By David Hunter
Quaregnon – Dour 202.2km
After a brutal edition in 2016, it’s no surprise that the organisers have decided to stick with the same route.
The lap circuit contains four cobbled sectors, each with differing difficulty levels. The hardest sections are Chemin de Wiheries and Rue de Belle Vue. In both these sectors the cobbles are big and difficult to ride across. The good news for the riders is that these sectors are short, both under one kilometre long.
We have a disappointing startlist, with only three world tour teams in the race. At least the three teams are brilliant:- Quick-Step, Lotto Soudal and LottoNL-Jumbo.
These big teams will be attacking throughout the race and will always want to be present at the front of the bunch. The smaller teams will find it very hard to compete, but Cofidis, Fortuneo-Vital, Sport Vlaanderen and Wanty will all hope to be present in the finale of the race. They lack depth, but do have quality.
Just like last year, we are in for some poor conditions. It seems certain that we’ll have rain and a strong wind from the south-west. That means crosswinds!
Dries Devenyns – Quick-Step haven’t arrived with their top team, but Devenyns is still the stand out rider in the field. He is back at his old team, after a very successful 2016, and I expect him to be team leader in this race. He made the front selection in KBK, so clearly has some good form. I would make him the favourite for the title.
Tosh Van Der Sande – Lotto Soudal arrive with a very strong squad. They have three potential winners of this race and they will look to attack Quick-Step. Van Der Sande is one of those unique athletes that seem able to do anything. I would say that he hasn’t fulfilled his potential yet.
Jens Debusschere – it wasn’t the weekend he had hoped for, but the Belgian will like his chances in this race. His growing classics reputation means that he will be one of the riders to fear. Quick-Step will no doubt try to isolate him, but that won’t be easy. Debusschere should have a big say in the outcome of this race.
Gijs Van Hoecke – the new addition to the Jumbo squad is a beast of a rider. He’s big, bad and good on cobbles! The Dutch team have a number of options for this race, but I would like to see them give the Belgian a go at team leadership.
Dimi Claeys – I have a huge spot for this rider. After a very successful season with Wanty, he is now riding for Cofidis. He was described to me, by Oliver Naesen, as having a third lung! When he tells you that, you listen. This season has been disrupted by injury, but after doing Omloop and KBK, he should have life in his legs. He seems to thrive in tough conditions.
Florian Senechal – the talented Frenchman has never quite lived up to his potential. He is yet to claim his first pro win, something I’m sure he’d like to put right soon. He is tough rider, one that copes well with poor conditions. Also packing a fast sprint, he is a dangerous man to bring to the line. Cofidis might lack strength in depth, but they have two of the best riders in this field.
Guillaume Van Keirsbulck – the last couple of seasons have not been good for the Belgian. He was all set to be the next big Belgian star, but seemed to lose his way. A change of teams was exactly what he needed and he is now with Wanty, a good move for him. He performed well at the weekend, finishing 21st in Omloop, and arrives here in good spirits. He will be riding with the extra motivation of trying to prove people wrong.
Maxime Vantomme – the Veranclassic rider has enjoyed a good start to 2017. He was 8th in Besseges, 16th in Laigueglia and 3rd in the opening stage of Haut-Var. The team had hoped he would have performed well last weekend, but it wasn’t to be. Has a chance of surprising the big names here.
Preben Van Hecke – the former Belgian champion is now reaching veteran status. He was in the Omloop breakaway, and seemed in good condition. Given the lack of world tour teams, you would think that Sport Vlaanderen sense an opportunity to upset the big names.
The pressure is on the world tour teams to deliver. Cofidis have a chance, as they possess two riders of quality, but I just can’t see them taking the win. It should be a battle between Quick-Step and Lotto Soudal and I think we’ll see Lotto come out on top. It’s a win for Jens Debusschere.
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