The 2022 Tour of Flanders is just hours away, with the riders and teams making their final preparations ahead of the grand finale of the Belgian cobbled Classics season.
Sunday afternoon will see 175 riders take to the cobbles and bergs of Flanders and do battle for victory at the biggest race in Belgium, a mammoth 272km ride from Antwerp to Oudenaarde across famous hills such as the Koppenberg, Steenbeekdries, the Taaienberg, Oude Kwaremont, and the Paterberg.
As ever, the best cobbled Classics specialists will be lining up on Sunday morning to fight for victory six or so hours later, barring a few notable exceptions – including race favourite Wout van Aert, who pulled out with COVID-19 on Friday evening.
Among the field of contenders for the 106th edition of the Tour of Flanders are seven men who have previously stepped on the podium, including five past winners, as well as a number of riders hopeful of adding their names to the honour roll.
We've already published our comprehensive preview of the race, as well as guide on how to watch all the action, now we've poured through the start list and picked up five favourites and five outsiders for the Tour of Flanders.
Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix)
With no Wout van Aert at the start line on Sunday, Van der Poel takes up the mantle as the number one favourite at the race following his Dwars door Vlaanderen victory.
The Alpecin-Fenix rider made a surprise early return to racing at Milan-San Remo two weeks ago following rehabilitation from a lingering back issue. Since getting back to racing, he's shown no sign of any problem, going from strength to strength after taking third at La Classicissima.
Following an impressive stage win at the Settimana Coppi e Bartali, he was again on the top step of the podium at Dwars. Van der Poel attacked 80km out on the Berg Ten Houte to set up the race-winning break, chased down moves in the finale, and then jumped away at the end to beat Tiesj Benoot in a two-up sprint for the line.
Despite having just seven race days in his legs and no early-season racing build-up to speak of, he has quickly established himself as the man to beat at De Ronde. A repeat of Milan-San Remo, with an attack going away and few willing to help him in the chase might be the only way he misses out.
Tiesj Benoot (Jumbo-Visma)
Benoot, beaten by Van der Poel in that final sprint in Waregem at the end of Dwars, will co-lead Jumbo-Visma in Van Aert's absence. He and the versatile Frenchman Christophe Laporte have formed part of the formidable Dutch Classics squad this spring, which has taken over the mantle as the top cobbled Classics team from QuickStep-AlphaVinyl.
They are, of course, greatly weakened by Van Aert's absence, but given the form they've displayed over the past month or so, Benoot and Laporte still look like the strongest one-two punch in the peloton, testament to Jumbo-Visma's overall strength.
Either man could have taken this spot, with Laporte having claimed runner-up spots at the E3 Saxo Bank Classic and Gent-Wevelgem, while Benoot was ninth at the former in addition to his podium place at Dwars. Benoot edges it for us, given his comparatively greater experience at the sharp end in Flanders – he's finished top 10 on four occasions, including fifth in 2015.
Come the race final, though it would seem more important for Benoot to have Laporte alongside him than the other way round. A sprint finish is not the Belgian's strong suit in contrast to Laporte. However, we only have to look back a year to see that sprinting at the end of a six-hour race isn't just about who has the ability.
Kasper Asgreen (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl)
Defending champion Asgreen was the man who pulled off a surprise to beat Van der Poel in a two-man dash to the line last April, and QuickStep-AlphaVinyl will be looking to him once again this year as the Belgian squad hope to salvage a dire Classics campaign.
Fabio Jakobsen's Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne win stands out as the sole victory they've taken during cobbles season so far and is in fact their sole podium to date. Asgreen's 10th place at E3 Saxo Bank Classic has been their best result since, and the team which has won 60 Classics in 20 years is now staring down the barrel of their first blank since 2013.
Not to heap too much pressure on the Dane, but Asgreen really seems like the only man capable of breaking the drought for them on Sunday. Swathes of the team has been cut down by illness through the spring, including ostensible co-leaders Zdenek Stybar and Yves Lampaert, the latter having already ruled himself out of contention for Sunday.
Having burst onto the scene three years ago with a surprise ride to second place in only his first full year at WorldTour level, Asgreen will need to produce an equally jolting ride on Sunday to turn things around for QuickStep. He hasn't produced a ride on the level of the other favourites on this list since Strade Bianche, but he can't be counted out.
Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers)
Like QuickStep, Pidcock is another who has suffered with illness this spring. He was unable to ride Strade Bianche and the lingering stomach issue cut him down at Milan-San Remo and hindered his cobbled campaign before he got back to it at Gent-Wevelgem and Dwars.
At the latter he sprinted to the final podium spot having looked strong on the run-in, chasing down moves and putting in those of his own, ably assisted by fellow neo-pro Ben Turner, a fellow 22-year-old who has been among the revelations of the spring. The pair will link up again on Sunday, with Jhonatan Narváez, Magnus Sheffield, and Dylan Van Baarle also lining up as part of a very strong Ineos Grenadiers squad.
It may only be Pidcock's second year as a pro, but he's already shown he can handle the longer, mor arduous one-day Classics, with his sixth-place ride at the 268km Leuven Worlds road race the primary evidence along with him Brabantse Pijl win and second place at Amstel Gold Race.
That shouldn't normally be an issue on Sunday, then, as it might for Turner, who finished eighth at Dwars.
Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates)
Two-time Tour de France champion Pogačar is something of a wildcard among the top favourites, having only made his cobbled Classics debut at Dwars. There, he ably handled the cobbles and rode to a top 10 finish despite missing the decisive split.
The likes of Biniam Girmay, Ben Turner (both riding their debut cobbled races this year), and Jhonatan Narváez (during his second cobbled Classics campaign) have shown that a rider doesn't have to be a Flanders veteran with an encyclopedic knowledge of the roads to get results on the cobbles. It does help, however.
With that in mind, Pogačar – who can look to UAE Team Emirates teammate, Classics veteran Matteo Trentin, for assistance – would do well to shadow a Van der Poel or Benoot when the racing starts on Sunday. The wheel space will be coveted, but there will be fewer sure-fire ways to position yourself at the front of the race when the moves are made.
If he can get over the likes of the Koppenberg and Paterberg in the early stages of the finale with the best of them, then he'll stand as much of a chance as anyone of taking the win. In the past year, the Slovenian 'Grand Tour specialist' has defied the meaning of the phrase, winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège from a small group and this year racing to Strade Bianche victory from 50km out.
It's that second ride which will play highest on the minds of his opponents, with Van der Poel perhaps the only other man in the peloton also capable of pulling off such a win on Sunday. He may not have the experience, but Pogačar will be watched and marked, no doubt about it.
Victor Campenaerts (Lotto Soudal)
The line between 'contender' and 'outside' is a fine one and Campenaerts straddles it more than most coming into Sunday's race.
The Belgian is racing his first cobbled campaign as a challenger folllowing his conversion from a time trial specialist to a Classics man.
He's done nothing but impress since, racing to fifth and sixth at Opening Weekend and then grabbing fourth place at Dwars with a chipped tooth and a mammoth 58-tooth chainring. He showed at the race that he can live with the best of them, getting away with Van der Poel, Pidcock, Benoot et al on the Berg Ten Houte and attacking over and over during the frantic and thrilling run to the finish.
Campenaerts will also have a good squad behind him, with Tim Wellens, Florian Vermeersch, and Brent Van Moer all lining up for Lotto Soudal.
His lack of experience at the pointy end of Flanders is really the only mark against him heading into the race, along with a slower sprint than some of his rivals. However, with plenty of eyes set to be trained on Van der Poel, and with Campenaerts' time trialling prowess, it's not infeasible to imagine a scenario where he steals away to take the first Flandrian win at the race in a decade.
Watch this space.
Michael Matthews (BikeExchange-Jayco)
Matthews has been one of the most consistent men in the peloton over his 12-year career, with the 2021 season being the first since 2012 that he finished a season without a WorldTour win to his name. Over the years there have been wins at the Tour, the Giro, numerous week-long races, and at one-day races, too.
He's taken the GPs Québec and Montréal and the Bretagne Classic, but those races are some way off the Monuments. Flanders, which Matthews two years ago told Cyclingnews was one of his dream races, is on another level, but the BikeExchange-Jayco leader has already shown a talent for the cobbles.
