The Tour of Flanders is nearly here. For a true cyclophile, it doesn’t get any better than Flanders. I would argue that it is hands down the “best” race of the year. The Tour de France has the history, the Giro d’Italia the beauty, Paris-Roubaix the carnage, but no race requires the same mixture of skill, fitness, power, and finesse as Flanders. For the first time in a few years, we don’t have a clear favorite going into Sunday, which makes the pre-race speculation all the more fun. Let’s run through some of the riders who are peaking at the right time, and who hasn’t done their homework before the big exam on Sunday.
Note: This isn’t a comprehensive list of favorites, merely the ones that are the most interesting to talk about at the moment.
Greg Van Avermaet
What do you get the rider who has won nearly every race of significance? If it’s Greg Van Avermaet, its a Tour of Flanders win. It is the glaring gap in his Palmares. The Olympics, Paris-Roubaix, and Tour de France stage wins are nice, but to be a true Flandrian champion, you have to win Flanders, full stop. Unfortunately, Van Avermaet hasn’t enjoyed the smoothest run-up to the most important block of his season. His BMC team has been severely outgunned by Quick Step in the semi-classics building into Sunday, and he generally hasn’t displayed the sparkling spring form we’ve come to expect. Missing the front group at this week’s Dwars Door Vlaanderen tuneup race was either a calculated move to throw rivals off his scent, or more likely, a signal that he simply isn’t at his best. I previously said we needed to see a sign of life at last weekend’s E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem. While he finished third at E3, his attack in the last 5k of the race lacked any punch (he only succeeded in dragging the entire group along).
To compound his wet blanket attack at E3, GVA was a complete non-factor in the sprint finish at Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem. While I wouldn’t completely write off GVA, the strongest rider usually wins at Flanders it appears that GVA seems to be slightly off his usual form this spring.
While he’s rarely the favorite, Terpstra can never be counted out for a big Classic. This guy is what American sports radio hosts would call a “gamer.” He shows up when it matters. In the past, he’s leveraged an incredibly strong Quick Step team and ability to time trial to win a monument (Paris-Roubaix 2014). So far in 2018, he has looked strong, and more importantly, his Quick Step is on an absolute rampage. They have rolled into every Northern Classic with a phalanx of capable riders, each one capable of winning as the next. This allowed Terpstra and his teammate, Yves Lampaert, to ride off the front of E3 with only 70 kilometers remaining. Lampaert is a very strong rider, and Terpstra made the young Belgian look pedestrian on the bergs late in the race. The only big knock against Terpstra is that he has absolutely no sprint. If he is going to win Flanders on Sunday, he is going to have to get away on the Patersberg or Oude Kwaremont late in the race. However, he certainly appears to have the form to get away and the team to keep him there.
The three-time World Champion won Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday in the sprint finish against some of the best classics sprinters in the world. Normally this would be a great sign of things to come in Flanders, but this edition of Gent-Wevelgam only told us that Sagan’s sprint is there, while his overall form is more of a mystery. Sagan was dropped from lead group two days earlier at E3 and has looked somewhat off his best form since his stunning chase at Tirreno. Sagan opted out of today’s Flanders tuneup race, Dwars, to fly home to Monaco to get a few days of warm weather training. Considering the miserable weather in Belgium this week, this could prove to be the right move. Nothing wears on a rider’s body like hard racing in the springtime rain/cold of Belgium. Sagan’s biggest weakness in past editions has been his overenthusiasm, so perhaps a slightly off-form spring could force Sagan to finally sit and play the waiting game at the critical moments.
Stuyven was supposed to be the Belgian that was promised a few years back, but since his breakthrough win at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in 2016, the rider once hailed as the “new Boonen” has failed to bag a signature win. He’s been consistent so far this spring, and with the absence of a true favorite this spring, there is no time like the present for Stuyven.
Today’s finish at Dwars proves that Sep Vanmarcke is, in fact, allergic to winning bikes races. When last year’s winner Yves Lampaert slowly drifted off the front inside the final kilometer, Vanmarcke correctly wound it up to mark the move. Unfortunately, he marked the coasting Mike Teunissen, instead of the rider who was clearly riding away with the win.
Vanmarcke has been showing great form in recent weeks and his talent was on full display at E3 when he pulled back nearly five minutes following a crash with 100km remaining. But if he wants to finally capitalize on the promise he displayed with second place at the 2013 Paris-Roubaix, he has some major mental blocks to overcome.
Last year’s Flanders champion hasn’t had a standout result so far this spring, but he has certainly looked strong in the past few weeks. He appeared to be toying with the lead group at E3, and would certainly have delivered a knockout blow had his teammate Terpstra not been up the road. Even if Gilbert doesn’t bag a repeat win on Sunday, look for him to factor in by breaking up the race from a long way out. He attacked with 55 km remaining in last year’s edition and displayed a herculean effort to stay away until the finish. It is likely he won’t be able to repeat such a feat, but I would be surprised if a Gilbert long bomb didn’t shake up the race.
The young Belgian is on the form of his life. He’s the real deal. However, I wonder if his future truly lies in cobbled classics. While he won Strade Bianche in fantastic fashion, if you watch that video closely, he was alone at the finish line. He made the effort to get away alone because the kid cannot sprint his way out of a paper bag. This is going to severely limit his chances of victory at Flanders. He is sure to be a factor, but don’t expect a W from the rising star.
(Edit: Since writing this, Valverde has announced he will not be racing Flanders. Don’t I look silly now.) It isn’t even certain that Valverde will be on the start line on Sunday, but if he is, he certainly can’t be counted out. His performance at Dwars, which he only road to get a feel for the cobblestone roads that will feature in this year’s Tour de France, turned heads with his ability to handle a one-day cobbled classic. On Wednesday at Dwars, we were treated to the rare site of a climber at the front of a cobbled classics. He even seemed to be looking around wondering why everyone says these things are so hard.
We saw a Ground Tour contender shock the world with Vincenzo Nibali at Milan-Sanremo, but Valverde winning Flanders would be one of the most surprising wins in the race’s history. In an age of specialist, we thought we had seen the end of the days of Grand Tour winners contending for a one-day classics victory, but for all his personal faults, Valverde is a thrilling throwback to a bygone era of racing.
There are certainly riders outside of this list that can and will play a factor on Sunday. Michal Kwiatkowski has to be considered a threat in any race he starts, but we haven’t seen the former World Champ race since Milan-Sanremo. I worry his legs may have gone a bit stale in the two weeks between the two races. Wout van Aert has been shockingly strong all spring, but until he kicks his cyclocross habit to the curb, he won’t have the legs late in these races to take a victory. There are a plethora of B-level contenders that could take a big career step up by winning on Sunday: Gianni Moscon, Zdeněk Štybar, Matteo Trentin, Oliver Naesen, and the entire Quick-Step team. Of these, Naesen seems the most likely to finally make the next big step, however, his lack of finishing kick could doom him to a career of Flanders top tens, without ever touching the top step of the podium.