And it begins…
The most wonderful time of the season is once again upon us, starting with tomorrow’s 70th running of Dwars door Vlaanderen. Dwars is a terrific race for many reasons, and it’s always worth watching if you have the time. Here are five riders I’ll be keeping an eye during tomorrow’s event, both for the win and as a predictor of bigger things to come.
Niki Terpstra (Etixx—Quick-Step)
Were I to choose a 5-Stone Favorite for Dwars this year, I’d look no further than the rider who has won two of the last three editions. After winning the Tour of Qatar in February (again), he rode well in the Omloop (again) despite failing to win the race (again).He then had a trouble-free Paris-Nice (a good thing) and skipped Milan-San Remo (probably a good thing) to stay closer to home and race Saturday’s Ronde van Zeeland where he gifted the win to his hard-working teammate, Iljo Keisse. But there will be no more gifts for his teammates, as Terpstra has a chance to ride for himself all the way through Roubaix. Expect him to start things off with another fine performance tomorrow—and if he doesn’t deliver it, look for it instead on Friday in the E3 Prijs.
Matti Breschel (Tinkoff-Saxo)
Dwars is a race that often announces the arrival of a new cobbled Classics contender, and that’s exactly what everyone thought had happened in 2010 when Breschel won the race for Saxo Bank. But lieutenants don’t always make the best captains—especially in one day races as difficult as the Classics, and Breschel failed to deliver as Rabobank’s protected rider. He’s been back at Saxo since 2013 though, and the arrival of Peter Sagan is perhaps the best thing that could have happened to him. Now, no one’s counting on Breschel to score a big win this spring, which means he can race with little to lose. And his form has been terrific: he scored two top-10s in Paris-Nice and finished a respectable 12th in Milan-San Remo on Sunday. And before you go asking if the Dane has enough left in his legs to win one more important race before calling it a career, remember that he’s only 30-years-old.
Jens Debusschere (Lotto-Belisol)
When Debusschere won the Belgian Road Race Championship last June, a lot of folks said, “Who?” And with good reason. The 25-year-old has certainly enjoyed a quiet start to his career, and has been overshadowed by other young Belgians like Sep Vanmarcke and Tim Wellens. But Debusschere is for real. In addition to his national championship victory, he won the Kampioenschap van Vlaanderen and the Tour de l’Eurométropole (formerly the Circuit Franco-Belge) in 2013 and the Sluitingprijs in both 2013 and 2014. And this year, he took Stage 2 at Tirreno, a result that might speak more for his talent than any of the others. Debusschere was also the most consistent rider of the Belgian opening weekend, which reflects his ability to succeed in both selective races and field sprints, thus making him the perfect rider for a race like Dwars. And without Jurgen Roelandts or Andre Greipel, he’ll be his team’s protected rider.
Edward Theuns (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise)
The current leader of the UCI’s Europe Tour Ranking, Theuns reminds me of his former Topsport Vlaanderen teammate, Kenny Van Bilsen, who came into last year’s cobbled Classics wearing the white jersey thanks to a string of impressive results in the south of France and Spain earlier in the season. A rider who can handle himself both in a select group and when sprinting out of a larger peloton, Theuns has the perfect makeup for a race like Dwars. If there’s an important selection late in the race, he has the power to make it; and if it all comes back for a field sprint, he should be fine as well. If all goes according to plan, Theuns might be one or two high finishes away from scoring himself a better contract with a better team for 2016 and beyond. That could all start tomorrow.
Yves Lampaert (Etixx—Quick-Step)
Full disclosure: I’m developing a bit of a soft spot for this 23-year-old. First off, he’s an incredibly nice guy who’s willing to engage with media and fans on Twitter (like yours truly). But more importantly, he’s putting together quite an impressive resume in his first season with Etixx—Quick-Step. After taking 5th in Le Samyn, he followed it up with a stage win and the overall title at the 3-daagse van West Vlaanderen, a tough 3-day race that has produced several stars over the past few years (Degenkolb, Kwiatkowski, and Demare all have #3DWVL stage wins on their resumes). And in Zeeland on Saturday, he broke away late in the race with Theuns and took fourth—behind three of his teammates. After Terpstra, he might his team’s best card to play tomorrow.
Other Riders to Watch: Guillaume Van Keirsbulck (EQS), Lars Boom (AST), Stijn Devolder (TFR), Jempy Drucker (BMC), Tiesj Benoot (LTB), Jens Keukelaire (OGE), Dries Devenyns (IAM), Marco Marcato (WGG), Oscar Gatto (AND)
Thanks for reading and feel free to share your own riders to watch as comments below.