I call it a cobbles stage race, but this race is more of a time-triallist's idea of a chance for a decent-looking jersey.
Who'll be challenging for it?
As I said, the race is usually taken in the time-trial, and has was won by specialist Sylvain Chavanel twice recently. He is not riding, as his team haven't been invited, in a rather threadbare startlist as the general classification goes. Tinkoff-Saxo aren't here either, eliminating regular Peter Sagan. However, there are some stars, including Alexander Kristoff, who hasn't looked so sharp this year since he's come back from the Middle East, tending to sprint too early, like in Milan-Sanremo. It's not so threadbare as the sprinters go, actually, with also Andre Greipel, who was surprisingly good in the hellish Gent-Wevelgem. His team mate Jens Debusschere, who came 5th in Wevelgem, is also here to challenge. Arnaud Démare is also riding, along with other sprinters Juan José Lobato, Magnus Cort, Sam Bennett, Davide Cimolai, Sacha Modolo, Andrea Guardini and Elia Viviani. The only real classics guys in the race are Gent-Wevelgem winner Luca Paolini, Filippo Pozzato, who has had trouble on the cobbles, DNSing E3 and DNFing Gent-Wevelgem. There is also, of course, the defending champion Guillaume Van Keirsbulck, who won last year's race, taking 16 seconds on stage 1, and only losing 11 in the time-trial. Other guys include Lars Boom and Stijn Devolder.
Where will it be decided?
Instead of in order of time, I'll do the stage previews in reverse order of importance.
Thursday, April 2: Stage 3a: De Panne (111.4 km)
Don't look at the hills, look at the scale. There are no categorised climbs, and the high point is 56 metres. With the TT in two hours, no one will be attacking for time, so it should be calm until the inevitable bunch sprint. However, the finish has got a nasty bend, and there were crashes here last year.
Should I care: Don't mind if you oversleep.
Who will win: Sacha Modolo. He won't care about the Ronde, and he won last year on this stage. Also expect to see Elia Viviani.
Wednesday, April 1: Stage 2: Zottegem - KOKSIJDE! (217 km)
Apologies for the gratuitous exclamation mark and capitals, but if you watch cyclo-cross you will be well acquainted with the sands of Koksijde, home to stuff like this.
This stage is also flat and relatively unimportant, but it gets points for the Kemmelberg as well as finishing in Koksijde.
Should I care: Not enough sand.
Who will win: Arnaud Démare.
Tuesday, 31st March: Stage 1: De Panne - Zottegem (202 km)
With 13 categorised climbs, this stage is the place for the weaker time-triallists to get a buffer. There are the famous ascents of the Leberg and the Valkenburg. A group was pulled clear on this stage last year, and the stage was won by Peter Sagan. A similar result is foreseeable this year, despite the lack of Sagan.
Should I care: Yes. Cobbled climbs aplenty.
Who will win: Magnus Cort. He was impressive in Strade Bianche, and if a selection of 15 riders gets away near the end, he may be the fastest in it.
Thursday, April 2: Stage 3b: De Panne (14.3 km)
This is where the race gets decided every year. A 14 kilometre time trial, in the town of Tijdrit. This used to be the terrain of Sylvain Chavanel when he raced for Quickstep, but he's not here. Nor is the winner last year, Maciej Bodnar. There are actually very few time-triallists here this year, just two well known ones: Bradley Wiggins and Luke Durbridge. In anything but the likely scenario of him crashing and breaking his collarbone, he should win. Can Durbridge challenge him? Unlikely. Here last year he was 4th. BMC also send some young ones, Stefan Kueng and Campbell Flakemore.
Should I care: If you care about the GC.
Who will win: Bradley Wiggins to win his last TT for Team SKY.
Who'll take this home?
The race will be decided on stages 1 and 3b, with the latter being more influential than the former. However, classics guys like the defending champion Guillaume Van Keirsbulck will have to attack Wiggins and Durbridge on stage 1 if they intend to take home the jersey. Moderate crosswinds and dry weather are forecast for the area during the week, advantaging Wiggins. Classics guys with a decent TT: Mini-Boonen (who weighs 4 kilos more than the original), Yves Lampaert, Stijn Devolder and
Yves Lampaert. Lampaert was very impressive in the brutal Ronde van Zeeland, and unless he's stuck with domestique duty, it's clear to see that he'll put his form to good use. In the only TT they have both competed in this year, Lampaert beat the defending champion Van Kiersbulck when they both were clearly gunning for it. He should get ahead of Wiggins on the first stage, and he should defend his advantage.