Tour of Flanders: Top 10 contenders

The Tour of Flanders is the jewel in the crown of the Belgian calendar and to many it is the most important race of the entire season.

The cobbled Classics have thrown up some thrilling action already, from Omloop Het Nieuwsblad to Gent-Wevelgem last weekend. However, as many riders have already stated, the main event is this weekend.

Over the past month, there have been a select group of riders who have pushed to the front of the pack ahead and become the favourites for the Tour of Flanders, staking their claim on this most prestigious of victories.

Cyclingnews has compiled a list of 10 riders that could be aiming for a place on the podium when the race reaches the finish in Oudenaarde on Sunday.

Peter Sagan (Bora-hansgrohe)
Age: 27
Previous record: 1st (2016), 4th (2015), 16th (2014), 2nd (2013), 5th (2012), DNF (2011)
Cyclingnews star rating: *****

You can’t talk about any of the cobbled Classics without mentioning Peter Sagan, particularly as he’s defending champion here. While things haven’t always gone his way this season, Sagan has looked supreme in almost every race he’s done thus far. However, this sense of dominance can be Sagan’s biggest weakness. His Bora-hansgrohe team also lacks the firepower to compete with the likes of BMC and Quick-Step Floors, leaving him exposed to his rivals team tactics.

Sagan has proved time and again that he’s strong enough to ride away from the majority of the peloton but his strength means that teams are also unwilling to work with him. Riders know that they can’t bring him to the line and that has lost him opportunities of victory - last week's Gent-Wevelgem is a prime example.

Sagan was able to beat everyone last year but this time his rivals will be hot on the tail of any move he makes.

Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing)
Age: 31
Previous record: DNF (2016), 3rd (2015), 2nd (2014), 7th (2013), 4th (2012), 22nd (2011), 39th (2010), 35th (2009), 8th (2008), DNF (2007)
Cyclingnews star rating: *****

When Greg Van Avermaet headed into the 2016 Tour of Flanders, he was in the form of his life having won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Tirreno-Adriatico. A crash would dash his hopes of going on to take the win at Flanders but he came back to enjoy his best ever season. One year on, Van Avermaet’s spring campaign appears to be paved with the gold of his Olympic medal.

Thus far, he has won all but one of the races he’s ridden in his native Belgium, and each has come not by chance but by making and takin his own opportunities. The BMC team seems to have learned their lesson from Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne when they were caught off-guard by Jasper Stuyven’s attack. They will need to be on the money on Sunday if Van Avermaet want to claim the team’s first ever monument victory.

Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors)
Age: 34
Previous record: 75th (2012), 9th (2011), 3rd (2010), 3rd (2009), 15th (2008), 25th (2007), DNF (2006), DNF (2003)
Cyclingnews star rating: ****

It has been five years since Philippe Gilbert last lined up at the start of the Tour of Flanders but he arrives at this year's race as one of the favourites following a blistering run in recent weeks.

He has second places at Dwars door Vlaanderen and E3 Harelbeke, and overall victory, plus a stage, at the Three days of De Panne under his belt. The Quick-Step Floors team also look much more together than they have in recent seasons. There has never been any doubt about the ability of the riders but that is often overshadowed by a failure to capitalise on their strength. With Gilbert looking so strong at the moment, Quick-Step Floors may be able to rally behind him and make something stick at Tour of Flanders for the first time since 2012.

Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin)
Age: 29
Previous record: 4th(2016), 1st (2015), 5th (2014), 4th (2013), 15th (2012)
Cyclingnews: Star rating: ****

Despite his recent victory at the Three days of De Panne, Alexander Kristoff was quick to play down any notion that he was among the favourites. One win does not overwrite the missing results of the past month, and Kristoff has readily admitted that he hasn’t been on top of his game this spring. However, he said the same last year and was still able to finish in fourth place. He’ll have to hope that another day’s tough racing in De Panne has set him back on the right track.

Kristoff will be aided by Tony Martin who, if he avoids any more crashes, could be key in keeping him in the right place when the race begins to break up. Baptiste Planckaert will also have a crucial role to play and could be a plan B if Kristoff is still struggling.

Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale)
Age: 26
Previous record: 22nd (2016), 35th (2015)
Cyclingnews star rating: ***

Oliver Naesen is a latecomer to the upper echelons of cycling, having only moved to the WorldTour with IAM Cycling last year and turning professional the year before that. Naesen has enjoyed some solid, if unspectacular, results over the past two years, but 13th at last year’s Paris-Roubaix was a hint that there was plenty of potential in the rider from Ostend.

That potential has been confirmed this season as AG2R-La Mondiale give him a free rein to see how he matches up against the top Classics riders. Quite well, it seems so far. He has been in the top 10 on almost every outing in Belgium thus far, with 22nd at Gent-Wevelgem the only blot on his copy book. He really solidified himself as a contender for the Tour of Flanders when he was part of the three-man group that contained Greg Van Avermaet and Philippe Gilbert at E3 Harelbeke.

