into a perfect opportunity for key domestiques to go for personal glory before they put all their services behind their captains in the biggest of races and the four most recent editions have seen some of the riders just below the top level battle it out in an exciting contest that shows who's on form for the upcoming races. Terpstra has won the race twice before becoming a big star and the race has been the scene that showed his full potential on the cobbles.

 

The Flemish races may be divided into two categories. Scheldeprijs, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, and Ghent-Wevelgem are races that the sprinters may realistically target and which have a rather predestined format determined by their history and their names.

 

In the second category, the Tour of Flanders, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and E3 are races for the hard men and classics specialists. These are the true Flemish classisc as they are designed in the same way. The course map is a complicated affair as the riders zigzag their way through a rather small area in the Flemish Ardennes, heading back and forth and often using the same roads numerous times. All the famous hellingen known from the Tour of Flanders are located in this small area and it is easy for the organizers to make changes from year to year, varying the climbs used for the different editions of the race.

 

The Dwars door Vlaanderen falls in between those categories. The design of the route puts it into the second category as the race heads from its centre of Waregem into the Flemish Ardennes on a sinuous course before heading back to the finish. On the other hand, the course has traditionally been easier than the bigger races, meaning that the sprinters have occasionally had a chance. Even though the race has been made tougher in recent years, good weather conditions may turn the race into more of an affair for the fast finishers. In the past, the race finished with laps of a flat finishing circuit which gave room for a regrouping but a few years ago that idea was abandoned as the organizers wanted to make the race more selective. Robbie McEwen voiced his dissatisfaction but despite the complaints, the race can still come down to a sprint from a reduced bunch.

 

That was never an option in 2015 when bad weather turned it into a selective race. From the chaos, a four-rider group with Jelle Wallays, Edward Theuns, Dylan Van Baarle and Michal Kwiatkowski emerged and the Topsport Vlaanderen pair played it perfectly. Wallays attacked and while Van Baarle looked at Kwiatkowski to bring him back, the Belgian stayed away to take the second big classics win of his career. Theyns beat Van Baarle in the sprint for second to make it a 1-2 for the pro continental team. Wallays will be back to defend his title while Theuns lines up as one of the Trek leaders but there will be no return for Van Baarle and Kwiatkowski whose teams are both absent.

 

The course

As said, the route for Dwars door Vlaanderen puts it into the same category as the Tour of Flanders, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and the E3 Prijs Harelbeke that all share the same characteristics. The races all start with a long, flat section to get the legs going before hitting a series of hellingen and pave sectors in the second half of the race. This is where the selection is made before the races end with a flat section to the finish. What make the races different are their distances and start and finishing cities and this is what ultimately determines how difficult the finale is.

 

In the past, the race ended with a couple of flat laps around Waregem, making the race much more suitable to sprinters and turning it into a race more like Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. To make the race harder, however, the organizers have abandoned this idea, putting it more along the lines of the Tour of Flanders and E3 Harelbeke. Since then, it has been much harder for the sprinters to prevail and only in 2011 and 2014 was the race close to being decided in a bunch sprint when Nick Nuyens/Geraint Thomas and Niki Terpstra narrowly held off the peloton respectively.

 

Compared to last year, there have been a few minor changes but the main aspects of the course are identical. The opening flat section has been made slightly longer, but a change in the finale means that the overall distance has been reduced from 200km to 199km. The Vossenhol will again replace the Hellenstraat in the finale which means that the main climbs of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg are now 4km closer to the finish than they were last year. Otherwise, the course is unchanged.

 

The city that defines the Dwars door Vlaanderen is Waregem which is located in the heart of the Flemish Ardennes and like in any other of those races, the riders start the race by doing some flat kilometres. The 199.7km race starts in Roeselaere west of Waregem and travels along flat roads to the main city where they cross the finish line after 55.3km of racing. At this point, the early break will have been established and the race will have settled into a steady rhythm.

 

Now it is time to travel into the Flemish Ardennes which are located southeast of the city. However, the riders will follow mostly flat roads for the first part as they avoid the major hellingen. The first challenge comes after 92.2km of racing when they go up the Nieuwe Kwaremont (2000m, 4.2%, max. 8%) but it will only serve as an appetizer for what is to come.

