Riders need no extra incentive when it comes to a race as prestigious as Flanders, but the fact that it’s now the final cobbled Classic of the 2021 spring campaign certainly provides a new dimension to a race that needs potential winners to display both brains and brawn if they are to land on the top step of the podium.
We’ve picked 10 of the best riders to keep an eye on over the bergs and cobbles of Flanders – limiting ourselves to just one rider per team despite the strength in depth that some squads will possess on Sunday.
More obvious picks, such as defending champion Mathieu van der Poel and World Champion Julian Alaphilippe are joined by the in-form Dylan van Baarle, past winner Peter Sagan, plus an outside or two, among others.
Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin Fenix)
- Age: 26
- Best results: Winner, 2020
Dwars door Vlaanderen provided a timely reminder that Van der Poel is human after all, but he still heads into Sunday’s main event as the defending champion, race favourite, and the man to beat.
A month ago he was untouchable in Strade Bianche, and after flirting with winning positions in both Milan-San Remo and the E3 Saxo Bank Classic he’s maintained the majority of his March form. Racing over 250km does appear to nullify some of his explosive exploits, at times, but with the return of Silvan Dillier, the Dutchman has another much-needed helper for the second half of the race.
If Van der Poel can manage his energies properly, then perhaps Dwars door Vlaanderen will end up being seen as a blip rather than the start of a trend. That mid-week performance, however, will provide his opposition with the hope that it’s the latter.
Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep)
- Age: 28
- Best result: DNF, 2020
In Deceuninck-QuickStep, the world champion has the best Classics team in the world at his disposal, and unlike some of his rivals, he has been tapering his form over recent weeks with just one outing since Milan-San Remo, a tester outing at Dwars door Vlaanderen.
He quite clearly has the skillset needed to win a Tour of Flanders, despite failing to finish after crashing out of the lead group at his debut last year, and his motivation will be sky high after what happened last October, but the depth to his squad does open up possibilities for the Belgian team that other teams don’t have. That could be instrumental in how the race pans out.
Patrick Lefevere’s team have won the race twice, in 2008 and 2009, by sending a strong but certainly not unbeatable rider up the road in Stijn Devolder, and then watching as their rivals became preoccupied with watching Tom Boonen. They did it again in 2018 with Niki Terpstra, and one can certainly envisage something similar this weekend, with Kasper Asgreen, or one of four or five others, infiltrating an early move and then capitalizing on some hesitancy from behind.
Van Aert and Van der Poel can’t afford to chase every move, while Alaphilippe could potentially allow his rivals to tire themselves out before landing a knockout blow if the race does come back together for the final few climbs. Strength in numbers just gives you so many options.
Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma)
- Age: 26
- Best result: Second, 2020
The win in Gent-Wevelgem came as much-needed morale boost for Van Aert after a late wobble in E3 Saxo Bank Classic exposed an element of fragility that few saw coming.
However, the fact is that the three main pre-race favourites – Van Aert, Alaphilippe, and van der Poel – haven’t been as dominant as some expected this spring and in the longer races their explosive abilities have been countered or nullified. It’s true that Milan-San Remo only provided a short window of opportunity on the Poggio, and that Flanders is a far more complicated affair, with multiple points in which attacks can be made, but the idea that the three top-favourites will ride away from the rest of the field like they did last year is growing weaker by the race.
Of course, it could still happen if the circumstances present themselves but instead, we should expect a more intricate but aggressive race, and that’s a scenario that will play into Van Aert’s hands. His team is in fine fettle too, which could give him an edge over Van der Poel at key points in the race.
Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe)
- Age: 31
- Best result: Winner, 2016
While the majority of the pre-race chatter has focused on Alaphilippe, Van Aert, and Van der Poel, the three-time world champion has enjoyed an almost attention-free – by his standards – run-up to the race. His COVID-19 positive obviously set him back and affected his race schedule but you don’t win a sprint in a race as tough as the Volta a Catalunya or finish fourth in Milan-San Remo without a solid base of training and some top-level form.
Granted, this isn’t the swashbuckling Sagan of a few years ago, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be to win Flanders. During his prime years, Sagan was often criticized for being too strong for his own good and not making the right tactical choices but that no longer seems to be a talking point, and if a pressure-free Sagan can race Flanders while the three prime-time favourites cancel each other out, then he has an excellent chance of taking his third Monument.
Taking a step back, it’s hard to imagine a more popular winner at this point. A victory for Sagan would please his loyal following, lead to the neutrals applauding a veteran for providing a timely reminder of his class, and demonstrate that a rider of his calibre is deserving of more Monument titles.
Michael Matthews (Team BikeExchange)
- Age: 30
- Best result: Sixth, 2019
The Australian is clearly in reliable form and says he's on an upwards trajectory, with top 10s in Gent-Wevelgem and Milan-San Remo to add to his two top three placings in Paris-Nice this season. His team looks well-drilled and focused and there’s a decent chance of an Australian landing on the podium for the first time since Heinrich Haussler in 2009.
The problem for Matthews is that his top-end speed can’t be relied on when it comes to beating Van Aert, Van der Poel, Matteo Trentin, and a string of other riders. Matthew is fast, and he can beat one or two of those contenders on his day, but edging out all of his main rivals in a close finish is a huge undertaking. Therefore, the 30-year-old needs his best legs, the right move to go clear, and for some luck to swing his way if he’s to win.
