The build-up to the cobbled classics begins in earnest tomorrow with the 65th Dwars Door Vlaanderen. Formerly known as Dwars Door Belgie and the GP Stad Waregem, this semi-classic begins the peloton’s re-acclimatization to the hills and cobbles of Flanders. This year’s edition covers 200 kilometers, heading east from Roeselare toward Brakel, the hometown of the legendary Peter Van Petegem, before looping back toward Waregem. By Brakel, the race has already covered 3 of its 12 bergs, and 3 of its 11 cobbled sectors.
Dwars Door Vlaanderen is often a tough race to call. Several stars choose to skip the event, especially if it means arriving in Belgium a few days earlier. Most of the Belgian contenders take part though, as this is the beginning of the most important 3 weeks of the season for publicity and press attention. The winner here is often a young up-and-comer, a rider hoping to begin building his classics resume with a victory on traditional terrain. Sometimes we see a former star or wily veteran get the win—especially if the opportunity presents itself without the rider having to compromise his chances for the coming weekend.
This year’s start list presents several interesting options—let’s start with the obvious:
Quick Step is bringing a stacked roster to the race including Tom Boonen, Sylvain Chavanel, and Stijn Devolder. Boonen and Chavanel have already proven their form thus far; for them this race should prove to be nothing more than a stiff training ride. As for Devolder, he needs to show us something—and soon—if he wishes to be considered a candidate for a third consecutive win in the Tour of Flanders 10 days from now. Even worse, Chavanel’s form has pushed Devolder from the #2 spot on his own team—he’ll need a good result to earn back some respect. If you recall last year’s event, a Quick Step rider was the victor—but not one of the team’s “Big Three”. And while Kevin Van Impe is not starting this year, don’t be surprised if Woueter Weylandt takes the win should the race arrive in a sprint.
Quick Step’s main domestic rival, Omega Pharma-Lotto, is taking a different approach to the race, leaving it’s biggest star—Philippe Gilbert—at home. Instead, look for Jurgen Roelandts to have an opportunity to prove whether his impressive performance in last month’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was a true sign of things to come. Greg Avermaet’s listed as starting on the event’s website, but other sources have him not taking part; if he does, he’s another rider needing a good performance to remain relevant. And finally, Leif Hoste is set to race; it will be interesting to if he’s on-target for his annual rise to Paris-Roubaix favorite-status.
Moving down the start list, FDJ’s bringing a solid team to the race with Anthony Geslin, Yauheni Hutarovich, Frederic Guesdon, and Yoann Offredo all set to participate. Guesdon rode a fantatic Omloop; many would love to see him take another classic win. Anthony Geslin won the Brabantsepijl last year—he knows how to peak for this time of year. Hutarovich has to be mentioned in the event of a sprint and Offredo impressed with a powerful move in the finale of Milan-San Remo.
As for HTC-Columbia and Katusha, HTC’s Mathew Goss and Marcel Sieberg are two young talents who could announce themselves with a win in Waregem, while Katusha’s Sergei Ivanov is an in-form classics veteran who knows these roads well. Robbie McEwan takes the start too, but his best days are behind him; he’s starting merely to please his “home” fans.
Fresh from a successful weekend in Italy, Rabobank brings a talented squad to continue the winning run. Depending on where you check, Lars Boom’s racing tomorrow and has to be considered a contender if he does. Sebastien Langeveld is also someone ready to take the next step, possibly using Waregem to make his move. Most importantly, keep an eye on Nick Nuyens. I think we could see Nuyens take a big in this year, possibly in Flanders. He looked certain to contend for the win in the Omloop before an untimely puncture; let’s see if he can continue where he left-off.
As for Team Radio Shack, Geoffroy Lequatre finished well at Milan-San Remo—maybe he or his teammates Sebastien Rosseler and Tomas Vaitkus can take the team’s first Belgian win? Saxo Bank’s reported to be bringing a powerhouse of a team including Fabian Cancellara. While it’s hard to imagine Spartacus showing himself any time sooner than this weekend, Matti Breschel’s a perfect candidate for a race such as this, as well as former winner Baden Cooke and fellow Aussie Stuart O’Grady.
Team Sky brings a team hoping to build upon its first successful foray into Belgium with Omloop winner Juan Antonio Flecha taking the line in Roeselare. More likely, Team Sky might try to bring the race to a sprint with Chris Sutton and Greg Henderson forming a powerful tandem should they succeed.
And if you like dark horses, Acqua Sapone’s Luca Paolini is a good man to pick, as is Cofidis’ Jens Keukeleire, a young sprinter who’s already won several races this year. Cervelo’s been reduced to dark horses as well, thanks to Heinrich Haussler’s injury and Thor Hushovd’s absence from the roster. Consider Andreas Klier, Roger Hammond, and Jeremy Hunt the team’s best options.
Vacansoleil’s start list is also in limbo, with both Johnny Hoogerland and Borut Borzic occupying the same spot. That’s an interesting oversight; bringing both riders would seem to cover the team in both a breakaway and a field sprint.
And finally, let us never forget the persistent Nico Eeckhout of An Post. He crashed last week, but is always up to the challenge of a good semi-classic result on his home turf.
As for a prediction, I’m going to cover my bases too. In the event of a sprint, look for Keukeleire to confirm that he’s more than just a Kermesse King, nipping Henderson/Sutton and Hutarovich.
That said, I think a break’s more likely to succeed—in that event, look for Matti Breschel to take the win over Langeveld, Seiberg, and Ivanov.
And you? Who are your picks to start the cobbled classics with a win?
Share your comments below.