As we slowly ramp up the Cobbles Season, dancing around the obstacle presented by Milano-Sanremo, we might get hungry. After all, this is a long season, and the last thing anyone wants to do is run out of energy. So for that we have Friday's running of the Handzame Classic, or as I've been calling it in my head, the Ham Sandwich Classic.
In many ways, this race resembles a ham sandwich. It's tasty enough, but won't catch your eye as you peruse any sort of an exciting menu. It's reasonably good for you, though you can probably come up with better options. Do I like this race as much as I like a ham sandwich? I guess it depends on the bread.
Anyway, enough about lunch.
For starters, I'm paying attention. Not that this is significant to anyone outside a three foot radius of me, but it is a way of copping out on telling you how the Ham Sandwich has changed over the past year. But by the looks of things, the answer is "not much." It still went from Bredene, on the West Flanders coast, down towards Poperinge and Ieper, known to some as Kemmelberg Country, then to Handzame for a couple circuits and a sprint finish. By all appearances, the weather and time have changed, but that's about it.
Weather, by the way, is a big difference this time around. Or maybe not: some showers will be lingering tomorrow. But hopefully not enough to slicken the roads and produce what was a rude welcome home for last year's winner (scroll to about 14 minutes):
The race's niche is that it warms riders up for Gent-Wevelgem. If you take in the whole of the Flemish Classics Season, it becomes quickly apparent that there's the Ronde van Vlaanderen and several races aimed at preparing riders for said event. But Gent-Wevelgem isn't one of them; it's a West Flanders adventure, featuring crosswinds and a trip or two up the overly nasty Kemmelberg, followed by more crosswinds and maybe a sprint. Gent-Wevelgem doesn't feel like the other spring races. So of course it should have its own warmup.
Where Will the Race Be Won?
Well, you could look at the road book and see names like the Vidaigneberg (2km, 4.7% avg, 10% max), Baneberg (300m, 10% avg, 20% max), Monteberg (1km, 7.3% avg, 13% max) and Scherpenberg (800m, 9% avg, 17% max), and think they'll come into play. Those numbers, even considering the smooth surfaces of these roads, are nothing to sneeze at. But you'd be wrong. The climbs all come between 90 and 115km, which will facilitate a breakaway but won't get them to the line. Massive sidewinds might do the trick, but the only data I have covers the last three years, and in that time the smallest group to contest the race was about 40 guys. This is a sprinters' event, until someone says it isn't.
Who Do I Need to Know?
The sprinters. I don't have a full startlist, but if Kenny De Haes is there, he's the favorite. Belkin are bringing their B-list guys (Theo Bos, Graeme Brown). Tom Veelers is Giant's main guy. BMC will be leaning on Klaas Lodewyck, Daniel Oss and maybe Rik Zabel. There's always Danilo Napolitano, of course. And if Stijn Steels takes after Uncle Tommy, maybe Topsport can make some noise before the big guys return.
Pick to Win: