Tour of Flanders Feature, April 5, 2008
Who will win the Ronde?
Predicting the winners of the classics is a real hit-and-miss affair, and trying to gauge form is a dangerous business. Nevertheless, ever ready to put his neck on the line and make a fool of himself for Cyclingnews' Ben Atkins weighs up the main contenders - and hands out some kisses of death - for this weekend’s race.
Alessandro Ballan - Lampre
RVV History: Last year’s winner has had a short but impressive relationship with the Ronde so far. Aside from last year’s victory, he finished fifth in 2006 and sixth in 2005. Not bad for an Italian whose team is built more with the Giro d’Italia in mind.
2008 Form: It’s been difficult to tell how well Ballan has been going so far this year; his standout result has been second behind Cancellara in la Monte Paschi Eroica. Like many of his rivals, Ballan has been active but ultimately finishing nowhere in Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde, testing his legs but giving us nothing to assess him on.
Pros: Was almost built for this race; can climb better than a lot of his rivals
Cons: How important will the loss of former team-mate Daniele Bennati be? Will he cope with the pressure of having race number 1 on his back?
Leif Hoste - Silence-Lotto
RVV History: With his three second places in 2007, 2006 and in 2004, not too many people have a better Ronde pedigree than the Silence-Lotto team captain. However, is Hoste destined to become the Raymond Poulidor of Flanders and never quite have what it takes to win? Certainly arriving at the finish without someone who can sprint better than he can would be a start, but that seems to be virtually everyone so he may need to finish alone.
2008 Form: Seventh place in the Omloop Het Volk is his only real result of note so far this season - not Ronde winning form.
Pros: Has loads of experience of being there when it counts; has a powerful team behind him.
Cons: No evidence of form yet this season; after finishing second three times, is he tough enough to win?
Tom Boonen - Quick Step
RVV History: By his own standards, twelfth in last year’s race was nowhere for the winner of both the 2006 and 2005 editions. It’s difficult to argue with two victories in two years though, but the whole region’s hopes are resting on Tommeke’s young shoulders and anything other than victory is regarded as failure.
2008 Form: Three stages, the team time trial and overall of the Tour of Qatar was the usual good start to his season, but stage 2 of the Tour of California was his last victory. He led the bunch home in Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, was eighth in the E3 Prijs after being in a break with Cancellara, and has been active but finishing nowhere in Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde. It’s often difficult to gauge Tornado Tom’s form though, as if he’s not on for the win he generally comes last; all this will be forgotten if he wins in Meerbeke this weekend.
Pros: Strong, powerful rider who knows how to win here; Belgian super-team at his disposal
Cons: Sometimes a bit big for those hills; will the weight of a nation’s hopes prove too much?
Fabian Cancellara - CSC
RVV History: Surprisingly, Cancellara has little previous form at the Ronde as historically he’s seemingly concentrated on the following week’s Paris-Roubaix. His sixth place finish in 2006 is by far his standout result so far. Last year, he finished absolutely nowhere after featuring in loads of attacks.
2008 Form: Where do want to start? Cance’s victories so far this year include la Monte Paschi Eroica, the stage 5 time trial and the overall at Tirreno-Adriatico and a solo win at Milano-Sanremo. Lately he was in a break with Boonen in the E3 Prijs, honing his form over the cobbles.
Pros: A supremely strong rider on massively hot form; super-strong team
Cons: A big rider for all those hills; can he hold his amazing form?
Juan Antonio Flecha - Rabobank
RVV History: For such a favourite, it is surprising to see that Flecha has not had very much previous success in the Ronde, seemingly the flatter cobbles at Paris-Roubaix suit his strengths a lot better. He finished absolutely nowhere here last year but bizarrely he was twelfth for three years in a row between 2004 and 2006.
2008 Form: Not much to show for the season so far as he has been riding in the service of sprinter Oscar Freire a lot, but his third place in Brabantse Pijl may be a sign that he’s quietly building form.
Pros: As strong as a horse; loves the cobbles
Cons: Not the quickest up the hills
Nick Nuyens - Cofidis
RVV History: Not bad. Was riding for himself for the first time last year and managed an impressive seventh. In two preceding years was riding in the service of Tom Boonen but still managed 17th and 21st respectively. Has won smaller races like the Omloop Het Volk over similar terrain.
2008 Form: His second place behind Gilbert in the Omloop Het Volk could be a sign of things to come, tenth in Dwars door Vlaanderen and eighth in Brabantse Pijl confirm that his form is rising at just the right time.
Pros: Still young, but knows these roads very well; has strong team at his service including highly experienced Frank Hoy.
Cons: Is proven over 200km, but may not quite have the legs to win over this distance
Thor Hushovd - Credit Agricole
RVV History: The stocky Norwegian does not have a great deal of pedigree in this race, his only result of note so far has been fourteenth in 2006.
2008 Form: Arguably Hushovd has never been in better form at this time of year. So far his victories have included the prologue and stage 2 of Paris-Nice, but more importantly he was managing to get over the hills, which is something he’s struggled at in the past. Ninth in Milano-Sanremo, in the select group that got over the Poggio with winner Cancellara proves that he can handle the little climbs at the moment - a prerequisite for winning the Ronde.
Pros: If a group arrives at the finish together, he’ll be the best sprinter; climbing well so far this season.
Cons: Can he match the likes of Ballan on the Muur? Team may not be strong enough to support him.
