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It’s time for the second Monument of the season and the first big cobblestone classic: Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders). With the two pre-race favourites already out means we can expect a very open and very exciting race this Sunday!
After last year’s magnificent spectacle, the organisers have wisely decided not to change anything in the last 150 km of the race. However, they have added two extra climbs during the first part of the course. The Tiegemberg will now be the first uphill struggle. Next up is the infamous Oude Kwaremont, which comes after 112.9 km of racing. The riders then go on to tackle nine more climbs before the returning to the cobbled ascent on Oude Kwaremont for the second time at 210 km. This time, the berg is followed by the short but very steep Paterberg. From the top, there are still 50 km to go which will see the favourites up near the front and this is when the selection will be made.
Just a few km after this deadly hill-combo, it’s time for the Koppenberg ascent. Its 600 meters with an average gradient of 10 % will have a huge impact on the race. The fighting for position will be furious. It’s crucial to be within the first 10 riders when you take on this hill. It’s extremely steep, meaning if you get boxed in and have to stop, you simply can’t get back on your bike. You will then have to walk up on the cobblestones.
Steenbeekdries, Taaienberg and Kruisberg-Hotond are the next three climbs before the riders take on Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg for the last time, starting with 16 km to go. There are only 3.4 km between the two ascents. If you get a gap on the top of Oude Kwaremont, like Cancellara and Vanmarcke did last year, you will be extremely difficult to catch before starting on Paterberg.
From the top of Paterberg, there are just about 13 km to go in flat terrain. The last 2 km are straight-out all the way towards the finishing line. The riders can see the banner from far out. In case a small group of riders arrives together, it’s important to time your sprint very well. However, after 264 km on the bike, it’s not really about sprinting skills. It’s all about who has something left in the legs. Don’t be surprised if a rider who’s not usually fast on the line, suddenly looks like a sprinter.
Without Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen, the field of so-called favourites is very equal. There is not one or even two riders who stands out, which means we can expect a very open race. A heroic attack like the one Jurgen Roelandts did in Gent-Wevelgem may actually succeed today. Also, riders who are strong and who attack early might be able to follow the riders who bridge up later in the race. Opportunistic riders have a unique chance of winning Ronde van Vlaanderen this year. Still, of course, there are some riders with a better chance than others.
My personal favourite is Zdenek Stybar. Usually, the Czech champion would be second or third choice on Etixx for this race. However, with Boonen out of the picture, Stybar now seems like the team’s best pick for Sunday. He has already proven to be in great shape by winning Strade Bianche at the beginning of March. Last week, in E3 Harelbeke, Stybar easily followed Geraint Thomas on Oude Kwaremont. In the final, it looked like he could have followed Thomas once again, but he hesitated a bit too long and stayed behind Peter Sagan. He’s excellent on these hills and he’s obviously in great shape. He crashed out of Milano – San Remo and after missing out in E3 Harelbeke, he’s now very eager to give his team a much needed win. It’s also important to remember, that Stybar is quite fast in a sprint. If a small group arrives together, very few will be able to outsprint him.
Sep Vanmarcke was, together with Cancellara, by far the strongest rider on the hills in Ronde van Vlaanderen last year, where he finished 3rd. He’s the bookmaker’s prime pick and I have no doubts he’ll be up there fighting for the win again this time. He tried to put the other favourites under pressure in E3 Harelbeke but damaged his shoe on one of the climbs. This caused him not to be able to put enough power into the pedals, which prevented him from following Thomas and Stybar. He had a chance to redeem himself in Gent-Wevelgem but he didn’t have enough power to follow the strong attacks at the end. Ronde van Vlaanderen and next week’s Paris-Roubaix are the two most important races of the year for Sep Vanmarcke. To him, it doesn’t really matter what has happened before, as long as he performs well in these races. The young Belgian is a fighter. He never gives up. He’s one of the strongest riders on the hills and being fast on the line as well, he has all the right qualities to win this race. He’s been very close for the last couple of years. It will definitely not be a surprise if he finally wins a Monument today.
