The 3-Days of DePanne begins today, offering procrastinators one last chance to cram before Sundayâ€™s major examâ€”the Tour of Flanders. This 3-day, 4-stage event offers something for everyone: a long, hilly pre-Ronde reconnaissance stage; two stages for sprinters; and the traditional short, time trial finale.
Before Milan-San Remo, I spoke about certain races following scripts; hereâ€™s the script for DePanne:
–Breakaway or small group (possibly containing one or more contenders for the Ronde) wins hilly first stage, creating GC time-gaps.
–Despite several ridersâ€™ best efforts, Stage 2 ends in a field sprint.
–Stage 3a ends in another field sprint, after which the majority of riders not inside the top-20 head home early.
–Stage 3b time trial is won by a specialist, and the race overall goes to the best time trialist from Stage 1â€™s breakaway or small group.
So without further ado, letâ€™s take a look at this yearâ€™s contenders.
Liquigas returns to the race with last yearâ€™s winner, Frederik Willems, supported by a strong cast including sprinters Daniele Bennati and Francesco Chicchi and all-rounders Manuel Quinziato and Daniele Oss. I could easily see Bennati and Chicchi taking a stage or two and Quinziato possibly going for the overall win should he make the break in Stage 1. Oss rode a superb Ghent-Wevelgem Sundayâ€”heâ€™s one to watch as well.
Omega Pharma-Lotto enters DePanne with both Phillippe Gilbert and Leif Hoste hoping to cram a bit more form into their legs before Flanders and Roubaix. For Gilbert, the race is little more than a tune-up, one final chance to test himself on terrain similar to Sundayâ€™s. As for Hoste, he seriously needs some training, and perhaps a result to ease some of the pressure his team currently faces. He won this race in 2006â€”a repeat performance would certainly be a welcome sight for one of few teams not to have won a race yet this year.
HTC-Columbia is leaving Ghent-Wevelgem winner Bernhard Eisel home this week, bringing a young, but talented squad to DePanne. Marcel Sieberg and Peter Velits should continue to impress, while Bert Grabsch has the talent to win Thursdayâ€™s ITT. Iâ€™ll have my eye on Jan Ghyselinck, a talented young Belgian who might put on a show for the home fans.
Quick Stepâ€™s bringing a team comprised largely of domestiques and rouleurs, inevitably hoping one or two will rise to the challenge of getting Boonen a win on Sunday. All eyes will be on Stijn Devolder as he makes one final attempt to find the form that saw him win the last two editions of the Ronde. Heâ€™s faced consistent criticism in the press, especially from his own boss, Patrick Lefevereâ€”today begins his last chance for redemption. Heâ€™s won this race before thoughâ€”he at least has that going for him.
As for Astana, they bring the bulk of their classics team to the race including former stage winner Enrico Gasparotto. With Maxim Iglinsky and Allan Davis, thereâ€™s the potential for multiple stage wins and possibly the overall title for the aggressive Kazakh squad.
Katushaâ€™s another team not leaving anything to chance, bringing Filippo Pozzato, Sergei Ivanov, and Robbie McEwan. Pozzato won a difficult Stage1 last year and almost took home the overall titleâ€”he always deserves mention. McEwen could take a victory on Stages 2 and 3a if things go well. This teamâ€™s biggest goal: keep Pozzato out of trouble. DePanneâ€™s notorious for crashes; a fall for Pippo would be disastrous.
As for Garmin, theyâ€™re a team that might be looking for the overall win. Tyler Farrarâ€™s well-suited to each of the three mass-start stages, and can certainly hold his own well enough in a time trial to win the overall title. With Johan Vansummeren, Martijn Maaskant, and Robbie Hunter riding in support, Farrar has to be considered a top favorite. And donâ€™t forget David Millar. Fresh from his ITT win in the Criterium International, Thursdayâ€™s race against the clock certainly suits him.
Poor Lampreâ€”we havenâ€™t mentioned them once this classics season. That said, this is a race where they could grab a win. Danilo Hondo and Angelo Furlan are candidates for a field sprint, while Simon Spilak is always a threat from a breakaway.
On to BMC and another rider hoping DePanne will provide a glimpse of the winning form heâ€™s displayed in the past: Alessandro Ballan. BMCâ€™s beginning to reveal itâ€™s potential with both Marcus Burghardt and George Hincapie delivering impressive performances over the weekendâ€”now itâ€™s Ballanâ€™s turn to add a piece to the puzzle. If he can hit his peak in time for the following two Sundayâ€™s, thus joining his two teammates at a high level, this will be a tough team to overlook. Ballan won DePanne in 2007 then won Flanders 3 days later. If he shows himself to be among the best between now and Thursday, weâ€™ll have to take him seriously.
As for the rest of the teams taking the start, there are several highlights worth mentioning:
1. Skil-Shimano is hoping Kenny Van Hummel can send a message to the ASO with a stage win or two, while Dominique Cornu is an outside threat for the ITT.
2. Vacansoleil, another team left-off the Tourâ€™s invite list, brings Bobbie Traksel and Borut Borzic. Borzic could easily take Stages 2 and 3a.
3. Acqua & Saponeâ€™s Luca Paolini has been riding at a high level since Milan-San Remo. Could DePanne give him the win heâ€™s been seeking?
4. Landbouwkredietâ€™s Davey Commeyne has made an impressive switch from cyclocross to roadâ€”look for him to continue to make strides this week.
5. BBoxâ€™s William Bonnet and Steve Chainel have put in some impressive performances as of lateâ€”watch for them this week.
6. Jens Keukelaire and Cofidis are both hoping for a win in DePanne, thus proving the young Belgian has what it takes to win against top competition.
7. Italyâ€™s best chance for a win or two in DePanne might actually come from Colnago and Sasha Modolo, the 4th-place finisher in Milan-San Remo. Several sprinters have used DePanne to take their first big wins against tough foreign competitionâ€”with Mattia Gavazzi providing lead-outs, I think Modoloâ€™s coming-out party will continue here.
8. And last but not least, we cannot forget An Postâ€™s Nico Eeckhout and Topsport Vlaanderenâ€™s Sep Vanmarcke, two riders at the opposite ends of their careers. Vanmarckeâ€™s ridden incredibly well over the past 10 days; Iâ€™m eager to see if he can continue to mix it up with the big boys in DePanne.
And my final prediction? I think Tyler Farrar will take the overall title over Quinziato with Gasparotto, Bennati, Modolo, and David Millar taking the stage winsâ€”in that order.
What about you? Share your comments below.