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Millions of cycling fans were thrilled last Saturday by the enthralling finale to Milan–San Remo contested by Peter Sagan, Michal Kwiatkowski and Julian Alaphilippe. Their three-man breakaway and dynamic sprint finish gave promise of a rivalry that we could enjoy all season long. But sadly in this modern era of specialization the next time this threesome will be together on the start line of a one-day race won’t be until September 24 at the world championships in Norway. That’s because Sagan returns to racing this Friday to start his campaign of cobbled classics; and while the world champion is competing at the Tour of Flanders and Paris–Roubaix, Kwiatkowski and Alaphilippe will be riding the Tour of the Basque Country in preparation for the hillier April classics that are not on Sagan’s schedule.
Words: John Wilcockson | Images: Yuzuru Sunada
So, instead of that three-up rivalry continuing, Sagan will look to different opposition in the upcoming Belgian classics—which will also suffer from the absence of perennial rival Fabian Cancellara, whose career ended last summer. And with Tom Boonen calling it quits after Paris–Roubaix on April 9, this will be the last few weeks of seeing the Belgian legend racing on the cobblestones of Belgium and France.
The northern classic season—which began last month with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne–Brussels–Kuurne (won respectively by Greg Van Avermaet and Sagan)—continues Wednesday with Dwars door Vlaanderen (or “Across Flanders”). None of the top Tour of Flanders favorites (Van Avermaet, Sagan and Boonen) are competing Wednesday, preferring to wait until Friday’s E3 Prijs Harelbeke to ramp up their form for the April monuments.
One reason for their skipping Dwars door Vlaanderen is that, even though it’s been elevated to UCI WorldTour status this year, it remains at the bottom end in prestige among the cobbled classics. Belgian icons Eric Vanderaerden, Johan Museeuw and Boonen have all won Dwars door Vlaanderen in its seven-decade-old history, but it has always been regarded as a minor spring classic usually won by men who’ve yet to score a major victory. For instance, on the list of winners in recent years are names such as Ludovic Capelle (2004), Frederik Veuchelen (2006), Kevin Van Impe (2009) and Oscar Gatto (2013).
The 72nd Dwars will be held on a 203-kilometer course that features 12 of the infamous Flemish bergs, including the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg, which come respectively 35 and 32 kilometers from the finish in Waregem. They’re followed by three more hills, including the Nokereberg with 9 kilometers to go, and a nasty section of cobblestones, Herlegemstraat, just 7 kilometers from the line. Last year, the winner was Jens Debusschere of Lotto-Soudal, who took the victory in a 36-rider sprint ahead of Frenchman Bryan Coquard and fellow Belgian Edward Theuns.
Debusschere, Coquard (Direct Énergie) and Theuns (Trek-Segafredo) are again on the start line Wednesday, but they’re facing some stronger opposition now that the race is on the WorldTour and has 16 of the 18 ProTeams on the starting roster. Among those also seeking the podium should be Frenchman Arnaud Démare (FDJ), Italians Fabio Felline (Trek) and Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida), Irishman Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe), Australian Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb), Swiss Stefan Küng (BMC Racing), Dutchman Niki Terpstra and Colombian Fernando Gaviria (both Quick-Step Floors), and the Belgians Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto-Soudal), Sep Vanmarcke (Cannondale-Drapac), Philippe Gilbert (BMC) and Guillaume Van Keirsbulck (Wanty-Groupe Gilbert).
Most of these riders will line up again on Friday at the 206-kilometer E3-Harelbeke. That field is being strengthened by the presence of Sagan (Bora), Boonen (Quick Step) and Van Avermaet (BMC), along with Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal), Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard (Team Sky), Stijn Vandenbergh (AG2R La Mondiale), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data), and John Degenkolb and Jasper Stuyven (both Trek-Segafredo). These men will also be at the more prestigious 79th Ghent–Wevelgem on Sunday.
The 60th E3-Harelbeke features 15 Flemish bergs, again including the Paterberg and Oude Kwaremont in the final hour of racing, before the last two climbs, the Karnemelkbeekstraat and the Tiegemberg, respectively 30 and 20 kilometers from the finish in Harelbeke. Last year, Sagan lost in a two-man finish to Kwiatkowski (who’s preferring the later Ardennes classic this year), with Stannard taking the sprint for third ahead of Cancellara and Stuyven.
Sagan won Ghent-Wevelgem for the second time last year ahead of Vanmarcke, and they will again be the danger men in this now 249-kilometer WorldTour classic. It takes place in the southwest region of Belgium with a significant incursion into northwest France. In fact, the first six of 11 climbs are on French territory before the race re-enters Belgium with 95 kilometers still to race. That finale includes two ascents of the cobbled Kemmelberg, one from each side of the notorious climb, followed by a flat (though usually windswept) final 34 kilometers into Wevelgem.
It’s a shame that pro cyclists’ goals have become so specialized that neither Poland’s San Remo winner Kwiatkowski nor France’s top classics prospect Alaphilippe is challenging Sagan over the tough Ghent–Wevelgem course; and, of course, that Sagan won’t be challenging them at next month’s Liège–Bastogne–Liège.