John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo)
Age: 28
Previous record: 7th (2015), 15th (2014), 9th (2013), 59th (2012), 94th (2011)
Cyclingnews star rating: ***

John Degenkolb has had big cycling shoes to fill this season after he replaced Fabian Cancellara in Trek-Segafredo’s Classics line-up. Degenkolb has shown flashes of form and fifth place at Gent-Wevelgem over the weekend proves that he can follow the top riders when he needs to. However, he has been lacking that something to take him to the next level and possible success at the Tour of Flanders.

Degenkolb’s directeur sportif Dirk Demol told Cyclingnews that the German was missing the killer instinct of his predecessor Cancellara. Demol also accused Degenkolb of switching off at times, and he will have a lot to prove on Sunday if he wants to make his DS happy. Jasper Stuyven will be waiting if the wings if Degenkolb is unable to deliver.

Tom Boonen (Quick-Step Floors)
Age: 36
Previous record: 15th (2016), 7th (2014), DNF (2013), 1st (2012), 4th (2011), 2nd (2010), 20th (2009), 17th (2008), 12th (2007), 1st (2006), 1st (2005), 25th (2004), 25th (2003), 24 (2002)
Cyclingnews star rating: ***

There is little more than a week left of Tom Boonen’s career, and it is coming down to crunch time for Belgium’s favourite son.

Boonen has thrice been on the top step of the podium at his home monument, with his last visit coming in 2012. His Flanders record hasn’t been glittering since but with his retirement in sight, there will be a big motivation to go out with a bang even if Paris-Roubaix remains his biggest goal of all.

Boonen’s Classics campaign got off to a rocky start when he crashed and subsequently fell ill during the opening weekend, but he has been on the up since then. He has been picking his battles carefully, playing the team role on a number of occasions this spring but he still secured top 10 finishes at both E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem.

Boonen prefers Paris-Roubaix to the Tour of Flanders but when the red mist descends he’s not going to give up an opportunity to lay it down on Sunday. Quick-Step Floors have plenty of options, however, with Gilbert and Niki Terpstra in their line-up.

Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal)
Age: 23
Previous record: DNF (2016), 5th (2015)
Cyclingnews star rating: **

Lotto Soudal has a number of cards to play on Sunday, and Tiesj Benoot is their strongest option. The quietly spoken 23-year-old set tongues wagging in 2015 when he made it home in fifth place on his debut at elite level. He was unable to back that up a year later after a heavy fall took him out of the race.

Benoot has flown under the radar during the early part of the Classics, with a puncture spoiling his day at E3 Harelbeke. He’s had a week to recoup and his ride to fourth at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne at the end of last month is perhaps something to give him hope going into Sunday. Lotto Soudal also has Tony Gallopin and Jurgen Roelandts in their arsenal, however, the former is still recovering from a crash at E3 Harelbeke.

Jens Keukeleire (Orica-Scott)
Age: 28
Previous record: 21st (2016), 19th (2015), 37 (2014), 110th (2013), 31st (2012), 106th (2011
Cyclingnews star rating: **

Jens Keukeleire’s Tour of Flanders results have never been spectacular, with 19th in 2015 the best he’s achieved so far. This year has been different, with an impressive ride to second place behind Greg Van Avermaet at Gent-Wevelgem and 12th at E3 Harelbeke.

Something out of the ordinary would have to happen for Keukeleire to climb onto the top step of the podium in Oudenaarde, but with the form he has, he could certainly infiltrate a late break for the finish line.

Luke Durbridge has also been going strong for Orica-Scott and was one of the few riders that could hang onto Philippe Gilbert on the opening stage of the Three days of De Panne. With these two in their midst, Orica-Scott could mix things up on Sunday.

Sep Vanmarcke (Cannondale-Drapac)
Age: 28
Previous record: 3rd (2016), 53rd (2015), 3rd (2014), 29th (2013), 48th (2012), DNF (2011), 61st (2010
Cyclingnews star rating: **

Sep Vanmarcke is an unknown quantity going into the Tour of Flanders, after a week hampered by a stomach bug. A crash at Strade Bianche in early March has also impeded his path through the Classics this season.

He finished third at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad but that was some time ago and it remains to be seen if he has been able to retain the form he had prior to the illness and injuries.

Vanmarcke does have the credentials to pull out a good result at the Tour of Flanders though, with two podium finishes in the past three seasons. He does have more more support than he’s had in previous years, with Taylor Phinney and Dylan van Baarle in the Cannondale-Drapac squad for Flanders. 

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Born in Ireland to a cycling family and later moved to the Isle of Man, so there was no surprise when I got into the sport. Studied sports journalism at university before going on to do a Masters in sports broadcast. After university I spent three months interning at Eurosport, where I covered the Tour de France. In 2012 I started at Procycling Magazine, before becoming the deputy editor of Procycling Week. I then joined Cyclingnews, in December 2013.