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03.04.2014 @ 10:19 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

With the Tour of Flanders less than a week away, the classics specialists spend these days finalizing their preparations and they have one final chance of doing so in racing conditions. This week's Driedaagse van de Panne offers the usual last opportunity to gauge the form but as always many of the biggest favourites for De Ronde avoid the often crash-marred event that will instead be a battleground for an excellent sprinting field and a host of strong time trialists.


The holy period of Belgian cycling is all about one-day racing but one event bucks the trend. The Driedaagse van de Panne takes in many of the same roads that are used for the classics and offer much of the same kind of racing but is the only race with a time span of more than one day.


Organized by the local cycling club in the small coastal city of De Panne, the race was first held in 1977. With the 1978 edition being the only exception, the race has always been held in the week leading up to the Tour of Flanders and this quickly made it a popular event. Offering three days of fast quality racing to keep the legs going ahead of De Ronde, the race has always been an obvious choice for the classics contenders. They may not always have raced for the win but the organizers have often been able to welcome a very strong line-up for the event.


This is reflected in the list of winners. Sean Kelly already won the race in 1980 and even though the race was dominated by Belgian and Dutchmen in the 80s, the race has been a much more international affair. Classics stars like Michele Bartoli, Johan Musseuw, Peter van Petegem, Nico Mattan, George Hincapie, Stijn Devolder, Leif Hoste, and Alessandro Ballan have all added the race to their palmares but the dominant rider is Eric Vanderaerden who won the race 5 times in the late 80s and early 90s.


In recent years, however, things have changed a bit for the 2.HC race which is one of the most debated events on the cycling calendar. Nervous racing, narrow roads, and road furniture has often turned the race into a crash-fest, and no one can allow themselves to throw away months of careful preparation because of a stupid crash in a sprint stage in De Panne. Nowadays many prefer to avoid any unnecessary risks just days before one of their biggest season objectives and so the nature of the race has changed a bit.


In the past, the race was often won by the Flanders contenders but they are now either absent or prefer to play in safe. That doesn't take anything away from the racing though as the race instead has become a target in its own right. Always offering to flat stages, the race always attracts one of the strongest sprint fields of the entire season while the time trial specialists get a rare chance to go for glory in a major stage race without having to overcome any big climbs.


This year's edition doesn't seem to buck the trend. There will be no Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, Sep Vanmarcke, Geraint Thomas, Greg Van Avermaet, Zdenek Stybar, John Degenkolb, Jurgen Roelandts, Stijn Vandenbergh or Tony Gallopin on the start line when the race heads out of De Panne tomorrow. They all prefer to stay safe and recover after a heavy weekend of racing instead of risking anything in the three-day race. The recent schedule change that saw Gent-Wevelgem getting moved to the Sunday before Flanders have only made it even more important for the riders to rest as most of them now have two heavy WorldTour races in the legs.


Peter Sagan and Niki Terpstra are the riders that buck the trend. The Slovakian has made it a habit to win the hilly first stage of the race, stay safe at the rear end of the peloton on the second day and then leave the race to prepare for Flanders. The in-form Terpstra usually rides the race to win it as his time trialing skills always make him a hot candidate for victory.


The event's prestige and UCI points, however, have again attracted a fabulous list of sprinters. Originally, the race was set to offer the second big showdown between André Greipel, Marcel Kittel, and Mark Cavendish but due to his broken collarbone Greipel has had to withdraw from the race. Instead, Cavendish and Kittel will be challenged by an excellent line-up that includes Arnaud Demare, Alexander Kristoff, Sacha Modolo, Kenny Dehaes, Andrea Guardini, Aidis Kruopis, Yannick Martinez, Kenny Van Hummel, Filippo Fortin, Nicola Ruffoni, Francesco Lasca, Youcef Reguigui, Blaz Jarc, Scot Thwaites, Michael Van Staeyen, Kenneth Vanbilsen, Fabio Sabatini, Robert Förster, Ken Hanson, Luke Keough, Danilo Napolitano, Francesco Chicchi, Kevin Peeters and Joeri Stallaert.


