This was supposed to be Wout van Aert's year. On the cobbles this season, the Belgian champion has been several steps ahead of the rest. Solo victory at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was followed by a Jumbo-Visma exhibition at the E3 Saxo Bank Classic. Another, almost casual flex on the Kemmelberg at Gent-Wevelgem served only to shore up his status as the consensus favourite for the Tour of Flanders.
By contrast, his old sparring partner Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) was labouring. Injury had ruined his cyclo-cross season and there were doubts as to whether the Dutchman would feature in the Tour of Flanders at all.
Even when Van der Poel surprisingly resurfaced to place third at Milan-San Remo, one still wondered if he could really hope to challenge Van Aert in the Flemish Ardennes. Victory at Dwars door Vlaanderen assuaged those doubts, and now, improbably, he sets out from Antwerp as the man most likely to win the Ronde.
At the start of Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday, one directeur sportif tried to make light of his own team's depleted roster and accordingly limited prospects at the Ronde.
"Maybe Van Aert will get sick before Sunday too, eh, you never know," he said. It was an exercise in gallows humour rather than in wishful thinking, but 24 hours later, Jumbo-Visma announced that Van Aert had missed the team's Tour of Flanders recon due to illness and that his participation in the race was 'unlikely.' On Friday night the Belgian's absence was confirmed.
Through the early weeks of the season, riders and teams across the peloton have been stricken by illness, but for Van Aert and Jumbo-Visma, the beat went on regardless. The Belgian champion's dominance at Omloop and Harelbeke brooked no argument and his entire Spring had been built around hitting his peak for the Tour of Flanders. Now everything is on the shoulders of Tiesj Benoot and Christophe Laporte.
The Ronde waits for no man, of course, and Van Aert would not be the first favourite to be removed from the running at the last. Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen crashed out early in the race in 2012 and 2013, respectively, but the sense of anti-climax at the loss of such totemic figures was quickly superseded by the drama provided by those who remained in the race.
While Van Aert's absence will change the Belgian newspapers' attribution of their five-star ratings before the race, it will leave no asterisk on the roll of honour afterwards.
Instead, Van der Poel takes on the mantle of favourite thanks to his sparkling victory at Dwars door Vlaanderen, which seemed to bear out his counter-intuitive assertion that his injury-blighted build-up to the Classics had been his best yet. Even so, the 2020 Tour of Flanders winner's record at the business end of the Monuments is not quite unimpeachable. At last year's Ronde, he was surprisingly beaten by Kasper Asgreen (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl) in a two-up sprint, and he was also outkicked by Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Victorious) at Paris-Roubaix in October.
Van der Poel's usual onslaught of kinetic energy can often overwhelm his opponents, but he sometimes punches himself out in the hardest-fought races, leaving himself exposed to a knockout blow in the finale. His rivals will have taken note. Nothing is ever certain in advance at the Tour of Flanders, least of all in a season like this.
Tour of Flanders 2022 contenders
Even without Van Aert, Jumbo-Visma remain the strongest collective in the race, and they may still dictate the terms of engagement in the Flemish Ardennes. Christophe Laporte and Tiesj Benoot had expected to serve as foils to Van Aert, but now they may find themselves thrust into leadership roles.
Neither man has as bankable a sprint as Van Aert, of course, meaning that Jumbo-Visma will have to be inventive if they are to take on Van der Poel.
They may find an ally of circumstance in Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), who had his first taste of the cobblestones at Dwars door Vlaanderen. As ever, the Slovenian's strength was striking, but he was hamstrung by a positioning error ahead of Berg Ten Houte.
He learned that chasing the race is a Sisyphean task in this corner of the world. In Flanders, it pays to get your retaliation in first. If he digests that lesson quickly, then he will be a real threat on Sunday as he chases a third Monument victory in less than twelve months.
After illness ruined his Milan-San Remo challenge, Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) has quietly positioned himself among the leading contenders here. He looked very sharp indeed in placing third at Dwars door Vlaanderen, and he is backed by an Ineos squad that blends the youthful fearlessness of Ben Turner with the experience of Dylan van Baarle.
QuickStep-AlphaVinyl's diminished powers has been one of the key storylines of the Spring, as the combination of a recent spate of illness and a more longstanding drop-off in recruitment has depleted their Classics unit.
Even so, their line-up – and team car – holds a treasury of experience, and the defending champion Kasper Asgreen has been riding far more strongly than his results might otherwise suggest.
The Dane was pedalling very smoothly indeed at E3 Harelbeke last week, but he was hampered by his relative isolation in the finale. Few riders, however, cope with the extra hour of a Monument quite as well as Asgreen, and that trait should stand him in good stead here.
