Having seen the monument of Milan – San Remo toppled last weekend, the subsequent springtime whirlwind of hellingen and cobblestones begins immediately with the semi-classic Dwars Door Vlaanderen. Though seemingly lacking the prestige of other one day races in this part of the world during March and April, this shall be the 72nd edition of a contest which features the likes of Eikenberg, Taaienberg, Oude-Kwaremont and Paterberg; making victory here a bold indication of form approaching Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris – Roubaix. Departing Roeselare, the riders will travel a total of 203.4km en route to the finish at Waregem, taking in twelve hellingen and four pavé sectors along the way. There is no doubt that the course shall do what it was designed for and drain the legs of the peloton throughout the day, thinning the ranks until an elite group of riders has formed at the head of affairs. The biggest question of Dwars Door Vlaanderen is how the finale itself shall be executed, as recent history demonstrates an even balance between riders arriving at the finish solo or a small bunch sprint crowning the champion. Regardless, Dwars Door Vlaanderen is deserving of greater merit within the cycling fandom and those who watch the day’s contest are certain to see an exciting race proving precisely that.
Niki Terpstra has finished on the podium here three times in his career, taking to the top spot in both 2012 and 2014 as race winner, marking the Dutchman out as a rider who often performs well at Dwars Door Vlaanderen. Terpstra seldom takes any win from a sprint finish, so he will be seeking to follow the wheels for the most part, looking to attack solo in the final kilometres by utilising his time trialling prowess to bury the opposition late on.
Tiesj Benoot seems to have long been the rising star of Belgium cycling, but at still only 23 years old, the Lotto-Soudal rider is surprisingly yet to capture his maiden professional victory. This season hints at great form however, with an 8th place finish at Strade Bianche and an impressive 4th place at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne causing a stir amongst native fans. He has often been the victim of bad luck or poor tactics, but his emerging race maturity and strong form will make him a greater threat than ever, Benoot certain to be a key figure in shaping the race’s decisive group.
Zdenek Stybar has not truly been as prolific as many have come to expect at this time of year, perhaps keeping his powder dry ahead of his key focus of Paris – Roubaix later in the cobbled campaign. He arrives here as part of another indomitable Quick – Step squad, the team anticipated by many to make life as hard as possible for the rest of the peloton en route to Waregem. Stybar has the strength required to power across to any moves which begin to sneak away from the pack on either pavé sectors or climbs, while also retaining enough energy to put rivals to the sword in a reduced sprint. If he proves to be on form, Stybar will be a major contender, but he will need to avoid being hamstrung by the talents of his own teammates.
Sep Vanmarcke seems perpetually plagued by misfortune when it comes to the classics and one day races which he admires so greatly. He was present in the mix at this season’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, eventually finishing third in a sprint finish behind Greg Van Avermaet and Peter Sagan, hopefully learning in the process that he cannot keep waiting for sprints which he shall never win. Vanmarcke’s greatest asset is his huge engine power, a talent which has often seen him make the cut for the lead group in some of the year’s toughest races. If he is to win Dwars Door Vlaanderen, then he must commit to a late move which propels him away solo, forcing the faster finishing riders to look at each other for somebody to invest energy in bringing him back.
Guillaume Van Keirsbulck recently dropped down from previous employers Etixx to join the Wanty – Groupe Gobert squad, now appearing to be a canny move after having won Le Samyn in dominant form a few weeks ago. The Belgian rider is incredibly strong during races such as these, though has perhaps not always been able to show this due to being at the call of team leaders in major races previously. As a man with an entire team likely to be tasked with protecting him, Van Keirsbulck is a clear wildcard who could capitalise on a naive peloton.
Arnaud Démare will not wish to walk away from this year’s classics season without a victory of some sort, especially given his determination to perform competitively when attempting to defend his Milan – San Remo title, which as a result now finds him in perhaps a career best form. The Frenchman should be interested in putting this fact to good use right now and could animate the race more aggressively than many expect.
Fabio Felline continues to demonstrate his strength and endurance at some of the toughest races, winning his opening race of the season Trofeo Laigueglia and recently finishing 4th at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad behind breakaway leaders Greg Van Avermaet, Peter Sagan and Sep Vanmarcke. Felline will be hoping for a reduced bunch sprint, from which he has a great chance of being the fastest man present.
Other riders worth keeping an eye upon include Jens Debusschere, Jurgen Roelandts and Edward Theuns.
1st Tiesj Benoot 2nd Fabio Felline 3rd Sep Vanmarcke