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Will Cancellara crown his Flemish classics career by taking a record fourth win in De Ronde?

Photo: Sirotti

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03.04.2016 @ 11:45 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The holy week of Belgian cycling will reach its climax on Sunday when the cycling-mad Flemish population invite the rest of the world to a fantastic festival of cobbles and climbs, wind and cold, beer and frites. The Tour of Flanders is the most iconic of the series of races which represent the very unique type of racing only found in the Flemish region and in which only the greatest specialists thrive.

 

There will be no holding back when the riders line up in Brugge on Sunday morning. Up until now, every cobbled race has carried an element of preparation, but that will no longer be the case in De Ronde. The big objectives have finally arrived, and the greatest cobbles specialists will have to judge their spring season on their results the next two Sundays.

 

The Tour of Flanders join Milan-Sanremo, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Tour of Lombardy in the list of cycling's 5 monuments - the sport's most iconic one-day races - and its roots in the cycling-mad Flemish region makes it one of the most coveted. The fans create a special atmosphere which is found nowhere else on the cycling calendar.

 

The first edition of the race was held in 1913 and was organized by Karel Van Wijnendaele, co-founder of the sports paper Sportwereld. Like most other big historic races, it was the desire of a newspaper to promote circulation that prompted the creation of one of cycling's most iconic events.

 

Before World War II, the race was usually on the same day as Milan–San Remo. Prominent Italian and French racers preferred the latter which explains why there was only a single non-Belgian winner before the war. With the decision to separate the two races on the calendar, both started to flourish, turning them both into some of cycling's biggest one-day races.

 

The Tour of Flanders is the highlight of the holy week of Belgian cycling and is the pinnacle of a race series that offer several races with an almost identical composition. Over a few weeks in late March and early April, the riders do several races on the same narrow, cobbled and steep roads in a tiny area in the Flemish Ardennes where they zigzag their way through the area to go up as many of the famous hellingen as possible.

 

Races like the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Dwars door Vlaanderen, E3 Harelbeke and the Tour of Flanders are all made up in this way and offer a very special kind of racing that characterizes this unique part of the cycling season. For some reason, it is all restricted to this very short span of time and the roads are only rarely used later in the season. During this period of time, however, they are the centre of the cycling world and all previous events have been a build-up to Sunday's great finale, one of the most important moments of the entire cycling season. The Tour of Flanders is the only monument to have a series of races that all seem to be preparation for the big event.

 

While the other cobbled monument, Paris-Roubaix, is an almost completely flat affair where the difference is made purely by the rough surface and where the strongest contenders rely on their strength and endurance, the Tour of Flanders is a different affair. The main characteristic of the course is its numerous hellingen - short, steep, often cobbled climbs - and thus success in Flanders does require a certain punch to tackle the slopes of the Flemish Ardennes.

 

In fact, the Tour of Flanders organizers never had a plan to deliberately use bad roads. In the early days, they were simply the only ones available. In the 50s Belgium began asphalting its roads but at that time, the race already had its own unique characteristics. When the first classic hills were surfaced, alarm bells started to ring and the organizers had to speak to the local men at bars to find all the hidden roads that could be used for the event. Those have since become an integral part of the race and are iconic places in the cycling world.

 

In fact, the climbs are now so famous that the exact layout of the course makes for a heavy debate. While the Tour of Flanders follows a well-known formula, the exact course differs from year to year. The distance and the number of climbs vary and the start and finishing cities have not always been the same. Having originally started in Gent, the race has taken off from Brugge in recent years.

 

For many years, however, the finale was the same. From 1973 to 2011, the race finished in Meerbeke and had its well-known finish with the famed Muur van Geraardsbergen and the Bosberg coming towards the end.

