What Can Stop Team Sky at the 2019 Tour? (Hint: It’s not the route)

Since the 2019 Tour de France route was unveiled last week, speculation of who will benefit from the time trial-light course has been rampant. Two major narratives have emerged since the release of the course details. The first is that ASO has designed a course with minimal time trials and a preference for shorter, punchier climbs to benefit homegrown contenders like Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot. The second is that the arbiter of the race, Christian Prudhomme and ASO, are tired of watching Team Sky send out their formidable armada of word class riders to sit on the front of the peloton for three weeks with a pace that inevitably and methodically asphyxiates the competition.

ASO, a vestige of the old-school French cycling establishment, would certainly prefer a French winner of the national tour, and it is no secret that Sky’s stranglehold on the Tour since 2012 has stolen some of the race’s iconic luster. However, the assertion that ASO is tipping the scales in an attempt to foil the British squad has some major flaws.

The first major flaw in this argument is that if the French organization truly wanted to put the brakes on Sky’s dominance, they surely wouldn’t have included a 27km team time trial on the second stage. While Sky has never won a TTT at the Tour, the event has seen them solidify their GC leads whenever the discipline has been included in the route (2013, 2015, and 2018). Their collective team strength has seen them put time into their GC rivals and forced them into the unenviable position of chasing the world’s best stage race team with a deficit.

In theory, the event allows lesser time trialists like Bardet and Pinot to hide behind the collective strength of their teams and attempt to limit their losses. However, it is tailor-made to accentuate the team with the budget to afford the world’s biggest engines and makes it difficult for superior time trialist with weak teams, like Tom Dumoulin, to get an edge on the Sky leaders.

The second flaw in the theory is that, realistically, an anti-Sky route simply does not exist. When Chris Froome is on form, he is the best climber and time trialist in the world. To add to the team’s wide swath of dominance, at last year’s edition, his teammate Geraint Thomas proved himself to the strongest climber, while missing out on victory during the stage 20 time trial by a mere second. And even if their two veteran riders find themselves on the wrong side of their best performances come July, the team still has the young Colombian climbing sensation Egan Bernal. In short, Sky will likely show up to the 2019 Tour with riders that can potentially win over any and all terrain

Is an Anti-Sky Route Possible?

While there are riders that can challenge the Sky triumvirate of Thomas, Froome, and Bernal in the respective disciplines, nobody can match them as a combined force. If ASO substituted an individual time trial in place of the team time trial, hybrid time trialing/climbers like Tom Dumoulin could challenge Sky, but strong climbers with dubious TT pedigree like Quintana, Bardet and Pinot would hemorrhage time to Thomas and Froome before the race got to the mountains.

If ASO eliminated time trials from the route altogether, Thomas, Bernal, and Froome could outclimb the competition in the high mountains. Thomas won back-to-back mountain stages in the 2018 Tour, and looked like the strongest rider nearly every time the race tilted skyward. Even though age looks to be slowing him down, Froome would ritually slaughter every so-called climber on the opening mountain stage early in his reign, and his mountain ambush to win the 2018 Giro d’Italia on stage 19 proved he can still deliver knockout blows on the most demanding mountain stages. Bernal awed during the 2018 Tour with his ability to set a blistering tempo for an absurd amount of time up Alpe d’Huez, which prompted many pundits to anoint him the star of the future. Bernal wrestling team leadership away from his older teammates in 2019 would be a drastic departure from Sky’s familiar blueprint, but it wouldn’t be entirely shocking.

Since Sky’s top talent has proven to be the best at climbing and time trialing, while being competent in descending, tactical nous, dealing with the ‘chaos’ of the new, shorter mountain stages and winding roads of the rolling ‘trap’ stages, what route could ASO possibly serve up that could set them at a disadvantage?

Looming Issues in 2019

Even though Sky can’t be thwarted by a specific route, they do have a few major questions marks looming in 2019.