As it is reflected by the name, the race spans over three days and it follows a very fixed format. The first stage is a hilly affair in the Flemish Ardennes that includes some of the climbs known from the Flemish classics - albeit not the hardest ones. The second stage is a tribute to Gent-Wevelgem as it passes the famous climbs of Monteberg and Kemmelberg and travels along the coast in what can either be an easy sprint stage or a brutal crosswinds battle. The race ends with a morning sprint stage and a flat, technical time trial which has a major impact on the final general classification. In the past, the time trial has been held on the opening day but since 1993, the organizers have made it the decider at the end of the race.


The race is traditionally won by riders with three key attributes. Anyone with overall ambitions needs to be able to handle the short, steep hellingen typical of Flemish racing that litter the final part of the race's difficult first stage. Then he has to handle the risk of crosswinds which has often changed the two remaining road stages from calm sprint festivals to epic battles of survival. And finally, excellent time trial abilities are needed when the key race against the clock sort out the order of the remaining contenders.


In calm weather, the race often comes down to a battle of seconds scored in the final time trial but if the wind wreaks havoc on the peloton, the race is about much more than TT skills and is decided by minutes instead of seconds.


Sylvain Chavanel is certainly a formidable exponent for all three attributes, and it is no surprise that he has won the race twice in a row. Lining up as the defending champion, he rode an aggressive first stage of the 2013 edition and helped create the decisive 10-rider group to gain 9 important seconds on key rival Lieuwe Westra. With beautiful weather conditions, the next two stages were easy affairs for the sprinters - won by Mark Cavendish and Alexander Kristoff respectively - and Chavanel crowned it all when he crushed the opposition in the final time trial, taking the overall win ahead of Kristoff - who did a surprisingly good TT - and Terpstra. With IAM not being invited to this year's race, Chavanel won't defend his title but Kristoff and Terpstra will both be back to go for more glory in the Belgian race.


The course

As said, the race follows a very fixed format and there are no novelties in store for the 2014 edition. Even though the stages vary slightly from year to year, the overall layout of the race is the same. On the opening day, the riders head from the coast to the Flemish Ardennes and end the stage with a few laps on a circuit that include some well-known hellingen. On the second day, they head back to the coast - passing the Kemmelberg and Monteberg along the way - and end their journey by doing a few laps on a circuit in the city of Koksijde. The final day includes a flat morning stage starting and finishing in De Panne which again has a circuit finish, and a technical time trial in the same city.


However, the opening stage has got an interesting twist. The final circuit is mostly identical to the one used for last year's race but has been given a twist to include an extra climb even closer to the finish. Hence, climbing legs are likely to be a bit more important than they usually are as things may split up a bit more than they usually do. The second stage is largely unchanged and the third one has not been changed at all. Even though the time trial hasn't undergone any overhaul either, the approach to the finish has been slightly modified to reduce the length by 400m. That shouldn't make much of a difference though and there is no doubt that it will still be the - by far - most important stage.


Stage 1:

Keeping with tradition, the race starts with its toughest stage that brings the riders from the North Sea to the Flemish Ardennes. In the past, the race has started in Middelkerke on the North Sea coast but this year the riders will take off from the city that is the centre of the race, De Panne. The stage has often finished in either Zottegem or Oudenaarde in the heart of the Flemish Ardennes but in recent years the former city has been the preferred choice and 2014 won't change that trend.


The first part of the 201km stage consists of a long easterly run from De Panne towards the Flemish Ardennes. This part of Belgium is entirely flat and the terrain won't provide any kind of obstacles for the riders. The only noteworthy point comes at the 5.2km mark when the riders do the first intermediate sprint with bonus seconds on offer but they are likely to be swallowed up by early escapees.


After 87.4km of racing, the riders reach the feed zone in the city of Oudenaarde where the Tour of Flanders will finish in less than a week. Unsurprisingly, this signals a change of the terrain as the riders head straight into the hills as they go up the Edelareberg (1525m, 4.2%, max. 7%) 6.9km further up the road. It is followed by the Haaghoek pavé sector which features in most of the Flemish classics as the riders are now on the circuit that will be the scene of the final action.


