Ok. I’ll admit to the click-baity nature of that headline. But please don’t stop reading yet. I swear it may be true.
In some alternate universe, the Scheldeprijs could have been a monument. This, not the Ronde, is the oldest Belgian road race, running from 1907 to only be interrupted by wars of the World variety. It has been won by Belgian royalty - Briek Schotte, Rik Van Looy, Roger De Vlaeminck, Eddy Merckx, and Tom Boonen. It is the last spring classic that is actually raced in Belgium. The entire classics season could have all been leading to a crescendo at Scheldeprijs.
Instead, the Scheldeprijs is like ending Beethoven’s 5th with a wet fart. It’s a guaranteed bunch sprint on a completely flat course with the only “excitement” being whether a mass crash will ruin the race and season of some of the riders. It’s a race that noted glamour sprinter Marcel Kittel has won five of the last six years. Calling it the “unofficial sprinters’ championship” is just putting lipstick on this schwein.
As such, this race is oft greeted with about as much enthusiasm by the cobble-obsessed masses as attending a dry wedding. You’re sorta obligated to show up, but you won’t be staying long- particularly with the Paris-Roubaix bacchanal looming in a few days.
However, I’m here to try to get you excited about this dry wedding. Your dirty old uncle Flanders Classics is going to be sneaking in a bunch of booze and I hear the bridesmaids and groomsmen are podium girl/guy material.
This year, Flanders Classics has changed the course and not in a mere symbolic way like last year where they had the race start in Boonen’s hometown. This year, the race will start near the coast in the the Dutch town of Terneuzen and then go through the Zeeland region before crossing into Belgium only some 130 kilometers later where it will end with three laps of the typical Schoten circuit. The province of Zeeland is the same area that played host to stage 2 of the 2015 Tour de France where Nairo Quintana and other favorites lost a minute and a half and, ultimately, the race due to the peloton being blown apart by the seaside wind.
The forecast for Wednesday looks promising. Rain and a stiff wind of 15 to 25 mph blowing from the southwest. In other words, crosswinds during the majority of the race as it runs west to east across Zeeland. Then, more crosswinds during a large portion of the oblong finishing circuit. There will be echelons, but will any team be able to take advantage and leave Kittel behind?
For the so-called sprint world championship, there are an awful lot of big name sprinters missing. You won’t find Mark Cavendish, Andre Greipel, Alexander Kristoff, Fernando Gaviria, Elia Viviani, Caleb Ewan, John Degenkolb, Peter Sagan, Michael Matthews, or Nacer Bouhanni contesting this “championship.” Instead, you’ll find a three way battle between Marcel Kittel, Dylan Groenewegen, and Arnaud Demare.
With no wind, Marcel Kittel would be the overwhelming favorite to win his 6th Scheldeprijs. In a straight up sprint, he is still the fastest in the world. The only question is whether he’ll be in contention at the finish line. To do so, his team will need to keep him on the right side of any splits. The good news is that Kittel will have Katusha’s cobbled classic squad with him. The bad news is that Kittel will have Katusha’s cobbled classic squad.
The next fastest guy on the startlist would be Dylan Groenewegen, who already has 5 victories this year, including at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and a stage of Paris-Nice. He has some experience in Northern classics-type conditions and will have the support of Lotto Jumbo’s classics squad, including Timo Roosen and Jos Van Emden.
Arnaud Demare has looked incredibly strong this season, which so far he’s only been able to turn into one win at Paris-Nice. Demare finished 9th in Omloop, 2nd in KBK, 3rd in Milano-Sanremo, 3rd in Gent-Wevelgem, and 15th in Flanders. He can’t match Kittel for raw speed and was pretty convincingly beat by Groenewegen in KBK so he’ll need an extremely hard race that can get rid of those two before the finish line.
Betting against the boys in blue this season would be incredibly foolish. While Quickstep does not bring their A-team sprinters to this race, they have Fabio Jakobsen (winner of Nokere Koerse) and Alvaro Hodeg (winner of Handzame and Stage 1 of Volta a Catalunya). They also bring Zdenek Stybar, who if not using this race as mere warm up for Roubaix, can help Quickstep make this race extremely hard for the other sprinters. While Hodeg and Jakobsen are not yet in the same league as the big three sprinters, you have to believe that Quickstep is going to use the weather to their advantage and if either of those two are in a reduced sprint with any of the other sprinters, you have to like their chances.
Pascal Ackermann is still waiting for his first pro win. He came in 5th here last year, behind Kittel, Viviani, Bouhanni, and Roelandts. He also looked impressive last year in the European Road Race Championship in which he sprinted to a 4th place. This year he’s started even stronger, with two 3rd places in Abu Dhabi, a 3rd in Handzame, and a 2nd in Three Dogs. If he can make a split that leaves the big three behind, he could get his first win here.
Edvald Boasson Hagen has quietly looked pretty good as of late after undergoing gall bladder surgery earlier in the year. He could be the beneficiary of a very selective race in the cross wind.
Sky bring Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard to help guide Kristoffer Halvorsen to the finish. If Halvorsen can use their special skill set, like Sergio Henao was able to use Rowe last year in the windy flat stages of Paris-Nice, he could get a good result in a reduced bunch sprint, provided Rowe does not lead him into a pedestrian mall or off a dock.
Sunweb have said they are racing for Max Walscheid but would probably have better luck with Phil Bauhaus getting on the right end of the splits. Same goes for Astana, who bring Riccardo Minali for the sprint, but will have Magnus Cort in case the race gets too hard.
Other sprinters that could be in the mix include Jens Debusschere, Adam Blythe, Tom Van Asbroeck, Bert Van Lerberghe, Sondre Holst Enger, Amaury Capiot, Timothy Dupont, Kenny Dehaes, Kris Boeckmans, and Alan Banaszek.
If the race gets really selective and leaves all the sprinters behind, look to riders like Stybar, Mike Teunissen, Soren Kragh Andersen, Luke Rowe, and Timo Roosen.
I think Quickstep will have a go at breaking this race apart as it travels across Zeeland. Kittel will be on the wrong side of an echelon and have to use up Tony Martin and Nils Politt to bring the race back together. I think the race will again have a good chance of being split on the circuit around Schoten, and Kittel will miss out on being in the front group. Like betting on Quickstep, you can’t go wrong betting on the Dutch, particularly now since this once Belgian race is now mostly Dutch. I think Groenewegen survives to the end and wins by several bike lengths.