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The major favourite should be Geraint Thomas. The versatile Brit found his passion for the cobbled races in 2011 when he ended up 2nd in Waregem. Last year, his Olympic ambitions forced him to miss the classics season, but he has longed for...

Photo: Sirotti
















20.03.2013 @ 12:23 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

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 today.


The time of preparation for the cobbles specialists are 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.


The first of those is today's Dwars door Vlaanderen - a race which has gained in status over the years and this year has been recognized by the UCI with an elevated 1.HC status. The race has a long and illustrious list of winners, and during the last 15 years it has been won by highly regarded classics specialists like Johan Museeuw, Niko Eeckhout, Tom Boonen, Sylvain Chavanel, Matti Breschel, Nick Nuyens and Niki Tersptra.


Last year, 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 ranking 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 has unfortunately been reinforced this year, and the names of Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, Philippe Gilbert, Thor Hushovd and Peter Sagan are all absent from this year's start list. On the other hand, this turns 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.


That was certainly the case last year where the Omega Pharma-Quick Step duo of Niki Terpstra and Sylvain Chavanel took advantage of the absence of the mighty Tom Boonen to make a very rare 1-2 and thus kick start what turned out to be an incredible classics campaign for the Belgian super team.


The course

The route for Dwars door Vlaanderen follows a traditional pattern for any cobbled classic in the Flemish region. After the start in Roeselare, the race travels on completely flat roads to Waregem around which most of the race evolves.


The riders will now complete a smaller, flat loop through the northern outskirts of the city before they again pass through the city center to take on another, much more difficult circuit in the Flemish hills to the south. Along the way, they will have to tackle 13 of the famous hellingen which litter the region - small, steep climbs of which some are cobbled. Add in three flat sections of cobblestones and you have the prescription of a very tough race.


The initial flat section mostly serves to create the day's early breakaway and accumulate fatigue in the rider's legs. The racing actions becomes earnest as soon as the peloton hits the hilly zone where the battle for position becomes fierce. The favourites may stretch their legs on any of the hellingen to force a selection, but the key climbs are usually the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg which come in quick succession with just 34 and 31 km remaining. The former is a difficult, long, cobbled climb while the latter is short, but extremely steep, and both are key ingredients on the new final circuit of the Tour of Flanders.


A group of favourites usually go clear at this point and pick of any remnants of the early break which may have survived until this crucial point. The severely reduced peloton will regroup and organize some kind of chase, and depending on the collaboration in the escape and representation of the biggest teams in the group ahead we should be in for a frantic chase on the final 30 km run-in to the finish in Waregem.


The race has been won from a group of favourites going clear on the main difficulties and from bunch kicks in reduced pelotons. Any scenario is possible in this highly unpredictable race, but a restructure of the course in 2010 turned the race more into the hands of the classics specialist at the expense of the sprinters. Nonetheless, a final sprint remains an opportunity and only a valiant effort by Nick Nuyens and Geraint Thomas prevented sprinter Tyler Farrar from claiming the honours in Waregem in 2011.


The weather

Milan-Sanremo proved out to be a testament to the possible impact of the weather on a bike race. This impact is even more visible in the Belgian classics where a predicted sprinter's affair may turn into an epic battle between the strongest classics specialist if rain, cold and wind make its presence felt.


Europe has struggled with harsh weather all season, and we have seen a number of course changes and cancellations in almost all countries in the continent. Those conditions still rule, and we should be in for another epic day in Belgium.


Rain and snow are forecasted during the morning hours, and even though we should get some sunshine when the race is decided in the afternoon, it will be a cold and windy affair. This turns the race into the hands of the hard men, and it might be difficult for the sprinters to stamp their authority on this year's edition of the race.


The favourites

As mentioned above, Dwars door Vlaanderen can be won by classics specialists, sprinters or even brave members of the day's early escape. Hence, it is an unpredictable affair with a wide range of potential winners. With the expected weather conditions, it might, however, be difficult for the sprinters to stay in contention, and we should probably look to the true classics specialists to find this year's victor.


