Flanders faves cool jets, leaving Dwars wide open
The 179km race starts in Roeselare and ends in Waregem, with 11 climbs and four sectors of cobbles along the way. Most editions feature a reduced bunch sprint, with the Knokteberg at 113km a key climb. Forecasters are calling for cooler temperatures and a chance of afternoon showers.
“A reduced bunch sprint is likely, but a lot depends on the weather,” said Lotto-Soudal sport director Frederik Willems. “The forecast doesn’t seem great, which may cause a dangerous start as well as a fast finale.”
Last year’s race was held in a tempest, with Yves Lampaert winning out of a reduced bunch to defend his title. Since its upgrade to WorldTour status, the race moved into its current slot between Gent-Wevelgem and the Ronde van Vlaanderen. That’s upped the prestige, but it also means a few top names steer clear of its challenge.
With so much on the line Sunday at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, several of the top-line favorites are not starting. Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team), Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Zdenek Stybar (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) and Wout van Aert (Visma-Jumbo) are all skipping Dwars after a hard-fought E3 BinckBank Classic and Gent-Wevelgem to be as fresh as possible for the demands of the Ronde.
“E3 and Gent-Wevelgem were two very demanding races,” said CCC sport director Fabio Baldato. “In order to optimize the recovery, we decided together with Greg [Van Avermaet] that he will not race Dwars.”
That should mean it will be a tug-of-war between other top stars as chances to win a major Flemish classic decrease with the passing of each day.
Even without Stybar, Deceuninck-Quick-Step will still line up with a powerful team anchored by two-time defending champion Lampaert and Philippe Gilbert.
Other favorites will include Oliver Naesen (Ag2r La Mondiale), Niki Terpstra (Direct Energie), Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal), Gent-Wevelgem winner Alexander Kristoff and Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates), and Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo).
Another name to watch is world cyclocross champion Mathieu van der Poel (Correnden-Circus), hot off his impressive fourth-place WorldTour debut at Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday.
“I’m happy about my race, but I think this is the hardest race I’ve ever done,” van der Poel told Sporza. “I am satisfied with my fourth place, but a podium spot wasn’t impossible. It was a hectic sprint, so I couldn’t really sprint full-speed. I think this race was a perfect preparation for the next days.”
Also, reigning world road champion Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) returns, following his 11th-place debut last year on the pavé. Valverde will use Wednesday as a warm-up ahead of his first career start in Sunday’s Tour of Flanders.
“What’s so impressive is that these big talents like Alejandro [Valverde] are capable of anything, including on the first try,” Movistar teammate Imanol Erviti told Marca. “What would be normal is that he won’t be able to stay with the big specialists, but they will show him the respect that he’s earned.”
Another rider whose Flanders fate hangs in the balance is Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First), who crashed into a ditch during Harelbeke on Friday and injured a knee. Team officials said Vanmarcke would not race Wednesday and might not be able to start the Ronde. A decision will likely not be made until Saturday.
EF Education First will likely see Taylor Phinney return to racing Wednesday after he sat out Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem to rest a sore right knee. Alberto Bettiol and Sebastian Langeveld also race Wednesday.
So who will win? A lot depends on the weather, but Quick-Step will be trying to swarm the peloton. An on-form rider like Naesen or UAE Team Emirates’s Kristoff could tip the apple cart, carrying speed out of a reduced bunch.