Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-QuickStep)
The Belgian rediscovered his mojo during the winter and after a spirited start to the year has only improved over the last fortnight. His wins in E3 and Gent-Wevelgem were both markers of form and intent, while a tepid run at San Remo remains the only low point so far. Having raced over 30 days this season, more than any other pro according to CQ ranking, he’s at his peak.
Along with a team that possesses enough leadership talent for four WorldTour squads, Boonen also has the strongest array of weapons from any of the top contenders. He can climb, he can attack, he can use his brain and he can sprint.
Sunday’s race could be an historic moment in Boonen’s career. Win and he’ll enter an elite club of four riders who have won the Ronde three times, and cement his place his Classic folklore.
Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan)
Erik Zabel called the new Flanders course the hardest one-day race in the calendar and if such a statement holds true then Cancellara may have the edge over his opposition. The Swiss rider complained about the demands of the new course earlier this year, and rightly so. While he stands as the strongest rider in the race there remains a question mark over his support. Daniele Bennati and Yaroslav Popovich are handy foot soldiers but against Boonen’s henchmen they’ll be out-muscled over 260 km. But Sunday’s race may not come down to tactics, in which case a pure old fashioned war of attrition will decide the winner. While Cancellera may fancy his chances in a direct battle with Boonen, if he’s isolated early on he could find himself making a forced attack from too far out.
However, Cancellara remains the one rider capable of deciding the outcome of the race with a single acceleration. That doesn’t mean he’ll win – see San Remo – but his aggressive nature and even his telegraphed attacks are unmatched in terms of severity and result. Strade Bianche, San Remo, and E3 were all examples of how strong he is this season.
Sylvain Chavanel (Omega-Pharma QuickStep)
Chavanel was already a shoo-in for this list even before his win at the De Panne on Thursday. This year Chavanel may not be given the amount of freedom he was allowed in 2011 but with a second place under his belt, and with his team on a different level to the rest of the peloton, almost anything is possible.
The team have riders for every eventuality but they mustn’t take anything for granted. The smaller teams will attempt to throw multiple riders up the road in an early break and Patrick Lefevere’s men will have to decide whether to pitch in with such a approach or save themselves and bring the move back later in the race. The latter will only work if Boonen can finish off the job, otherwise it merely serves up the race to others. Quickstep will be forced to shoulder much of the responsibility of the race. We picked Chavanel ahead of Niki Terpstra due to the Frenchman's De Panne win and result in last year's race - Terpstra missed the race with a broken collarbone - but the Dutchman can't be ignored. Without a Monument win since 2009, it’s a huge race for the riders and Lefevere.
Filippo Pozzato (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia)
While Boonen has been ticking all the boxes this season, Pippo has followed a different path. A broken collarbone at the Tour of Qatar was a major obstacle but since then he has shown grit and determination. The Italian is often written off as a playboy and a rider who races to stop others winning rather than win himself, but while plenty of his rivals are none to happy to make digs at him, he remains a fearsome competitor.
Since his return from surgery he has improved from race to race with his 9th in Gent-Wevelgem, 6th in Dwars door Vlaanderen and 6th in Milan-San Remo.
His team are also on form and unlike RadioShack and Omega Pharma-QuickStep they won’t be expected to control the race. At E3 Luca Scinto sent multiple riders up the road and such a tactic may be deployed at Flanders. This would force the big teams to chase and provide Pozzato a better chance against Boonen, Cancellara and the best of the rest.
Greg Van Avermaet & Alessandro Ballan (BMC)
With Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd out of sorts, BMC will look to Van Avermaet and Alessandro Ballan to lead the team. Van Avermaet’s form in Flanders isn’t too hot but 5th in both Omloop and Strade Bianche are proof that he can be a factor in Sunday’s race.
With Hushovd and Gilbert un-droppable it will be interesting to see how the team structure themselves. Will Gilbert be protected or will be and Hushovd work for Van Avermaet and Ballan?
The Italian, 2007 Flanders winner, has produced better results than Van Avermaet, with 4th in Strade Bianche, 8th in Milan-San Remo and 9th in E3. Like Pozzato, if Boonen and Cancellara mark each other out of the race, he could be one to prosper.
Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale)
You can almost write Sagan’s race report now: jumps into late unnecessary break, gets caught, and struggles to sprint at 100 per cent. The Slovak is almost the complete one-day rider but what he clearly lacks, as Boonen alluded to last week, is a strong mentor. Sagan’s attack and collaboration with Cancellara at Wevelgem was exciting (although brief) viewing but as one of the strongest sprinters in the world over 200 plus kilometres his chances would have greatly increased if he’d remained calm and glued to Boonen’s wheel. Whoever calls the shots at Liquigas has a lot to answer for, but should Sagan decide that his future lies elsewhere he would surely find QuickStep to be a welcome home. The squad scouted Sagan at an early age but turned him down. With oodles of foreign investment and the team in need of a leader once Boonen decides to pack things in, Sagan would be an alternative to the more obvious choice of Vanmarcke.
Sebastian Langeveld (GreenEdge)
The weakest rider on this list in terms of pedigree but Langeveld is still a danger for the likes of Boonen and Cancellara. GreenEdge’s tactics are uncertain for Flanders. They lack, as do many teams, an outright favourite, but in Cooke, O’Grady, Tuft and Goss they have the spine of a solid squad. One option they have is to throw men up the road in order to anticipate the favourites. Langeveld is a rider on the cusp between considerable threat and super-domestique. These were the races GreenEdge decided to spend their coin on Langeveld for, and with 5th in last year’s race and 2nd in the U23 version he’s an outsider for the podium.
Matti Breschel (Rabobank)
Like Pozzato, Breschel’s stock is on the rise. The Dane has steadily improved over the last few weeks with a number of neat performances. Again, like Pozzato, he’ll need to hope that Boonen or Cancellara has a bad day but with a 6th and 15th in previous editions, and one of the best sprints on this list, Breschel has a chance of at least making the top five. Unlike some of the top dogs included, Breschel probably has just one powerful attack in him so he’ll need to save his powder and hope he picks the right move. Along with Sagan and Vanmarcke he’s one of just three riders on this list who could trouble Boonen in a sprint.
Sep Vanmarcke (Garmin-Barracuda)
The Belgian’s progression last season was overshadowed by Hushovd and co. misfiring until Paris-Roubaix. Still, Vanmarcke picked up 4th in E3 and 20th at Roubaix in 2011, before his highly impressive win in Omloop last month.
Clearly not intimidated by his rivals – “I pay the same amount for a racing licence as the rest,” he told us this week – Vanmarcke is Garmin’s best chance for a podium place.
The biggest question hanging over Vanmarcke is how well he’s sustained his form and whether he’s about to show a slight decline. He was told to peak for Flanders and Roubaix by his team so if Omloop was a starting point he could be the rider to split the expected duel between Cancellara and Boonen.
Stijn Devolder (Vacansoleil-DCM)
Reading Devolder’s name on this list is bit like Evgeni Berzin being included on a list of contenders for the 1998 Tour de France – a rider beyond his peak and with little in the way of results in previous season. Yet for every Berzin there’s a Nick Nuyens – a rider without a result in a number of years who turns in a thrilling performance to shock everyone concerned. Devolder admitted to us at De Panne that he was close to his best form but that his lack of results in the past few years had caused him to question himself. Three years since his second win in Flanders, Devolder and his career are at a crossroads. Out of contract with his team at the end of the year, the Belgian is in the last chance saloon.