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As it is the case in almost every expected bunch sprint, Mark Cavendish stands out as the biggest favourite for victory tomorrow afternoon in Schoten. Without Greipel in the race and with Kittel weakened by illness, he is by far the fastest...

Photo: Tim De Waele

ALEXANDER KRISTOFF

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ARNAUD DEMARE

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CHRISTOPHER SUTTON

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MARCEL KITTEL

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MARK CAVENDISH

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SCHELDEPRIJS VLAANDEREN

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YAUHENI HUTAROVICH

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02.04.2013 @ 18:23 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 semiclassic. Known as the sprinters' world championships, the flat race around the city of Schoten has a history of producing one of the most exciting and competitive bunch sprints of the season, and this year's edition seems to be no different.

 

Held for the first time in 1907, the Scheldeprijs is one of the most historic races, and its esteem among the sprinters is high. The victory list contains the names of most of the sport's fastest finishers, and the race is a natural element of the to-do list for any ambitious bunch kick expert. 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.

 

Held on the Wednesday after Paris-Roubaix, the race long had the reputation as being the final race of the cobbles season. 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.

 

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 paves ahead of their major target on Sunday.

 

As a consequence, the race has seen able to attract a much stronger field in which the biggest sprinters mingle with the favourites for the Paris-Roubaix. However, the race remains a sprinters race and while the likes of Fabian Cancellara, Juan Antonio Flecha and Bjorn Leukemans may test their legs on the cobbles before they drop back or even abandon, sprinters like Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel and Theo Bos will go all out for the victory.

 

Last year, Marcel Kittel once again proved that he is one of the fastest riders of the current generation as he powered to his first classics victory on an extremely wet and dangerous day. In a race where many riders chose to keep safe in the treacherous conditions, he held off 2010 winner Tyler Farrar and Theo Bos in a dramatic and hectic finish. His Argos-Shimano team will once again put all their forces behind the German who will be back to try to take the first repeat victory since Mark Cavendish' double in 2007 and 2008.

 

The course

A closer look at the 204km 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 its neutral start in the major city of Antwerpen and heads to the nearby town of Schoten in which the race will get off properly. The riders head off in a Northwesterly direction to tackle a 153,4km completely flat loop.

 

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 after which they will tackle 3 laps of a 16,4km flat finishing circuit.

 

The loop contains the race's main difficulty, the 1700m cobbled Broekstraat stretch. While the tough 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 pave. 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. 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

The weather always has the potential to have a major impact on a race in Belgium and with the course offering little source for selection, the biggest obstacles could be offered by the climatic conditions. Most riders will hope for a dry race as wet roads dramatically increase the risks of crashes just days before the Paris-Roubaix.

 

That wish should be fulfilled as we should face a cloudy, dry day in Belgium. Furthermore, the riders will be relieved to realize that they for once will not have to tackle a race in almost freezing temperatures. It should be another cold day with temperatures just above the 5 degrees mark, but the extreme conditions experienced throughout much of this spring have left Belgium for now.

 

The wind may play an important role. The hard easterly wind which caused havoc on the Gent-Wevelgem race will once again make its presence felt, and there should be plenty of crosswinds sections on the big opening loop of the race. However, the riders will mostly travel in an easterly or westerly direction on the final finishing circuit and so it may be unlikely to see any lasting crosswinds selection in the latter part of the race. Nonetheless, it will be a surprise not to see a number of teams try to gain maximal benefits of the climatic conditions.

 

The favourites

Looking at the start list, it is evident that the peloton's fastest finishers see tomorrow's race as an excellent opportunity to test their legs against the world's best. The list of sprinters just goes on and on, and it is a rare occasion to see so many of the bunch kick experts gathered on the same start line.

 

Many had looked forward to another match-up between the three sprinting giants Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) and Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano). For some reason, Lotto-Belisol have, however, chosen to rest their big German sprinter ahead of the Paris-Roubaix, and thus 2013 will not be the year in which the "Gorilla" will be able to add the title of "sprint world champion" to his growing palmares.

 

As it is the case in almost every expected bunch sprint, Mark Cavendish stands out as the biggest favourite for victory tomorrow afternoon in Schoten. Without Greipel in the race and with Kittel weakened by illness, he is by far the fastest man in the peloton, and if he is well-positioned on the finishing stretch, he will be almost impossible to beat.

 

The race is dear to the Manxman's heart as it was the scene of his first professional victory in his 2007 debut season with the former T-Mobile squad. He repeated his win the following year before he chose to skip the event in 2009 and 2010. His most recent participation gave him another triumph, and as he was not present in last year's edition either, he has the formidable record of being unbeaten in the finish in Schoten. Furthermore, he will have added incentive by the fact that a fourth victory would mark him out as the single rider with most victories in the historic event.

 

However, his undoing could be his team support. The lead-out train at his new Belgian team is not yet as well-drilled as his former HTC sprint set-up, and Gert Steegmans has still not been successful in his role as final lead-out man for the Manxman. The team has plenty of horsepower, but limited experience in setting up their captain and compared to the successful Blanco and Argos-Shimano trains, the former world champion could struggle to enter the sprint in optimal position.

