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Flanders Classics hegemony threatens De Panne tradition

Driedaagse De Panne, a traditional Flanders warm-up may be strong-armed into changing its dates by powerful Belgian race promoter.

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GENT, Belgium (VN) — Driedaagse De Panne celebrated Philippe Gilbert’s overall victory along the unseasonably warm Belgian coast Thursday, but this may also be the end of its 41-year chapter as the warm-up race for Tour of Flanders.

Gilbert, along with past greats like Michele Bartoli, Johan Museeuw, and George Hincapie, used Three Days of De Panne as final Flanders prep. That tradition could stop in 2018.

According to several in the cycling-mad area, organizer Flanders Classics is pushing out the three-day race to have the Wednesday spot free for its one-day race Dwars door Vlaanderen. In 2018, it could have a run of events: Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday, Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday and its crown jewel, the Tour of Flanders, on Sunday.

Of course, Flanders Classics also has the Scheldeprijs the Wednesday after Flanders and Brabantse Pijl the next Wednesday following Paris-Roubaix, run by Tour de France organizer ASO.

Yves Lampaert (Quick-Step Floors) won this year’s Dwars door Vlaanderen, which ran March 22, the Wednesday two days before E3 Harelbeke.

The Flanders Classics power-play leaves little space for the Three Days of De Panne, organized by KVC Panne Sportief and for 41 years, sitting in the precious pre-Flanders spot.

“It’s pure tradition,” director Bruno Dequeecker told Belgian daily Het Nieuwsblad last month. “I don’t see how another organizer from the same country, the same region and with the same type of race can suddenly claim our date.”

De Panne could perhaps swap with Dwars door Vlaanderen, moving to the Tuesday through Thursday prior to Friday’s E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday. It would need to come to an agreement with the E3 Harelbeke, which KWC Hand in Hand organizes.

The smaller De Panne and E3 Harelbeke organizers are seemingly at Flanders Classics’s mercy. The Belgian organizer is one of cycling’s big three, alongside ASO and RCS Sport.

The E3 Harelbeke at least has leverage thanks to its WorldTour status. De Panne sits just a level below as a 2.HC race and suffers somewhat as a result. Teams are either too busy with other races or their riders too tired between WorldTour events to bother with De Panne. It is not only the classics, but teams must prepare for major races like País Vasco starting the Monday after Flanders.

The 2017 De Panne start list looked like a colander with its many holes. Orica-Scott began with only six men. Its star Jens Keukeleire, second in Gent-Wevelgem behind Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), pulled out after the first day to prepare for the Tour of Flanders. Other big teams like Sky, BMC, and Dimension Data did not bother to attend.

Teams must conserve their energy for the top races, specifically the ones with valuable WorldTour points. This year, the UCI added 10 new WorldTour events to its calendar. Reportedly, part of the reason Flanders Classics applied for, and received, WorldTour status for Dwars door Vlaanderen was so that it could make its push for the pre-Tour of Flanders Wednesday date.

BMC Racing said that its star Van Avermaet is cherry-picking top WorldTour events for points and resting wisely in the week between.

“He’s not wasting energy [racing and winning Gent-Wevelgem] because we still have a week to rest before Flanders,” sport director Fabio Baldato told VeloNews.

“With the new UCI rules, races like Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem are very important just like Flanders and Paris Roubaix. And that’s with all respect to Flanders and Roubaix, because they are something special.”

Cycling’s governing body will announce the 2018 calendar this fall, but the unseasonably warm breeze seems to have blown in a change across the Flemish fields. Flanders Classics, according to some insiders, already made the deal with the Belgian cycling federation.

The Three Days of De Panne must find a new date or fight Goliath. It may go with the latter as Dequeecker said that he would take the rival organizer to court if necessary to protect his race’s pre-Flanders date.