The defending Tour champion, Thomas, has spoken about inter-team tensions that arose during the race. For example, prior to the stage 3 team time trial, team directors informed Thomas that the team would not wait up if he flatted. This decision was made despite assurances that he would be a ‘protected’ rider going into the race. While he went on to win, these issues will arise once again at the 2019 Tour. While having two leaders can present an obvious advantage, it also doubles the odds of an ill-timed flat or mechanical derailing the team’s plans. For example, if Froome flats early on and Thomas is the closest rider, will he offer his bike to Froome as he did on stage 19 of the 2016 Tour, or will he ride on as Froome is left to wait for a spare from the team car? It is difficult to imagine a defending champion deferring leadership to a teammate, which means Sky will likely have to deal with the accommodating two full leaders from stage one.

The second major obstacle is the age of their top two riders. Froome will be 34 and Thomas 33 when the pair line up for the 2019 Tour. Winning a tour at this age is incredibly rare, with grand tour performances dropping off drastically after the age of 32 (Cadel Evans became the oldest rider to take a Tour title in the modern era when he won in 2011 at the age of 34). Also, once a ‘senior’ rider loses a Grand Tour, they almost never return to their winning form.

As Froome and Thomas find themselves on the downslope of their careers, Sky has the luxury of an insurance policy in Bernal. However, a nasty crash at the San Sebastian put him out of action for a few months, and his return at the late-season Il Lombardia saw him distanced on the final climb by Pinot and Vincenzo Nibali. If Bernal is looking to assume a leadership mantle at Sky, getting dropped by the likes of Nibali and Pinot isn’t a great sign. In addition to the questions of his ability to return to his Tour de France form, young Colombian stars have a history of burning bright at extremely young ages, only to plateau and struggle to improve the final few percentage points (i.e. Quintana, Uran, Henao). A similar development trajectory for Bernal would throw a wrench in Sky’s plans.

The 2019 Tour de France, while featuring limited time trial kilometers and a few punchy climbs, should play right into a Sky team at full strength. However, keep an eye out for increased team tensions and age considerations to potentially trip up Sky when the 2019 Tour finally gets underway.

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This piece has since been published by The Outer Line.

Saturday’s Climb to Mende Could Reveal Team Sky’s True Leader

Heading into stage 14 at the 2018 Tour de France, Team Sky is facing an old-fashioned leadership crisis. Chris Froome, looking for a record-tying fifth Tour title, is trailing his teammate Geraint Thoms by 1:39, and has the formidable cheekbones of Tom Dumoulin lurking a mere 11-seconds back. Most viewers are looking ahead to the brutal Pyrenees to decide Sky’s leader once and for all, but few are looking at the stages through the Massif Central, especially Saturday’s steep final pitch in Mende.

The three-kilometer climb comes right before the finish, averages a 10 percent gradient and will see the peloton hit the climb relatively fresh after a slow-rolling the first 2/3rds of the stage. It will offer no chance for the overall contenders to hide, and everyone’s form will be laid bare for the world to see. Potential gaps won’t be large, but they could be a bellwether for things to come in the higher mountains.

While Thomas and Sky are publically saying Froome is still the leader, Thomas has put time into Froome everytime the road has titled skywards and Thomas has just won consecutive mountain stages, the latest being atop the legendary Alpe D’Huez while wearing the Yellow Jersey. Only three riders have ever won consecutive mountaintop-finishes, and nobody has ever won on the Alpe in the leader’s jersey.  We can’t rule out a catastrophic third-week collapse, or a spat of bad luck,  but the chances are not looking good for Froome’s chances after such a dominant display in the mountains by Thomas.

When the Tour visited a carbon copy of tomorrow’s finish back in 2015, Steve Cummings schooled Romain Bardet and Thibault Pinot to win the stage from the break, but back in the GC group, Chris Froome marked the early moves on the steep pitches, and then proceeded to shred the overall favorites on the flat final few hundred meters.

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If Thomas gets frisky and drops his rivals while Froome struggles behind, we could see Sky make a subtle tactical shift before the race heads into the final week. But if Froome can put on a display similar to 2015, it could be the initial rumblings that a comeback could be brewing. However, if they finish on the same time, we will have to wait for the Pyrenees to chose their leader for them.

Tour de France Notebook: GC-Only Standings and First Week Winners/Losers

With the first “week” of the Tour de France over, we can look back and see who won, and lost, the opening stages and how that sets up the upcoming decisive Alpine and Pyrenean stages.

