Preview: Sprinters set for De Panne showdown

With many of the top classics riders sitting out, the sprinters — and Peter Sagan — take center stage at De Panne

GENT, Belgium (VN) — Sprinters and time trialists will take center stage on the windy flats of western Flanders in Driedaagse De Panne (Three Days of De Panne) this week.

Starting Tuesday and ending Thursday with a split stage that typically decides the GC, four legs packed into three hard days of racing offer a chance for riders to hone their form ahead of the Ronde van Vlaanderen, though many of the Tour of Flanders favorites are steering clear this week.

One exception is Peter Sagan, who confirmed he’s on top form by winning E3 Harelbeke on Friday and placing third in Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday.

“[This] week will be very important to prepare for the Ronde,” Sagan said Sunday. “The results I achieved in Harelbeke and today in Gent-Wevelgem prove that the condition is good. I’m confident to be able to perform well and my team, too.”

Several big names are skipping the race, including Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), who is recovering from a crash at E3 Harelbeke.

Another missing name is that of two-time defending champion Sylvain Chavanel. Team officials at IAM Cycling told VeloNews that the team passed on a chance to race this week in order to focus on the upcoming cobblestones classics. Other teams, such as Garmin-Sharp, Trek Factory Racing, Belkin, and BMC Racing, are also not taking part.

That opens the door for a mixed field of UCI ProTeams, Pro Continental squads, and Continental teams to hone some pre-Flanders form, pick up some victories, and challenge for the overall.

A quality field of sprinters will be battling across the windy flats and cobblestone patches for bragging rights. One exception is André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol), who dislocated his collarbone in a crash Sunday at Gent-Wevelgem. The German sprinter underwent surgery, and is expected to miss several weeks of racing.

Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano) will return to racing Tuesday, and will be keen for at least one victory ahead of a defense of his title at Scheldeprijs next week. Giant’s Gent-Wevelgem winner John Degenkolb is skipping the mid-week tune-up in order to rest up for Flanders.

Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), who was forced to miss Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem with fever, announced Tuesday that he was unable to start.

“I’m really disappointed,” said Cavendish. “Sunday I felt better, and I was able to train well, but Sunday night I was sick again and had diarrhea. I decided to come to the race anyway, hoping that the situation would improve, but I started vomiting and having diarrhea again [Monday] night, at about 2 a.m. I’m in no shape to start, especially because I can’t eat or drink anything. After Sanremo I wanted to continue to get some good results and ride well both at Gent-Wevelgem and here at the Driedaagse. It really is a big disappointment not to be able to race.”

Kittel won the first round in Dubai, where he took top honors in all three sprint stages, but he suffered at Tirreno-Adriatico last month, not even contesting a sprint, while Cavendish kicked to victory in stage 6.

Other sprinters toeing the line include Milano-Sanremo winner Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), Sacha Modolo (Lampre-Merida), Gent-Wevelgem runner-up Arnaud Démare (, and Andrea Guardini (Astana). John Murphy and Alessandro Bazzana will mix it up in the sprints as part of Unitedhealthcare’s classics program.

The absence of major time trialists, such as former winners Chavanel and Garmin-Sharp’s David Millar, opens the door for opportunists in the overall. Orica-GreenEdge should have good chances in the GC, bringing time trialists Luke Durbridge and Michael Hepburn to the race.

Riders such as Kristoff, second last year to Chavanel by 22 seconds, and Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma), third last year, will line up with GC aspirations as well.

Strong wind is the distinctive feature of De Panne, held over the flatter plains of western Flanders along the wide-open Belgian coast. Some of the cobblestone climbs featured in the cobbled classics are also tackled during the three-day race.

Stage 1 starts in De Panne and finishes in Zottegem, with the second day heading from Zottegem to Koksijde. Thursday’s final day of racing is split into two, with a morning circuit race in De Panne, followed by a 14.3-kilometer individual time trial in the afternoon that invariably crowns the winner.

Dating back to the late 1970s, the key to winning De Panne is staying upright and avoiding echelons before nailing it in the final TT.

2014 Driedaagse De Panne (April 1-3)

Stage 1: La Panne — Zottegem (201km)
Stage 2: Zottegem — Koksijde (205km)
Stage 3a: De Panne — De Panne (109km)
Stage 3b: De Panne — De Panne (14.3km ITT)