Tour of Flanders preview

We look at the favourites and the route in the absence of Boonen and Cancellara

After the removal of the Muur and the Bosberg climbs from the Tour of Flanders three years ago, there is another and no less significant alteration of the landscape and outcome of this year’s Tour of Flanders: the absence of both Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen.

For the bones of a decade, on courses old and new, Cancellara and Boonen won six of the last ten editions of the Ronde. The unexpected absence of both men through injury, shifts the contours of the race into a hitherto unrecognisable layout.

2015 was already touted as a year that could mark the passing of the torch from Boonen and Cancellara to the next, younger generation. Their absence accelerates the rate of climate change in Flanders. However it remains intriguingly unclear as to who is best prepared to take advantage of the new conditions.

QuickStep’s tactics, built perennially around Boonen, were the magnetic north of the Tour of Flanders: most others plotted their course accordingly. They will have to plan a different course this year. On the new finale, Cancellara was a landmark unto himself. “The last two years, basically everybody was waiting until Fabian attacked on the Kwaremont,” as John Degenkolb put it this week. However in his absence, Stijn Devolder will be Trek Factory Racing’s team leader. He will be the only rider in Sunday’s peloton who has won the Tour of Flanders, meaning it is more than likely that this year’s Tour of Flanders will crown a new Classics star.

The favourites

Reading the runes from E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem is always a useful means of gauging the temperature ahead of the Tour of Flanders, and on the evidence of last weekend, Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) is among the very top echelon of favourites. His stylish win in Harelbeke was followed by a battling display at Gent-Wevelgem and he is backed by a Team Sky squad that includes Ian Stannard, Bradley Wiggins and Bernard Eisel, and seems to have finally struck upon a successful formula for perform well on the cobbles.

Like the late Franco Ballerini, Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) seems somehow more graceful on the cobbles than he does on smooth tarmac, and perhaps with good reason: this is, after all, the man who trains on the Flanders finale on Christmas day. A broken cleat tempered Vanmarcke’s showing at Harelbeke, though even on one leg he climbed the Kwaremont better than most. But then Vanmarcke has been winning strongest man contests for some time on the cobbles. This Sunday, the time has come for him to follow through and win the race to boot.

Niki Terpstra and Zdenek Stybar lead the line for Etixx-QuickStep, and they shone on alternate days last weekend, as if responding to one another’s claims on Boonen’s position. Stybar was bettered only by Thomas at Harelbeke, while Terpstra was ominously impressive in soloing across to the winning move at Gent-Wevelgem. The problem for the Belgian team is managing the ambitions of each man, not to mention those of Stijn Vandenbergh, fourth a year ago. With Boonen on board, the hierarchy was clear, but his absence leaves a power vacuum and a possibly destructive scramble for leadership.

There should be no such problems at Katusha, where Alexander Kristoff and Luca Paolini have dovetailed to such good effect in the past few years. Even after winning Gent-Wevelgem, Paolini has declared himself entirely at the service of Kristoff this weekend. And why not? The Norwegian was utterly dominant at the Three Days of De Panne, winning three stages and the overall classification, and is still smarting from his narrow defeat at Milan-San Remo.

His victor in Italy, John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) suffered a crash last weekend, but is fit for purpose for Flanders and approaches the race with a similar mind set to Kristoff. Degenkolb’s finishing speed means that he doesn’t need to be the strongest man in the race to win, though he reckons that he must follow the moves on the Kwaremont and Paterberg rather than hope for a general regrouping on the run-in to Oudenaarde.

Peter Sagan’s displays at Milan-San Remo and E3 Harelbeke provoked plenty of questions but provided few answers as to his prospects this Sunday. Certainly, the Tinkoff-Saxo leader is not the same effervescent figure who seemed the heir apparent to Boonen and Cancellara two years ago, but a rider of his talent – not to mention blessed with his sprint –should not be discounted.