Below is the weighted overall standings. When we take out current race leader Greg van Avermaet [edit: Wow, I was very wrong. Really impressive ride to hold yellow, watch out for GVA at the lumpy world’s course in Innsbruck], and third place Phillippe Gilbert, Geraint Thomas is in “virtual yellow,” and young Bob Jungels is right behind him in second place. Behind them, the menacing presence of Valverde and Fuglsang stick out. Despite his bad luck on the first day, Chris Froome comes out ahead of almost all of his main rivals.

Let’s take a moment to run down the winners and losers of the first nine stages based off the GC-only standings.

1 Geraint Thomas 0:00:00
2 Bob Jungels 0:00:07
3 Alejandro Valverde 0:00:48
4 Rafał Majka 0:00:49
5 Jakob Fuglsang 0:00:50
6 Christopher Froome 0:00:59
7 Adam Yates 0:00:59
8 Mikel Landa 0:00:59
10 Vincenzo Nibali 0:01:05
11 Primoz Roglic 0:01:14
12 Bauke Mollema 0:01:15
13 Tom Dumoulin 0:01:20
14 Steven Kruijswijk 0:01:23
15 Romain Bardet 0:01:49
16 Warren Barguil 0:01:54
17 Ilnur Zakarin 0:01:59
19 Domenico Pozzovivo 0:02:05
20 Nairo Quintana 0:02:07
21 Rigoberto Uran 0:02:10
22 Daniel Martin 0:02:39

The Winners

Geraint Thomas hasn’t put a foot wrong so far in the Tour, and baring a mishap, will likely be in the actual yellow jersey at the end of stage 10. Scoring a yellow jersey on a mountain stage in the Tour de France would be a massive achievement for the Welshman. However, the implications of Thomas taking yellow could be somewhat disruptive to the Sky team.

When Alberto Contador took yellow on stage 15 of the 2009 Tour de France, even Lance Armstrong, who famously hated the Spaniard, wouldn’t attack his teammate. Instead of going on the offensive, he was forced to wait for his teammate to crack, but the chance never came. Thomas and Froome have an infinitely better relationship than Armstrong and Contador, and Froome will have no responsibility to wait if Thomas has an issue in the mountains, but things could get interesting if Thomas doesn’t crack. With rumblings of Froome making preparations for the run at a Vuelta a Espana title in August, Thomas certainly feels slighted. He was promised GC leadership at the Giro before Froome announced his intention to ride the race. After Froome decided to race the Giro, Thomas changed his focus to the Tour with an eye on leading the Team at the Vuelta. Now that Froome is potentially calling Thomas off once again, tensions could start to bubble up between the two riders.

Another name that sticks out on that list is Alejandro Valverde. When Movistar announced their tri-leader strategy, he was considered the least likely rider to actually contend for the win. However, he has emerged from the first third of the Tour with nearly a minute and a half over Nairo Quintana, and ten seconds over Mikel Landa. While Landa would normally be tipped over Valverde in the high mountains, he appeared to crash incredibly hard on stage 9, and one has to wonder how that is going to affect him over the next few days of racing.

Other big winners are Bob Jungels, who some tipped as a dark horse contender for this race. He hasn’t proven an ability to hang in the high mountains, but it will be interesting to see how he performs.  Jakob Fuglsang and Adam Yates are both sitting well less than a minute back. Both are superb climbers who have been able to quietly head into the Alps within touching distance of the lead. We haven’t heard, or seen much, of Vincenzo Nibali, which is exactly what the Italian wants. Outside of a lackluster TTT, he has avoided any major time losses, and when he is on form, can put time into the best in the mountains. Watch out for the shark of Messina to strike as the race enters the twisting roads of the high mountains.

Chris Froome is fresh off a tough Giro d’Italia win, crashed twice in the first week, and has a teammate threatening to take the race lead, but the four-time champion is less than a minute off the lead and sits ahead of many of his main contenders in the GC standings. The Briton doesn’t even need to attack to win the race at the point. He can hold steady knowing he can put time into nearly every contender in the final 31-kilometer time trial.

