Words by William Fotheringham | Photo: Zac Williams/SWpix.com
Back in the day I always had a soft spot for the Three Days of De Panne. Not because I’d had any particularly memorable experiences there, but just because the idea of the pro bike racing caravan dropping in on a North Sea resort that was very much out of season was an evocative one. So bracing, you could say, waking the place up from its winter torpor.
Looking for an archetypal Flemish race outing in 1999 for the always amusing Harry Pearson to write about for procycling, it had to be the 3 Days, with its final day split stage, a brief belt around the polders followed by a time trial.
Now, the 3 Days has morphed into two one-day races, Brugge-De Panne, for men and women, on successive days. It’s pretty much lost its identity; if anyone can tell the difference between Bredene Koksijde and Brugge-De Panne, feel free.
Not that it isn’t memorable: this year’s men’s race ended with a riproaring bunch sprint, possibly the most terrifying of the season so far, hopefully the most terrifying of the entire season, with Tim Merlier taking it by a sliver from Dylan Groenewegen. The women’s race witnessed a series of crashes, eliminating much of the field prior to Elisa Balsamo’s sprint win. Neither could be classed as a vintage race.
What hasn’t changed is the sense of De Panne as a prelude. Once it marked the end of the run-in to the Tour of Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem and Paris-Roubaix. Now it’s the point at which we all turn our minds to E3, Gent-Wevelgem, Dwars door Vlaanderen and the Ronde, that finely orchestrated two weeks of hype, soap opera, and regional pride, with lashings of brown beer.
The confusion in the final kilometres of both this year’s De Panne races mirrors a sense that beyond one obvious plot line – Wout van Aert is flying and will be favourite every time he pins a number on his back – the picture of the next couple of weeks is harder than ever to read. It’s not helped by the illness that has been wiping out rider after rider since early March, affecting teams’ strength in depth and picking off leader after leader. Imagine being in charge of Bora, and having just 11 out of 30 riders to choose from, the rest being poorly.
Put that on top of the emergence of an attack-minded new generation of riders – men and women – and the list of possible winners for every major one day race in the next 16 days is a long one.
To me, the basic themes look like this:
Van Aert the new Kelly. Since Omloop it’s been obvious that the cyclo cross star was going to have a dominant spring. However, as we saw at Milan-San Remo, that’s not enough to win everything. You can be the strongest rider – or joint strongest – but you still need team mates at the right time, and you need races to pan out your way. So Van Aert will win big somewhere, but it may not be the one he really wants – Flanders.
The generation game, for men and women alike. The lists are lengthy: Van Vleuten, Van Dijk and Vos versus Vollering, Norsgard, Wiebes, Balsamo. Sagan, Demare, Van Avermaet and Kristoff versus Florian Vermeersch, De Lie, Simmons, Kooij, Grmay (and many more). Ambitious youth versus mature talent, in some cases with the latter sipping a brown beer in the last chance saloon.
Teams under pressure. There are always teams under pressure, but the two at the top of the list, not usually. So the loss of Tom Pidcock effectively decapitates Ineos and increases the pressure on Dylan van Baarle, Jonathan Narvaez and their young colleagues. Without Tim DeClerq doing his tractor act on the front of the bunch, Quickstep-Alpha Vinyl have looked a world away from their old selves. At the other end of the ladder, DSM, Israel-PremierTech, Astana and EF all need wins, of any kind.
The new players in the women’s peloton. Although the results have been dominated by the big players – Trek, DSM, SDWorx, there’s a more competitive look to matters, with more teams pushing hard at the business end of races. It’s partly new teams like Uno-X and Cofidis, partly strengthened established squads such as FDJ and Le Col-Wahoo, and teams with an attacking attitude like Valcar. In essence the women’s teams are playing catch-up as the calendar expands rapidly without the depth of riders there to profit fully from it. In a couple of years, racing could look very different – and even better.
The seatpost factor. So far, the most unpredictable event of the year was Matej Mohoric’s dropper post, which – coupled with his cool head going up the Poggio and his insane descending going down it – won him Milan-San Remo. Mathieu van der Poel’s rapid return and instant form was another. Tadej Pogacar’s decision to ride Flanders is the third, but there will be others. That’s the joy of the cobbled spring, so seatbelts on for a bumpy ride.