 

That has all been changed. Instead, the 2012 and 2013 editions finished with a few laps on a circuit that included two of the hardest climbs in the region, the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg. The removal of the Muur sparked a heavy debate, with many cycling fans seeing the decision as a lack of respect for cycling history. The general perception was that the new course would be harder but things turned out differently than expected. The circuit used in 2012 and 2013 may have contained two brutal climbs but also had a lot of big, long roads that has made it impossible to attack from afar. Instead, the race favourites were mostly forced to wait to the final passages of the Kwaremont-Paterberg duo, making the race more controlled than it had been in the past.

 

In an attempt to avoid this scenario, the organizers again changed the course for the 2014 edition. While the Kwaremont and Paterberg still featured as the final two climbs, the circuit format had been shelved and instead the famed Koppenberg had been included much closer to the end. The changes were welcomed by the classics contenders while the faster finishers were less pleased with the new, tougher course. Apparently, the change had the desired effect as the 2014 race turned out to be more selective.

 

Even though both cobbled monuments have been dominated by Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen in the last couple of years, it is no surprise that the list of contenders differ somewhat for the two races. While Thor Hushovd was never able to challenge for victory in Flanders, he was one of the most consistent performers in the North of France. With its combination of climbs and cobbles, the Tour of Flanders may be seen as an amalgamation of Paris-Roubaix and the Ardennes classics and so it is no wonder that certain riders have managed to excel in both Flanders and the Wallonian classics. Philippe Gilbert and Peter Sagan have mostly avoid Paris-Roubaix to target success in the Ardennes but have been perennial contenders in De Ronde  even though the former will again be absent as he fully focuses on the hilly classics while the latter has decided to give Roubaix a shot for the third year in a row.

 

Nonetheless, the list of winners includes many of the same names and in fact two of the current stars are shared record holders in both events. With his third victory in 2012, Boonen equaled the race record set by Achiel Buysse, Fiorenzo Magni, Eric Leman and Johan Museeuw, and in 2014 Fabian Cancellara also took a third win in De Ronde. After they were both absent in 2015 due to inuries, they will return in 2016 in what will be Cancellara’s attempt to become the outright record holder and there is also a chance that the Belgian fans will have to wave goodbye to their big hero, Boonen, in the 2016 edition of the race.

 

Last year Alexander Kristoff took a memorable second monument victory. While everybody expected the Norwegian to wait for a sprint, he surprised most by following an attack from Niki Terpstra with 30km to go. The pair worked together and kept their chasers at bay, with Kristoff easily beating his companion in the two-rider sprint. Greg Van Avermaet and Peter Sagan escaped late in the race and it was the Belgian who made it onto the podium in third. After a solid performance in the 3 Days of De Panne, Kristoff will try to defend his title and he will again be up against Terpstra who will try to rectify things for Etixx-QuickStep after a bad start to the classics season, and Van Avermaet who is enjoying his best year ever.

 

The course

As said, the organizers have listened to the many riders who criticized the revamped course used for the 2012 and 2013 editions for producing too conservative racing. Honouring the contract with finishing city Oudenaarde, there will be no return to the previous finale with the Muur and the Bosberg but the organizers have taken several steps to make the race tougher. The circuit format that had pleased the spectators but done little to encourage aggressive racing is gone and even though the organizers have been keen to make sure that the riders pass the final climbs several times, they have now put together a final part of the race that is more diverse, includes more climbs and allows less room for recovery. That produced some very aggressive racing in 2014 and 2015 and the organizers have put together a very similar course for the 2016 edition.

 

The final combination of the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg is a brutal one as both climbs are among the hardest in the region. In fact, the pair is a much tougher combination that the Muur-Bosberg one used in the past. What had made the 2012 and 2013 editions less aggressive were the many kilometres of flat roads on big roads on the finishing circuit that made it difficult to attack from afar. By abandoning the circuit format, the organizers have managed to reduce the distance between the climbs.

 

The riders will still go up the Kwaremont thrice and the Paterberg twice but the penultimate passages come much farther from the finish. From there, the riders take on a circuit that includes the most interesting novelty of the new course that was introduced in 2014. The famed Koppenberg has always been a key point in the race but has been located way too early to make a real difference. For the third year in a row, it comes much closer to the finish and will kick start a finale with no chance for recovery.