After the Haaghoek, the riders do the Leberg (950m, 4.2%, max. 13.8%) whose top comes 98.7km from the finish. 5.7km later they reach the top of the Langendries (1275m, 5.1%, max. 9%) after which the riders deviate from the finishing circuit to get a flatter approach to the first passage of the finish line and the second intermediate sprint


It comes 83.3km from the finish and the riders now start the first of their two laps of the 41.6km finishing circuit that is located on the southwestern outskirts of Zottegem. The first 12.1km are rather easy but then the riders reach the Haaghoek for the second time. They now go up the Leberg and the Langendries again but instead of heading straight back to the finish as they did the previous time, they add a few extra kilometres to the circuit to include three additional climbs.


The first one, Ten Bosse (459m, 6.9%, max. 8.7%) comes 8.2km after the Langendries and leads almost directly to the bottom of the Eikenmolen (450m, 6.9%, max. 8.7%). In last year's stage, the top of that climb was located 10.9km from the line but this year the course has been modified. The distance to the finish has been shortened to 9.5km and furthermore the riders go up an additional helling, Klemhoutstraat (720m), whose top comes just 5.1km from the finish.


From there the roads are slightly descending all the way to the finish in Zottegem, with only very slight rises coming 1.5 and 500m from the finish. At the 1.4km to go mark, the riders turn left and then there is a sweeping left-hand bend 600m from the finish. With 400m to go, the road bends to the right and history proves that it is very important to be well-positioned at this point of the race as the downhill run makes the pace very fast and makes it difficult for riders to pass each other on the short finishing straight. The final intermediate sprint comes at the finish after the completion of the first lap.


The stage is usually an extremely aggressive affair with constantly changing situations and several different groups going up the road at different points of the race. The race favourites may even test each other a bit further out and double race winner Sylvain Chavanel has often gone on the attack from afar. As the course is not overly selective, the classics specialists cannot allow themselves to wait for the final few climbs if they want to make things tough for their rivals and if the right group goes clear, the peloton may never see it again. The stage has a lot of possible scenarios and as always the weather plays a huge role in determining the difficulty of the race.


Last year a 10-rider group went clear on the final climbs, with Peter Sagan outsprinting Arnaud Demare and Alexander Kristoff in a very close battle, while Andre Greipel led a 57-rider group across the line 9 seconds later. In 2012, the stage was slightly different as it finished in Oudenaarde, with Sagan winning a 50-rider sprint. In 2011, Greipel won a sprint of more than 100 riders while the most recent really selective edition of the Zottegem finish was in 2009 when Filippo Pozzato beat Frederik Willems in a two-rider sprint. With the final circuit being a bit harder this time, there is a chance that things may split up a bit more but there is also a big chance that a rather big group will arrive at the finish.



Stage 2:

The second stage usually brings the riders from a start in either Oudenaarde or Zottegem in the Flemish Ardennes back to the coast and a finish in Koksijde, the neighbouring city of De Panne. This stage is usually the longest of the race, with its 210-220km making it great classics preparation.


At 206km, this year's stage will be the shortest in recent history but it follow the well-known formula as the changes are only of minor interest. In 2014, the point of departure will be Tuesday's finishing city of Zottegem and from there the riders head straight west as they start their journey back to the sea. They avoid all the climbs in this hilly area and pass south of Oudenaarde to leave the Flemish Ardennes.


From there, the riders continue in the same direction along flat roads as they pass Kortijk and reach Roeselare after 53.9km of racing. From here they continue in a southwesterly direction as they head towards the French-Belgian border and the climbs that are known from Gent-Wevelgem.


Having reached the hilly area, they zigzag their way to go up all the important ascents. First up is the Monteberg (1000m, 7.3%, max. 13%) which comes 98km from the finish and afterwards the riders go straight up the feared Kemmelberg (700m, 7.8%, max. 17.0%). 5.3km later it is time for the Rodeberg (1700m, 4.8%, max. 13.0%) while the climbing comes to an end with the Vidaigneberg (175m, 4.6%, max. 10%) whose top is located 89.6km from the finish.


The riders now follow the border in a northerly direction as they head along flat roads towards the sea. The first intermediate sprint comes 49.2km from the finish and 15.6km further up the road, they pass the finish line for the first time, contesting the second intermediate sprint.