Phillipe Gilbert - Française des Jeux
RVV History: As a Walloon - from the French speaking part of the country - it’s hardly surprising that Gilbert does not have much of a pedigree in this race. His very first finish was last year in 25th, 1:32 behind winner Ballan, but as the French team’s classics captain he wants to do better and his two victories in the Omloop Het Volk prove that he’s no mug on the cobbles.
2008 Form: A stellar start to his season began with the mountains competition in the Tour Down Under, then on his return to Europe he picked up two stages and the overall at the Trofeo Mallorca. His second victory in the Omloop Het Volk was followed by third in Milano-Sanremo - the race he really wants to win - and more recently 2nd in Brabantse Pijl.
Pros: On the form of his life this season; despite being a Walloon, he knows how to ride in Flanders
Cons: Possibly lacks experience in this the biggest of Flemish races; will have peaked for Milano-Sanremo, so form may be on the wane.
Vladimir Gusev - Astana
RVV History: Gusev’s form in this race has been steadily improving. His fifth place last year when riding for himself betters his 24th in 2006 and tenth in 2005 when he was in the service of others like former captain George Hincapie.
2008 Form: Very difficult to judge how well the Russian is doing this season as his Astana team has been excluded from most of the major races so far this year. Is certainly highly ambitious though, so will have been using the time to train. Hard.
Pros: Highly skilled over this type of course despite lack of experience; after missing so much racing this season, Astana will be keen to do well.
Cons: Will he be too short of quality racing to be competitive?
Filippo Pozzato - Liquigas
RVV History: There have been steady improvements over the years from Pippo. After riding in the service of Boonen for a few years he is now riding for himself and has threatened the top ten in the last two seasons.
2008 Form: Finishing second in Milano-Sanremo is a good result for most people, but for a former winner it can be a bitter result. Getting over the Poggio in the lead group proves that there is some good form there though.
Pros: Super talented rider; steadily improving in this race.
Cons: Sometimes has trouble with the responsibility of leadership; What will happen to Pippo’s golden locks if it rains?
George Hincapie - High Road
RVV History: "Big George" has been consistently up there since he first rode the Ronde in 1997, but as with all the other classics he targets the American has found himself just short of what it takes to win. By far his best results so far have been third in 2006 and fourth in 2002, but has plenty of top-tens and top-twenties in his collection, in fact his worst ever finishing position was 25th in that 1997 debut.
2008 Form: Difficult to say how well George is shaping up, but his victory in stage 7 of the Tour of California in February shows that he still has what it takes to race in horrible, wet conditions; much as we are expecting this weekend.
Pros: Very few in this year’s race have ridden more times; High Road is a strong team
Cons: Does George still have what it takes at his age? Is he too nice to win?
Andreas Klier - High Road
RVV History: His second place behind Tom Boonen in 2005 has flattered to deceive, and after three good years (sixth in 2004, that second place, and ninth in 2006) he reverted to obscurity last year. He is strong and experienced, but this may well just be useful in the support of Hincapie.
2008 Form: His fourth place in Dwars door Vlaanderen shows that his form is coming along nicely.
Pros: Experienced and knows the race well
Cons: Was 2005 a blip? Will probably have to work for Hincapie.
Erik Zabel - Milram
RVV History: No one at the start line in Brugge has more experience of this race that Erik Zabel. Has finished fourth twice (in 2000 and 2005), but has yet to break onto the podium; this is probably because most other riders will have been scared of his sprint and done their best to drop him on the last few climbs.
2008 Form: Not bad, but his lack of results shows that most of his duties have been in the lead out train for super-sprinter Ale-Jet Petacchi. Has been up there at the end of races though, even if not to go for a result himself.
Pros: Knows this race better than anyone else on two wheels
Cons: Is he - dare we say it - a bit too old? Milram is not built for this race.
Enrico Gasparotto - Barloworld
RVV History: None whatsoever. This will be the Italian’s first foray into the Ronde.
2008 Form: Has been going very well in the early part of the season - only eclipsed by those going even better. His second overall in Tirreno-Adriatico, could be regarded as unlucky as he came up against a rampant Fabian Cancellara. Victory in stage 1 and holding on to third overall in the Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde show that he’s not scared of racing hard in Flanders.
Pros: Good sprinter; is in the form of his life; not afraid of cobbles
Cons: Lacks experience in this race; Barloworld are no match for the Belgian super-teams
Stefan Wesemann - Cycle Collstrop
RVV History: As an East German, who cut his teeth riding in Poland, a few cobbles are no problem for a guy like Wesemann; consequently he loves this race. His win in 2004 after breaking away on the Muur gave Leif Hoste the first of his second places, but in truth he never looked like winning before or since and is probably more suited to the following weekend’s Paris-Roubaix.
2008 Form: Has not featured on the Cyclingnews radar much at all this season.
Pros: Loves the cobbles; knows this race like the back of his hand.
Cons: Lowly Collstrop may be local but are also a bit lowly to look after the winner; is more suited to Paris-Roubaix
Magnus Backstedt - Slipstream Chipotle Presented by H3O
RVV History: Of all the riders featured here, the big Swede has some of the least previous success in the Ronde, never having finished inside the top sixty. Like Cancellara though, this can partially be explained by the fact that his major target lies a week later in Paris-Roubaix.
2008 Form: Backstedt started the season pretty quickly, but was brought down to earth with a bang in stage 5 of the Tour of Qatar breaking his collarbone in the process. He returned to action in March, but hasn’t really featured in any results yet.
Pros: Big, strong, experienced.
Cons: May be too big for all those climbs; is his team powerful enough to support him?