Dwars door Vlaanderen Preview
The second-to-last cobbled classic of Flandres is set to be raced this wednesday, it's the final tune-up for most of the riders, but in it's own right a very prestigious race that will be hardly fought to be conquered. It is a more open race than the Tour de Flandres, and due to it's new position in the calendar and an upgraded classification as of last year, it's attracted an even bigger field.
The race goes through the core of the Flandres region, going through some sectors of the big race itself, although having adapted a slightly less hard profile in it's recent years, having eliminated the Oude Kwaremont/Paterberg combination from it's route. Nevertheless it's still a very hard race with the classics taste, and although being in it's 73 editions no-one has been able to win the race more than twice, with only 2 riders currently racing having achieved that, those being Niki Terpstra and Yves Lampaert, both will be racing and the latter is the defending champion, having won the previous two editions.
With only a kilometer more than last year, the route is also very similar, almost identical in it's bulk, and the dificulties are more focused on the sharp paved hills that the cobbled ones, with only 6 cobbled sectors in the race and the hilly dificulties located still far from the finish, it is set to be a race of tactics and team numbers over the pure power.
The first 75 kilometers only present a short cobbled sector regarding the dificulties, as they are almost completely flat. The first acent in the Nieuwe Kwaremont precedes another portion of flat riding, so the real combination of bergs will only begin 30 Km later. The Kluisberg starts off the combination, the first passing through the Knokteberg follows quickly followed by the Kortekeer, and after come the first vital cobbled sectors.
The Steenbeekdries will warm things up, but it is 2 kilometers later in the Taaienberg where we will likely see the first big selection. It's 800 meters long at an average gradient of 7.2%, but it's most vicious part in the opening ramp rises to 18%, alongside a road narrowing.
The steep stretch is familiar to seeing some big names attack, but the dangerous attacks come in the cobbles after the 18%, where those who still have the legs after a full-on effort can make the difference if no-one is able to counter-attack and the chase takes time to re-organize, which is a regular scenario in this type of racing.
The route then follows some ondulating roads, passing the rough Hotond climb with 8.1% gradient for 600 meters, but the descent afterwards leaves the riders in another crucial spot in the race.
That is, the Knokteberg. It is 1.1Km long with an average gradient of 8% and a maximum of 13%. Last year the scenario in it was an attack by Tiesj Benoot and Greg van Avermaet, with no cobblestones it's a climb that may suit the lighter riders, unlike some of the sections that had been and are yet to be raced. But it is the final notable hill in the route, so no matter th situation there will be riders looking to make an accelaration here, trying to dispatch the faster riders.
After the hard sectors stop coming thick and fast. A cobbled sector is then followed by the Vossenhol and the Holstraat, but none of those are serious dificulties, only a very hard race until that point or a very different type of rider can make gaps in relation to the others.
The final dificulty in terms of gradient and cobbles comes in the form of the Nokereberg, not the hardet of climbs in the route, but it's the final opportunity to create gaps on the base of pure power. It's also familiar to having big names attack, the Nokereberg is most famous for it's presence in the finish of the Nokere Koerse, and it's a mild 6% during 350 meters.
From there on the race still goes through a cobbled sector, the Herlegemstraat is only 800 meters long though so it would take a massive attack to pull clear from a group in here. This final sector is only a mere 5 kilometers away from the finish though so it can provide for a springboard for a race-defining attack.
For the relief of those who raced Gent-Wevelgem the race won't have a crushing presence of the wind. The short speed of the wind will mean it will surely have very little influence in the race, a southern wind still means that there will be tailwind for most of the last 20 kilometers, with a crosswind clearly sweeping through the final kilometers, into the finish in Waregem.
Perhaps not so relieving is the sky's forecast, as there is prediction of rain for the night previous to the race, meaning it's a possibility to have slippery roads and cobbled sectors. As for the race itself there's no race of it being affected by the rain, but it is a very real possibility as rain showers are predicted to hit the race in it's bulk.
As a cobbled classic and a traditional Flandrien route, the riders we can expect to be targeting the win in the race are very familiar, and have been riding in belgium for the last few days.
As custom we have a favourite team. Not a rider, a team really. The truth Deceuninck-Quickstep have been implementing us for ages already is that they have several riders capable of winning a race like this. Although their apparent main man Zdenek Stybar won't be lining up, saving his legs for Sunday's race, the team will be packed with contenders. Yves Lampaert must be the first name on the list, reigning back-to-back champion, he'll be looking to defend his title. But the team won't certainly focus on just him, Phillipe Gilbert has been adopting a more domestique role this season with such quality emerging on the team, but it is a race that suits his carachteristics very well. The other rider to watch out is Bob Jungels, he's been one of the revelations of the season in this terrain, winning Kuurne-Bruxels-Kuurne and putting an impressive performance last friday in E3 Binckbank. The race favours long-range attacks and Jungels is exactly the type of rider who can be successful in such situation.
Headlining the competition will be the Belgian armada. Not to be mistaken, Deceuninck are also headlined by Belgians, but the competition is also from the area. Greg van Avermaet has yet to raced to a podium in this race, and it's one of the few missing in his palmares, Oliver Naesen has been on the podium on Milano-Sanremo and Gent-Wevelgem recently, both those riders are very agressive and have a very strong sprint in relation to most the other contenders. Tiesj Benoot is familiar with the race and likes it's hilly approach, he's a rider who can benefit greatly from the steep inclines that come often.
