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OUDENAARDE, Belgium (VN) — The spring classics season continues Tuesday with the opening stage of Driedaagse van de Panne-Koksijde (Three Days of De Panne), a three-day, four-stage race through western Flanders, centered in the coastal towns of De Panne and Koksijde.
The 35-year-old race has historically been used as final preparation for this weekend’s Tour of Flanders. However, because of its proximity to De Ronde van Vlaanderen, and its difficulty — English speakers jokingly refer to the event as “Three Days of Da Pain” — many top favorites for Flanders, including Fabian Cancellara, Tom Boonen and Sep Vanmarcke, are not on the start list.
Tuesday’s 201.6km opening stage begins on the coast, in Middelkerke, and finishes in Oudenaarde, the same town where the Tour of Flanders finishes Sunday. In between, the peloton will tackle 12 well-known climbs, including the Berendries and two trips each up the Valkenberg and Oude Kruisberg climbs.
Stage 2 is a flat run from Zottegem to Koksijde — home to the sand dunes that hosted the 2012 world cyclocross championships in January. Thursday brings two stages, a flat, 112km opener followed by a flat-but-windy 14.7km out-and-back time trial from De Panne to Koksidje and back.
The race is without its last two winners. Last year’s champion, Belgian Sebastian Rosseler, switched from RadioShack to Garmin-Barracuda for 2012; Garmin is not sending a team to De Panne this year. The 2010 De Panne winner, David Millar also of Garmin, broke his collarbone at E3 Harelbeke Friday and is out of competition for several weeks.
Boonen’s Omega Pharma-Quick Step team, this season’s most successful squad with 22 wins by nine different riders, fields the strongest roster at De Panne, including French national champion Sylvain Chavanel, sprinter Francesco Chicchi, recent Three Days of West Flanders prologue winner Michal Kwiatkowski and Dwars door Vlaanderen winner Niki Terpstra.
“As always, it’s going to be a difficult race with tense stages and lots of athletes vying to stand out,” said Omega Pharma director Tom Steels. “Already the first stage will cover a challenging route. The second stage with the Kemmelberg is suited for sprinters. Our men going for the classification, Kwiatkowski, Chavanel and Terpstra, will have to stay out in front every day so they can play their cards in the final time trial. The squad’s recent performances have motivated our guys. They are all ready to give a good race.”
Other favorites for the GC include Ghent-Wevelgem runner-up Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) and a pair of Vacansoleil-DCM riders, Lieuwe Westra, runner-up at Paris-Nice, and 2005 De Panne champion Stijn Devolder.
Because of mild weather — the forecast is for low-60s with light wind — field sprints are likely. Several top sprinters are expected, including 2011 stage winners André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) and Denis Galimzyanov (Katusha), as well as Chicchi, Marcel Kittel (Project 1t4i) and Romain Feillu (Vacansoleil).
Another top team that is not fielding a squad at De Panne is the BMC Racing team of Philippe Gilbert, Thor Hushovd, Alessandro Ballan, Greg Van Avermaet and George Hincapie.
American Pro Continental teams competing at De Panne are UnitedHealthcare and Team Type 1-Sanofi.
UnitedHealthcare brings Americans Chris Jones, Jake Keough, Jason McCartney and Brad White, as well as Aussie Jonny Clarke, German Robert Forster, South African Jay Thomson and Dutch rider Boy Van Poppel. Keough saw his first glimpse of European success in brutal weather here in 2011, making the critical split in the final road stage to garner his first top-10 on the continent. (One-hundred five riders either did not start, did not finish or were time cut from the stage.)
Team Type 1 brings American Kiel Reijnen, the team’s top finisher at Milan-San Remo, as well as Italians Alessandro Bazzana, Daniele Colli and Filippo Fortin, Frenchman Lazlo Bodrogi, Russian Alexander Serebryakov, Dutch rider Martijn Verschoor and Slovenian Aldo Ino Ilesic.
One other American is in the race, Ted King of Liquigas. In 2004, Hincapie became the only American to win the race, riding with U.S. Postal Service.
Canadian Pro Continental team SpiderTech-C10 will also be at De Panne, featuring seven Canadian riders and one Dane. The squad will consists of Ryan Anderson, Will Routley, Brian Vandborg, Guillaume Boivin, Martin Gilbert, Keven Lacombe, Hugo Houle and Ryan Roth.
The other Canadians in the race are Svein Tuft (GreenEdge) and David Veilleux (Europcar).
Stage 1 (Tuesday, March 27): Middelkerke-Oudenaarde (201.6 km)
Stage 2 (Wednesday, March 28) Zottegem-Koksijde (216.1 km)
Stage 3a (Thursday, March 29): De Panne circuit (112.2 km)
Stage 3b (Thursday, March 29): De Panne individual time trial (14.7km)
RadioShack, Omega Pharma-Quick Step, GreenEdge, Vacansoleil-DCM, Katusha, Lampre, Astana, FDJ, Liquigas-Cannondale, Lotto-Belisol, Project 1t4i, Team Type 1-Sanofi Aventis, Colnago, Farnese Vini, NetApp, Acqua Sapone, Topsport Vlaanderen, Accent-Willems Veranda’s, Landbouwkrediet, Europcar, UnitedHealthcare, Rusvelo, Spidertech and Champion System