 

Despite the changes, the race still follows the same format that characterizes most of the Flemish classics. The races all kick off with a long section of flat roads before heading into the Flemish Ardennes. Here they zigzag their way through the very tiny area of all the famous climbs. They cover several hellingen and pave sections before they head along flat roads to the finishing city. The narrow roads, steep climbs, and uncomfortable surface typically turn it into a race for the hardmen as the gradual selection means that only a handful are riders are usually left in contention by the time they return to the finish area. The difference between the races are their start and finishing cities, the number of climbs and their distance, with the Tour of Flanders of course being the longest.

 

Since 1998 the race has started in Brugge and this point of departure will be unchanged for the 2016 edition. That city is located close to the coast far from the Flemish Ardennes and so the 255km journey – almost 10km shorter than in 2015 - starts with a long flat southerly run to the city of Roeselaere that will be reached after 30.8km of racing. From here the riders approach ach the heartland of the Flemish Ardennes along roads that are deadly flat and only includes the small Huisepontweg pave sector after 81.7km of racing.

 

After 90.1km, the riders will reach the city of Oudenaarde where the race will finish some 165km later and now the race will change its nature. Unlike last year, the riders won’t get the chance to warm up their legs on the Tiegemberg before they get to the finishing city and when the climbing starts, there will be very little room for recovery. The long opening, flat stretch will only have served to accumulate fatigue in the riders' legs and allow the early break to take off. In many Flemish classics, a presence in the early may be a chance to feature deep into the finale of the race but due to the distance, this never happens in the Tour of Flanders. Hence, there is less incentive to be part of the action and the break may go clear a bit earlier than it has done in Dwars door Vlaanderen and E3 Harelbeke where the pace was very fierce right from the beginning.

 

After the passage of Oudenaarde, the riders will head to the south to go into the heartland of the Flemish Ardennes. The hirst obstacle comes at the 103.1km mark and it will be one the landmark climbs of the race that kicks off the spectacle. First up is the Oude Kwaremont (2200m, 4%, max. 11.6%, 1500m of cobbles) and from here there will be little chance for recovery. The maximum distance between two successive climbs on the list of a total of 18 hellingen is 16km but in most cases it is less than 10km.

 

On the run-in to the Kwaremont, the battle for position will be fierce. It is still way too early for the favourites to show their hands but from now on it will be important to stay near the front almost all the time. Positioning means just as much as power and climbing skills in the Tour of Flanders as there is little room for passing riders on these narrow roads. Starting a climb too far back could easily mean that the race is over, especially if you are caught up behind one of the many crashes that are guaranteed to happen.

 

The riders have now started their first big loop that brings them over another 9 climbs. Continuing in a northeasterly direction, they go up the Kortekeer at the 113.6km mark while it is time for another one of the harder climbs, the Eikenberg (1200m, 5.2%, max. 10%, 1200m of cobbles) after 121.3km of racing. It leads into one of the steep, asphalted climbs, the Wolvenberg (645m, 7.9%,  max. 17.3%) which is located just 3.1km further up the road, and right at the top, the riders will tackle the 800m Ruitenstraat pave sector. It opens a difficult section with three successive paves. Three kilometres later, the peloton will tackle the 2650m Kerkgate which leads almost directly to the shorter 350m Jagerij.

 

This phase of the race is very hectic as another one of the harder climbs, the steep Molenberg (463m, 7%, max. 14.2%, 300m of cobbles) - often a key climb in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad - comes just 5.7km later. 5.0km further up the road, it is time for more cobbles when the riders pass another key section of the Omloop course as they go over the 2300m long Paddestraat pavé. After that obstacle, it is finally time for some respite as there won't be any major challenges for the next 12.6km and it may give the riders one of their final chances to take on some food and go back to the team car.

 

These first climbs serve a number of purposes. First of all, they will all add up to make the race hard and turn the race into one of attrition. From the very start of the hilly zone, it is a gradual elimination with riders being constantly shed out the back. In addition to the constant battle for position that automatically ups the pace, we may us see a few teams try to make things harder by riding hard on the climbs.