Jasper Stuyven has shown Sunday good signs of form after an unlucky spring so far, Trek overall showed a much better performance than before, it's believed that they should be coming into form just at the right time, Stuyven is a powerful rider that should like the final portion of the race, that will certainly be packed with attacking action. Sep Vanmarcke crashed hard on friday, being on the startlist shows he is apt to racing, his form is less defined but he should nevertheless be one to watch.
Past winner of the race Jens Debusschere and Jens Keukeleire have had an impressive run in the classics so far, both are showing good form and both have a very strong sprint, in case of a less attacked race, or an anticipation attack can lead to one of them being in the very end of the race, where they can become a serious threat at their rivals.
Niki Terpstra has won here two times in the past, his lack of teammates this season in relation to last season may be a point less for him, but Sunday he had Adrien Petit and Anthony Turgis in the decisive selection with him, Damien Gaudin and Pim Lightart have also shown good signs this season so he is set to have a good support. Alberto Bettiol and Sebastian Langeveld make for a very dangerous duo that have given grea signs this spring, if Vanmarcke shows his best legs EF can have a deadly combination to play with, aswell as Mathieu van der Poel, who can be a very dangerous rider depending on how he races and depending on the support he can get.
Alejandro Valverde can come as another joker. Last year he finished 11th and showed tremendous strenght in the bergs. The route being almost the same this year he will remain a threat and someone who can't be given much a gap. Nills Pollit another big threat, he thrives on the type of weather that the riders will race on, and has a very powerful engine and an equally strong sprint, he is surely a wildcard for the race, a win from him wouldn't come as a surprise.
Team Sky also bring a strong squad. Designated classics leader Dylan van Baarle has recovered from a recent injury and looks set for a late classics stint, Luke Rower has been impressive the last few weeks so it's not a one-card team. With Ian Stannard, Owain Doull and Gianni Moscon in support there's no knowing what they can do.
Despite being a hard race, the sprinter type of rider deserve a big mention. Sonny Colbrelli is one of those whose been showing better signs this season, he is set as Bahrain-Merida's leader alongside Matej Mohoric. Mike Teunissen perhaps the other all-rounder to consider a win favourite, he was 2nd last year behind Lampaert, and recently showed tremendous power in Gent-Wevelgem.
Alexander Kristoff, Fernando Gaviria and Jasper Phillipsen in the UAE Emirates squad, it's useless to say they will be looking to have a compact race, Kristoff is perhaps the most looked-out for after his surprising win Sunday, but the other two will also do their share in trying to hold on as best they can in the rugged Belgian roads.
Pascal Ackermann and Arnaud Démare are two other sprinters, they have very different skillsets and Démare is the one to look out the most, but Ackermann will have the team behind him and packs one of the strongest in the pack. With Jempy Drucker in the team Bora have a viable second option who can also sprint very well. Danny van Poppel and Luka Mezgec are two other riders with a very good sprint that like this type of racing. Mezgec is an outsider but he'll have the chance to lead the team which may be the decisive factor in seeing him in the front of the race. And never to be discarted is neo-pro Cees Bol, who will constantly have expectations on his back over his surprise win in Nokere.
The Pro Continental teams also bring good riders in terms of sprinting, most noticeably Cristophe Laporte and Bryan Coquard, two sprinters who can handle the classics dificulties well, with Tom van Asbroeck another outsider.
Deceuninck - The headline team. No surprise that they're the ones to beat, unlike Gent-Wevelgem they should adopt again an offensive strategy, and they don't lack the cards to race like that.
CCC/Lotto Soudal/AG2R/Direct Energie/EF - The teams with the main competitors. Most of the riders who will be atacking the hardest sectors should be from these teams, the real threat comes from them.
Sky/Movistar/Trek/Corendon - These teams have strong leaders, but they aren't rated as high, doubts over form or team support is the main issue with them, but in the right scenario we could see a rider from them win.
Jumbo-Visma/Bahrain/Katusha - The three teams that want an attacked race, but at the same time somewhat compact, as with Colbrelli/Debusschere/Teunissen, they should want a bigger group to make it to the end where they can capitalize their chances the most.
Bora/UAE/FDJ - These are the ones who should completely focus on a sprint finish. Plenty of sprinters between them, the strongers indeed come from them so they should be racing more defensively, and will try to have alliances.
Mitchelton/Sunweb - Outsider sprinters from these two, Bol/Mezgec are certainly not two names who you'd expect to see winning, but they are very viable options, so they should look out for them well and try to play their cards the best in the end.
Dimension Data/Astana - Yes this includes Michael Valgren, but he hasn't shown good form in March, doubts are flooding him and these two teams need a lucky strike to be in the fight for a good result, they'll be hoping for an unexpected race situation or try to focus on getting some riders in the break.
Cofidis/Vital Concept/Israel/Wanty - All of them in Pro Continental level but all of them lead by solid sprinters who can race the classics very well. Laporte/Coquard/van Asbroeck/Dupont/Pasqualon are all riders to watch, and try to prevent to take them to the finish.
Sport Vlaanderen - The home team, a very agressive one but this year they lack the names to contest the race, breakaway should be it's focus and the results will be an unrealistic expectation.
⭐ Benoot, Valverde, Terpstra, Langeveld, van Baarle, Rowe, Kristoff, Démare, van der Poel, Stuyven
It's a very dificult race to predict, strategy and sense of opportunity will be the most important factors when it comes to the decisive time, the race's hard sections aren't that many, so the win must come from a team with good numbers, EF is the case. Bettiol and Langeveld have been riding amazingly, and Bettiol is a rider with the right set of skills needed to win this race. A bit of an outsider but he's my call.
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