The Losers

While Tom Dumoulin is only 80 seconds off the lead and sits on equal time with other favorites, the big Dutchman is going to have his work cut out for him in the mountains after losing over a minute on the final kilometers of stage 6. He is a good climber, but likely won’t be able to advance his GC position until the final time trial. He’ll chew into the leads of the other GC contenders on stage 20, but ultimately, he will rue the 1:20 he shipped on the Mur.

Romain Bardet needed to take advantage of the punchy climb of Mûr de Bretagne and stage 10’s cobbles, but instead, he sits nearly two minutes behind Geraint Thomas. On top of that, he lost two teammates in the first nine days. In the past, Bardet is a grinder who chips away time here and there, not one that takes giant cuts out of leads with long-range attacks. He needed to have a perfect opening to the Tour. Instead, he’s dug a whole.

The two Colombians riding for victory, Nairo Quintana and Rigoberto Uran, both have the ability to climb with the best, but their 2+ minute deficits will likely prove too much to overcome. If either Quintana or Uran is on top climbing form, it will certainly be thrilling to watch them try to dig themselves out.

A Fit and Lucky Geraint Thomas Is Turning into Froome’s Biggest Rival

With six days in the can at the 2018 Tour de France, Team Sky is sitting at the top of the list of overall contenders. They have a rider three seconds behind Greg Van Avermaet, who has been kind enough to keep their Yellow Jersey warm for the race’s opening week. This scenario is par for the course for the British squad and barely merits a mention in a first week Tour de France piece. However, there is a major wrinkle in the plan this year. The leader sitting in pole position with sparkling form is former Sky domestique, Geraint Thomas, while the four-time Tour de France champion Chris Froome sits close to a minute down in 14th overall.

While we saw Thomas ahead of Froome during the Tour’s first week last year, it was by a mere twelve seconds, and the moment the road tipped skyward, Thomas stumbled and ceded the overall lead to Froome. But as of stage 6 in 2018, Thomas hasn’t put a foot wrong and currently sits second overall, a full minute (technically 59 seconds) ahead of Froome. Most importantly, he outperformed the former champion on the first big climbing test. The stage 6 finish on the slopes of the Mur-de-Bretagne saw Thomas finish five seconds in front of Froome. The eye-test revealed an even bigger gulf in form than the final results let on. Thomas looked incredibly strong and appeared to even be a legitimate contender for the stage, while Froome dangled off the back. The Welshman looked appears to be on the form of his life, while Froome appeared fatigued from his recent Giro d’Italia victory.

While the climb is much shorter and more explosive than the high alpine slopes where the race will be decided, the Mur has proven to be a reliable bellwether of climbing performance later in the race. In the Mur’s past two appearances, the eventual race winner has been present in the front group of finishers. Froome’s absence in the lead group could be a sign of things to come later in the race.

The gulf between the two riders even has the potential to widen before the Tour hits its first real mountain stage when the peloton hits the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix during Stage 9 on Sunday. Thomas was once a legitimate classics contender, and while he has slimmed down and lost raw power since those days, he still posses deft bike handling and an ability to read the treacherous cobblestones. It stands to reason that Thomas will be able to pull out even more time over the more traditional GC contenders who have little-to-no experience on the brutal cobblestones. While anything could happen on Sunday’s stage, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Thomas head into the first rest day with a sizeable advantage. This scenario would wreak havoc on Sky’s team dynamics and Froome’s ability to mount a long-range attack similar to his coupe on stage 19 of the Giro d’Italia. A lot was made of Movistar’s decision to bring three leaders to the 2018 edition, but not enough attention was paid to the leadership tussle that was set up when Sky designated Froome and Thomas co-leaders.

This co-leadership situation raises a number of complications and theoretical questions. For example, what if Froome had suffered misfortune like Tom Dumoulin and Romain Bardet at the base of stage 6’s finishing climb? What would the team have done? Would Thomas feel compelled, or be forced, to sit up and wait for his teammate, or would Sky be true to their “co-leader” word and let Thomas ride away from a four-time champion while he waited for a wheel change?

Many have been saying Froome comes into form later in grand tour’s and the early setup is nothing to worry about. There is only one issue with this argument, it isn’t true. While he came back with a stunning late-race comeback in the 2018 Giro, he traditionally pulls out his winning margins in the first 10 days of a race.