 

The riders now reach Oudenaarde which is the finishing city of the Tour of Flanders and this signals the start of the finale. From now on, the hellingen come in quick succession with very little room for recovery and this means that positioning is crucial. The roads are very narrow and so it is important to stay near the front as a crash in front of you or poor positioning going into a climb may spell the end of your race. Hence, the pace is automatically increased and crashes are almost guaranteed to occur.

 

The first climb in the finale is the cobbled Kattenberg (740m, 5.9%, max. 8.2%) which comes with 88.1km to go. It is immediately followed by the 1500m pave sector Holleweg which precedes the more famous 1700m Haaghoek 82.4km from the finish. That section leads almost directly into the Leberg (700m, 6.1%, max. 14%)  followed by the Berendries (900m, 7.2%, max. 14%) and with 70.3km to go, the riders go up the Valkenberg (540m, 8.1%, max. 12.8%). With the biggest stars all being absent, the racing is likely to be less controlled and we may see attacks from some of the race favourites on any of those climbs as the racing is guaranteed to be very aggressive.

 

If the selection hasn't occurred earlier, it will start for real with 57.5km to go when the real finale kicks off. The climb that signals the start of the moment of truth is the Eikenberg (1250m, 5.8%, max. 10%). It may not do the damage but the next one, the short, steep, cobbled Taaienberg (530m, 6.6%, max. 15.8%) certainly will. This is Tom Boonen's favourite climb where he usually makes a fierce acceleration but in his absence it will be left to others to do the damage.

 

The climb comes with 51.8km still to race and at the top, we are likely to see a small group of favourites go clear. Depending on the composition, there may be some kind of regrouping but there is a great chance that the number of contenders has been whittled down to just around a dozen of riders. However, the climb is followed by a long flat stretch which has sometimes allowed a rather big field to find back together in this section. On the other hand, the flat roads are perfect for attacks from a small front group as there will be few domestique resources left and we may as well see the right move go clear at this point.

 

The decisive part of the race comes with 34km to go when the riders tackle the famous pair of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg in the same order as they will do a few days later in the very finale of the Tour of Flanders. First up is the Oude Kwaremont (1500m, 4%, max 11.6%) which is a long, gradual cobbled ascent which suits the really powerful riders. This is where the decisive moves have been made in most of the recent editions of De Ronde.

 

With 30.5km to go, the riders hit the Paterberg (365m, 12.9%, max. 20.3%) which is the complete opposite kind of climb. It is short, steep, and cobbled and more suited to the explosive riders. This is where the final selection is usually made in De Ronde. Those two climbs are the places to launch the final accelerations and at their top we are guaranteed to see a huge selection.

 

After the two crucial ascents, there are still a number of challenges coming up that may be used to launch the final attacks. First up is the 2000m pave sector Varentstraat which comes with 24.7km to go. The Vossenhol (1400m, 6.5%, max. 9%) is the next option 4.9km further up the road while the Holstraat (1000m, 5.2%, max. 12%) comes 15.4km from the finish. The final challenge is the cobbled Nokereberg (500m, 5.7%, max. 6.7%) which was the finishing straight in last week's Nokere Koerse and comes 7.9km from the finish.

 

The final challenges are not overly difficult but at the end of a hard selective race, they may do some damage. After the Paterberg, a small front group is likely to have emerged, however, and this means that the attacks may as well be launched in between the climbs and the cobbles as such a group is hard to control. In 2013 Thomas Voeckler's move which seemed to be the race-winning one, was launched 6km from the line after the passage of the Nokereberg.

 

From the Nokereberg, the roads are flat all the way to the finish and this is often the scene of some attacking racing from a small front group, a tactical battle between the leading riders or a strong solo move that stays away to the finish. However, the long distance from the Paterberg to the finish means that the final 30.5km can also be used by the sprint teams to get organized and bring things back together for a bunch sprint. In that case, the final part of the race is usually a fierce pursuit between the peloton and the attackers. The final sprint in Waregem is completely flat and at the end of a hard race like this one, the usual sprint hierarchy may no longer be valid.