Milan-San Remo winner Matej Mohorič (Bahrain Victorious) has similar powers of endurance, while Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ) has made a leap forward on the cobbles this season and is a danger man here. Victor Campenaerts (Lotto Soudal) will surely be an aggressive presence, while the Trek-Segafredo tandem of Mads Pedersen and Jasper Stuyven will also expect to feature in the finale.
TotalEnergies will rely Anthony Turgis in the absence of Peter Sagan and Dries Van Gestel, but Greg Van Avermaet, Oliver Naesen (both AG2R-Citroën) and 2019 winner Alberto Bettiol (EF Education-EasyPost) look somewhat off the pace.
The weather forecast, meanwhile, is for frigid temperatures on Sunday, which has drawn comparisons with the famously miserable conditions of 1985, when only 25 riders reached the finish in a race won by the Belgian champion Eric Vanderaerden. Earlier in the week, the potential symmetry with Van Aert in 2022 seemed clear. Now the picture is rather less certain. The Ronde is different for it, but no less intriguing.
Tour of Flanders 2022 route
The route for the 106th edition of the Tour of Flanders follows the format that's now been entrenched since 2012, with the Oude Kwaremont taking centre stage and teaming up once again with the Paterberg. Kwaremont, tackled three times in total, is a long, aching climb at 2.2km in length, while the Paterberg is its punchier bedfellow, barely 400 metres but packing an average pitch of nearly 20 per cent.
They are used twice in combination, the second time being the race's finale, with just a 13km run-in to Oudenaarde to follow.
In between the two Kwaremont-Paterberg punches are a quartet of cobbled climbs that include the savagely-steep and savagely-surfaced Koppenberg, along with old favourites like the Taaienberg – aka Boonen-berg – Kruisberg, and Steenbekdries. This 40km section, twisting its way through the Flemish Ardennes, is the absolute heart of the race.
However, that's not to say it's where we'll see all the action. Even in a normal year, the racing on this Flanders course can be opened up from range. This year, with top-favourite Wout Van Aert likely missing and the likes of Mathieu van der Poel and Tadej Pogacar in attendance, there's every ingredient for early aggression.
Berg Ten Houte – the flash point at Wednesday's Dwars door Vlaanderen – appears with 75km to go and is quickly followed by the Kanarieberg. Even before that, the run of Molenberg, Marlboroguhstraat, Berendries and Valkenberg will surely see some 'shadow-favourites' spring into action.
In total, the route measures 272.5km and features 18 hellingen (climbs), most of them cobbled. The start is given in Antwerp's Grote Markt at 10:00 CET and the riders will reach the finish in Oudenaarde nearly seven hours later.
The opening 100km are largely a preamble as the race makes the long journey over to the Flemish Ardennes. A breakaway of lower-level riders will form, and the peloton will be shaken awake by the flat cobblestone sectors of Lippenhovestraat and Paddestraat, although there are still 33km before the climbing begins.
The first climb is the Oude Kwaremont, the first of three times the hordes of fans in the roadside VIP tents will be able to watch the race go past. There will still be 135km to the finish but there'll still be a fight for position ahead of the climb, and a big atmosphere on it.
The riders will come off the Kwaremont and descend straight to the Kortekeer, in what is a quartet of back-to-back climbs. The Achterberg is new to the route and is followed by the Holleweg cobbles and then the Wolvenberg climb.
The Kerkgate and Jagerij cobbles make things tricky ahead of the next spate of climbs: Molenberg, Marlboroguhstraat, Berendries and Valkenberg. The race will have ticked over into the final 100km, and things should really be starting to happen. There's a brief respite but then the Berg Ten Houte and Kanarieberg signal a critical duo where a strong team can rip the race apart.
The riders will then loop around and descend to the foot of the Oude Kwaremont. If it was warming up last time, it will be deafening this time as the race reaches full throttle. The Paterberg follows and then it's straight over to the Koppenberg, Steenbekdries, Taaienberg, and Kruisberg, which effectively has the Hotond baked into it.
They once again take the road down to the Kwaremont and this time it'll be berserk. The race will be in pieces by the top - if not already - and they'll emerge onto the main road with its massive dip in the middle that has become one of the iconic Flanders shots. From there, it's the familiar turn left back onto narrow country lanes that twist down to the foot of the Paterberg. A sharp right-hand bend, and the cobbles hit instantly and the gradient quickly ratchets into the double distance.
It's only short, but any weakness here will be brutally exposed. The riders haul themselves up the final incline and turn left at the top, swooping down the short descent before the 13km run-in to Oudenaarde.
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.