 

Marcel Kittel is once again his main rival as he is one of the select few with the power and speed to hold off the Manxman. He was victorious in last year's race and would love to repeat his biggest one-day victory. However, the big German was hit by bout of flu after the Paris-Nice and missed more than a week of training. The effect was evident when he returned to competition in last week's Driedaagse van de Panne as he was dropped in the crosswinds on the second stage. As a consequence of his lack of form, the team even chose to put their forces behind young Nikias Arndt in the bunch sprint on the final day of racing.

 

However, the team has expressed complete confidence in their German captain, and he will have the support of his squad on the roads around Schoten. Last week's racing has increased his form level, and  he should be in the mix in a final bunch kick. He will be supported by most of his well-drilled, formidable lead-out train and with Roy Curvers and Tom Veelers as his final two support men, he can expect to start his sprint in a good position. The main challenge will not be the team, but the question marks surrounding the captain's own strength.

 

The man to take Greipel's spot as main challenger to Cavendish and Kittel will be Theo Bos (Blanco). Without any doubt, the former track sprinter is one of the fastest men in the field, and with added endurance he keeps progressing as a road sprinter. This year he has stepped up his level even further, and few races on the calendar are better suited to the powerful Dutchman than the Scheldeprijs.

 

Another cause for optimism in the Blanco camp is Bos' team support. The team has put in quite an effort to provide the Dutchman with a strong lead-out train, and indications are that the effort has borne fruit. Graeme Brown has proven to be a formidable lead-out man, and in tomorrow's race they will have the added firepower of one of the world's best men in the discipline, Mark Renshaw. Bos' victory in a very difficult finish in the Criterium International proves that his condition is optimal, and it would be no surprise to see the Dutchman take his 5th season victory in Schoten.

 

Yauheni Hutarovich (Ag2r-La Mondiale) is a dangerous dark horse. The Belarussian sprinter is one of a select few with the top speed to challenge the likes of Cavendish and Kittel, and the sprint suits him perfectly. His 2nd place in the very hard Route Adelie Vitre last Friday proves that his condition is blistering at the moment, and that performance was even followed by another podium result in Sunday's Val d'Ille Classic.

 

His 3rd place in the 2011 edition of the Scheldeprijs and his two runner-up positions in the 2011 and 2012 editions of the Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne prove that he is perfectly suited to the Belgian sprint classics, and he almost beat Cavendish on two occasions in Qatar in February. However, he struggles to start his sprints in a good position, and even though he will be supported by a number of strong sprinters, he will not have the benefit of a good lead-out train.

 

Former U23 world champion Arnaud Demare (FD) is another rider with the top speed to challenge the best. His near-miss in the first stage of the Driedaagse van de Panne where he had probably beaten Peter Sagan if he had kept his hands on the bar, was a testament to his amazing finishing kick. His performance in De Panne and especially in the Tour of Flanders where he was dropped by the main chase group just 10 meters before the top of the Paterberg, proves just how strong he is right now, and he will be formidably supported by his usual lead-out men William Bonnet and Mickael Delage. Like Hutarovich, his main challenge will be to even get the possibility to show off his amazing speed, as he often struggles in the final battle for positions. If he manages to get everything right in the final run-in, he will, however, be a danger man.

 

Another potential winner is an in-form Alexander Kristoff (Katusha).With a stage victory and overall 2nd place in the Driedaagse van de Panne and a 4th place in the Tour of Flanders, he is amazingly strong these days, and he will be well-supported in the sprint by Marco Haller and Rüdiger Selig. Selig's ability to set up his captain was put on display in the final road stage in De Panne, and the Norwegian's own ability in the final battle for positions make him a very consistent performer in the bunch sprints.

 

He lacks the top speed of his most prominent rivals, but if the race turns out to be a hard one, his disadvantage will be reduced. However, there is a possibility that the Olympic bronze medallist will not even participate in a final sprint. With his new-found confidence in the biggest races, he may choose to avoid any risks ahead of the Paris-Roubaix and give Selig his chance to go for a victory just days after the German's win in the Volta Limburg Classic.

 

Finally, Chris Sutton deserves a mention even if it may be hard to imagine the Australian as the race winner. He has had limited opportunity to sprint for himself and has had few racing days this year. He is not the race's fastest sprinter, but he will be supported by some of the best lead-out men in the world. With the likes of Geraint Thomas, Bernhard Eisel, Ian Stannard and Mathew Hayman, Sky is one of the select few teams with the firepower to take control inside the final kilometer, and if his main rivals miss out in the battle for position, Sutton could be the one to take a surprise victory to add to his win in the 2011 edition of the Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne.

 

***** Mark Cavendish

**** Marcel Kittel, Theo Bos

*** Yauheni Hutarovich, Arnaud Demare, Alexander Kristoff, Chris Sutton

** Andrea Guardini, Tyler Farrar, Kenny Van Hummel, Kenny Dehaes, Romain Feillu

* Giacomo Nizzolo, Barry Markus, Jose Joaquin Rojas, Michael Van Staeyen, Baptiste Planckaert, Jacobe Keough

 

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