The stage ends with 3 laps of an 11.2km almost rectangular finishing circuit that brings the riders along the coast from Koksijde and Oostduinkerke before travelling back along another road. It is a non-technical affair with three roundabouts and only three sharp turns and it is entirely flat. The riders follow a long, straight road until the 1.3km to go mark where they make a 90-degree right-hand turn and then it is straight all the way to the finish. There is a small descent just before the flamme rouge but from there it is completely flat. The final intermediate sprint comes at the end of the first lap.


Compared to last year's stage, this one is slightly easier as there a fewer climbs in the hilly zone. However, the climbs are located too far from the finish to make a difference and even though some riders may stretch their legs on the Kemmelberg, there's rarely too much action on the climbs. The finishing circuit is largely unchanged but has been modified very slightly to reduce its length by 500m. The stage usually pans out as a traditional sprint stage unless the wind wreaks havoc on the peloton. This happened in 2010 when Sebastien Turgot won on a very rainy day but the last three editions have all ended in big bunch sprints, with Denis Galimzyanov, Marcel Kittel and Mark Cavendish taking the wins.



Stage 3a:

The riders kick off the decisive final day of the race with the usual short stage starting and finishing in De Panne and nothing has changed compared to last year. At 108.9km, it is a short affair and even though there are a few smaller climbs along the way, it is an almost entirely flat one.


The riders start in the seaside city of De Panne and follow the coast to Wednesday's finishing city of Koksijde. Having reached Oostduinkerke, they take on a big circuit that takes them along the coastal road to the city of Middelkerke after 20km of racing. Here they turn right to leave the coast and continue in a southeasterly direction until they pass the city of Ichtegem. Another change of direction brings them in a southerly direction to Kortemark where they start their journey back to the coast. After the city of Diksmuide, the roads become more winding and the course a bit more technical until the riders end their circuit 16km from the finish.



Back in Oostduinkerke, they turn left and contest the only intermediate sprint in Koksijde 13.5km from the finish. They follow the same road as they did earlier in the day back to De Panne where they cross the line 8.3km from the finish. The stage ends with a lap of an 8.3km non-technical, rectangular finishing circuit that includes three roundabouts and only two sharp turns. The final one, however, comes at the end of a long straight road just 300m from the finish and leads onto the cobbled finishing straight. History proves that this is a very nervous finish where the real sprint takes place before the final corner as the stage winner is always one of the three first riders to go through that turn.


The wind may wreak havoc on the peloton in this stage but usually it is a pretty straightforward affair for the sprinters as the GC riders are keen to save energy for the afternoon time trial. Alexander Kristoff has dominated this sprint as he has taken it twice in a row while Jacopo Guarnieri and Tyler Farrar won in 2011 and 2010 respectively.



Stage 3b:

The hills and the wind may have produced some time differences but the single most decisive stage is usually the final time trial. No one will win the race without possessing solid time trialing skills to negotiate the final 14.3km in the city of De Panne. The course is well-known for the riders as it hasn't been changed since 2010. This year, however, there is a slight modification at the end of the stage that reduces the distance by 450m.


The course is entirely flat and suits the big specialists who can produce great power on the long, flat stretches that characterize most of the course. However, there is a technical middle section that make things more complicated and require acceleration skills as well and the riders often have to battle a rather strong wind.


From the start, the riders do a few early turns until they reach the coastal road that they will follow for a few kilometres. This part suits the specialists but they will be challenged a bit more in the next section. After 3km the riders turn right and go straight until they make their first U-turn 1km further up the road. 5.4km from the finish, they turn right before making another U-turn to head back along the same road and again turn right. A little further down the road, they do the same little trick with a right-hand turn and a subsequent U-turn. They are now back on the coastal road and from there it is a long straight journey all the way back towards the start-finishing area. When the riders turn left 1.2km from the finish, things again get a bit more technical as the final part includes several corners.


It tells a lot about the importance of the time trial that the winner of the final stage and the overall have been the same in the four most recent editions. Sylvain Chavanel has done the double twice in a row and was preceded on the list by Sebastien Rosseler and David Millar. In 2009 the trend was bucked when Frederik Willems took the overall win despite only finishing 30th in the time trial which was won by Bradley Wiggins. The Belgian had taken enough time in the hilly opening stage to hold off defending champion Joost Potsthuma by 19 seconds. The list of winners indicates which riders excel on this course: this is one for the real TT specialists.



