It’s a wide open Ronde without three-time winner Tom Boonen and defending champion Fabian Cancellara and the excitement is building. Considering the surprises and drama of racing in Belgium this year (we’re already tipping Omloop and Gent-Wevelgem as two of the best races of the season), can the Tour of Flanders live up to expectations?
- The 264km race starts in Bruges and ends in Oudenaarde. The parcours has changed little from last year – the last 150km are the same, it’s only the addition of the Tiegemberg (at the 87km mark) and the Oude Kwaremont (now being climbed three times in this race) at 112km. From then on, it’s climbs, cobbles, climbs and cobbles, in quick and vicious succession, until the final 13km, which offers a straight-ish run into the finish.
- A particular pain point – and the place where the field gets winnowed if it hasn’t been already – will be the Kwaremont/Paterberg one-two at 210km, followed very closely by the super-steep Koppenberg. While this combo would test anyone at any time – the Paterberg has a maximum gradient of 20% – consider that the riders have already been over 11 climbs and been hours in the saddle. Anyone contesting the win has to be in the front group for this, otherwise, their chances are slim to non-existent.
- From the Koppenberg, there are three more climbs, including the
BoonenbergTaaienberg before the final Kwaremont/Paterberg double-whammy and the dash to the finish. If it’s anything like last year, there will be moves to get away from what’s left of the peloton here – Cancellara and Sep Vanmarcke did exactly that last year to finish first and third respectively.
- If there’s no solo rider with a big enough lead to take it to the finish all on his lonesome, it will come down to a tactical racing brain, legs that aren’t made of lead, and a lot of guts to be first over the finish line.
Riders to watch
Rider of the moment, in the team of the moment, Geraint Thomas from Sky is the favourite for the top step. He’s done the whole Kwaremont/Paterberg thing in E3 a week or so ago and lived to spray the champagne and with his confidence through the roof, he’d be hard to bet against. But being a favourite for a monument also means being watched and man-marked like never before and I expect Etixx-Quick Step to try to learn from their tactical buffoonery in the last week or so in their efforts to shut the Welshman down. In his E3 win and Gent podium placing, he was left on his own for the sharp end of the race. While I think that a great classics rider is able to just do it anyway, I would hope that his teammates are able to support him better this time around.
Speaking of Etixx, Zdenek Stybar can’t be overlooked. Thwarted by Thomas in E3 to take second and coming in 38th at Gent (with only 39 finishing at all), the Czech champion will be chomping at the bit to take his revenge. There also surely must be team pride on the line – they have strength in numbers and they’re always in with a chance in the final kilometres but for want of a decent plan or even to work together, they’ve not come away with the top prize yet this year. For a team as dedicated to the classics as Etixx, that must hurt. They’ve had Tom Boonen out riding with them this week in recons of the course so hopefully he’ll have talked some sense into them.
There’s also Tinkoff-Saxo’s Peter Sagan. Do I think he’ll win the Ronde this year? Probably not, not going on the form he’s had in the last few weeks where he seems to lose power in the closing kilometres and snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. But those races are those races and a lot can be learned from those misfortunes. He certainly has the talent and the power to win this race. I just hope that he has the mentorship from someone on Tinkoff that will help him get into the right frame of mind to put it all together and show the doubters (including his own team owner) that he isn’t a €4m white elephant.
Other men to watch? What about the unluckiest rider in the peloton at the moment, LottoNL-Jumbo’s Sep Vanmarcke? Or Greg van Avermaet (BMC), last year’s second placed rider, Milan-San Remo champ John Degenkolb, Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff (especially with Luca Paolini working for him), even Sky’s Ian Stannard if he’s back to 100% and Thomas blows a gasket.
But with the last few races where there have been a lot of small, strong groups looking at each other when they should be working together, dodgy tactics and so many places where a puncture will put you out of contention in a split-second, it wouldn’t surprise me if someone did a Luca for this race. Now that would be fun, wouldn’t it?
Link: Official race website