Preview: Your guide to the 2021 men’s Tour of Flanders

It's one of the best races of the year. Here's what you should know.

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The lead-up races are all complete and it’s now time for the big one, De Ronde van Vlaanderen.

The 105th edition of the Tour of Flanders comes less than six months after last year’s COVID-delayed edition. Back now in its regular April time slot, Belgium’s biggest bike race is the second Monument of the season and one of the most exciting days on the entire calendar.

Here’s what you should know ahead of the men’s race on Sunday. Follow the link for Abby Mickey’s preview of the women’s Tour of Flanders.

The course

After starting in Antwerp the riders will head south west towards Oudenaarde where they’ll complete a series of intricate loops around the Flandrian countryside. The exact details of the route aren’t exactly clear – as with last year’s edition, race organiser Flanders Classics has opted not to reveal the full route, as part of a push to stop fans from turning up to watch in person (COVID and all that).

At 254.3 km in length this is a long, hard day defined by a series of tough cobbled climbs (“hellingen”) in the back half of the race.

Here’s how last year’s profile looked. This year’s race will be a little longer, but the main features are much the same. (Image: La FlammeRouge and ProCyclingStats)

According to the website of official race broadcaster Eurosport/GCN there are 19 climbs for the riders to contend with (see screenshot below). The legendary Muur van Geraadsbergen is missing from the menu again, but the brutally steep Koppenberg (500 metres at 11%) is there, so too the race-defining combination of the Oude Kwaremont (2 km at 4.2%) and the Paterberg (400 metres at 11%).

The Oude Kwaremont will be visited three times, twice with the Paterberg immediately afterwards. As has become tradition, the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg are the final climbs of the day, after which it’s roughly 14 km of flat roads to the finish in Oudenaarde.

A screenshot from the website of race broadcaster GCN.

How it might play out

It’s on the cobbled climbs in the final kilometres that De Ronde is usually decided. Sure there’ll be an early breakaway as the riders set off from Antwerp, but expect the most decisive moves to come much later.

Any of the climbs in the final 50 km can be the perfect launch pad, depending on how the race is unfolding. Indeed race-winning attacks can come between the designed climbs too, as we saw in 2015 when Alexander Kristoff and Niki Terpstra rode away to contest the victory.

On balance, it’s the final visit to the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg that’s likely to have the greatest impact on the outcome. The race will already be down to a select subset of the peloton by that point, and it will split up even further on those final two bergs.

Expect the roadside to be free of fans again this year.

We can get a sense of how it might unfold by taking a snapshot of the past 10 editions of De Ronde. Of those 10 races, five were won solo, two were won from a group of two, two finished with a group of three, and one had four sprinting for the win. So yep, this is a very hard and selective race.

The favourites

As is fast becoming tradition for big one-day races, there are three names on everyone’s lips ahead of Sunday: Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep).

We singled out those three ahead of last year’s race too, and as you might remember, it just so happened that it was those three that got away and were storming to the finish. That was until Alaphilippe ploughed into a race moto and broke his hand, leaving Van der Poel and Van Aert to duke it out in one of the most amazing battles of the season.

Hopefully we’ll get something similar again on Sunday, minus the world champion axing himself in spectacular fashion. (Side note: has a rider ever raced two editions of the Tour of Flanders in the rainbow jersey, having only won the world title once?)

The moment that ended Alaphilippe’s Ronde last year.

All three of the favourites are perfectly suited to this course. They are excellent uphill, particularly on the short and punchy climbs that define De Ronde; they’re all aggressive riders that are willing to race on instinct and attack whenever necessary; they’re all capable of riding solo to the finish; and they all pack a strong sprint to win from a small group.

Van der Poel is the defending champion and, if he can repeat the explosive uphill surges that saw him win Strade Bianche, he’ll be very hard to beat (long-range solo move anyone?). Then again, the Dutchman didn’t look great at Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday and said afterwards that he didn’t have good legs. Whether that means anything for Sunday is anyone’s guess.

Van der Poel was extraordinary at Strade Bianche. Could he do something similar at De Ronde?

Alaphilippe also struggled at Dwars door Vlaanderen, but that too might be irrelevant. The Frenchman will be incredibly motivated after the way his debut Flanders finished last year. And as ever at the Spring Classics, he’s got the best team on the startlist around him.

There’s Kasper Asgreen (solo winner of last week’s E3 Classic and second at Flanders in 2019), Zdenek Stybar (fifth at E3), Yves Lampaert (fourth at Dwars door Vlaanderen), Florian Sénéchal (second at E3) and Davide Ballerini – that’s a stacked line-up. So even if Alaphilippe isn’t on a good day, Deceuninck-QuickStep certainly isn’t out of options.

And then there’s Van Aert. Like Alaphilippe, Van Aert will be incredibly motivated after missing out last year. Winning few other races will mean quite as much as winning his home nation’s biggest race.

Van Aert sat out Dwars door Vlaanderen and comes into De Ronde off the back of an impressive victory at Gent-Wevelgem last weekend. Sure, Van der Poel and Alaphilippe didn’t race there, but a win is a win, and Van Aert will be riding a wave of confidence into Sunday.

