Continuing our look back at Classic, Belgian RockHardMan, Enthusiast-tastic races, to get you into the mood for the upcoming Continental Classics, we bring you the story of our trip to the Three Days of De Panne 2004, a stage race based around the province of West Flanders. Enjoy!

‘It’s Eki !’ Sure enough the rider ahead of us in U.S. postal gear with a neat, compact pedalling style is 2000 Olympic time trial champion Vjatcheslav Ekimov.

We pass him, stop the car, give him a shout and a round of applause, he nods and continues on his way to reconnoitre the Kluisberg climb. This is Flanders in April, centre of the cycling universe, and we’re over for the 3 Days of De Panne, a race which means different things to different people.

Three Days of De Panne 2004
No rest for the mechanics.

To the Flanders contenders it is the last full on effort in the build up to the Ronde. For the sprinters there are three stages which, whilst including those savage Flanders cobbled stoned ramps usually end in bunch finishes. Chrono-men are catered for with the closing flat, fast test which usually decides things on the last day. For the fan it is a dream, with climbs, sprints, time trial and a relaxed-atmosphere which allows access to the stars.

The seaside town of De Panne is a popular West Flanders holiday resort, a bit higher up the scale than Blackpool but a seaside resort nonetheless. For the last 28 years it has been contested by the best riders in the world, Kelly, Vanderaerden, Museeuw, Bartoli, van Petegem have all topped the podium beside the Market Square.

The first stage was won by Gerolsteiner sprinter Danilo Hondo but Steffen Wesemann gave a hint of the form that won Flanders with a powerful late attack, caught just before the line.

We arrived in time for the finish of Wednesday’s second stage. Baden Cooke took the win and the jersey in what he described as the most dangerous sprint of his life. Wednesday night as we search for a pizza joint we do a ‘double take’, Jacky Durand chatting on his mobile and out for a stroll. Still discussing this we almost walk into the happiest man in cycling, Ludo Dierckxsens, that grin spreads even wider and he gives us a quick; ’ca va?’

Outside the Quickstep hotel Stefano Zanini uses the street bollards to do his stretching as Tom Boonen sits on a bench chatting on his mobile. This is not the Tour, the top men are right there and security is by no means tight. Thursday sees a split stage with a 116 km. road race in the morning and a closing 13.7 km. time trial in the afternoon. The signing-on at the town hall begins early with the start at 8.55 a.m. The stars are easily approached for autographs, hand shakes and photographs.

We count six senior World Champions within metres of each other: Museeuw, Camenzind, Vainsteens, Gonchar, McGhee and Bartko, none seem reluctant to interact with their public, it comes with the job.

Former British champion Jeremy Hunt pedals past and we collar him for a chat, he looks in good shape, the tan goes nicely with his new, blue Mr Bookmaker strip. The form is coming, yesterday was; ’crazy’, team mate Roger Hammond has a bit of a bad tummy and isn’t starting and no, he hasn’t made the cut to ride the time trial.

Three Days of De Panne 2004
Jeremy Hunt – Mr. Bookmaker.com.

Division 3 team Flanders’ young British pros Daniel Lloyd and Stephen Gallagher stop for a chat. Gallagher tells us his computer registered 60 kph for 20 minutes straight the day before.

Three Days of De Panne 2004
Daniel Lloyd – Team Flanders.

The stage gets under way in a blast of air horns and revving motor bikes. It’s time to wander off and pester the mechanics. The beauty at De Panne is that the mechanics set up shop right on the pavement outside the hotels. The finest racing cycles in the world are right there to be drooled-over, checked for weight and to have their components subjected to close scrutiny. This morning is especially interesting because the time trial machines are being prepared.

They are all there, Pinarello and Colnago monocoques; curved-seat-tube Cervellos; sculpted carbon Looks and Ridleys; aerfoil carbon Treks. At the Quickstep hotel we spot two immaculate and identical Time carbon low profiles have been prepped for their Hungarian specialist, Laszlo Bodrogi, the rest of the squad make do with one.

Three Days of De Panne 2004
Gerolsteiner use Wilier Bikes.

Finish time draws near and we head back to the Market Square which is at the hub of all the stages. The blast of air horns and flash of lights announces the arrival of big Vini Caldirola sprinter Marco Zanotti. The tall Italian with the playboy aura explains to the T.V. how he lead out with a team mate on his wheel, the team mate eased, the gap was there and that was that.

The leader’s white jersey stays with Cooke thanks to his second place time bonus. For the time trial only the first 120 on overall classification go to the start house for a flat but technical parcours. Those low on the overall who are not specialists go through the motions of a warm up.

Due to the urban nature of the course riders who are serious warm up on resistance trainers outside the team hotels.Brad McGee sits on his white Lapierre outside a clothes shop visualising victory. (Not today Brad.)

Three Days of De Panne 2004
Brad McGee, warms up before the time trial.

Young Irishman, Gallagher has made the cut and warms up outside the Flanders team hotel. No carbon discs or silk tyres for him, it’s a low profile all right but it is in last years red and aluminium not the current black carbon. Road wheels and tyres; a Shimano 105 rear mech. and deeply scored black paint on the tri-bars tell you that Flanders do not ride too many tests.

The course takes in the promenade at De Panne and we position ourselves there to see if Cooke can defend his white jersey or if one of the specialists can wrest it from him. Many are just riding round, former Italian champion Salvatore Commesso contrives to loose 3’15’’ in less than 9 miles.

Flanders favourites Museeuw and van Petegem ride past at 75%, interestingly Wesemann is at the limit for an eventual top 15 place. The specialists, Bartko and McGee in particular are impressive, powering huge gears through the cross wind at frightening speed. Big George Hincapie looks good too as does Bodrogi. Baden Cooke does not though, well off the pace.

After seeing last man Cooke pass we head for the Market Square again, en route we pass the FD Jeux hotel just as he arrives back. The effort of competition at this level is graphically demonstrated as the soigneur has to help him of the bike and support him as he stumbles to a seat in the team car. All that effort is not wasted; he takes the overall points category.

“Two bikes Bodrogi” takes the stage and Hincapie the overall. The De Panne is over for another year, not quite, it transpires Bodrogi’s ride coincided with the tram schedule and one of the steel monsters ran alongside him shielding him from a cross wind for two kilometres.

Rabobank manager, de Rooij says that Quickstep should renounce the win and give it to his man, Bartko who was second on the stage. Quickstep manager, Patrick Lefevre just smiles.