The 2018 Tour of Flanders will have one of the most wide-open fields of contenders in recent memory, with numerous riders to choose from as possible winners. Who can stop the Quick-Step Floors blockade? Will Peter Sagan shake off his bad luck of last year? Has Philippe Gilbert been hiding his form? Cyclingnews picks a dozen of the top riders to watch on Sunday.
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing)
In his pre-race press conference, Greg Van Avermaet disclosed that the Classics are decided by '90 per cent legs and 10 per cent luck'. While the majority of statistics are almost certainly made up, the Belgian's assessment holds a line of truth to it. The problem for Van Avermaet, however, is that based on his performances thus far this year, he is bare in both legs and luck. That's not to propose he has performed poorly, far from it, but in the last few races he has missed whatever spark that dazzled 12 months ago when everything he touched turned to gold. In Dwars door Vlaanderen, he followed rather than led when Tiesj Benoot attacked, before eventually fading into the chase group, and while Wednesday's semi-classic will not define Van Avermaet's season, his next set of races will.
Flanders has been a race of mixed fortunes for the Olympic champion. He has stood on the podium three times in the last four seasons but a win has eluded him through a blend of crashes and superior opposition. This year the opposition has improved; Peter Sagan has found form, the Quick-Step juggernaut looks unstoppable, and Van Avermaet is playing catch-up. But Sunday is not a Gent-Wevelgem or a Dwars door Vlaanderen, and Van Avermaet undoubtedly has the skills to win. Maybe he just needs a bit more than 10 per cent of luck this time around.
Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe)
Despite his bulging palmarès, the Tour of Flanders remains Peter Sagan's one and only Monument victory. His past record has also included a second place and two more top-10 finishes. The world champion's Classics campaign thus far has been a tale of two halves after delaying his cobbled debut until E3 Harelbeke last week. The so-called mini-Flanders was a day Sagan will not want to think about too much, after missing the crucial splits and rolling in more than three minutes down. He turned his fortunes around two days later with victory at Gent-Wevelgem, showing that you can't keep a good man down.
Gent-Wevelgem, as Sagan was pointed to remind us, is a very different prospect to the Tour of Flanders, but the performance shows that E3 was a blip rather than a lack of form. If he was to win Flanders on Sunday, he would be one of the rare riders to do so having finished outside the top 10 at E3 Harelbeke. However, rare achievements are something that Sagan specialises in.
Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors)
Philippe Gilbert hasn't won a race all season but the 35-year-old will still start the Tour of Flanders as Quick-Step's most valuable asset. That's not to say he's their out-and-out leader, such is their strength in depth, but the veteran rider falls neatly into the role once occupied by Tom Boonen, with the ability to either lead from the front or act as the conductor and fire teammates up the road.
Last year's winner attacked from 55km out to seal an epic victory, and this time around Quick-Step have several riders who can potentially repeat the effort. It's not a full-proof plan, as shown when Niki Terpstra went clear with Alexander Kristoff a few years ago - but strength in numbers makes life so much easier in a race of Flanders' nature. As for Gilbert, he can win alone or from a group and in a straight battle is probably one of only three or four riders who can take on Peter Sagan.
Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal)
Still just 24, Tiesj Benoot has carried the burden of expectation upon his shoulders after his surprise fifth place at the 2015 Tour of Flanders, in his first season as a professional. However, a heavy crash scuppered his opportunity to back that up the following season, while a tactical error ruled him out of contention in last year's race.
This year, the expectation is exponentially higher after he claimed his first professional victory in diabolical weather at Strade Bianche. He has been a watched rider since that day in 2015, but his emphatic solo victory in Siena will only make his competitors more wary but the Belgian is brimming with confidence and it won't concern him too much.
What will likely give him cause for concern is Lotto Soudal's depleted ranks with some of their key riders sidelined. After looking in great shape in February, Andre Greipel is out following his Milan-San Remo crash, Jens Keukeleire forced to end his Classics campaign early due to a respiratory infection and Nikolas Maes also in doubt after falling ill ahead of Dwars door Vlaanderen. It will make things a bit harder for Benoot, but there is still some power in the Lotto Soudal team to support him.
Yves Lampaert (Quick-Step Floors)
Following his history-making second consecutive Dwars door Vlaanderen title, Yves Lampaert has stated his claim as a joint leader of the Quick-Step Floors squad for the Tour of Flanders. After such a canny performance, you cannot blame him for throwing his name into the hat. But in a team so full of talent, he is going to have to fight for his right and may still find himself playing second fiddle to some of his more illustrious teammates.
Prior to his victory on Wednesday, Lampaert looked in good shape and has played an instrumental role in much of their success. The most blatant of those was his part in the two-man Quick-Step attack with Niki Terpstra at E3 Harelbeke, which delivered the latter to victory. Lampaert did struggle at times to stick with Terpstra last Friday, so it remains to be seen if he can stick with it when things get rough this weekend.
Zdenek Stybar (Quick-Step Floors)
At times it seems that Quick-Step Floors have more leaders than they do support riders, with Zdenek Stybar another potential contender. Stybar has approached this season's campaign in much the same fashion as all of his previous tilts, with determination and a smattering of attacks. Outside of his national title, Stybar has not tasted victory since Tirreno-Adriatico in 2016, but that has not dimmed his delight in the attack.
