Preview: Tour of Flanders 2016

Terpstra and Kristoff surge ahead in the 2015 edition of the race. It was to be the Norwegian who would end up victorious. Photo via cyclingtips.com

The Tour of Flanders, or Ronde van Vlaanderen, is the second of the five cycling ‘Monuments’ that take place very year, and, true to that status, it’s a widely venerated race, loaded with history and significance. The first race was in 1913, and, like most of the most classic races, it was cooked up to promote a newspaper — Sportwereld. It was meant to be, and is, a celebration of the Flemish Region of Belgium, to complement the Liège-Bastogne-Liège race through the French-speaking part of the country. The most famous aspects of the race are the cobbled climbs, or ‘bergs’, even though these now iconic elements weren’t introduced to the race until the 1970s. This was due to the fact that most of the original cobbled roads had been paved over and the race had become easier as a result. The race was also famous for the Muur-Kapelmuur, which was the penultimate climb of the Tour of Flanders up until 2011. It also now includes the gruelling test of the Koppenberg; whilst only 600m long, it has an average gradient of 10%, and maxes out at 22%!

Tom Boonen on the Kapelmuur in 2010. Photo via cyclingtips.com

The Ronde celebrates its 100th edition this Sunday, and out of those past 99 editions, 68 have been won by riders from the home nation — no wonder that it’s also known as the ‘Belgium World Championships’. With the likes of Eddy Merckx, Edwig Van Hooydonck, Johan Museeuw, and Tom Boonen all multiple winners. In recent years, it has been Boonen and Fabian Cancellera who have been the dominant forces in this race — taking six out the last eleven editions between them, and, at three a piece, tying for the record of the most wins in Flanders.

The course changes from year to year, with different bergs coming and going with the changes. However, it follows a similar structure each time — a long, flat run up to the first bergs and sections of cobbles. This year, there are 109 kilometres of racing before the riders reach the Oude Kwaremont (2.2km at an average of 4.2%), for the first of three ascents.

In 2012 and 2013, the race finished on a circuit that included two of the hardest climbs available, the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg. But this came at the expense of the Kapelmuur (this was tantamount to blasphemy for many cycling enthusiasts). The change was supposed to encourage more aggressive racing, but actually had the opposite effect, with the main contenders waiting until the final laps around the Kwaremont-Paterberg before launching attacks. The 2014 inclusion of the Koppenberg added some of the desired spice to proceedings, and has meant that the final is contested by a reduced selection of riders, rather than a large bunch.

So, who is in the frame for Flanders this year? Like the other major classics so far this year, the list is long. But here are our ones to watch.

Fabian Cancellara missed out on a shot at Milan-Sanremo due to Fernando Gaviria’s untimely crash, and in Gent-Wevelgem he was scuppered by a mechanical — despite his heroic attempts to get back in the mix. However, he has shown much strength and good form in the recent races, and must surely be considered one of the favourites here — if not the favourite. He comes here with a superb team, including Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne winner Jasper Stuyven, two-time Flanders winner Stijn Devolder, and the ever-improving Edward Theuns. He’ll have amazing support if he needs it, though history has shown that Cancellara can fight it out quite ably on his own if he has to. Barring mechanical incident or unfortunate accident, there’s a very good chance that Cancellara will be right up there in the final decisive moments of the race.

Peter Sagan has finally thrown the monkey off his rainbow-striped back, attacking on the Kwaremont and Kemmelberg climbs last week and taking an emphatic victory in Gent-Wevelgem. Out of the twenty races or stages he has ridden so far this year, he has finshed in the top ten an astonishing 15 times — this is surely a greater consistency of achievements than any other rider currently in the peloton. But what he has in talent does not always make up for what he lacks in racing tactics: he works too hard in the breaks he’s in, he rarely lets his team work for him, and he’s often too keen to chase down every move made. His big weakness here is his team, with only Oscar Gatto really capable of helping out at the pointy end of the race. But whatever we try to say against Sagan, we can’t take his achievements away from him, and we fully expect him to hit another top ten here, if not a step on the podium.

Greg Van Avermaet is still in the form of his life, but he hasn’t had the greatest run up to Flanders. Illness forced him out of E3-Harelbeke, and a lingering stomach bug stopped him taking on food in Gent-Wevelgem (though he still finished in 9th!). He prefers the longer races, and the bergs of Flanders suit his puncheur’s build, rather than the flat pavé of Paris-Roubaix. He has Daniel Oss and Jean-Pierre Drucker by way of supporting cast, but he will need to try and shake off Cancellara and Sagan with attacks from far out if he wants a shot at winning this. However, though GVA isn’t on paper as strong as that pair in the sprints, he has had the beating of Sagan in their last three head-to-head encounters!