The weather

As we have already indicated, the weather plays a huge role in this race. If there is little wind and no rain, the race is mostly decided by the time trial but the wind may wreak havoc on the peloton to make it a race about minutes and not seconds. The last few editions have not been overly selective - last year the riders enjoyed a nice break from an otherwise brutal spring - but the 2010 race proves what a tough affair this race can be if the conditions are right.


The three classics of the past week were all rather easy affairs due to summerlike weather in Belgium. At the moment, rain and wind is set to return for the weekend and the Tour of Flanders but the riders can expect beautiful conditions for this week's stage race.


A cloudy opening day is forecasted but with temperatures of 20 degrees, it should be an extremely pleasant affair. There will only be a light wind from a southwesterly direction, meaning that the riders will have a crosswind for most of the day. On the finishing circuit, they will have a headwind in the first part and a tailwind back to the finish.


The conditions will be virtually identical for Wednesday's stage, with the only change being a light wind now coming from a southeasterly direction. This means that the riders will generally have a tailwind for most of the stage while they will have a crosswind for most of the finishing circuit. It will be a headwind sprint.


The conditions should be the same for Thursday's two stages but now the wind will come from a sourtherly direction. This means that the riders will have a tailwind in the second part of the opening circuit before turning into a crosswind when they head back to De Panne. There will mostly be a crosswind on the circuit but it will be a tailwind sprint. In the time trial, the riders will have a cross-tailwind in the first part and a cross-headwind in the second. As the wind will only be light, we shouldn't see a repeat of the 2011 edition when Niki Terpstra was blown off the course by a strong gust and was left with a broken collarbone just days ahead of the Tour of Flanders.


The favourites

As said this race usually comes down to a combination of three skills: time trialing, climbing ability in the opening stage and handling of potential crosswinds in any of the three road stages. With 10, 6 and 4 bonus seconds on the line in the first two road stages and 6, 4 and 2 seconds in Thursday's first half-stage, sprinting ability may come into play as well. With this year's race offering pleasant weather conditions, we can rule out any crosswinds action, meaning that the time trialing will become all the more decisive. The winner will probably the one from Tuesday's front group who does the best time trial but there may be a surprise in store from one of the sprinters.


Omega Pharma-Quick Step have won this race two years in a row with Sylvain Chavanel and even though the defending champion has left for pastures new, they still have the race favourite in their ranks. Niki Terpstra has all the skills needed to excel in this race as is evidenced by his 3rd and 5th place finishes in the two most recent editions.


As a classics specialist he knows how to handle the hellingen and he certainly has a decent time trial as he has finished in the top 5 in the final race against the clock in the last two years as well. On paper, however, there are better time trialists than Terpstra in this race as the Dutchman does not belong to the absolute specialists in the discipline and he usually performs better when the courses are a bit longer.


What makes him the man to beat is his excellent form though. Anyone who has watched the classics this week will have noticed that Fabian Cancellara is probably the only rider in the classics peloton who is currently stronger than the Dutchman. In Wednesday's Dwars door Vlaanderen he made a stinging attack on the Paterberg that the TV cameras almost failed to catch to pass all the remnants of the early escape and he went on to keep the combined efforts of Stijn Devolder, Nicki Sørensen and Alejandro Valverde at bay despite a headwind on the run-in to the finish in Waregem. Devolder and Valverde have proved to be in excellent condition at the moment so this was certainly no mean feat.


In Friday's E3 Harelbeke, he didn't appear to be troubled at all when he followed Geraint Thomas on the Kwaremont and it was only the superior sprinting of Peter Sagan that denied him a second consecutive win. That kind of form makes him one of the red-hot candidates for the Tour of Flanders but it also makes him the natural favourite for the Driedaagse van De Panne.


As said, Terpstra is no real time trial specialist and there are certainly better time trialists amongst his rivals but his form may allow him to overcome that deficit. At the same time, he may use his excellent condition to take a bit of time in the opening stage. The harder finishing circuit certainly plays into his hands and none of his biggest rivals are real classics specialists. There is no doubt that he will try to use his strong team to force a selection in the first stage as he did one year ago when both he and Chavanel made the front selection and if his key rivals miss out, he will be the driving force in keeping it going all the way to the line. The seconds he may score here could make up for any loss in the trial and those allround skills only enhance his chances. Terpstra could very well lower his odds for the Tour of Flanders by winning the traditional warm-up race.