In 2016, 2015, and 2013, Froome took a significant chunk of his winning margin in the first 10 stages. In 2013, Froome took 40% of his winning margin to Quintana on the first mountaintop finish of Ax 3 Domaines, on Stage 8. In 2015, at La Pierre-Saint-Martin, Froome took 88% of his eventual winning margin to Quintana on Stage 10.

2016 deviated slightly from this template. Froome won the first mountain stage into Luchon, a shocking downhill victory, netting 23 seconds. This gap was only roughly 9% of his winning margin and the first big gaps had to wait until individual time trial on Stage 13. In 2017, he used the steep slopes of La Planche des Belles Filles on stage 5, and a slight time bonus on stage 9 to carve out an 18-second lead by the stage 10 mark, which turned out to be 33% of his final margin.

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While Thomas is obviously a massively talented cyclist with a mind-boggling set of skills, and looked on incredible form at June’s Dauphine Libere, he has an abysmal track record in three-week grand tours. He’s never stood on a podium at a grand tour, and his biggest result on the road is the overall win at the aforementioned Dauphine Libere. It is incredibly risky to suppress Froome’s chances of pulling back time in the name of backing an unproven Thomas for victory. Even if Froome has free reign to ride his own race in the mountains, he certainly won’t have access to the team’s vast firepower to wind up a long-range attack like we witnessed at the Giro.

The co-leadership situation with Thomas, at one point an abstract way to repay a loyal teammate for years of service, is starting to look like a major liability to Froome’s potential, and record-tying, fifth Tour de France title. It is too early to draw any definitive conclusions, but Sky could have a legitimate leadership controversy by the time the race heads into the Pyrénées during the third week.

Can Simon Yates Win the Giro? It Depends on His Ability to Limit His Losses In The Time Trial.

Simon Yates heads into the second week of the Giro d’Italia with a 38-second lead over 2017 champion Tom Dumoulin. While Yates currently has the pleasure of wearing the Maglia Rosa of the race leader, if he wants to be crowned the overall winner in Rome on stage 21, he needs to race every mountain stage as if he had time to make up. The looming 34.2km individual time trial on stage 16 rips down the Adige valley in the Dolomites and will serve as an opportunity for Dumoulin to pull back significant time. We all know that Dumoulin will get time back on Yates, but the million dollar question is exactly how much time Yates will concede. If he can survive the barrage from the big time trial specialist, he will likely emerge victorious at the end of the three-weeks.

Triangulating an accurate estimate is difficult, because like two ships passing in the night, Yates and Dumoulin haven’t met head-to-head in many individual time trials. A cursory glance will show us that since 2015, they have faced off on six occasions, with Dumoulin taking an average of 2.68 seconds per kilometer out of Yates. However, this sample is somewhat tainted by the time trial from at 2018 Abu Dhabi Tour, where Dumoulin suffered a mechanical and was forced to change bikes mid-race. If we take this race out of our sample, Dumoulin has taken 2.89 seconds per kilometer out of Yates.

Screen Shot 2018-05-21 at 9.28.38 AM

When we extrapolate this average per-kilometer difference out to 34.2km, the distance of the final time trial at the 2018 Giro, Yates stands to lose 92-seconds in the race against the clock. Keep in mind that none of these previous meetings feature a course longer than 18km, and the longer, straighter and flatter the course, the more time per kilometer the stronger time trialist will be able to take.

Yates has seen mild improvement in his time trialing ability in recent seasons and managed to limit his loses in the opening time trial of the 2018 Giro d’Italia to 2.06 seconds. This course featured technical corners and downhill sections, so it isn’t a one-to-one comparison to the wide-open course the race will see on stage 16. But, if we use the most recent data we have and stick to the 2.06-second difference from the opening stage, Yates could feasibly limit his losses to 70-seconds.

Yates has said that Dumoulin could easily take two to three minutes out of him, and while that statement feels when you first hear it, the limited numbers we access have to don’t back it up. If Yates can limit his losses to between one and two minutes, he certainly has a legitimate chance of winning the overall if he can continue to take precious seconds on the remaining uphill finishes. Even if he losses 90 seconds to Dumoulin in the TT, he is likely to take time from Dumoulin on the brutally steep Monte Zoncolan, and stages 15, 19, 20 all feature multiple climbs leading into an uphill finish, which present great opportunities for Yates to slip away and put time into the big Dutchman.