 

More importantly, however, this phase is usually dominated by several attacks. It is still too early for the podium contenders to show their cards but it may be time to send their teammates up the road. The captains from some of the smaller teams may also be eager to get into the mix at this point as they are keen to make themselves visible and get a ticket to the finale of the race. The attacks may be launched on the climbs but very often, riders take off when the riders get back to bigger, flat roads and momentarily slow down.

 

The riders will now turn around to head back in a southwesterly direction and this second half of the opening circuit is easier than the first one. First up is the 2000m Haaghoek pave sector which leads directly into the asphalted Leberg (950m, 4.2%, max. 13.8%). The riders will now tackle the Berendries (940, 7%, max. 12.3%) and then it's time for the Valkenberg (540m, 8.1%, max. 12.8%) which is followed by a longer section of flat roads. 77.9km from the finish they will go up the Kaperij (1000m, 5.5%, max. 9%) which precedes the second feed zone and the final chance to refuel for the final part.

 

The finale won't kick off just yet as the riders first have to go up the Kanarieberg (1000m, 7.7%, max. 14%) 70.5km from the finish but it is followed by the longest obstacle-free section of the hilly part of the race. This section from 100-70km to go is rather easy and could again give some of the podium contenders the chance to use a small lull in the pace to send riders up the road.

 

Things kick off in earnest 54.6km from the finish when the riders are back at the Oude Kwaremont (2200m, 4%, max. 11.6%, 1500m of cobbles) to tackle the famed climb for the second time. It leads almost directly into another one of the most brutal Flemish hellingen, the Paterberg (360m, 12.9%, max. 20.3%, 360m of cobbles) as the riders tackle the pair of climbs for the first time. When they return 40km later, those two climbs will be the final obstacles of the race.

 

The riders will now start the final, new circuit in the Flemish Ardennes and this is one is much harder than the one used for the 2012 and 2013 editions. The most notable feature is the fact that it contains the famous Koppenberg (600m, 11.6%, max. 22%, 600m of cobbles) which comes just 44.6km from the line. This is far closer to the finish than in the past for this brutal ascent which is never used for any of the other Flemish classics and was taken out of the course for several years after a bad accident in the 90s. Since then, the road surface has been improved but it remains one of the hardest climbs in Flanders.

 

To go up the Kwaremont, the Paterberg and the Koppenberg within just 10km is simply brutal and now it is time for the favourites to kick into action.  After the Koppenberg, the riders will tackle the 2000m pavé sector Mariaborrestraat and 5.4km after the famed ascent, they will go up the Steenbeekdries (700m, 5.3%, max.6.7%). Then it is time for another one of the hardest climbs in Flanders.  Like in the last two years the Taaienberg (530m, 6.6%, max. 15.8%, 500m of cobbles) - Tom Boonen's favourite climb - comes deep into the finale just 36.8km from the finish and so will play a more important role than it has done in the past. In the last two years, the big names played with their muscles on each of these very difficult climbs and even though none of the attacks were decisive, it created a very small lead group very far from the finish.

 

After the Taaienberg, thing get a bit easier and this could be what prevents too early attacks from the favourites. For the next 20.1km, the only obstacle is the long gradual ascent of the Kruisberg (2500m, 5%, max. 9%, 450m of cobbles) and this section may play an important role. This was where Jurgen Roelandts went up the road in 2013 and in 2014 Van Avermaet and Vandenbergh used that section to get a free ticket to the finale. At the same time, Cancellara and Sagan found themselves isolated and had to do a lot of work to stay in contention in what is a very diffuclt section to handle. Last year Kristoff and Terpstra launched the race-winning move here. All the podium contenders who are just below the biggest favourites, will want to use this section to anticipate the attacks from the race favourites. If the selection has been big in the tough section a few kilometres earlier, domestique resources will be limited and it will be hard to control what could be a very aggressive part of the race.

