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Why Three Days of De Panne is secretly one of our favourite races

Because everyone has a guilty pleasure...

Celebrating 40 years since its first edition in 1977, the Three Days of De Panne is an oft-overlooked three-day stage race in Belgium – and secretly one of our favourite races of the year.

Held mid-week, immediately before Sunday’s Tour of Flanders, and starting today (Tuesday March 29), it acts as a tune-up for the Flandrian fireworks to come at the weekend. They say if you’re going well at the Driedaagse (‘three days’ in Dutch) then it’s a good sign for De Ronde –which couldn’t have been more true last year when Alexander Kristoff took three stages and the overall classification, and then went onto victory in the Tour of Flanders.

Even if it’s more of a curtain-raiser than the main event, there’s still a lot to admire and enjoy about this quirky Belgian race, with its cobbles, crosswinds and general chaos. A relative newbie on the road race scene compared with the venerable monuments, many of them over a century old, we say De Panne is a dark horse for one of our favourite races.

Everyone has a guilty pleasure – here’s why De Panne is one of ours.

The Three Days of De Panne takes place before the Tour of Flanders and is secretly one of our favourite races of the year (Pic: Sirotti)

The glorious Belgian countryside

Sure we’ve all watched the Tour de France and goggled at just what a beautiful country France can be. Likewise the Vuelta and Giro are spectacular adverts for the landscapes in their respective nations.

All that withstanding, though, nothing adds glamour to a bike race like endless aerial shots of grimy beaches on the North Sea, muddy fields and leaden grey skies. Who needs Les Lacets de Montvernier when you’ve got De Panne?

Let’s not forget the weather either. This is a coastal race in Belgium and that means lots of crosswinds, often buckets of rain, and a sprinkling of mud-covered cobbles. Last year Gert Steegmans of BMC didn’t even make it to the start line after falling into a dyke on the morning of the race.

It’s a showcase

Many teams may have announced their line-up for the Tour of Flanders prior to the Three Days of De Panne, but there are always a few last minute tweaks to squads.

For pros looking to stake a claim to a spot or simply defend the one they’ve been given, De Panne is their last chance to ensure they make it to the Ronde.

Expect lots of attacking, lots of power plays and lots of exciting racing as each rider shows what he’s got and puts it on the line.

Alexander Kristoff won three stages and the overall last year – before winning the Tour of Flanders (Pic: Sirotti)

Tongue-in-cheek commentary

Now we wouldn’t want to suggest that not many people watch the Three Days – or that it is perceived in any way as less important by broadcasters – but there’s something about the commentary you’ll get on this race that suggests they’re maybe not taking it quite as seriously as they would, say, the Tour de France.

Among highlights of last year’s Eurosport commentary was Carlton Kirby being really quite rude about some of the Belgian seaside towns viewed from the TV helicopter. After all, nobody does wry cutting sarcasm quite like a Brit.

The race includes a split stage on the final day, won in 2015 by Sir Bradley Wiggins in the rainbow jersey (Pic: Sirotti)

It’s definitely NOT a holiday

While other races take in iconic climbs and European capital cities in the balmy summer months – places where we’d all love to ride one day, even if we’re not slogging it out in the WorldTour – the Three Days of De Panne happens, unsurprisingly, in De Panne. In Flanders. In March.

A lot of it takes place on old Belgian highways that were laid after the Second World War, made with big flat sections of concrete with gaps in between that feel – we’re told by the pros – like riding across train tracks every few hundred metres. Whichever way you look at it, this race is difficult.

It’s real bike racing

When David Millar returned to the sport after his ban, he won the Three Days as leader of the Garmin-Transitions team and described it as the biggest win of his career – topping even his two Vuelta stage wins.

Talking about the race in his first book, Racing Through The Dark, Millar says De Panne is “feared by every professional, the general rule of thumb is that if you make it through without crashing you’ve had a great three days.”

Included for the first time ever this year is the Muur Van Geraardsbergen, which became the stuff of Flandrian cycling legend when it was added in 1950 to De Ronde with explosive consequences. On the incessantly punchy first stage of the 2016 De Panne, the riders must ascend the 1km-long, 9.3 per cent cobbled climb twice, which promises to blow things wide open early doors.

With cobbles, crosswinds and chaos, the Three Days of De Panne is a tough race (Pic: Sirotti)

What else are you going to do?

It’s the Tuesday before Flanders’ finest. You’re at your desk experiencing a post-lunch sugar crash and trying to work out whether it’s worth sticking a bet on Van Avermaet to place in Sunday’s showcase.

What else are you going to do to satisfy your yearning for pro bike riding but catch up on the thrills and spills of the Driedaagse? Mid-week racing doesn’t come much more chaotic than this.

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