This year's unprecedented autumn Classics season ends with the 104th edition of the Tour of Flanders, which is a little shorter than in recent years, but should still serve up a spectacular day's racing if last weekend's Gent-Wevelgem is anything to go by.
It will reprise the testy rivalry between Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel, and see Julian Alaphilippe make his highly anticipated Ronde debut in the world champion's rainbow jersey, while Alberto Bettiol will attempt to become the first rider to defend his Flanders title since Fabian Cancellara in 2014.
As with their other races that have taken place during the ongoing health crisis, Ronde organisers Flanders Classics haven't announced full details of the race route as part of their strategy to discourage spectators from attending. They have, however, confirmed that the course will be approximately 24 kilometres shorter than last year. The iconic Flanders climbs of Tenbosse and the Muur van Geraardsbergen have been cut from the race after the first ascent of the Oude Kwaremont, while the Valkenberg has been added.
Starting in Antwerp, the route heads south-west to Zottegem and, just beyond, reaches the first of 17 climbs, the Katteberg, at the 100-kilometre mark. The first of three ascents of the Oude Kwaremont comes soon after. Over the next 70 kilometres, before the second ascent of the Oude Kwaremont, there are seven climbs and the long cobbled section of Haaghoek, which can be very treacherous, especially in the wet.
There are less than 60 kilometres still to race when the riders reach the Oude Kwaremont for the second time. Having negotiated this long (for Flanders) climb, with its steep, cobbled section, they will weave through narrow lanes to the foot of the Paterberg – another abrupt cobbled ramp. Half a dozen kilometres later, the route arrives at the Koppenberg – 500 metres of cobbles rising steeply between almost sheer banks that help to trap moisture on the uneven surface.
There are three more climbs, the last of them being the 2.5km ascent of the Kruisberg-Hotond, before the riders return to the double whammy of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg. From the short ridge atop the latter, 13 kilometres remain into the finish in Oudenaarde.
Naturally, the field for this last Monument of the season is stacked with contenders. Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Alpecin-Fenix's Mathieu van der Poel will start as favourites, but rival riders and teams will be looking to take advantage if the pair mark each other as closely as they did at Gent-Wevelgem.
Van Aert – the winner of Milan-San Remo towards the beginning of this unprecedented autumn Classics campaign – is Belgium's leading hope. Ninth on his Flanders debut in 2018 and one of the group that came in 17 seconds behind Alberto Bettiol last year, when he placed 14th, Van Aert will be backed by a team that features four Dutch riders, including Mike Teunissen, who was in the thick of the action last weekend.
Van der Poel was an astonishing fourth last year on his Ronde debut. The Dutchman's chances seemed to have disappeared when he hit the deck after his front wheel broke with 30 kilometres remaining, but he fought back into contention quite remarkably. He'll be drawing on the support of four Belgians in his team, with Britain's Scott Thwaites also listed among Alpecin's starters.
Strength in depth at Elegant-QuickStep
As always, the team that stands out for its all-round strength is Deceuninck-QuickStep, or Elegant-QuickStep as it will be rebranded for this one race. Road race world champion Alaphilippe may draw most of the attention on his Flanders debut, but 2019 runner-up Kasper Asgreen, Gent-Wevelgem runner-up Florian Sénéchal plus the strength and experience of Yves Lampaert, Zdenek Stybar and Bob Jungels give them plenty of cards to play.
Defending champion Alberto Bettiol will also have plenty of experience around him in his EF Pro Cycling team in the shape of Sep Vanmarcke, Jens Keukeleire and Sebastien Langeveld, who number 30 Flanders appearances between them.
AG2R La Mondiale's Oliver Naesen has been consistently edging closer to the Ronde podium. Second to Van der Poel on the final stage of the recent BinckBank Tour that finished in Geraardsbergen, he was seventh here last year and will be counting on the support of powerful rouleurs Silvan Dillier, Alexis Gougeard and Stijn Vandenbergh. The AG2R line-up also features another intriguing French debutant in the form of Romain Bardet. Seventh at Paris-Tours last weekend, this will be Bardet's final appearance in this team's colours before his move to Sunweb next season.
Still in a rich vein of form thanks to Casper Pedersen's success at Paris-Tours, where Joris Nieuwenhuis was third, Sunweb will field both of these young talents in a team headed by Tiesj Benoot – three times a top-10 finisher in five Ronde appearances. There's another in-form Pedersen at Trek-Segafredo, Gent-Wevelgem winner Mads, who was second behind Niki Tersptra on his Flanders debut in 2018.
Ineos Grenadiers are another team with plenty of depth, Dylan van Baarle the pick of their selection based on past Flanders performances, with Luke Rowe, Michal Kwiatkowski and Gianni Moscon also set to start.
Despite crashing out of Liège-Bastogne-Liège a fortnight ago, sustaining cracked ribs and a torn shoulder ligament in the process, Greg Van Avermaet is still rated a possible starter – he's said he'll make the decision on Friday – while his CCC Team will also be looking to the in-form Matteo Trentin.
Third last year and winner in 2015, Alexander Kristoff's UAE Emirates jersey is another one to watch. The Norwegian has the best record of any rider in the Ronde field, having finished in the top five on six of his eight appearances.
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Peter Cossins has written about professional cycling since 1993 and is a contributing editor to Procycling. He is the author of The Monuments: The Grit and the Glory of Cycling's Greatest One-Day Races (Bloomsbury, March 2014) and has translated Christophe Bassons' autobiography, A Clean Break (Bloomsbury, July 2014).
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