Alexander Kristoff was last year’s winner, and he’s had a great early season this year. However, like Van Avermaet, he’s also not had a great last few weeks. He was ill during E3, and ended up pulling out of Gent-Wevelgem. He did finish in the top three thrice in the Driedaagse De Panne this week, so he must be feeling better, but he’s also openly admitted that he doesn’t feel as strong as he did at this point last year, and he’s missing his key support from Luca Paolini. He might not be able to match the power of Sagan or Cancellara, but he’s good at the endurance aspects of hard days like Flanders. If it comes down to the a bunch finish, and if that bunch contains Kristoff, he should have a solid chance at winning here.

Sep Vanmarke is one rider that could match the punch of Sagan and Cancellara if they go long, and he showed, in 2014, that he could match Cancellara’s attacks on the Kwaremont. He had a disaster-ridden 2015, with bad luck and mechanicals costing him multiple victories. He has had a slower run up to Flanders this year, missing the opening weekend of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne, but he looked good at E3 (coming 8th) and Gent-Wevelgem (a brilliant 2nd), so he is definitely finding form at the right time. Like Sagan, he can sometimes be accused of doing too much work in the attacks and breakaways, so a measured effort will be needed from him in Flanders. He also lacks any outstanding supporting riders on his team. Expect an explosive attack on the final few circuits from Vanmarcke, and a high placing overall.

Tiesj Benoot had superb fifth in his debut at Flanders last year, but a repeat of that will be difficult for him. There is no doubting his strength over races of this distance, but he isn’t the strongest on the climbs and doesn’t have the kick to match the main men. He will be also marked far more than last year, but should still find the freedom to go up the road early, which is what he’ll need to do successfully if he wants to win. A top ten for him, we feel. His team mate Jurgen Roelandts will be employing the same type of tactics as he did when he finished third in 2013. They will both be supported by the German giant that is André Greipel, who was ever present at the front last year, helping to drive a ferocious pace.

Tom Boonen is nowhere near the level of form as his old sparring partner Cancellara, and this is in part why Etixx-Quickstep has had a poor classics season so far. The team will be riding for him, and the whole of Belgium would love a record breaking fourth Ronde from him, but he just isn’t as strong as he once was. Riders like Zdeněk Štybar and Nikki Terpstra are lined up to play supporting roles, rather than leading ones, and that seems like a mistake. Štybar is the most suited Etixx rider to this race; with his cyclocross background, he can launch explosive attacks on the bergs, and he has great form in pulling off late attacks. Terpstra is more suited to the flat profile of Roubaix, so could fall behind on the climbs when attacks come, but he has the sort of engine that can power away and make a gap stick if he wants to, as he showed with his second place here last year.

Michal Kwiatkowski and Geraint Thomas are co-leaders for Sky, who, on paper, have the strongest team for Flanders. Kwiatkowski won E3 last week, so his form is unquestionable. He can go well in races of this distance, but doesn’t necessarily have the power to match attacks from the likes of Sagan, Vanmarcke, and Cancellara on the climbs. Thomas is the dark horse for this race. He was one of the favourites last year, but, since then, he has begun his transformation into a stage race/grand tour rider (which has been, admittedly, pretty successful, when you consider his wins in the Volta ao Algarve and Paris-Nice). This will mean he is lighter coming into Flanders, which is no advantage when you’re bouncing off cobbles. He also wasn’t on form in Catalunya. However, with his history of riding this sort of race well, you could expect him to have a crack this weekend. Kwiatkowski and Thomas will find support from a stellar line up including Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe. Stannard will be looking for form heading into Roubaix next week, but Rowe might even have what it takes to match the right moves and get onto the podium, should Sky allow him off the lead. An outsider perhaps!

Edvald Boasson Hagen is another rider who is having an extraordinary 2016, with a handful of stage wins in the Arabian tours, and a couple of top tens in Tirrendo-Adriatico. He was also in a great position in Milan-Sanremo, up until the Gaviria crash halted his race. However, he is another rider who has been struck down by recent ilness, which saw him pull out of E3 and underperform at Gent-Wevelgem. If he has recovered then he will be in the mix here, but he’ll need to attack long before the likes of Sagan, Cancellara and Vanmarke make their moves.

Will it again be Cancellara and Sagan that contest the final ascent of the Paterberg (15km from the finish) in this years Ronde? Photo via velonews.com

Picks

Andy, who is once again picking with his heart and not his head, opts for Tom Boonen, who will be fighting hard for his record-breaking fourth win.

Chris is sticking with what he knows and going with Peter Sagan. Go Sagan!

James is playing it sensible and going with the in-form Fabian Cancellara. Whoever makes the big attack in Flanders, you can bet Cancellara will be right up there to respond.

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