The Tour of Flanders is the biggest of the Belgian Spring Classics. A combination of short, steep climbs and cobbled sections lined with tens of thousands of enthusiastic fans characterize the race dubbed Flanders Most Beautiful. For the 98th edition there are a number of top favorites vying for the crown: two-times winner Fabian Cancellara of Trek Factory Racing, Cannondale's Peter Sagan, Team Belkin's Sep Vanmarcke and Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma QuickStep).
After the start in Bruges the 200 riders of 25 teams face a long stretch towards the first hills of the day. Traditionally this is the moment the breakaway of the day is formed. It's an important goal in terms of publicity for many of the smaller teams to have representation in the break when they don't have one of the race favorites onboard. Teams like MTN-Qubeka and Topsport-Vlaanderen have already been present in most of the breakaways of the Belgian races so far and are expected to do so again.
The first of the 17 hills comes just after the feed zone and is the Oude Kwaremont. The climb that features in many of Flanders Classics also serves as the penultimate hill of the day when the final is underway. The final hour starts at the Koppenberg at 45 kilometres from the line. A quick succession of (cobbled) climbs follow with the Paterberg, a short but very steep climb with an average gradient of 12.9 percent, as final launching platform for a decisive attack. The race ends with a flat run to the finish in Oudenaarde.
In 2013 Cancellara left Sagan and Jürgen Roelandts behind on the Paterberg to finish solo. Sagan and Roelandts rounded up the podium. Tom Boonen crashed out of the Ronde after only 19 kilometres and had to end his Spring campaign.
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Two-times winner Fabian Cancellara seems the man to beat though his season hasn’t resulted in a victory yet. In the E3-Prijs Harelbeke one week ago he showed his strength by piloting himself back to the front of the race after being caught up by a crash but a breakaway of four had already escaped.
Peter Sagan won the E3 and also, accidentally, sprinted to victory in the first stage of the Three-Days of the Panne-Koksijde. It’s his fourth start in Flanders and with a fifth and second place under his belt already, Sagan is ready to jump on the top step of the podium.
With a fourth place in the Omloop het Nieuwsblad, a fifth in E3 and fourth place in Gent-Wevelgem, Sep Vanmarcke is on form. The Team Belkin captain is at home on the Flemish cobbles and arguably a bigger favorite than his compatriots Tom Boonen and Jürgen Roelandts.
Lotto-Belisol has been struck by a string of bad luck before Flanders with crashes for André Greipel, illness of Marcel Sieberg and tactical mistakes in previous races. In Milan-San Remo, Roelandts was strong but he decided to wait for Greipel on the Poggio. The 28-year old Belgian finished third in last year’s edition and can’t be discarded.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step have strength in numbers. With several aces to play like three-times winner Boonen, Zdenek Stybar and the in-form Niki Terpstra and strong helpers like Van Keirsbulck, Vandenbergh, Maes, Keisse and Trentin the Belgians have the strongest team at the start line.
While Boonen struggles with form, an injured thumb and private problems, Dutchman Terpstra is ready to take the lead. After an impressive solo victory in Dwars door Vlaanderen, a fifth place in Omloop het Nieuwsblad and a second place in E3-Prijs last Friday, Terpstra starts Tour of Flanders in the best shape of his career.
The list of favorites continues with fast men like John Degenkolb of Giant-Shimano and Milan-San Remo winner Alexander Kristoff who will be sprinting if a small peloton arrives at the finish in Oudenaarde. Team Sky bring Geraint Thomas and Edvald Boasson Hagen to Flanders with Bradley Wiggins as helper. IAM Cycling's Sylvain Chavanel, BMC's Greg van Avermaet and Lampre-Merida's Filippo Pozzato can be considered outsiders this Sunday in Belgium.
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