He certainly deserves some good fortune after what’s happened to him in some major finales over the years – the crash that robbed him of a working hand in Milan-San Remo last year, for example – but everything has got to come together perfectly if Matthews is going to win his first-ever Monument on Sunday at his favourite race. Can it happen? Yes. Will it happen? That’s a much tougher question to answer.
Matteo Trentin (UAE Team Emirates)
- Age: 31
- Best result: 13th, 2017
Alexander Kristoff’s sixth place in Dwars door Vlaanderen was a welcome boost but it certainly shouldn’t persuade the UAE Team Emirates management to distract themselves from Matteo Trentin’s current form.
Granted, Kristoff has won the race previously, and he was third last year, but he has looked below par for most of the spring, while Trentin has settled perfectly at his new team. Third in Gent-Wevelgem demonstrated the Italian's top-end speed and he probably sits just ahead of Matthews in terms of favourite status. The Italian has looked the better of the two on the climbs and beat the Australian in Gent-Wevelgem.
However, there’s no getting away from the fact that Trentin has never really shone in De Ronde. Of course, he spent six years on a QuickStep team where leadership wasn’t an option, but he’s had chances since then and has either been plagued by injury or bad luck or simply hasn’t been able to deliver. This could be the campaign where it finally comes together though. He’s looked solid all spring, and has been aggressive at times too. He can also go the distance, with some proven results with over 250km in the legs.
Dylan van Baarle (Ineos Grenadiers)
- Age: 28
- Best result: Fourth, 2017
While youngster Tom Pidcock appears to be slowing down after a sublime start to his WorldTour career, the opposite can be said of Van Baarle. The Dutchman took a resounding 52-kilometre solo victory at Dwars door Vlaanderen earlier in the week and has finished inside the top ten in both E3 Saxo Bank Classic and the Gent-Wevelgem since Ineos’ disappointing result in Milan-San Remo.
The 28-year-old deserves sole leadership at Ineos due to his current form but he’s also demonstrating what we’ve known for some time: Van Baarle is a fine one-day rider capable of much, much more.
He’s been one of, if not the, most consistent rider since the Classics campaign moved from Italy to Belgium, but his strategy on Sunday will be telling. Will he back himself to follow the main moves or will he try and jump clear in a bid to anticipate the likely fireworks?
He may not be given the choice given his recent win, in which case we should see a fascinating scenario where the Dutch rider goes toe-to-toe with the main contenders. A dark horse to some extent but now that he has that winning feeling, Van Baarle is worth watching both for this race and for a possible Worlds bid later in the year. He's that good.
Greg Van Avermaet (AG2R Citroën)
- Age: 35
- Best result: Second, 2014 and 2017
The man with the golden helmet nudges Oliver Naesen out of our list for the simple reason that he’s had one more top 10 finish than his teammate in recent weeks and also has more experience, but the reality is that the French squad haven't clicked in the manner many expected them to.
There have been flashes of promise as the two new teammates dovetail in races but too often they’ve missed the right move and have been forced to drag themselves back into contention from almost losing positions.
Both riders have the legs to be competitive forces on Sunday, and having numbers is a huge advantage, but there’s a nagging feeling that both men are just missing a final gear when the major attacks begin. Perhaps they’re just building towards their peaks, and Flanders will be the culmination of their spring efforts but the jury is out on that for now.
Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo)
- Age: 28
- Best result: Seventh, 2018
Going by record alone, Stuyven is better suited to the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, but with the French race postponed until the autumn, the Milan-San Remo winner finds himself leading Trek-Segafredo while uncertainty swirls over the participation of teammate Mads Pedersen
Whether the Dane makes the start line might inconsequential though, especially given that Stuyven has looked competitive in recent races while his teammate has appeared to struggle since mid-March. Stuyven also finds himself in a similar position to Sagan – he isn’t deemed as an out-and-out favourite but has the credentials to succeed.
And while his Milan-San Remo win means that he’s likely to be given even less freedom, he can also use that win as an advantage. He doesn’t have to chase every single move because he’s already got a Monument in his pocket. It's up to his rivals to burn their matches and that situation could easily play into the Belgian's hands.
Anthony Turgis (Total Direct Énergie)
- Age: 26
- Best result: Fourth, 2020
We promised to stick to one rider per team, so the likes of Kasper Asgreen, Oliver Naesen, Mads Pedersen and Alexander Kristoff miss out, while Sep Vanmarcke, Tiesj Benoot, Alberto Bettiol, and John Degenkolb just haven’t done enough to be included. Stefan Küng certainly deserves an honourable mention, and Giacomo Nizzolo can’t be ruled out, but we’ve gone for Turgis as our final pick.
The Frenchman was fourth last year and was strong enough to be in the break at Gent-Wevelgem, but missed the move that decided the race. He was second in Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne too, and with an experienced team around him, the Frenchman has a huge opportunity to make a name for himself.
The distance won’t be a problem, and his sprint after long races is certainly powerful, so it’s just a question over whether the 26-year-old can put it all together on the day. He’s been knocking on the door for some time, and eventually, he’s going to take a major win. He could well be the next Bettiol.
Editor in Chief - Cyclingnews.
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