Sunday's Tour of Flanders will be this season's last major one-day race, but is also looking increasingly like one of the last 2020 races per se, such is the escalation of coronavirus positives within the professional peloton as Europe struggles once more to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
True, the Vuelta a España is still set to start on Tuesday, while the Giro d'Italia also hobbles on, despite a number of teams having already left the race, but it's hard not to just be happy that we've made it as far as this rescheduled and shortened edition of Flanders.
It should have been followed a week later by Paris-Roubaix, but 'The Hell of the North' has been cancelled, and so De Ronde will act as this year's flagship cobbled Classic, and will be a last hurrah for many of the one-day specialists – 10 of which we've selected here.
Julian Alaphilippe (Elegant-QuickStep)
The Frenchman makes a highly anticipated Tour of Flanders debut and does so in the rainbow jersey, looking to become the sixth reigning world champion to win the Ronde and one of an even more select group of debutant winners. Alaphilippe has sought to play down his favourite status, insisting he’s here to test the waters and learn the ropes. While he may be right that experience is an important factor at Flanders – and the cobbled Classics in general – if there’s anyone you’d bank on getting to grips with it quickly, it’s Alaphilippe, who’s something of a complete racer.
He may be better suited to the slightly longer climbs and more consistently hilly terrain, but he showed by attacking on the new, steep cobbled climb at Brabantse Pijl that he won’t be out of place on the hellingen of the Flemish Ardennes.
Brabantse Pijl also showed Alaphilippe is in top form. It wasn’t so certain at the Tour de France, but he has since won the world title, and almost won Liege-Bastogne-Liege but for a couple of howling errors in the final kilometre. The biggest question mark over Alaphilippe’s individual chances might just be his team, a typically strong Deceuninck-QuickStep outfit – renamed Elegant-QuickStep for this race only – that boasts several legitimate contenders.
Zdenek Stybar, Yves Lampaert, Kasper Asgreen, and even Florian Senechal – second at Gent-Wevelgem – will all be expected to play a role in what’s almost always a numbers game from the Belgian team. Alaphilippe has nothing to lose, and could end up acting as a useful foil for his more experienced teammates. Either way, he’s bound to light up the race.
Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma)
Wout van Aert is the five-star favourite after his exploits this year, with victories at Strade Bianche, Milan-San Remo, two stages in a Tour de France performance that defied all logic, and finally a pair of silver medals at the Worlds. He finished eighth at Gent-Wevelgem, but if you narrow it down to just the final ascent of the Kemmelberg, Van Aert looked the strongest – 30 per cent stronger than Mathieu van der Poel, as Roger De Vlaeminck somehow calculated.
That strength and palmares, however, ultimately counted against him in the finale, as he was a marked man on the thrillingly open run-in. As Tom Boonen warned him, such issues come with success and will no doubt repeat themselves. Whether they’ll repeat themselves at Flanders depends on how the race is ridden. A similarly tactical finale could count against him, but if it comes down to brute strength, then you can’t really look past Van Aert for Flanders’ Finest.
Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix)
Wherever Van Aert goes, so, too, does Mathieu van der Poel, so why should it be any different on this list? Jokes aside, the duel between the old cyclo-cross rivals is the leading narrative in the build-up to the Ronde following the fall-out from Gent-Wevelgem.
The general consensus is that the pair are the strongest in the field, but that Van der Poel is a shade below Van Aert’s level. He certainly seemed a little more laboured by the end of Gent-Wevelgem, and some of the gloss has been taken off 'Van der Poel version 2019', when he made everything look so amazingly straightforward.
On his Flanders debut, remember, he crashed and then mounted a phenomenal chase to get back on the Oude Kwaremont and then place fourth. It remains to be seen if he alters his tactics in the aftermath of Gent-Wevelgem – if he only has eyes for Van Aert, then things are liable to backfire again.
Van der Poel has always been best when he takes the initiative and races on the front foot, like at Dwars door Vlaanderen last year. Even this year, his greatest hits – and indeed two of only three victories – have come in the form of audacious long-rangers, first at the Dutch Nationals, and then more recently to snatch the BinckBank Tour title on the final day. Go on, Mathieu – entertain us.
Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo)
Everyone’s talking about Mads Pedersen after his fine victory at Gent-Wevelgem, and the former world champion – second on his debut two years ago – does line up as one of the legitimate pre-race favourites. However, Jasper Stuyven represents an equally solid shot at glory for a Trek-Segafredo team that struggled slightly in the post-Cancellara years but now look to have really found their way.
Stuyven won the first Classic of 2020 at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad all the way back in February – his first since his breakthrough at the 2016 Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne – and looked set for a productive spring until the pandemic hit. At that race, Pedersen was looking to deflect some of the glare of the rainbow jersey, insisting he had much to learn and that Stuyven was still the stronger rider.
That balance of power shifted at Gent-Wevelgem, but Stuyven’s anonymous 38th place was largely attributable to his saddle breaking ahead of the second ascent of the Kemmelberg. Either way, the pair get on very well and should form a formidable double act on Sunday.
Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale)
Another French debutant, Bardet is certainly one to watch in terms of being an interesting rider to keep an eye on, rather than a genuine contender for the title. The two-time Tour de France podium finisher is best known as a lightweight climber and three-week rider, but is certainly not without one-day pedigree. His podiums at the Worlds, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Strade Bianche in 2018 were proof of that – the latter featuring a long-range escape on the gravel alongside a young Wout van Aert.
Just last week, he was seventh at Paris-Tours, and the very fact he wanted to race at Flanders shows his racing insinct. He’s not as punchy as Alaphilippe, and has no sprint to speak of, but he’s more robust than his wiry frame suggests. AG2R are fully behind Oliver Naesen, who’s looking to put an end to a string of crashes, but Bardet might just go further than you’d think.
Alberto Bettiol (EF Pro Cycling)
The Italian won the first race of his professional career at last year’s Tour of Flanders and, although there has only been very limited Classics racing since then, he looks to have owned that sudden leap in status. Fourth at Strade Bianche and fourth at Gent-Wevelgem are proof of a rider who belongs in the finales of these big races.
At Gent-Wevelgem he was a restlessly attacking force, but a problem he may find is no one will underestimate him like they perhaps did at Flanders last year. He’ll be marked much more tightly and will have to channel that strength that’s clearly there into the right moments. One factor that’ll help is the presence of Sep Vanmarcke, as EF are another team who have two legitimate cards to lay on the table.
Søren Kragh Andersen (Sunweb)
We’ve mentioned the possibility of Van Aert and Van der Poel cancelling each other out, and who better to exploit a situation like that than Søren Kragh Andersen, who made a habit of it at the Tour de France? On the tricky finish in Lyon and the rolling roads to Champagnole, the Dane broke free just as the rest of the group were catching their breath and taking stock after bigger moves from bigger names.
He clearly had the strength, but the victories were built on shrewd timing and race reading. Despite its distance and gruelling parcours, Flanders is still far from an elimination race, and there will be room for tactical manouevre. Of course, it should be pointed out that Andersen’s Tour victories were also based on a numbers game from Sunweb, so there should be no concern when you see they also line up with Tiesj Benoot.
As for Andersen’s Classics pedigree, he won the first gravel edition of Paris-Tours in 2018 and placed third at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad earlier this year, while he underlined his suitability to the Flemish Ardennes with second overall at the BinckBank Tour. The Dane is now 26 and seemingly heading for a major Classics victory at some point in his career – will it be on Sunday?
Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ)
The Swiss rider has ridden Flanders four times and has never finished in the top 40, but that’s surely about to change. Since leaving Greg Van Avermaet’s side at BMC, he has found himself as the de facto Classics leader at FDJ, and has placed a greater focus on it alongside his more obvious time trialling capabilities.
After winning the European time trial title, he claimed bronze at the Worlds, so he has the form, but it’s his more recent appearances in mass-starts that have really caught the eye. He placed fifth on the final day of the BinckBank Tour in the Flemish Ardennes to claim second overall, and then put in a huge ride to finish fifth at Gent-Wevelgem.
He’s one of the bigger riders, but showed he has the power for the short sharp climbs when he left the rest behind on the final ascent of the Kemmelberg and forced them into a long chase on the ensuing flat. The 26-year-old seized the initiative all day and, as he said: “I rode like I wanted to. I was very active and I really raced for victory, not just for a place."
We can expect the same on Sunday and hopes will be high at Groupama-FDJ.
Matteo Trentin (CCC Team)
Trentin was second over the top of the Kemmelberg behind Kung at Gent-Wevelgem, and appears to have the legs to be in the mix at Flanders. What’s confusing is his sprint. It was once his weapon, but he was roundly beaten by Pedersen and Senechal in Wevelgem, and hasn’t won a race all season. His finishing kick was no doubt blunted by his attacks on the run-in, but that perhaps in turn paints a picture who doesn’t trust his sprint enough to wait around for one.
Trentin’s approach will depend on whether Greg Van Avermaet passes his late fitness test – or maybe it won’t. There were question marks over the pair’s relationship ever since Trentin arrived at CCC last December, and they came to the fore at the Tour de France when Van Avermaet said he was unaware Trentin was going to attack from their break on the stage to Champagnole. Both are going their separate ways next year.
Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe)
A third Flanders debutant and cobbled Classics newcomer for our list. Schachmann has made a name for himself in the Ardennes in the past couple of years, but there’s a good deal of excitement over what he can do at Flanders.
He won Paris-Nice before the season was halted, but hasn’t been quite so good since it restarted, placing seventh at Il Lombardia and ninth at the Worlds, either side of a solid enough Tour. He had an off-day at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, which could well be a sign of decline as the season nears its end. However, at full strength you sense the German all-rounder could thrive. He certainly has a rare opportunity, given Peter Sagan is otherwise occupied at the Giro d’Italia.
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