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Dwars door Vlaanderen becomes key Flanders tune-up

Now a key part of build-up to the Tour of Flanders, Dwars Door Vlaanderen attracts a crowd of top classics favorites.

Juggernaut organizer Flanders Classics scored a coup in moving Dwars door Vlaanderen to the Wednesday before its crown jewel, De Ronde. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors), Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates), and plenty of other big names are set to attend Wednesday’s event, to help guarantee a WorldTour-caliber day.

But first, a quick explanation of that schedule change. Traditionally, Dreidaagse De Panne was the main tune-up race held during the week before Tour of Flanders. That has changed this season because Dwars door Vlaanderen received a coveted upgrade to WorldTour status last year. Rather than square off against the now-top-tier one-day, De Panne organizers rescheduled to March 21 and downsized as well. The “Three Days” of De Panne was really just one day of racing for the elite men this year.

Fans of the erstwhile three-day event may rue the loss of a West Flanders tradition, but the news isn’t all bad. Cobbled specialists had only four WorldTour events to race in 2016. Now they have six, and if last year’s race was any indication, the upgraded race should deliver the kind of spectacle befitting a top-level event.

With apologies to De Panne, Dwars is worthy of its new spot in the week and in the sport’s top tier.

Last year’s Dwars gave Quick-Step Floors a chance to put on a show, with Yves Lampaert and Philippe Gilbert headlining a four-man escape from roughly 30 kilometers out on the Paterberg. Lampaert put in a late dig to take the win. Gilbert claimed runner-up honors.

Sounds a bit like how E3 Harelbeke played out last Friday, doesn’t it?

This year’s route has been modified to make the trek from Roselare to Waregem less challenging. Organizers dropped the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg from the parcours and shortening the total mileage as well. That opens the door for a possible bunch sprint, but expect plenty of aggressive racing on Wednesday either way.

The 180-kilometer race officially includes 12 climbs, with the Kluisberg kicking things off just after the 80-kilometer mark. Even without the Oude Kwaremont-Paterberg double, there is little respite once the up-and-down begins. The final 25 kilometers should see action, with the Vossenhol, Holstraat, and Nokereberg closing out the day’s climbing, and one flat stretch of cobbles before the finish. The forecast is calling for wet weather, which could be a boost for the motivated opportunists.

If the prospect of cobbled racing in the rain isn’t enough to draw you in, the start list should. The WorldTour bump and the new spot ahead of Tour of Flanders has many of the big stars of the pavé gearing up for the race.

Niki Terpstra

In addition to Van Avermaet, Terpstra, and Kristoff, that list includes Zdenek Stybar and defending champ Lampaert (Quick-Step Floors), Oliver Naesen (Ag2r La Mondiale), Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First-Drapac), John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo), and Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal).

Plus Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana, as well as Ag2r La Mondiale’s Romain Bardet will start. The trio of grand tour heavyweights — figuratively, that is — has made the trek to northern Europe to get in some riding on the cobblestones ahead of the Tour de France, which features cobbles in stage 9 this year.

Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) are the two notable absences from the Dwars door Vlaanderen start list. Sagan always eschewed De Panne when it enjoyed this spot on the classics calendar, and he continues that tradition by skipping Dwars. Gilbert, meanwhile, told VeloNews over the weekend that he is getting ready for his title defense at De Ronde by spending the week resting up at home in Monaco.

While the 2016 and 2017 Flanders champions are sitting Dwars out, their many rivals will have one last opportunity to make any final tune-ups before Sunday’s main event. In the process, they might just nab a WorldTour win, and beef up their palmares with a race whose stock continues to rise.