The 35th KBC Driedaagse van De Panne-Koksijde began today with Stage 1 of the four-stage/three-day event. The final warm-up for many riders before this Sundayâ€™s Tour of Flanders, De Panne has increasingly seen less of the Rondeâ€™s top favorites take part as they choose to avoid risking an event often known for flu-causing weather and Ronde-ruining crashes. Instead, second-tier contenders and sprinters participate, hoping to score one final win before relegated to supporting roles Sunday.
Of the major contenders for the Ronde Sunday, Vacansoleilâ€™s Stijn Devolder, Katushaâ€™s Filippo Pozzato, and BMCâ€™s Alessandro Ballan all lined-up today. Devolder and Ballan won De Panne in 2005 and 2007, respectively, making the Italian the last De Panne winner to win the Tour of Flanders in the same week.
Vacansoleilâ€™s Lieuwe Westra is my pick to win this yearâ€™s raceâ€”he finished second today and is by far one of the eventâ€™s better time trialistsâ€”although Devolderâ€™s not be ignored either. Lottoâ€™s Andre Greipel won the sprint at the end of todayâ€™s Stage 1 after spending much of the finale off the frontâ€”he could easily add another win or two to his tally. As for tomorrow and Thursday morning, also look for HTCâ€™s John Degenkolb and Rabobankâ€™s Michael Matthews to continue their budding rivalry. Thursday afternoonâ€™s time trial should be Westraâ€™s chance to take the leaderâ€™s jersey, while Skyâ€™s Bradley Wiggins, RadioShackâ€™s Jesse Sergeant, and UnitedHealthcareâ€™s Scott Zwizanski should challenge him for the stage victory.
As for Devolder, Pozzato, and Ballan? I wouldnâ€™t be surprised to see them in a break tomorrowâ€”just to test their legs. But for them, the real test comes Sunday.
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