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Gilbert back to defend title at Brabantse Pijl

With a course that favors climbers who can sprint out of a small bunch, Wednesday's race should favor riders who live for the Ardennes races

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With John Degenkolb and the rest of the cobble-bashers cooling their jets following two weeks of hard racing across the pavé, a different profile of rider steps to center stage — leaner, lighter, and faster for when the grade pitches upward. It’s time to switch gears into the Ardennes classics.

Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race is backed up by Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the “doyenne” of the hilly spring classics, the following weekend.

To ease the transition from cobbles to the hills is Wednesday’s Brabantse Pijl, a one-day battle geographically located, appropriately enough, between Flanders and Wallonia.

Two-time winner and defending champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) headlines a solid start list that blends WorldTour and second-tier teams.

The 55th edition of the race, also called Flèche Brabançonne, officially closes the Flemish classics. The route features a finishing circuit and is far from flat, with 26 climbs along the 205.4km course that winds from Leuven to Overijse.

The race starts in the bar-lined Grote Markt in the region’s capital of Leuven, a bustling college town. There are a dozen climbs until the peloton hits three, 23.4km circuits, with five climbs per lap.

The race favors a fast kicker who can get up the climbs and win out of a reduced bunch sprint, so it’s no surprise that such riders as Oscar Freire and Peter Sagan have won here over the past decade.

“The race is a pretty predictable race, especially because the weather forecast is optimistic. In the first loop, there shouldn’t be an escape of a big group or a group with teammates of the favorites. Probably the peloton will be still big and racing at high speed at the beginning of the circuit. From that moment on, it will be an elimination race. Because of all the climbs on the route, it will be hard to get back in the race once you had to let go,” said Lotto-Soudal sport director Bart Leysen. “I think there is only one favorite: Philippe Gilbert. BMC will have to control the race and he will be the man to beat. Besides Gilbert, Belgians like [Jan] Bakelants, [Gianni] Meersman and foreigners [Michael] Matthews and [Thomas] Voeckler will be present.”

Lotto-Soudal will line up with Tony Gallopin, and as Leyden mentioned, riders such as Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge), Jan Bakelandts (Ag2r La Mondiale), and Wilco Kelderman (LottoNL-Jumbo) will be in the mix.

Ten WorldTour teams start out of the field of 25 squads, meaning that the professional continental teams will be riding for a big result ahead of the Ardennes classics.

In 2011, Gilbert won Brabantse en route to sweeping all three Ardennes classics. Last year, he won again ahead of claiming another victory at Amstel Gold. Will three times be a charm for Gilbert?