The major favourite should be Geraint Thomas (Sky). The versatile Brit found his passion for the cobbled races in 2011 when he ended up 2nd to Nick Nuyens in Waregem. Last year, his Olympic track ambitions forced him to miss the classics season, but he has longed for his return to the Belgian cobbles. He has been on a roll so far this season with a stage victory and overall podium place in the Tour Down Under, and he reminded us of his classics strength with a 4th place in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. After participating in the Sky training camp in Tenerife, he returned to action in Milan-Sanremo and looked very strong until a crash took him out of contention. He will make sure to be part of any crucial selection, and with his solid kick he has a good chance to outsprint his companions in the end.


Thomas will be challenged by a number of in-form riders. One of those is defending champion Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-Quick Step). The Dutch champion grows in strength every year and has been a very visible member of his Belgian team in most races this year. He approaches his peak condition and will look to make the most of this possibility before he will have to serve the likes of Boonen and Chavanel in the coming weeks. He will try to force a selection in the key sections, but may be hampered by his lack of a strong sprint.


Another in-form rider is Maxim Iglinskiy (Astana). The defending Liege-Bastogne-Liege champion is a versatile athlete who shines in the Ardennes classics, climbs with the best in Paris-Nice and has been on the podium in the cobbled classic E3 Prijs. He leads his Astana team and is going extremely well at the moment. He made his presence felt in the final of Milan-Sanremo with an attack on the Poggio climb towards the end, and he will be difficult to drop on the Belgian hellingen. With his fast finish, he has any possibility to defeat any escape companions in a final kick to the line.


Two of the most illustrious specialists in the cobbled classics are also on the start line. Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil) looks to pay back the confidence from his new Dutch team, and he is one of the most consistent and renowned riders in the biggest of the classics. The Spaniard has looked strong with some aggressive racing in the Strade Bianche and Tirreno-Adriatico, and he seems to once again have timed his preparation to perfection. Dwars door Vlaanderen may not be his biggest objective, but he is a fierce competitor and is always amongst the action on the Belgian hellingen.


The other classics star is Flecha's teammate Bjorn Leukemans. The Belgian is hugely consistent in the biggest one-day races and is able to enter the top 10 in both the Ardennes and the Northern classics. He has had a low-key start to the season and struggled with illness in the Paris-Nice. If he has recovered, he is a danger man this afternoon in Waregem.


British champion Ian Stannard (Sky) has quietly grown in strength during the last couple of seasons. He may not have the longest palmares, but his teammates have always known how strong this talented Brit is. He burst onto the scene with an impressive attack towards the end of last year's world championships in Valkenburg, and he had his breakthrough performance with his 6th place last Sunday in Sanremo. With Thomas, he forms a dangerous duo and looks poised for a very rare leadership role in this race.


Young Tony Gallopin (Radioshack) is another strong contender. He impressed on the cobbles last year when he was often present as Cancellara's only domestique after a selection was made on the hellingen. His performance in the Paris-Nice was a little disappointing, but he ended the race in a content mood and had an optimistic view on his classics prospects. He will be a key helper for Cancellara in the coming weeks, but may as well kick start his campaign by giving Radioshack an early victory on the Belgian cobbles.


With the race previously being decided in a bunch kick, we should of course also take a short look at the sprinters in attendance. The most dangerous man seems to be Norwegian Alexander Kristoff who is in splendid form at the moment. He had his breakthrough on the cobbles in 2012 with a stage victory in Driedaagse de Panne and a top 15-performance in the Tour of Flanders. He fought through a bad crash in Paris-Nice to end the race in strong climbing condition, and he won the sprint for 8th in Milan-Sanremo on Sunday. The Olympic bronze medallist may struggle to follow the sharpest accelerations on the climbs, but he will not be far off and will make sure to make use of any hesitation among the favourites to get back into contention.


***** Geraint Thomas

****Maxim Iglinskiy, Tony Gallopin

*** Niki Terpstra, Alexander Kristoff, Ian Stannard, Juan Antonio Flecha

** Bjorn Leukemans, Stijn Vandenbergh, Oscar Gatto, Sebastien Turgot, Thomas Voeckler, Borut Bozic, Gert Steegmans

* Guillaume Van Keirsbulck, Giovanni Visconti, Ben Hermans, Salvatore Puccio, Jacopo Guarnieri, Yauheni Hutarovich, Giacomo Nizzolo, Jens Debusschere



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