Of course, Dumoulin was in a similar position during last year’s Giro, and most expected the time trial specialist to lose serious time to the climbers once the race hit the mountains. Instead, he stuck with the best climbers and even put time into them on the Oropa summit finish on his way to a definitive victory. Lurking outsiders like Thibaut Pinot and Domenico Pozzovivo can’t be ruled out, but the final week appears to be on track for a Dumoulin/Yates head-on-head collision. Part 2 of this piece will attempt to estimate how much time Yates stands to take from Dumoulin the Giro’s mountainous final week and if the Dutchman has a chance of holding on to the jersey if he ends up taking it back on the stage 16 time trial.

Can Bob Jungels Win the Tour de France?

Bob Jungels transformed from a star of the future to simply a star on Sunday with his win at Liège–Bastogne–Liège. Winning one of cycling’s monument is a huge achievement that could be considered a crowning achievement for almost any rider. However, Jungels has the talent and skill to be one of the preeminent riders of his generation. If he really wants to utilize his immense toolset, he should turn his focus to winning grand tours, and the big question everyone should be asking is if Jungels has what to takes to win the biggest grand tour of them all, the Tour de France.

Winning the one-day race with the most elevation gain should be a bellwether for ground tour success. However, there isn’t a direct correlation between winning Liege and winning either the Giro d’Italia or the Tour de France in the same year. Since 1980, no rider has won Liege and the Tour in the same season, and only three riders have won Liege and the Giro (1980-Bernard Hinault/1994-Eugeni Berzin/2007-Danilo Di Luca).

Jungels has won the best young rider classification and finished in the top ten overall at the Giro d’Italia the past two years. This is an impressive feat and puts him in good company.

Here is a list of the best young rider classification winners from the past eight editions of the Giro and Tour.

Best Young Rider Giro d’Italia
2010 Richie Porte
2011 Roman Kreuziger
2012 Rigoberto Urán
2013 Carlos Betancur
2014 Nairo Quintana
2015 Fabio Aru
2016 Bob Jungels
2017 Bob Jungels

Best Young Rider Tour de France
2010 Andy Schleck
2011 Pierre Rolland
2012 Tejay van Garderen
2013 Nairo Quintana
2014 Thibaut Pinot
2015 Nairo Quintana
2016 Adam Yates
2017 Simon Yates

Only Schleck and Quintana are the riders on this list to go on to win grand tour’s overall. Rigoberto Uran scored a second place overall at the Tour de France in 2017, and the Yates twins, Pinot and Aru could potentially score an overall win in the years to come.

There is also one major difference between Jungels and every rider on this list, the ability to crank out a world-class time trial. Due to the decreasing number of TT kilometers in grand tours, the TT has paradoxically become more important.

Screen Shot 2018-04-25 at 10.48.43 AM

With the trend of diminishing overall TT kilometers, most grand tours are coming down to the small separation between riders during these efforts.  This trend sets up a rider like Jungels perfectly. He displayed his skill in the race of truth at last year’s Giro d’Italia by finished top ten in both TTs.

We’ve seen Froome challengers like Quintana able to match him the mountains, only to hemorrhage time in the TT. If the young star can avoid bad luck and serious injury, he will certainly emerge as a significant force in the Tour for years to come, which sets up a likely rivalry with a rider of similar skill, Tom Dumoulin. Taking this speculation even further, Jungels could use his proven classics skills to navigate through the cobblestone-riddled stages in northern France to put himself in position to surprise the favorites at this year’s edition of the race. Even if he falls short in the 2018 edition, keep your eyes on the Luxembourger in the years to come.

Tour of Flanders Power Rankings: Who to Watch This Sunday at De Ronde

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).
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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.

Niki Terpstra
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.

Peter Sagan
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.  

Jasper Stuyven
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.

Sep Vanmarcke
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.
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Sep 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.

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.

Philippe Gilbert
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.

Tiesj Benoot
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.

Alejandro Valverde
(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.
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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 TrentinOliver 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.