The most in-form rider at moment seems to be Geraint Thomas. He was one of the best climbers in Paris-Nice last month, and now, Thomas is amongst the best riders on the cobblestones. Truly impressive. Last week, he won E3 Harelbeke after a well-timed attack on the last 4 km. Still, the most remarkable part of that win was how strong he looked on Oude Kwaremont when he, and Stybar, dropped everyone else. In Gent-Wevelgem last Sunday, Thomas was one of the strongest riders in the race again. Clearly, he has timed his shape perfectly. Ronde van Vlaanderen is one of his biggest goals of the season. However, due to his recent performances, Geraint Thomas will now be a marked man in the peloton. Knowing he’s a strong time trialist, the other favourites can’t even let him get a few meters of a gap. Going solo is probably Thomas’ only chance to win this race though. If he arrives in a group with Stybar and Vanmarcke, I think it will be very difficult for the Welshman to win the sprint. To maximise Thomas’ chances of success, it seems like Pinarello has something special planned for the cobblestones:
Peter Sagan should be named as one of the favourites as well. Despite his young age, the Slovakian has already been close to winning this race numerous times. However, this season he has not looked as strong as usual. In E3 Harelbeke he quickly bridged to Thomas and Stybar on the top of Oude Kwaremont but he simply ran out of energy on the last 5 km. After a season of poor results, Sagan will be very eager to finally get it right this Sunday. He’s one of the fastest riders in the race and if he manages to keep up on the hills, he’ll be very difficult to beat in a sprint.
The same can be said about Alexander Kristoff. Last year, he didn’t have the confidence to follow Cancellara and Vanmarcke on Oude Kwaremont. Later, he tried to bridge alone and he nearly pulled it off. Now, the big Norwegian knows exactly what he has to do to stay at the front. Right now, he’s the best sprinter in the world. In this field, nobody can match his top speed. He’s very strong and while others lose their edge in a sprint after 250 km, Kristoff somehow seems to keep his fast finish intact. Naturally, nobody wants to arrive in a group with the Katusha captain. Therefore, he can’t expect much cooperation in a small group. The other riders will try to attack and, obviously, the Norwegian can’t respond to all the moves. However, if he arrives in a group fighting for the win, clearly, Kristoff is the prime pick.
As already mentioned, this year’s Ronde van Vlaanderen is wide open. Therefore, the list of outsiders is also very long. On top of list, we find riders like Greg Van Avermaet and Niki Terpstra. The Belgian finished 2nd last year. He has been in outstanding shape so far this season but his crash in E3 Harelbeke may hold him back today. Usually, Van Avermaet is amongst the best riders on the hills and due to his fast finish, it would be a mistake to count him out in a sprint. Niki Terpstra has a free role on the Etixx team. He proved to be in excellent condition in Gent-Wevelgem where he, despite several punctures, still managed to finish 2nd. In order to win, Terpstra has to solo away as he did in Paris-Roubaix last year. It won’t be easy but as mentioned earlier, opportunistic riders have a very good chance of succeeding today.
Another very strong candidate for the win this Sunday is John Degenkolb. After a struggling start of the season, the German took an impressive win in Milano – San Remo. Unfortunately, he crashed in E3 Harelbeke and hurt his knee and hip. He suffered in Gent-Wevelgem where the fear of crashing again had him spend too much time in the wind. Furthermore, he punctured just before Kemmelberg. Hopefully, Degenkolb will be ready to fight for the win like he did last year, where he finished 15th. If his injuries don’t bother him on the hills, he should be able to stay near the very front. However, like with Kristoff, nobody wants to arrive at the finishing line with John Degenkolb.
Daniel Oss has proven to be in great condition since February. He’s constantly looking for an opportunity to attack and rarely hesitates to do so. He put up a great fight in Milano – San Remo and he was amongst the strongest riders in E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem. In those weather conditions, two top10 results speak very loudly! Greg Van Avermaet is the captain on BMC but Daniel Oss is a dangerous outsider. If he can time his attack perfectly this time, he might be able to pull off a big win, which is long overdue for such a strong rider as Oss. I asked the Italian about Ronde van Vlaanderen earlier this week. To him, Geraint Thomas is the favorite. I think it will be difficult for Oss to keep the wheel of Thomas if the Welshman attacks on the last hills. However, if Daniel Oss is already out in the front and a group with Thomas then joins him, the BMC rider can rely on his fast finish to get great result.
For other very strong riders who should do very well today, look to Jurgen Roelandts, Lars Boom, Stijn Vandenbergh, Sylvain Chavanel, Björn Leukemans, Luca Paolini, Ian Stannard, Jens Keukeleire and Filippo Pozzato. Not to forget the former double winner of Ronde van Vlaanderen, Stijn Devolder. He seemed to be on a great day in Dwars Door Vlaanderen before he crashed on a descent. Luckily for the Belgian veteran, he has been able to recover surprisingly fast. He proved this in Driedaagse De Panne with a splendid performance. Devolder knows these roads like the back of his hand. Without Fabian Cancellara, Trek will put all their focus on protecting Stijn Devolder. When he won this race in 2008 and 2009, it was from a solo break. I would expect him to try the same thing this year. I doubt he can follow the best riders on the hills. Therefore, he has to attack from a far. An attack from Devolder with about 50 km to go would definitely not be a surprise.
See the full 2015 Tour of Flanders startlist here.
You can view the race live on SBS2 from 2230 – 0200 AEST (Australia) on April 5, or check SteepHill.tv for other sources.