He finished sixth in Oudenaarde on his race debut back in 2019 having come off an impressive week at the Volta a Catalunya, where he won twice. It's a similar scenario this time around, too, having come off a strong fourth place at Milan-San Remo before winning in Catalunya.
A complicating factor, though, is that Matthews fell ill midway through the race and his condition is as yet unknown. If he's on top form come Sunday, the battle for the podium doesn't look out of the question, but, as with several others on our list, it's hard to imagine him living with, say, a full-power Van der Poel attack on the Paterberg.
Anthony Turgis (TotalEnergies)
As with so many other teams and riders this spring, TotalEnergies have not escaped the maladies and illnesses that has swept through the peloton this spring. Team leader and 2016 Flanders champion Peter Sagan is out of the race and undergoing tests following an underwhelming spring campaign affected by January Covid infection and stomach problems at Tirreno-Adriatico.
The unheralded Dries Van Gestel, who rose to the occasion to take a podium at Gent-Wevelgem – continuing his impressive spring – is also out ill on Sunday. An ailing TotalEnergies squad, then, will look to Frenchman Anthony Turgis at De Ronde.
The 27-year-old has seemed to fly under the radar in establishing himself as a spring Classics contender in recent year, going from a second at Dwars in 2019, to fourth in Flanders the following year, a string of top 10s in 2021, and then second at San Remo this month.
Turgis hasn't yet scored a top result on the cobbles this year, though we've enough evidence to know that he can be up there with the contenders at the end of the race.
He'll have a robust support squad, too, with Daniel Oss, Niki Terpstra, and Edvald Boasson Hagen recalibrating from their roles backing Sagan this spring.
Valentin Madouas (Groupama-FDJ)
Fellow Frenchman Madouas is another who has risen to the level of challenger without too much fanfare. The 25-year-old climber/puncheur has shown his versatility in the recent seasons since making his cobbled Classics bow with a 14th place at Flanders two years ago.
Last season he only tackled Dwars and De Ronde, while this year he's raced E3 and Dwars after taking the mountain classification at Paris-Nice three weeks ago. At the former, he took seventh in the chase group behind the Van Aert-Laporte one-two, while at the latter he was 11th having played spoiler in the chase with teammate Stefan Küng in the front group.
He and the Swiss strongman – who finished third at E3 and sixth in Dwars – look to form a formidable duo on Sunday, and both men should be up at the front as the race approaches its final stages.
Küng will be watched more, but it wouldn't be a surprise if the slighter-built Madouas is the half of the pairing who copes better on the hills which come almost non-stop for 130km before the flat run to the line. At a Monument such as Flanders, it's always a positive to have strength in numbers and multiple options, and Groupama-FDJ have just that.
Greg Van Avermaet (AG2R Citroën)
Strength in numbers and multiple options are something that AG2R Citroën have had on paper but less so in reality this spring. The French squad has endured a poor Classics campaign despite having, in team leaders Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen, two of the top cobbled contenders in the peloton.
Since the pair finished third and fourth at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad back in late February, they haven't been close to another podium, or even a top 10, with Van Avermaet's 16th at Dwars the best showing in March.
The 36-year-old was unlucky to puncture out of the chase group there, while Naesen had crashed out earlier in the race. While the abrasions and road rash may hinder Naesen on Sunday, though, Van Avermaet is always a reliable challenger at Vlaanderens Mooiste.
A DNF in 2016 is the only blotch on a run of top 10 finishes that stretches back to 2012 and includes four podium places. After Dwars he played down his chances for Sunday, saying that he "shouldn't delude himself" about winning the race, but another podium is certainly not out of the question.
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Daniel Ostanek is production editor at Cyclingnews, having joined in 2017 as a freelance contributor and later being hired as staff writer. Before Cyclingnews, he was published in numerous publications around the cycling world, including Procycling, CyclingWeekly, CyclingTips, Cyclist, and Rouleur, among others. As well as reporting and writing news and features, Daniel runs the 'How to watch' content throughout the season.
Daniel has reported from the world's top races, including the Tour de France, and has interviewed a number of the sport's biggest stars, including Egan Bernal, Wout van Aert, Remco Evenepoel, Mark Cavendish, and Anna van der Breggen. Daniel rides a 2002 Landbouwkrediet Colnago C40 and his favourite races are Strade Bianche and the Vuelta a España.
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