Seemingly untroubled by the questions over his relationship with Dr. Chris Mertens, Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) sparkled at Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo, but the effects of his crash at E3 Harelbeke are as yet unclear. One of the most consistent men on the cobbles in recent years, questions also persist over his ability to convert opportunities into wins.

The dark horses

Like his former teammate Vanmarcke, Lars Boom (Astana) is a particularly stylish performer on the cobbles and he delivered a forceful demonstration at Dwars door Vlaanderen until a crash ended his rally. He also fell at Harelbeke and it remains to be seen how badly he has been affected. Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida), too, is something of an unknown quantity, given that he was afflicted by illness last week.

Stijn Devolder leads for Trek in the absence of Cancellara and somehow has the knack of conjuring up a performance at the Tour of Flanders. He showed real signs of life at the Three Days of De Panne, even if he failed to topple Kristoff in the final time trial.

Lotto Soudal is often overshadowed and beaten by Etixx-Quickstep in their fierce Belgian rivalry. But the boys in red have stepped up this year. Loot Soudal doesn’t boast a top-level contender, but possesses a very cohesive unit, as demonstrated by the displays of Jürgen Roelandts and Jens Debusschere at Gent-Wevelgem. In a Ronde where the “normal” rules of engagement may not apply, such invention could well be rewarded. Sylvain Chavanel (IAM Cycling) and perhaps even Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) might have a similar philosophy.

Indeed, given the general uncertainty that surrounds the race, it could well prove that an earlier move survives off the front deep into the finale, in which case some of the back-up men at the biggest teams could end up having a major say in proceedings – Daniel Oss (BMC), say, or Stannard. This year’s Tour of Flanders is wide open and so a nightmare to predict, even for the best Belgian bookmaker trying to work out the right odds.

The route

It is often claimed that the riders, and not the route, make the race. But the climbs and cobbles of Flanders render the Ronde van Vlaanderen a unique race.

The start in Bruges’ Grote Markt is one of cycling’s most frenzied occasions, and it juxtaposes neatly with an opening 100 kilometres that Pozzato once summed up in one word: “Boring.”

That said, the speed is high and the risks multiple – Boonen crashed out in the opening hour in 2013. Unlike last weekend at Gent-Wevelgem, the weather conditions should not have an undue effect on the racing: a dry day is anticipated although temperatures are forecast to stay in single figures for most of Sunday.

19 climbs dot the 264.2km route, beginning with the Tiegemberg after 87km before the first of three ascents of the Oude Kwaremont 20km later. A long softening up process follows, as the race criss-crosses the Flemish Ardennes by tackling the Kortekeer, Eikenberg, Wolvenberg, Molenberg, Leberg, Berendries, Kaperij and Kanarieberg.

The tension ratchets up a notch in the final 55 kilometres, as the race takes on the Kwaremont and Paterberg as a combination for the first time, before heading straight for the vertiginous slope of the Koppenberg. The Steenbeekdries, Taaienberg and Kruisberg bring the survivors back around to face the Kwaremont and Paterberg for the final time, ahead of the wide, straight 13km run-in to the finish line in Oudenaarde, where a headwind is expected – surely music to the years of Degenkolb, Kristoff and the faster finishers.

Compared to the old, finely balanced course over the Muur and Bosberg to the finish in Meerbeke, the new finale has led to complaints that the Tour of Flanders has become a battle of strength rather than of wits. Mercifully, however, though there were distinct signs last year that riders are beginning to get a feel for the possibilities of the new parcours as well as its limitations.

Van Avermaet, in particular, showed invention by attacking after the Taaienberg last year. The idea, of course, was to pre-empt Cancellara’s inevitable show of force in the finale, but almost paradoxically, in a race now devoid of its natural figureheads, even more riders might be tempted to follow that attacking template this year.

The absence of Boonen and Cancellara -the two men who have dictated the terms of the Ronde for so long, seems almost the acid test of the layout of the new route. Whatever happens it should be great race.

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