10 riders to watch at the 2019 Tour of Flanders

Defending champion Terpstra and former winners Sagan and Kristoff lead the charge

Think the Super Bowl in the US, the Grand National in the UK, or the Melbourne Cup in Australia: in Belgium, and in Flanders in particular, the Tour of Flanders is the annual sporting event that captures the imagination of the public.

Held on the first Sunday of April, the Tour of Flanders captures international cycling fans' imagination, too, like few other races, although some would say that Paris-Roubaix, which takes place a week later, either just trumps it or pushes it very close.

And while Roubaix is all about cobbles and, ideally, mud, Flanders is all about cobbles and climbing the region's bergs – and all the better if said bergs are also cobbled.

From its first edition in 1913, the Tour of Flanders has been the domain of the Belgian hard men. The nation has won no fewer than 69 editions of the race out of the 102 that have been run, with Italy and the Netherlands lagging a long way behind with 10 victories apiece.

Defending champion Niki Terpstra (Direct Energie) has a very real opportunity to push the Netherlands up into second spot, but you try telling Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott) or Team Sky's Gianni Moscon that, who are realistically Italy's best hopes of a first victory at Flanders since Alessandro Ballan's win back in 2007.

An honourable mention, too, for EF Education First's Sep Vanmarcke, who, despite being a podium regular here, having finished third in both 2014 and 2016, was in a race against time to be ready for Sunday having injured his knee at last week's E3 BinckBank Classic.

Here, then, are Cyclingnews' 10 men most likely to score big at Sunday's Tour of Flanders.

Niki Terpstra (Direct Energie)

Third place in 2017 and second in 2015 proved that last year's win at Flanders was no fluke for Dutchman Niki Terpstra. A solo win in Oudenaarde is about as good as it gets around these parts, and Flemish fans had to admit that the next best thing to one of their own winning was a rider from the neighbouring Netherlands taking the title.

The one thing counting against Terpstra is that he changed teams over the off-season, leaving behind a modicum of guaranteed success at Classics kings Deceuninck-QuickStep to head up French Pro Continental squad Direct Energie for 2019.

Whether it proves to be a wise or foolish move for Terpstra may well be gauged this Sunday and/or next, but Patrick Lefevere, with his packed QuickStep stable of thoroughbreds, may not have been able to afford him after the Flanders title was added to Terpstra's burgeoning palmarès, which already included a Paris-Roubaix win in 2014.

While at this point last year Terpstra had already chalked up wins at Le Samyn and the E3 Harelbeke (now the E3 BinckBank Classic), this year third-place finishes at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne and Le Samyn are as good as it's got.

However, write off the defending champion's chances at your peril – we're certainly not – as Terpstra has proven that he can absolutely perform on the biggest stage, as his past Roubaix and Flanders wins attest. His new team may not be half as strong as Deceuninck-QuickStep, but Terpstra won't have forgotten what it takes on an individual level.

Philippe Gilbert (Deceuninck-QuickStep)

Philippe Gilbert may have been happy to ride for younger (and faster?) teammate Julian Alaphillipe at Milan-San Remo a couple of weeks ago – even though a win at San Remo is still on Gilbert's 'need' list – and the Frenchman's victory there certainly justified his pre-race favourite billing and his Deceuninck-QuickStep teammates' trust and assistance.

The experienced Gilbert's dream is to win all five Monuments – San Remo, Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Il Lombardia – and having already taken Liège, in 2011, Lombardia (twice, in 2009 and 2010) and Flanders in 2017, he'd nevertheless be happy to take another win at Flanders on Sunday because, well, who wouldn't?

Alaphilippe won't be lining up at the Ronde this year, or at Roubaix the following weekend, freeing Gilbert's ambitions up a bit, despite still sharing the team roster this weekend with Bob Jungels and Zdenek Stybar. But if Gilbert finds himself in the right place – or the right move – at the right time, he's canny enough to know what he needs to do to win for a second time in Oudenaarde.

The self-styled 'Wolfpack' certainly always seem content to ride for whichever of their number has the best opportunity on the day, and that will almost certainly continue on Sunday.

Philippe Gilbert (Deceuninck-Quick Step) drives the break in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to take the yellow jersey

Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe)

We're running out of superlatives to describe Peter Sagan and his ability to perform at some of the world's biggest one-day races – most of which he's either won or proved that he's capable of one day winning.

Sagan ticked off the Tour of Flanders back in 2016 before adding Paris-Roubaix to his palmarès last year. What odds of him doing the double this year? The chance is certainly high, even though he's struggled a little since returning to racing at Tirreno-Adriatico in mid-March having spent the previous couple of weeks sick.

