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Driedaagse De Panne: Practice Makes Perfect

Three Days of De Panne/Koksijde evokes images of the Flemish coast: Koksijde and De Panne are neighboring beach towns, and Middlekirk -- starting point of stage 1 -- is just one stop further up the shore. But the race has three distinct points to it, and along with the general preference riders have to jumping into a race instead of sitting around or riding the trainer, it becomes a fine place to touch up the form for the massive week ahead.

I don't have time to review its long history, but at least in recent times the course hasn't changed much. Since 2003, stage 1 has made a token start on the coast before heading inland to Zottegem, in the heart of de Ronde country. If the names of Brakel, Harelbeke, Oudenaard, etc. aren't already familiar to you, tomorrow is one last chance to get a sense of this part of Flanders before the big race. This year it's 11 climbs, including three trips over the Leberg and Berendries, the last two times leading straight into the Valkenberg and Eikenmolen, for a full-on preview of the final nervous finish of de Ronde. After the Eikenmolen, the pack heads over the Stuivenberg at km 192, with another 7km on the flats to the line. Quibble with the details, but this is every bit the Flanders preview that E3 Prijs was.*

Flanders_medium[*It occurs to me that I've been a tad dismissive of this race. I blame the demands of parenthood, and my mounting impatience for de Ronde.]

Stage 2 heads back to the coast, mostly on a gentle route but not before bending south for a token trip over the fearsome Kemmelberg. More a day to work on your enjoyment of crosswinds and ridiculously narrow roads. Hey, at least it will be sunny. Likely result is one for the sprinters. Same goes for the De Panne circuit race Thursday, which is 112km, board flat. Later that day the race concludes with a flat ITT of 14.75km, which may or may not decide the overall, depending on how scattered the field gets tomorrow, and who's doing the scattering.

Check out the startlist for yourself; many of the usual suspects. I still don't know where Enrico Gasparotto is; if you see him anywhere, please ask him to stop by. Mirco Lorenzetto is on the Lampre roster with Spilak. Silence! Lotto have their full team: Gilbert, Hoste, and Van Avermaet, supported by their more reliable teammates. Rabo have sent Posthuma to defend his title, along with Graeme Brown to pick of a sprint win, but the rest of the cobbles team is elsewhere. Katusha and Quick Step are mostly loaded, though Chavanel is resting and I'm not sure why Robbie McEwen isn't on board. Columbia are sending a sprint team for Cavendish, who won the two flat stages last year. Garmin -- at long last -- have assembled their Flanders squad, and there may even be a Martyn Maaskant sighting. I'll believe it when I see it.

Most of the action should be tomorrow. Guys like Boonen and Pozzato will be happy to renew acquantances on Tuesday of Flanders week, though they will likely start reeling in the efforts before the race is over. Should be fun at first. Cycling.TV has coverage, as do the usual suspects (i.e. a bunch of European feeds). Enjoy!