 

 

The weather

In all Flemish classics, the weather is a key component and in a race like the Dwars door Vlaanderen where a number of different scenarios are possible, it plays an even more important role. In nice conditions, it is much harder to make a difference and there is a much greater chance that a big group will sprint it out in Waregem as it almost happened in 2011 and 2014. As opposed to this, brutal weather will make it a race of attrition that allows the hard men to come to the fore and the peloton will blow to pieces in a gradual elimination race that only allows the strongest to prevail. That’s what happened in 2015.

 

In 2016, the conditions should be a lot better. Wednesday is forecasted to be cloudy with a 25% risk of rain and a maximum temperature of 11 degrees. There will be a moderate wind from a northerly direction and the riders will of course have all kind of wind directions throughout the day. It will be a tailwind on the Kwaremont and a headwind on the Paterberg and from there, it will mainly be a headwind all the way to Nokereberg. Then it will be a crosswind before the riders will turn into a cross-tailwind for the final few kilometres. 

 

The favourites

Dwars door Vlaanderen is one of the hardest classics to predict because the outcome depends so much on the weather. After the course was made harder a few years ago, the first editions of the race were pretty selective and turned into races for the classics specialists. In recent years, however, it seems that the race has been more suited to the sprinters and even though it hasn’t finished in a bunch sprint since 2003, the 2011 and 2014 editions almost came to the final dash to the line for the fast finishers.

 

This year the weather forecast mostly suits the sprinters. There is only a small chance of rain and it won’t ne cold. It won’t be very windy and it will even mainly be a headwind after the main climbs of the Kwaremont and the Paterberg. This will make it much harder for a small group to stay away.

 

That makes it a hard race to call. Most teams go into the race with a two-pronged strategy: they both have a sprinter and some classics specialist who excel in a tough race. Of the big teams, only BMC don’t have a sprint option. They are here with Greg Van Avermaet who stands out as one of the big favourites but he is surrounded by a young time that will have a hard time making things as tough as they need to be.

 

There is little doubt that the best classics riders will escape in the hilly zone and from there much will depend on the composition of the group and which sprinters have survived. This year the line-up of classics riders is stronger and this means that it will be a formidable group. If they can cooperate, they will be hard to bring back, especially as most of the big teams are likely to be represented.

 

A big question is whether Fernando Gaviria will be able to cope with the cobbles at his first race in Belgium. If he is still in the peloton after Paterberg, Etixx-QuickStep find themselves in a difficult position. They could very well have Niki Terpstra among the best riders in a front group and Gavirira in the peloton. Terpstra is likely to be up against faster riders and the best option may be to chase from behind. If Etixx-QuickStep add the firepower of Tony Martin to the work in the peloton, it will be harder for the break to make it.

 

Nonetheless, we will put our money on a breakaway. Most of the best sprint teams also have a genuine classics contender. Trek, Lotto Soudal, Etixx-QuickStep and Tinkoff should all be able to have riders among the best after the Kwaremont and if they can cooperate well, they will decide the race. However, the chance of a reduced bunch sprint is still relatively big.

 

One thing that could change the outcome is if Terpstra makes it into the lead group, plays the Gaviria card and decides to follow wheels. Of course no one wants to bring Terpstra to the finish as he will be ready to launch a lethal attack in the finale. If that’s the case, it will probably be a sprint. Etixx-QuickStep really have the key to this race.

 

If the strongest riders end up deciding the race, it is hard not to regard Greg Van Avermaet as the man to beat. The BMC star has made an unusual decision to line up in a race that he has mostly skipped. While some may use the race to prepare for the bigger events, there is no doubt that Van Avermaet will be riding for the win. The Belgian is known as one of the most consistent riders in the peloton and is always aiming for the top step of the podium.

 

To win, Van Avermaet needs a hard race and there is no doubt that he will launch a big attack on the Kwaremont and Paterberg. He will be keen to work to stay away as he has no chance in a bunch sprint. He has a big engine and if he combines forces with the likes of Tiesj Benoot, Niki Terpstra, Oscar Gatto and Jasper Stuyven, he will be difficult to bring back.