But can you call fourth place at Milan-San Remo, four days after the finish of Tirreno, struggling? He does only have one win under his belt – a stage at the Tour Down Under in January – so far this season, and had won Gent-Wevelgem last year on the run-in to sixth place at Flanders and then his win at Roubaix, and had won Gent-Wevelgem two years previously on the way to Flanders victory.

A comparatively lowly 32nd spot in Wevelgem this year, then – his latest and last hit-out before Sunday – possibly points to a small struggle to be at 100 per cent, although Sagan chose to sit out Wednesday's Dwars door Vlaanderen in order to recuperate, which may have been enough to see him back to his best this weekend.

Certainly, a winning salute from Sagan on Sunday would be no great surprise to anyone, but the competition this year is arguably tougher than ever, and anything short of his best won't cut it.

Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team)

Greg Van Avermaet currently has the dubious honour of perhaps being Belgium's most popular rider never to have won the Tour of Flanders.

Wins at Paris-Tours, Gent-Wevelgem, stages of the Tour de France, the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and even Paris-Roubaix and the Olympic road race would all – for the Belgian public – pale into insignificance if he were to be able to clinch a win at 'De Ronde' on Sunday.

Just a single win on a stage of the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana in February has hardly got him in the winning mood so far this year, but second on a stage of the Tour of Oman, second at the Omloop, second again on a stage at Tirreno-Adriatico and third at last week's E3 BinckBank Classic at least shows a degree of consistency.

Van Avermaet has the weapons in his armoury to win it, as his record at Flanders attests: two second places, a third place, fourth, fifth place last year... It's just never quite come together for the now 33-year-old.

Time isn't exactly running out, but if Van Avermaet is ever going to win it, his time is surely now.

Greg van Avermaet wore these oversized Oakley Sutro sunglasses from the brand’s urban cycling range

Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale)

Could this be the year that Oliver Naesen finally scores that big win? Second place at Milan San-Remo in March followed by eighth place at the E3 BinckBank Classic and third at last weekend's Gent-Wevelgem indicate that it might just be.

Add into the mix the fact that Naesen is a proud Belgian who's grown up watching, and dreaming about winning, the Tour of Flanders, and you can be sure that the 28-year-old would be a very popular winner indeed.

"In my head I've already won Flanders a thousand times," Naesen said recently. "When you're training on those roads, or riding alone and seeing yourself alone in front, or even when you're just at home sitting on the sofa, you're thinking, 'What will it be like to win the Tour of Flanders?'"

Naesen knows the course like the back of his hand, but sees his only potential weakness as being his sprint, although that third place at Gent-Wevelgem goes a long way to proving that working hard on improving it while out with training partner Greg Van Avermaet – who Naesen says he's never yet beaten in a sprint – could pay dividends.

The dream scenario, of course, would be for him to arrive in Oudenaarde alone, negating the need for a sprint, and leaving behind a positive memory for watching Belgian children at home and at the roadside, who, like Naesen, can be left dreaming about winning what is for them the most beautiful race of the year.

Mathieu van der Poel (Correndon-Circus)

Winning the Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday has propelled Mathieu van der Poel into the upper echelons of the favourites for Sunday's race, despite his relatively limited experience on the road, coming as he does from a cyclo-cross background – albeit an extremely successful one.

The Dutch road race champion – and two-time cyclo-cross world champion – recently had his father, former Flanders winner Adri van der Poel, tell the press that his son was at a disadvantage in the long-distance cobbled Classics after a full winter of racing around muddy parks in circles for an hour, but the younger Van der Poel's Dwars door Vlaanderen win proved even his father wrong.

It was Van der Poel's first UCI WorldTour victory – and only his second race at that level, having taken fourth place at Gent-Wevelgem just three days before. His Pro Continental-level Correndon-Circus squad may be a long way from up to the task of delivering him to Flanders victory, but with two-time Flanders winner Stijn Devolder at his side as his guide, and clearly the necessary strength and nous to go it alone when he has to – a useful hangover from his cyclo-cross ability – Van der Poel may yet take what would be the biggest win so far of the 24-year-old's hugely successful career as soon as this Sunday.

Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus)

Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma)

Like cyclo-cross-turned-road-racing colleague – and rival – Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert's almost seamless transition to top-level road racing in the past couple of year has been nothing short of remarkable.

A well-taken third place at last year's Strade Bianche was repeated this year, indicating that Van Aert still loves the rough stuff, but a hugely impressive sixth place at his first Milan-San Remo in late March gave a glimpse of what could be to come.

In the meantime, Van Aert will concentrate on the cobbled Classics as the leader of his new Jumbo-Visma team, which he joined a year ahead of schedule following contract wranglings with his former Veranda's Willems Crelan team.

Second at the E3 BinckBank Classic and a strong ride at Gent-Wevelgem – despite only coming away with 29th place – show that Van Aert is in the ballpark of where he needs to be to contest Flanders at the pointy end. Seeing him and/or Van der Poel on the podium come Sunday evening would be surprising, but far from unthinkable.

Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo)

He may 'only' have been in the breakaway that was caught, and then left behind, by a rampaging Niki Terpstra at last year's Tour of Flanders, but Mads Pedersen's tenacity to battle back and cling on to second place, just 12 seconds down on the Dutchman, marked the Trek-Segafredo rider out as one to watch for the future.

Is he 'only' on this list on the strength of that second place last year? Absolutely not. Pedersen went on to win the one-day Tour of Fyen and a stage of his home race, the Tour of Denmark, and finished his year by winning the one-day Tour de l'Eurométropole in September.

A year wiser and stronger, can the Dane put what he learned at last year's race to good use on Sunday? Another podium spot would certainly be a much-welcomed boost for his struggling Trek-Segafredo team, who only have three wins to their name so far this season, and, until John Degenkolb's second place at Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday, had failed to make any impact whatsoever on this year's Classics.

At just 23 years old, the only pressure on Pedersen to perform will come from him. He's part of what is – at least on paper – a strong Trek-Segafredo squad for the race, boasting Degenkolb and Jasper Stuyven, but having tasted the Flanders podium once already, the youngster will be doing everything in his power to step up once more.

Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates)

Before last weekend's Gent-Wevelgem win, Alexander Kristoff had started to look as though he might be getting a little long in the tooth to still have too much influence on cycling's Monuments.

The 31-year-old won Milan-San Remo in 2014, and won the Tour of Flanders the following year, but most of his wins in the past couple of years have been on stages of week-long races – with victory on the Champs-Elysées at last year's Tour de France proving an exception.

Victory in Wevelgem, however, shows the kind of form that Kristoff has in the run-in to Flanders, at a time when only the real contenders are winning the slightly lesser races in the lead-up to the Ronde and Roubaix the following weekend.

Much has been made of young sprinter Fernando Gaviria having joined him at UAE Team Emirates this season, and indeed Kristoff has made noises to the effect that the Colombian may be the faster man in an out-and-out sprint. But for all that onlookers may want an internal battle between riders who are mainly targeting the same races, Gaviria appeared to assist Kristoff en route to the Norwegian's win at Gent-Wevelgem last Sunday by wresting Deceuninck-QuickStep's Elia Viviani off his teammate's wheel in the heat of the finishing sprint.

Gaviria, still just 24, will also surely be happy to look and learn at both Flanders and Roubaix over the coming two weekends – both of which he rides for the first time – and there can be few better teachers than Kristoff, whose emphatic 2015 Flanders win over Niki Terpstra, which also saw Greg Van Avermaet well beaten in third place, served only to prove that this is a Monument that hard-nosed sprinters really can win.

Alexander Kristoff hoists the 2019 Gent-Wevelgem trophy

Michael Matthews (Sunweb)

Perhaps somewhat of a wildcard – despite being a rider who clearly has some form at the moment – Australia's Michael Matthews is taking part in what is his first-ever Tour of Flanders in 2019.

His top Monuments results have come at Milan-San Remo (third in 2015) and Liège-Bastogne-Liège (fourth in 2017), but Matthews is a true all-rounder, whose strongest suit is his sprint. If any of the favourites listed here get to Oudenaarde with Matthews still in attendance, they could rightly feel quite nervous – and that includes Greg Van Avermaet and Peter Sagan.

While clearly a talented rider, Matthews also seems to possess a nose for sniffing out a win when it's least expected, and the 28-year-old from Canberra is often just as surprised as the rest of us.

Injury and illness ruined much of his 2018 season, and yet he bounced back to win a stage of the BinckBank Tour last August, just when he needed a confidence boost, and went on to win both WorldTour races in Canada: the Grand Prix de Montreal and the Grand Prix de Quebec.

This year, bad luck has continued to shadow him, and a crash – and resulting concussion and facial injuries – already set his 2019 season back after only having just begun.

However, Matthews bounced back with 12th place at Milan-San Remo, and then headed to the Volta a Catalunya in order to pack some race days into his programme, rather than doing the one-day E3 BinckBank Tour and Gent-Wevelgem.

The decision paid off in spades, with Matthews first winning stage 2 in Spain, in front of world champion Alejandro Valverde, and then also taking the bunch sprint to win the penultimate stage, and with it the overall points classification.

Now, Matthews feels ready to turn his attention to the spring Classics, even though he's headed into uncharted territory.

"I haven't done Flanders before and I'm not entirely sure where my form is, so I can't put a number on it," Matthews told Cyclingnews this week.

"There are so many amazing riders at the moment, so it's really difficult to say, especially when you see they averaged 46kph at Gent-Wevelgem. It's going to be an amazing race. I'm just going to go out there and do my best, and talk afterwards."

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