ZOTTEGEM, Belgium (VN) — Driedaagse De Panne (Three Days of De Panne) is no training race for Niki Terpstra.
After a string of close calls, including three top-5s overall since 2008, the Omega Pharma-Quick Step star is racing to win the Belgian mid-week stage race that he’s never won.
Terpstra surged into pole position in Tuesday’s opening stage, finishing safely in a select front group of 11 riders to gain valuable seconds against key rivals in what was the hardest stage of the four on tap this week.
“I’ve been close a few times here, and I really want to win,” Terpstra said after Tuesday’s stage. “Everyone is asking me if I will pull out early to prepare for Sunday, but I want to win this race once and for all.”
Under warm spring conditions Tuesday, Terpstra was joined by two Omega Pharma teammates in an 11-rider group to drive a wedge between the peloton over two climbs late in the first stage to Zottegem. Peter Sagan (Cannondale) hitched a ride, and won despite trying to set up teammate Oscar Gatto for the victory.
GC threat Luke Durbridge (Orica-GreenEdge), seventh overall last year, tried to bridge across with FDJ.fr sprinter Arnaud Démare, but the pair left too late and crossed the line 11 seconds adrift. The main pack finished 19 seconds back.
“We will ride to support Niki, because he should have good chances to win,” said Omega Pharma team boss Patrick Lefevere. “Today was the most difficult stage of the week, so the next two days are better for the sprinters. And then it all comes down to the time trial.”
Thursday’s split stage, which has a 110-kilometer route in the morning and an afternoon, 14.4km individual time trial, is poised to settle the overall classification.
None of the leading riders finishing in Tuesday’s front group have the same TT prowess as Terpstra, so the 29-year-old Dutchman realizes this is his best chance ever to win De Panne.
“If I wanted to use this race to train, I would have stayed home, because you can train better at home, and do not risk a crash,” Terpstra said. “I’ve been close several times to winning here, but I’ve always missed out. I hope to get it right, because I know my form is good.”
That’s an understatement. Terpstra, entering his fourth season with Omega Pharma, has been on a tear all season. He opened 2014 with a stage win in his first race of the year at the Tour of Qatar, and then won the overall.
After taking fifth at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Terpstra dominated last week, winning Dwars door Vlaanderen in a daring, late-race solo attack, and then sprinted to second at E3 Harelbeke behind an equally impressive Sagan.
He skipped Gent-Wevelgem, and enters De Panne with one eye on the GC prize, and another on the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) on Sunday.
“I took the weekend off to recover for this week, but I am not the friendliest guy around the house at the moment,” Terpstra joked. “My son asked me to kick the soccer ball around with him, and I had to say no, because daddy is really focusing on the upcoming races.”
The 29-year-old Terpstra will give Omega Pharma another card to play in the upcoming Ronde and Paris-Roubaix, slotting in with Tom Boonen and Zdenek Stybar. His classics acumen has steadily improved over the years, with sixth in the 2012 Ronde and fifth in the 2012 Roubaix. Last year, he notched his first monument podium, finishing third at Roubaix behind winner Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) and Sep Vanmarcke (Belkin).
On Tuesday, journalists asked the inevitable question of who will lead in Flanders and Roubaix.
“That is a big thing among the Belgian journalists,” Terpstra said. “There are always questions over team leadership, but the race will decide everything. The race puts everyone in their place.”