– Preported by Briggs Heaney –
30th KBC-Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde
The Italian will use De Panne again this year to prepare for the defense of his Flanders crown, looking to ignite his Italian fans with a repeat victory in both races, but won’t be alone in his quest for Flandrian glory.
The 2008 edition of De Panne has almost all of the contenders for Sunday’s Tour of Flanders present, and while some will take it easy throughout the three day, four stage event, preferring to save their legs for De Ronde, others will pour all of their efforts into the hunt for overall victory. Even so, the racing should be action-packed amongst a field of cycling’s elite.
The Stage one 192 kilometer affair from Middelkerke to Zottegem, is arguably the toughest, with 12 hellingen dotting the course. The short punchy climbs, some of them cobbled, are characteristic of many of the Belgian classics, and they tend to soften the field leaving only the strongest riders left to battle for the overall victory. Last year, Ballan used stage one to distance himself from eventual second place overall Joost Posthuma of the Rabobank squad, effectively laying the foundation for his overall win. A good ride in stage one will separate the true contenders from the pack fodder, while the stage four time trial will settle the overall winner once and for all.
Regardless of sprint finishes, the racing is always tough in windy Belgium, as everyone sharpens their cues for Flanders.
Favorites for the stage one win include last year’s overall winner Ballan, who will be keen to try to repeat his 2007 triumph, as well as Quick Step’s new signing Stijn Devolder. Teammate Tom Boonen will probably ride in support of his fellow countryman, as he did last year for Gert Steegmans, which is bad news for the rest of the peloton. In addition to Boonen, Devolder will have Wauter Weylandt, winner of the recent Nokere-Koerse race at his disposal as well.
Stages two and three will highlight cycling’s fast men, as both stages are flat and conducive to bunch finishes. Look for Danilo Napolitano, Robbie McEwen, Graeme Brown, Mark Cavendish, Francesco Chicci, Baden Cooke, Julian Dean, Olaf Pollack, and Tom Steels at the front as some of cycling’s best sprinters battle for the stage wins. One factor that could thwart bunch sprints is the Belgian wind common at De Panne. Usually though it isn’t enough to keep the sprinters from having their day.
Racing in Belgium wouldn’t be the same with these local delicacies.
Vladimir Gusev of the Astana team, third overall in the time trial in 2007, will return to De Panne to try his luck at the overall, but he may still be a bit off form after having broken his collar bone in February at the Tour or California. Gusev is a tough Russian though, and will throw himself into the competition despite any lingering pain. Sergei Ivanov, also of the Astana team, will be the designated leader, and will have a good chance at the overall providing he can gap some of the favorites in stage one. Ivanov had a good E3 Prijs showing, making the final selection, and could be a dangerous rider here.
Joost Posthuma, last year’s second overall on the GC will ride again for Rabobank, hoping to score the victory for his rabid Dutch fans. His teammate Graeme Brown will be active in the sprints for stages 2 and 3, but the team will work to place Posthuma on the top step of the podium at the end of the race. Meanwhile, the Italian Liquigas team will have Manual Quinziato for the overall, as Quinziato strives to position himself amongst the world’s elite classics riders.
The Belgian Lotto-Silence team will once again work for Leif Hoste, as the Belgian tries to repeat his 2006 overall victory. Hoste is a heavy favorite for Flanders, as the Belgian finished second last year. So far in 2008, the Belgian has maintained a low profile, as he prepares for another run at a dream win at Flanders. Hoste too had a good E3 Prijs race, finishing with the leading group after a tough day climbing the 12 hellingen of the Prijs.
Team High Road will be led by American George Hincapie, the 2004 overall winner. Hincapie is one of the best time trialists of the contenders, and at 13.7 kilometers, the time trial at De Panne may give the American enough road to distance the field and take the overall win. Lastly, former Belgian national champion Niko Eeckhout will hope for a stage win at De Panne, and could have an outside shot at the overall if he can escape from the field on stage one.
After stage one’s tough climbing, stage two and three are relatively flat and won’t affect the overall classification. The deciding fourth and final stage will be the 13.7 kilometer time trial that closes out the race. The course is flat, but the total distance should be enough to see some significant gaps between the contending riders. Stijn Devolder, George Hincapie, Vladimir Gusev, Mikhail Ignatiev, and Steven Cozza could all contend for the overall title if they survive stage one without giving up any time and have great time trial rides.
Anyone who can drill the stage 4 TT will be hot come Sunday.
Of the teams entered in the race, there is one notable team that is missing. CSC, arguably the best team thus far in 2008, will not be represented in the 2008 edition. Fabian Cancellara, who will start the Tour of Flanders as the number one favorite, will instead take the week to prepare for De Ronde away from his competition. Cancellara and CSC haven’t gotten their race preparation wrong yet so far in 2008, so expect them to arrive at Flanders prepared to win. The Three Days of De Panne will miss team CSC, but there is enough talent to make for some great racing as Flemish Cycling Week continues.
• Test your foreign language skills and get more info at the official website: Veloclub-depanne.be
Briggs Heaney is a contributer to PezCyclingNews. His site, Euro Peloton, covers professional cycling in the US and Europe.