 

Van Avermaet is not a sprinter but he is fast in a sprint at the end of a hard race. He prefers an uphill finish but he can do well here too. A few years ago, he always came up short in these sprints but nowadays he is able to beat most and he has become a real winner. On paper, the likes of Stuyven, Gatto and Edward Theuns are faster than him but things are different at the end of a hard day in the saddle. Luckily, all those riders are fast and they will believe in their chance in a sprint which will make it easier for Van Avermaet to keep the group going. Van Avermaet has no guarantees in the sprint but apart from Benoot, he is the only one who is guaranteed to be there. As he can beat everyone in the sprint, he is our favourite to win the race.

 

Tiesj Benoot is probably the biggest talent for the cobbled classics. He was a remarkable fifth in his first Tour of Flanders and fully confirmed his potential later in the year by several strong riders in races like the Eneco Tour and GP Montreal. There is no limit to what he can do as he seems to shine in almost every race and he is also very consistent. This year he was up there in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad where he finished third after having made it into the elite five-rider group that decided the race.

 

Benoot confirmed his form in Tirreno and then skipped Sanremo to focus on this race. There is no doubt that he will be among the strongest on the climbs and we expect him to be even more competitive than he was in the Omloop. More importantly, he is fast in a sprint. He may not be as fast as Van Avermaet but he has beaten the Belgian in the past. Furthermore, he is so brutally strong that he has the strength to make a late attack and if the faster guys are watching each other, he will be impossible to bring back.

 

Everybody will have their eyes on Fernando Gaviria in his cobbled debut. After his excellent Sanremo performance, it is even more evident that there is no limit to his potential and there is no reason that he can’t excel in Belgium too. However, these races require a lot of experience and even though he could be strong enough to go with the best on the climbs in the future, this will be all about waiting for a sprint finish.

 

His performance in Sanremo proves that he has the form to make it over the climbs and he is in the best team to bring him into positition. If he is still there after the Paterberg, Etixx-QuickStep may go all out for a sprint. There are fast riders here but no one will be able to match Gaviria who is the big favourite in case of a sprint.

 

As usual, Peter Sagan skips this race and this opens the door for his lieutenant Oscar Gatto to take his own chance in an event that he has won before. After a poor 2015 season, the Italian seems to be back to his best and he has been on fire all year. He was strong in Andalusia where he won a stage and he was simply impressive in Sanremo where he played a key role for Sagan by shutting down moves on the Poggio.

 

Gatto has proved that he can do well in these races and this year he is better than ever. The big challenge will be to be in a good position for the key climbs as that has often been a problem and he doesn’t have the best team. However, he should be one of the best and he doesn’t have to fear anyone in a sprint as he has won bunch sprints in the past.

 

It has always been evident that Jasper Stuyven is a huge talent for the cobbled classics but he has flown a bit under the radar as he missed last year’s races due to an injury. However, he proved his potential in the opening weekend where he claimed an impressive solo win in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and if he had made the right tactical choices, he would have been up there in Omloop too. Since then he has been less spectacular and was not at his best in Tirreno. This puts some doubts about his form as it was always his goal to peak for the opening weekend where he had the chance to ride for himself. However, he still targets the bigger races in the next few weeks as he aims to be a key helper for Cancellara. Hence, his form should be pretty good. This race is his own chance and he has the strength to go with the best on the climbs. Among the classics riders, he is probably the fastest in the sprint.

 

Stuyven is not the only card for Trek. The American team also have Edward Theuns in their ranks. The Belgian proved his skills by taking second in this race in 2016 and now he is obviously a lot stronger. He was really impressive in Paris-Nice and if he has added an extra element to his form, he should be able to stay with the best here. Like Stuyven, he is very fast in a sprint and if they can both make it into a lead group in the finale, they will be almost impossible to beat.

 

To make things even more complete, Trek have another two fast riders in their ranks. Giacomo Nizzolo and Niccolo Bonifazio won’t be strong enough to go with the attacks but they will be ready for a bunch sprint. Nizzolo has been a bit ill but he showed signs of improvement in Milan-Sanremo where he was not far off the pace. He is getting stronger and stronger and has all the skills to become a contender in the cobbled classics in the future. His form is not at its best yet but if he can survive the climbs, he will be one of the fastest in a bunch sprint. With Bonifazio, Theuns and Stuyven for the lead-out, Trek will be able to dominate the finale.