He has been consistently strong throughout the Classics with ninth, eights and sixth at E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem and Dwars door Vlaanderen respectively. Strictly speaking, it is Paris-Roubaix next week that suits Stybar better and his Flanders record has been a bit mixed but whatever the result we can expect an aggressive race from the Czech champion.
Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors)
The fourth Quick-Step rider on our list of 11 but many a pundit's favourite for Sunday. Twice a podium finisher, and buoyed by an excellent win in E3 Harelbeke, the 33-year-old looks to be back at his Paris-Roubaix-winning form of 2014. It helps, of course, when the collective might of your team can block any counter-attacks after you've soloed away, but you still need to finish off the task at hand, and Terpstra is on-par with the best when it comes to maintaining a lead in the closing stages of races. He might not be everyone's favourite rider but he's undoubtedly a pro you want riding with you, rather than against you. Stubborn, canny, and uncompromising – three ideal credentials when it come to a race like Flanders.
Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First-Drapac)
There's a valid argument that Vanmarcke has been the strongest rider in the last few weeks, with consistently high performances in E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem and Dwars door Vlaanderen. In all three events, he has shown a propensity to dig in and animate, but as we've seen in the last six years that hasn't been enough to net the 29-year-old a major Classics win. Back in 2012, when he beat Tom Boonen to the title in Omloop the Belgian media were quick to suggest that Vanmarcke could be their next sensation, yet results have been thin on the ground since.
The drought is not for a lack of effort but when your sprint is often eclipsed by almost anyone left in contention, and you're dealing with the Boonen-Cancellara era, the odds will forever fall against you. Scroll through the names on this list and you'll find two riders, possibly three, that Vanmarcke can beat in a sprint. Therefore, Vanmarcke's best hope for victory comes in the form of a solo attack. Is he of the calibre of Boonen, Gilbert, Cancellara or does he have the foil within his team that Devolder exploited perfectly to win twice?
Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida)
Yes, this is the Italian's debut in De Ronde, and yes there are more experienced riders when it comes to the bergs and cobbles of Flanders, but Nibali deserves a wildcard selection within this list. His form and confidence are undoubtedly high after his Milan-San Remo exploits, and with Haussler, Bozic, Colbrelli and Koren, he has a markedly stronger team than many could have expected out of Bahrain-Merida. Only Merckx has won both La Classicissima and De Ronde in the same year, and as with San Remo, no Italian has won Flanders for around a decade. The romantics, still spellbound from the Poggio will dream that lightning can strike twice.
In terms of tactics, it's hard to determine Nibali's best strategy but that could be his main strength with rivals unsure whether to closely mark him or allow him a certain degree of freedom if he moves in an early break. As Procycling's editor, Ed Pickering, pointed out in our recent podcast, the bergs of Flanders are not the Poggio but such is Nibali's all-around class that he has to at least be considered for Sunday.
Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo)
While he might be a joint leader with John Degenkolb, Jasper Stuyven has been far and away Trek-Segafredo's most consistent performer at the 2018 Classics. His performances have not been garish or flashy, but he has been there or thereabouts since the opening weekend. Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne is the only one of the cobbled races he's done this year where he finished outside of the top 10, and that involved a long-range attack that may have held off the pack had his companion Daniel Oss not suffered a puncture.
After working in the early years of his career to support Fabian Cancellara, last year was Stuyven's first opportunity to take on Flanders with his own ambitions. While he floundered on the Paterberg, it was Degenkolb that took the team's best performance with seventh place. This time around, it seems that the man from Leuven is set to be the team's leading rider.
Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale)
It was all going so well for Oliver Naesen with fourth at E3 Harelbeke and sixth at Gent-Wevelgem, but his whole spring was thrown into doubt on Wednesday when he crashed on his knee during Dwars door Vlaanderen. He was briefly able to continue but soon abandoned and headed to a nearby hospital to inspect the damage.
With his knee swollen from the impact, there were concerns that he might not be able to ride this weekend, but some good news came through yesterday and he was named in AG2R La Mondiale's seven-man squad for De Ronde. We will have to wait and see how that impacts him on Sunday, but it was going to take more than a bang on the knee to keep Naesen away.
Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott)
With Naesen's health an unknown due to a recent crash, Boasson Hagen still finding his form, Kwiatowski's underwhelming ride and Milan-San Remo and Kristoff constantly caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, this list had one more space for an underdog. Trentin just about shaved it.
After spending the first two months of the season playing catch-up due to a training injury, Trentin is beginning to find his feet. A solid 11th in E3 was backed up by 7th in Gent-Wevelgem, and while the Italian has not been a major animator in races, like his former Quick-Step teammates, he has gone about his business and consistently followed the right moves. That said, the Tour of Flanders has never been a happy hunting ground for Trentin. In fact, he's only once made the top-10 in any of the three opening Monuments, but now that he's free from those Quick-Step shackles he can demonstrate just what the Belgian team are missing.
With Luke Durbridge and Mat Hayman around him, Trentin has both experience and horsepower, and it's worth noting that despite being behind a number of more established Classics teams in terms of resources, Mitchelton has still won four out of possible five monuments since their inception. They know how you punch above their weight, and in Trentin they have the perfect underdog.
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