Tuesday- Thursday is Driedaagse time in Flanders. A sweet little stage-race in it's own right but perhaps most importantly a prequel to the action on Sunday. With crosswinds, small country roads and a full cast of hardmen, good racing is nearly guaranteed though. Look for a short race preview after the flip.
Live video at 14:45 CEST (08:45 AM US eastern, 23:45 AEDT)
Unless you hadn't noticed, the whole world (or at least all cyclingteams) is getting fine tuned for Sunday's Ronde van Vlaanderen. This includes riding your body into shape and getting a feeling for the roads and the rhythm of racing in Flanders. For some it is about conserving and tweeking already good form. For others, who have fallen behind in their prep for some reason, it's about a last minute scramble to get to where they wanna be come Sunday. For the record, I don't think the latter has ever worked?
Whatever your approach is, De Panne is clearly the place to do it. Often you can spot the winner of the Tour of Flanders in the three day stage race going back and forth through West Vlaanderen. The race itself is set up to be a perfect, smooth warmup for Sunday.
Stage 1 on Tuesday is 198 km from Middelkerke on the coast, southeast to Oudenaarde in the heart of De Ronde-land. This is the hilliest of the stages passing several of Sunday's climbs, like Berendries and Valkenberg.
Stage 2 on Wednesday makes the return trip to the coast. It's 214 km from Zottegem to Koksijde, so it's slightly longer but less hilly. The hills will most likely not be the major factor in the first two days though but rather the windconditions as much of the racing is close to the Atlantic coast.
Stage 3 a & b on Thursday offers a lighter or harder menu depending on how you want to approach it. In the morning there is a 112 km flat stage near the coast and in the afternoon a 15 km timetrial for those who want to go the distance. Not everyone will go all the way though, the list of DNFs and DNS grows pretty rapidly as people gauge their efforts with one eye on Sunday.
Picking a winner here isn't all that easy. You are looking for a hardman who can get in the right moves and make up some time and who is strong enough in the TT to hold on to that lead. This is pretty much a description that fits half the field so what else are we looking for? Probably the winner is someone on good form but not one who is too confident of his chances in De Ronde? Outsiders like Ballan, Hoste and Devolder are recent winners, all before they became major contenders in the Big Race. Ballan pulled off the unusual feat of following up his win with victory on Sunday, the only one to do so in the last 10 years.
Looking at this year's startlist, names like Lars Bak, Enrico Gasparotto, Lieuwe Westra, Manuel Quinziato and Maxim Iglinskiy all seem to fit the above description, don't they?