Terpstra's biggest rival is almost the entire Orica-GreenEDGE team. The Australians have a number of time trial specialists that rarely get a chance to win a stage race as their climbing skills are usually too limited. In this race, however, the nature of the course makes it possible to come away with an overall win.


Their best winner candidate is probably Luke Durbridge. The former Australian time trial champion has never done anything to hide that this is a race that he would love to win and it forms the centrepiece of his classics campaign. In his debut season two years ago, he was 7th overall and last year he repeated that performance.


In 2013 Durbridge was hugely disappointed as he delivered a below-par showing in the final time trial but this year he seems to be in better condition. In Tirreno-Adriatico he climbed excellently - and surprised his team a lot - and he went on to take 10th in the final time trial. He had certainly hoped for more in the latter stage but he was up against a field that contained all the best time trialists in the world.


Since turning professional, Durbridge has struggled a bit in the longer time trials but he has performed well in the shorter ones. His overall wins in the 2012 Circuit de la Sarthe and Tour du Poitou Charentes were based on a solid ride against the clock and if he wins this year's race in De Panne, it will be much of the same. He still needs to overcome the climbs in the opening stage and it will be a challenge to keep up with Terpstra in that stage. His good climbing in Tirreno, however, provides him with a better chance than ever and on paper he should be a better time trialist than his Dutch rival.


Giant-Shimano are in this race with Marcel Kittel who will be targeting the sprint stages but the team also has an obvious GC candidates. The Swede has been riding excellent time trials in the past few months. He crushed the opposition in Etoile de Besseges earlier this year and last year he was an impressive 3rd in the Ster ZLM Toer prologue despite riding under torrential rain while the other riders in the top 10 had all had dry conditions on the technical course. In the Tour Mediteraneen, he ended the stage on his road bike but still managed to take 6th.


Luvigsson got his chance to test himself against the very best riders in Tirreno but was left disappointed as he could only manage 19th. He still hasn't shown that he can mix it up with the very best but it is only a matter of time before he gets his big breakthrough. He may as well take it this week as he has the skills to win this race.


Ludvigsson hasn't much classics experience and this should hamper him in the opening stage. He is a very good climber and should have no trouble handling the hellingen but he may pay a price in the battle for position. He will have to rely on his strong team and luckily most of his teammates know how to handle these conditions. If he is still up there when he rolls down the ramp on Thursday, he will be a danger man.


If anyone had asked us about Terpstra's rivals last Friday, we would have pointed to Svein Tuft as his most dangerous opponent. On paper, the strong Canadian is the best time trialist in this race as his wins in the Eneco Tour time trial and prologue proves that he excels on short, flat courses like the one found in De Panne. His team reports him to be in good condition and he was the driving force when Orica-GreenEDGE finished second in the Tirreno team time trial.


However, he has had a number of setbacks since. First he fell ill at Tirreno but more importantly he crashed in Friday's E3 Harelbeke. He suffered a concussion that made him unable to start yesterday's Gent-Wevelgem and the effects may still hamper him in this week's race. At the same time, he has obvious limitations. He may be an excellent time trialist but it is almost certain that he won't make the front selection on stage 1 unless a bigger group sprints for the win. If the stage proves to be selective, he may start the final time trial with a time deficit to make up. Those factors all speak against a Tuft win but due to his time trialing skills he is still one of the most obvious candidates.


After a difficult start to his road career, Michael Hepburn is now totally focused on the road and this has paid dividends. He beat his teammate Luke Durbridge at the Australian championships and he beat the likes of Cancellara in the Tour of Qatar time trial. Those results prove that he now has his road racing back on track and he will be the third obvious Orica-GreenEDGE candidate.


However, Hepburn has failed to bring his very good start to the season over to Europe. The expectations for him in the Tirreno time trial were great but he could only manage 15th. He still hasn't produced a top result in a European time trial and as long as he hasn't, the doubts will remain. Furthermore, he still hasn't shown anything in the road races and he often finds himself at the back of the bunch. In the classics, it is all about positioning and he could very well lose time in the opening stage. If he is still there on Thursday, however, the short time trial provides him with a shot at the win.


