When the race overshadowing your race is the Tour of Flanders, that leaves you two choices for appealing to potentially interested riders: give them a race where they can hope for a result (as opposed to on the big stage) or give them a good mid-week training in their Flanders tune-up. Every year there are a few big names lurking around -- Chavanel and Terpstra finished up last year, while Sagan stuck around long enough to win the first stage. Pozzato, Ballan and Wiggins (!) were conspicuous in their presence in 2011 (though Ballan is a regular for some reason). Every race has its share of quality riders just below the "favorites" level for next Sunday. Every race has its sprinters looking for one or two shots at a doable win. Every race has guys looking for something to do five days away from Vlaanderens Mooiste.
But one thing they almost never have is Tom Boonen. Til now. Boonen, falling squarely into the category of a guy in need of a quick boost to his form, is planning to take the start in Middelkerke tomorrow, as the race returns to its odd-year rotation of running from the beaches of West Flanders to Zottegem (Oudenaarde gets the finish in even years). Simply put? "I need rhythm," he said. And while riding the trainer til his knee stops feeling bruised is an OK thing, racing is probably better. He won't have much company among the favorites, though Sagan is at least rolling out of Middelkerke. Because it's a race, something to do.
One oddity of this season is that we've seen two shortened races, Milano-Sanremo and yesterday's Gent-Wevelgem, putting a slightly higher premium on taking the start in Middelkerke. The first stage of Driedaagse De Panne is always a nice cobbles training race, and the Zottegem loop, being just north of Brakel in the heart of the Flemish Ardennes, does not disappoint. It's a shade under 200km, with 13 rated climbs, including two trips round the closing circuit over the Leberg, Berendries, Valkenberg, Tenbosse and Eikenmolen. Only the first two are cobbled, but they come just after running the Haaghoek, so for riders in need of a long stretch of the Infernal Stones, they can find that here too.
Turning around for stage 2, the race keeps its tradition alive of departing Oudenaarde (alternating with Zottegem again) for Koksijde, via the Monteberg-Kemmelberg double treat, before a sprint by the ocean. This and the next day's mini-stage in the morning are sprinters' fare, as may be stage 1 as well, and Cavendish, Greipel, Kittel and Demare are the headlining acts. Of course, none of them will likely take the start for the final event, the time trial, and if they do they will likely pass on any leadership hopes with it, though you never know.
It's funny, all the subtle jockeying that's gone on the last few years. E3 was king, til Gent-Wevelgem muscled in on the pre-Ronde weekend, briefly taking over by virtue of its UCI points offerings. Once E3 got the same status, it resumed its dominance of people's attention spans, and Gent-Wevelgem has morphed back into one left to the sprinters (which isn't how it often finishes, but whatever). Driedaagse sits there, waiting for what's left, but after two hard classics in three days, the answer for most riders is that they might not want to jump right back into another race. Still, with Tom Boonen falling in their laps, the organizers probably won't complain much this year.