The Minerva Classic Brugge-De Panne is no longer what it used to be. Before Flanders Classics revamped the Belgian spring furnishings to its liking in 2018, it was a three-day event that had proudly served as the final warm-up for the Tour of Flanders since 1977.
The organizers of La Ronde, however, wanted to take charge of the preparation for their flagship event, and so Dwars door Vlaanderen, another race from their stable, was postponed to the Wednesday before the big day with the blessing of Belgian Cycling.
Under the leadership of the late Bernard Van De Kerkhove, the Vélo Club De Panne had, like the indomitable village of Asterix, resisted such an approach for years. The organization bowed to the inevitable four years ago, agreeing to swap weeks with Dwars door Vlaanderen and downsize a stage race. Perhaps in return, the race was upgraded to WorldTour level the following year.
This first one-day edition in 2018 was still hopefully labeled as the Three Days of De Panne, and the addition of a women’s race means that two days of competition have at least been kept, but this event is very different from its long – current ancestor.
The former race openly sported its status as a preparation race for the Tour of Flanders. These were usually back-to-back 200 kilometer stages, the first of which went deep into the Flemish Ardennes, before a split stage on the final day. A short, fast race on the final morning was followed by a final time trial in De Panne, which – not by accident – was often about the same length as the distance from the summit of Bosberg to the arrival in Meerbeke on the old route of the Tour of Flanders.
The new event, on the other hand, avoids the cobbles and hills of the Flemish Ardennes altogether, preferring to follow a simpler route from Bruges to the flat land of the North Sea coast, immortalized in song by Jacques Brel. The 207km race starts from the Markt in Bruges, which served as the grand backdrop for the start of the Tour of Flanders before Antwerp took over in 2017.
After traveling around 60 km to the south-west, the race reaches a 45.1 km finish circuit around De Panne and Veurne, which is covered three and a half times. The obstacle does not come so much from the terrain as from the elements. The roads in the final, especially in the marshy area of De Moeren, are badly exposed to the North Sea wind, and the multiple changes of direction on the local circuit offer ample opportunity to create stages.
In the pandemic-delayed 2020 edition, Yves Lampaert escaped to take a solo victory in De Panne, but the other three editions of this iteration of the event ended in bunch sprints, with Elia Viviani, Dylan Groenewegen and Sam Bennett emerging victorious on Veurnestraat.
Three of these riders were competing for QuickStep, and their challenge will be led on this occasion by Mark Cavendish. The Manxman showed his form with a win at Milano-Turin last week, although he later revealed he was never even considered for the QuickStep-AlphaVinyl line-up at Milan-San Remo. He will be keen to prove it again on Wednesday, although Fabio Jakobsen looks likely to get the green light for Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday.
Last year’s winner, Sam Bennett, returns in the colors of Bora-Hansgrohe. The Irishman, who still hasn’t reached top speed after an injury-blighted 2021, missed Milan-San Remo through illness, but this race offers him a chance to get back on the road.
Another former winner, Dylan Groenewegen is here with the new BikeExchange-Jayco team, while Pascal Ackermann (UAE Team Emirates) will be racing with confidence after breaking the mold for the year at the Bredene Koksijde Classic.
Among the other dangerous, Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ), who survived winnowing better than most Milan-San Remo sprinters, Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix), Nacer Bouhanni (Arkea-Samsic), Cees Bol (DSM ) and neo-professional Arnaud De Lie (Lotto Soudal), already winner of two races this season.
Beyond the fast men, there are a number of riders who will line up in Bruges in a bid to rack up valuable race miles ahead of E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem later in the week, including Gianni Moscon (Astana-Qazaqstan), Niki Terpstra (TotalEnergies), Florian Vermeersch (Lotto Soudal) and Florian Vermeersch (Lotto Soudal).
Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) is also making a quick return to action after illness forced him to miss his Milan-San Remo title defense. The Belgian has plans to shine at the Tour of Flanders. “I want to go very far here for the most important races,” said Stuyven. Het Laatste Nieuws of the Minerva Classic Bruges-De Panne.
The race has completely changed, but some of the old spirit still lives on in its new format.