 

Dylan Groenewegen has had a very successful start to his WorldTour career. He has been knocking on the door for a third win in the last few weeks where he has been the perennial favourite for the one-day races in the north and he has been on the podium every time. In Kuurne, he proved that he can survive the climbs in the classics and in fact he has proved to be able to attack in the harder parts. At this level, that won’t be possible but he should be one of the fastest in a bunch sprint.

 

Jens Debusschere has all the skills to win a cobbled classic in the future. He has still not been strong enough to follow the best on the climbs but it should only be a matter of time before he will be in the mix. He crashed in Strade Bianche and was not at his best in Tirreno but proved that the form is great as he was instrumental in setting Roelandts up for his third place in Sanremo. Due to his health issues, he is unlikely to be with the best on the Kwaremont and Paterberg but he will be there in a bunch sprint. On paper, there are faster riders than him but he is likely to be fresher than most of his rivals.

 

Niki Terpstra has already won this race twice and he aims for a third win. However, his form is a bit hard to gauge. He rode poorly in the opening weekend and then attacked a bit in Paris-Nice. Furthermore, he finds himself in a difficult tactical situation. If he gets into a move with faster riders, Etixx-QuickStep may ask him not to work if they have Gaviria behind. That will probably spell the end for the group. If he decides to work, he will have to attack as the best classics riders are all faster than him. However, you can never rule Terpstra out in this race as he knows how to make a well-timed attack in the finale.

 

After his poor start to the season, we had actually written Filippo Pozzato off. However, he seems to have timed his form perfectly as he rode extremely well in Milan-Sanremo. When he last moved to Luca Scinto’s team a few years ago, he had a revival on the cobbles and it will be interesting to see if he can repeat that. He is not fast enough to win a bunch sprint but if he is back at his best level, he will be able to follow the best on the climbs and he can beat most in a sprint from a smaller group.

 

IAM are here with a strong team with a number of options but their best card is Dries Devenyns. The Belgian proved his potential on the cobbles in 2014 when he was one of the strongest but had to work for John Degenkolb. Last year he was set back by health issues but this year he has been flying since he won in Marseille in January. He was very good in Paris-Nice and he should be strong enough to go with the best on the climbs. His big disadvantage is that most of the favourites are faster than him.

 

Finally, Bryan Coquard deserves a mention. The Frenchman was outstanding at the start of the year when he won sprints with several bike lengths but then he broke his collarbone. He returned to racing in France this weekend and proved to already be at a competitive level, attacking in Loire-Atlantique before failing to get into position for the sprint in Cholet. He has all the skills to be a contender in these races and he is clearly one of the fastest here. However, the level here is very high and he may not be strong enough yet to be up there. However, if he is there in a bunch sprint, he will be one of the favourites if he can overcome his poor positioning skills.

 

We also recommend you to keep an eye on Jens Keukeleire, Sean De Bie, Andrey Amador, Scott Thwaites, Oliver Naesen, Alexis Gougeard, Antoine Duchesne, Marco Marcato, Viacheslav Kuznetsov, Jay McCarthy, Tony Martin and Florian Senechal who can all do well in a hard race.

 

In case of a bunch sprint, Moreno Hofland, Leigh Howard, Raymond Kreder, Niccolo Bonifazio, Alexander Porsev, Magnus Cort, Christophe Laporte and Luka Mezgec can also do well after a hard race.

 

***** Greg Van Avermaet

**** Tiesj Benoot, Fernando Gaviria

*** Oscar Gatto, Jasper Stuyven, Edward Theuns, Giacomo Nizzolo, Dylan Groenewegen

** Jens Debusschere, Niki Terpstra, Filippo Pozzato, Dries Devenyns, Bryan Coquard

* Jens Keukeleire, Moreno Hofland, Leigh Howard, Raymond Kreder, Sean De Bie, Andrey Amador, Niccolo Bonifazio, Scott Thwaites, Oliver Naesen, Alexander Porsev, Alexis Gourgeard, Florian Senechal,

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