Kristoff headlines Scheldeprijs without Cavendish, Kittel

Hot off his Flanders victory, the Katusha rider is the top favorite for Wednesday's Scheldeprijs that starts without Kittel or Cavendish

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GENT, Belgium (VN) — Though it’s the oldest of the Flemish classics, dating back to 1907, Scheldeprijs certainly isn’t the most prestigious or challenging. But it is fast, very fast. Held over the flats around Belgium’s diamond capital of Antwerp, the 200-kilometer race is an unofficial sprinter’s championship.

The route, consisting of one large loop and three finishing circuits, does include seven cobblestone sectors, but it stays well north of the “hellingen” featured in the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), and almost always ends in a mass gallop.

Wednesday’s 103rd edition will start without three-time defending champion Marcel Kittel (Giant-Alpecin) or three-time winner Mark Cavendish (Etixx-Quick-Step). Kittel is recovering from illness, while Cavendish scratched the race from his schedule earlier this season. Another late-hour scratch is André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal), who buried himself at Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen, so much so that team doctors ordered him to rest.

“It’s a pity that André and Kris [Broekmans, out with illness] won’t start. Both are fast and with Kittel and Cavendish not on the start list, our chances had grown,” said Lotto-Soudal sport director Bart Leysen in a team release. “Now we’ll have to change our plans.”

In fact, Leysen said with the absence of so many top-shelf sprinters, he believed it might not come down to a mass sprint. Forecasters are calling for ideal conditions, however, with clear skies, temperatures in the mid-60s, and light winds.

Sagan prepping for Roubaix

Another rider on the start list who would be considered a favorite is Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo), but team management is playing down his chances following an intense Flanders on Sunday. Instead, the team will ride for Nicolay Trusov and Michael Morkov, letting Sagan cool his jets for Paris-Roubaix.

“Sagan will ride with less responsibility, as we want to ensure that he’s ready for Paris-Roubaix on Sunday,” said Tinkoff sport director Tristan Hoffman in a team release. “He’s participating, getting kilometers into his legs, and supporting our race strategy. … For Sagan, the main focus is on Paris-Roubaix. This is undeniably the biggest goal for him and the entire team. Scheldeprijs will be a good training race for him, but we do not want to take risks.”

Farrar, Petacchi among former winners

Among former winners who are taking the start include Tyler Farrar (2010), part of a hungry MTN-Qhubeka squad that wants a big result in the spring classics. Alessandro Petacchi (2009) continues to defy retirement, and will be part of Southeast. Cofidis will be without Nacer Bouhanni, who is racing this week at Circuit de la Sarthe in France.

Between them, Cavendish and Kittel have won six of the past eight editions. No one has won more than three titles, so that record is safe this year. Tom Boonen (Etixx), who is missing the classics this year with a shoulder injury, won in 2006, while retired pro Thorwald Veneberg, formerly of Rabobank, took the flowers out of a breakaway in 2005, the last time the race wasn’t decided in a mass gallop.

Bradley Wiggins (Sky) is expected to make what will be his penultimate major road race appearance ahead of his exit at Paris-Roubaix on Sunday, riding in support of teammate Elia Viviani. The Van Poppel brothers will be leading Trek Factory Racing, while Moreno Hofland will try his luck for LottoNL-Jumbo. Cyclocross rider Lars van der Haar, winner of the 2014 World Cup, will be making his season road debut for Giant-Alpecin.

Who can beat Kristoff?

And what about Alexander Kristoff? He’s penciled in to start for Katusha, and could easily take the flowers, if he wants to. A lot depends on how the race unfolds. The Norwegian will be flying high off his massive victory at the Tour of Flanders on Sunday, but he could be using the race to keep his legs fresh ahead of Paris-Roubaix this weekend.

Katusha has absolutely dominated the Flemish classics and enjoyed an unparalleled week, winning every race from Gent-Wevelgem with Luca Paolini, to every stage and the overall, minus the time trial to Wiggins, at Three Days of De Panne, capped by Kristoff’s dramatic win Sunday at Oudenaarde. Without Kittel or Cavendish at the start line, Kristoff is so strong right now he could win the bunch sprint with one leg.

Older than the Ronde

Scheldeprijs is one of the oldest races in Belgium. The first edition was held in 1907, making it the oldest race in Belgium’s Flanders region. The Tour of Flanders wasn’t started until 1913. Liège-Bastogne-Liège outdates it, with La Dayonne starting in 1892, but there’s only been 100 editions of Liège due to various stoppages throughout its history, making Scheldeprijs one of the oldest races running. Johan Museeuw chose Scheldeprijs as his final race in 2004 because he wanted his final event to be in Belgium, so he retired a few days following his final Roubaix appearance over the cobbles in France.

The route

Scheldeprijs has changed formats and dates over the years. It was formerly held three days following Paris-Roubaix, but in 2010 it linked up with the other races that make up “Flanders Weeks,” was slotted into the calendar between Flanders and Roubaix. Brabantse Pijl is now held following Roubaix, and before Amstel Gold Race. The race starts in the Grote Markt in central Antwerp, and opens with an 155km loop around the region, with seven cobbled sectors laced into the course. Three laps on a 15km finishing circuit typically see any breakaways swept up to prepare for the mass gallop. Crashes are common on the narrow run into the finish line in Schoten.

The favorite and the spoiler

Kristoff will start as the five-star favorite, especially with the likes of Greipel, Cavendish, and Kittel all missing the race for various reasons. The Norwegian packs a lethal punch, and it will be difficult to come around his wheel if things go as planned. Who could beat him? Perhaps Viviani, who’s shown improvement in the sprints since joining Sky this season. Romain Feillu (Bretagne) could be the spoiler. Following a string of top-5s this season, he beat Bouhanni last weekend at Route Adélie de Vitré in France.

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