Van Aert (right) on his way to victory at Gent-Wevelgem.

So who’s the pick of the three favourites? Assuming all are on a good day, I’ve got Van der Poel as the rider to beat, but it’s close. And while these three absolutely deserve much of our attention, let’s not forget there are many other riders in with a shot on Sunday too.

The contenders

Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) has timed his run nicely. After battling COVID earlier this season, Sagan surprised many with fourth place at Milan-San Remo and then won a sprint at the Volta a Catalunya. The Slovakian certainly isn’t at the level he was a few years back, but he’s won this race before and has another four top-10 finishes, so he knows what it takes. Hopefully we see him at the pointy end again on Sunday.

Who wouldn’t love to see Sagan in the mix at Flanders again?

Trek-Segafredo comes into Sunday with fire in its belly after the frustration of missing Gent-Wevelgem last weekend due to a COVID positive. And in Jasper Stuyven and Mads Pedersen, the team has two strong contenders.

While Stuyven’s best result at Flanders is seventh in 2018, his win at Milan-San Remo a few weeks back shows he’s in great form. He’ll probably need to get away on his own to win, as he did so effectively at Milan-San Remo.

Pedersen had his breakout ride at Flanders when he rode to second in 2018 and he’s only improved since then. The former world champ has a great sprint from a small group but he can go on the attack too. Certainly one to watch.

Pedersen winning last year’s Gent-Wevelgem.

Michael Matthews (BikeExchange) is only racing Flanders for the second time, after a sixth-place finish in 2019. While he’s yet to snag a win since rejoining the GreenEdge setup this year, he’s been close – fifth at Gent-Wevelgem, sixth at Milan-San Remo plus a couple of podiums at Paris-Nice. He’ll be a chance in a sprint from a small group.

UAE-Team Emirates goes in with two compelling options: Alexander Kristoff and Matteo Trentin. Kristoff won this race back in 2015 and was third the past two years (best of the rest behind Van Aert and Van der Poel last year). Kristoff hasn’t looked at his world-beating best for a few years and his sixth at Dwars door Vlaanderen is his best result of the year so far, but the Stavanger Stallion has an uncanny knack of stepping up in the biggest races.

As for Trentin, he’s been very good in his first season with UAE-Team Emirates, posting top-10 finishes at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and Gent-Wevelgem (third). He’s knocking on the door of a big one-day result and that might just come on Sunday.

Trentin (right) has looked dangerous this season, without taking a win.

Over at Ag2r-La Mondiale the new pairing of Greg Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen hasn’t quite borne fruit yet, but there have been promising signs. Van Avermaet was sixth at E3, 12th at Gent-Wevelgem then seventh at Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday. Naesen’s best result this year is a fourth at E3 but he was seventh in the past two editions of Flanders and is capable of similar again this year.

On balance it’s probably unlikely either of them will reach the podium, but you just never know.

Dylan van Baarle (Ineos Grenadiers) comes into De Ronde off the back of a 50 km solo win at Dwars door Vlaanderen, which certainly won’t hurt his confidence. He’ll probably need to do similar again on Sunday if he’s going to win.

Ineos also has rising star Tom Pidcock to ride for and it will be fascinating to see how the young Briton handles himself on debut. This race should suit him well and even if he’s not competitive on Sunday, he certainly will be in the years to come.

Van Baarle winning Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday.

Giacomo Nizzolo (Qhubeka-Assos) is an interesting one. The Italian and European champion is on debut, so perhaps we shouldn’t expect too much, but he does come in having finished fourth at De Panne and second at Gent-Wevelgem behind Van Aert. He can certainly climb, and he has a great sprint. Don’t write him off.

Speaking of Italians you don’t want to write off: Alberto Bettiol (EF Education First-Nippo). He was a surprise winner in 2019, and a repeat performance would be equally surprising, but he’s clearly capable of another strong finish, even if his season has been pretty lacklustre so far.

For other riders vying for top 10 or possibly even the podium, keep an eye on Sep Vanmarcke (Israel Start-Up Nation), who was third at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and third at De Ronde twice before, and Swiss powerhouse Stefan Kung (Groupama-FDJ), who finished sixth at Gent-Wevelgem.

And don’t forget about Anthony Turgis (Total Direct Energie). The Frenchman was fourth last year, and comes into Sunday’s race after finishing second at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and inside the top 10 at Milan-San Remo, Gent-Wevelgem and Dwars door Vlaanderen.

Turgis (left) after finishing second at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne earlier this season.

How to watch it

If you’re in Australia, you can tune in via SBS Viceland (TV) and SBS On Demand (streaming) from 5:55pm AEDT.

In the US, FloBikes is where you’ll need to be, while the combination of Eurosport and GCN will be your best in just about every other market.

Wherever you’re watching from, be sure to stay tuned after the men’s race for coverage of the women’s race.

Who’s your pick to win the 2021 men’s Tour of Flanders? And how do you think they’ll do it?

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