Arnaud Demare may not be the obvious De Panne winner but it would be very unwise to rule out the fast Frenchman. Demare certainly won't win the final time trial but less may be enough to take the overall win. Demare is currently in peak condition as his first big targets are the cobbled classics and he proved so yesterday when he appeared to be riding solidly on the climbs before sprinting to second at Gent-Wevelgem.


If the first stage is selective, there is a great chance that Demare will be in the front group. Last year 10 riders escaped in the opening stage and Demare was right in the middle of the action alongside teammate Johan Le Bon. In the controversial sprint, he was beaten into second by Peter Sagan but he showed off his excellent classics skills. This year he has only become stronger as he proved when he featured deep into the finale of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.


Demare is obviously one of the fastest riders in this field and there may be a lot of bonus seconds waiting for him in the road stages. What really marks him out, however, are his improved time trialing. In Tirreno, he finished 12th in the final time trial against a field that contained all the best TT specialists and he even beat riders like Hepburn and Ludvigsson. Last year Alexander Kristoff proved that a sprinter can finish on the podium if he does a decent time trial and with Demare being faster than the Norwegian and a better time trialist, he may even come away with the win.


Demare is not the only FDJ rider who may win this race. Last year Johan Le Bon finished 4th overall and 4th in the final time trial and he will be eager to improve on that performance. The young Frenchman has only become stronger since last year and as a great time trialist who excels in the cobbled classics, he has all the skills for this race. Last year he made the front selection on the opening stage and this year he played a dominant role in the Omloop. He will be one of the riders who can try to make the first stage hard and his time trialing is still good as he proved when he finished 3rd in the Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen prologue.


Team NetApp-Endura line up their time trial specialist Jan Barta in this race and the Czech is an obvious winner candidate. The Czech has had a quiet start to his season and hasn't lived up to past performances in his first time trials of the year. Nonetheless, he took solid top 10s in both West Flanders and Algarve and he is certainly one of the biggest specialists in this race. He would have preferred a longer course for the time trial as he is usually his best over long distances but nobody can rule him out. He is a real strongman and even though he won't be among the first on the hills, he won't be far behind either.


Ludvigsson may be the Giant-Shimano GC candidate but it would be unwise not to keep an eye on Marcel Kittel. In the past, the German was no sprinter and instead he excelled in time trials, finishing on the podium at the U23 Worlds. On short, flat courses he still performs well as he proved by taking 11th in the Dubai Tour prologue. This course may be a bit too long but if he is in GC contention at that point, he may limit his losses.


Kittel has improved his climbing a lot and he really excelled when he won the hardest stage of the Dubai Tour. Obviously, he won't be in the front if a small group arrives at the finish on the opening day but if it is a bigger bunch he could be there. Of course he is the fastest rider in this race and so he could potentially score 26 bonus seconds at the stage finishes. If he has a lot of success in the road stages, he may have enough of an advantage to take the overall win.


The same can be said for Mark Cavendish. The Brit may not be as fast as Kittel but he is certainly a better climber. Last year he survived the climbing in the first stage and he should be able to do so again this year as his Sanremo performance proved that he has great climbing legs at the moment. His sprinting hasn't been working too well so far but everybody knows how fast he is. On short, flat courses he has a decent time trial and even though this course may be a bit too long for him, a possible overall win allow him to do better than usual. The main concern will be the fact that he skipped Gent-Wevelgem due to illness and his health makes his level a bit uncertain. If he has recovered well, however, he could become a surprise winner of this race.


***** Niki Terpstra

**** Luke Durbridge, Tobias Ludvigsson

*** Svein Tuft, Michael Hepburn, Arnaud Demare

** Johan Le Bon, Jan Barta, Marcel Kittel, Mark Cavendish

* Alexander Kristoff, Guillaume Van Keirsbulck, Maciej Bodnar, Kristijan Kroen, Yves Lampaert, Gert Steegmans, Julien Vermote, Jimmy Engoulvent, Sebastien Rosseler, Jens Mouris



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