 

As it has been the case in the previous years, all is set to be decided on the Kwaremont-Paterberg duo. The first one comes 16.7km from the finish while the latter ends the hostilities 13.3km from the line. Those two climbs are some of the hardest in the race but are very different. Kwaremont is a long, gradual ascent which is more about power and endurance than acceleration skills while the Paterberg is a short, brutally steep ramp where it is possible to accelerate almost from the bottom to the top. In 2014, Cancellara attacked on the former and only Vanmarcke could stay with him. They both tried to attack each other on the Paterberg but failed to get clear. This will be the scene of the final attacks from the favourites and it’s where the strongest riders have to make their moves.

 

The final 13.3km consist of a long northeasterly run back to Oudenaarde along flat, rather big roads. At this point it will be a pursuit all the way back to the line and it will be the scene of a real tactical battle if a few riders are still together at this point. In 2012 and 2013, a chase group behind the leading three riders has been rather big but in recent years the race was much more selective. The final turn comes 8km from the finish and then it is straight all the way to the finish on the Minderbroederstraat where a deserved winner of the Tour of Flanders will be crowned.

 

Compared to last year, the distance has been slightly reduced from 264km to 255km and the Tiegemberg will be skipped. However, all the changes come in the flat first part of the race and from the point when the climbing starts on the Oude Kwaremont for the first time, nothing has changed, meaning that it’s almost an identical race to last year’s

 

 

 

The weather

The outcome of only very few races depend as much on the weather as the Tour of Flanders. Even though the course is hard and selective, the difficulty increases dramatically if the conditions are windy, cold, and rainy. If the conditions are brutal, it becomes a real race of attrition while the race is open for a lot more riders if the weather is nice. Last year’s Gent-Wevelgem proved how bad weather can completely change the race and while the fast guys hope for pleasant weather, the strongmen hope for a brutal race. Many cycling fans don't regard it as a real edition of De Ronde if the riders haven't had to battle the Belgian rain and cold.

 

Belgium has had some windy weather the last few days but things will change in time for Sunday’s race. In fact, Sunday is forecasted to be a real spring day in Belgium where the riders will be greeted by bright sunshine and a maximum temperature of a very unusual 19 degrees.

 

There will only be a light wind from a southerly direction and it will even abate a bit as the day goes on. This means that it will mainly be a headwind in the first part until the riders hit the hilly zone. Her the wind will of course come from every possible direction as they zigzag their way through the Flemish Ardennes. It will be a headwind on the Kwaremont and a tailwind on the Paterberg and then it will be a cross-tailwind all the way back to Oudenaarde.

 

The favourites

When the race finished in Meerbeke with the late passages of the Muur and the Bosberg, everybody knew what to expect from De Ronde but with the new, harder course, all riders will be a bit more uncertain. The race hasn’t found a fixed formula yet and it’s not clear what the right approach to the much harder finale is. In 2014 and 2015, they got their first chance to test the new final part and the race was clearly a lot harder than the course used for the 2012 and 2013 edition. A much smaller group was left after the Taaienberg and the number of potential winners on this route is definitely a lot more restricted. The riders will be a bit more familiar with the course but we can expect a very similar race. With the harder course, there was a fear that the riders would be too afraid to attack from afar but in the last two years even the big names played with their muscles pretty early. There is no reason to expect that it will be any different in 2016.

 

This year the race has two overwhelming favourites. Many have been scared by Fabian Cancellera’s and Peter Sagan’s impressive strength in Gent-Wevelgem and this has made many wonder how those two riders can be beaten on the key climbs. The situation is very similar to what we experience in 2013 when everybody expected a big duel between those two riders and in fact that race can be used to find out what tactic, many rider will have.

 

The 2013 race was an interesting one as it proved how much can be won for the outsiders by anticipating the favourites. Jurgen Roelandts showed how you can earn yourself a podium spot by doing so and being ahead at the time when the biggest names make the decisive attacks. In 2014, Greg Van Avermaet and Stijn Vandenbergh did a similar move and it has also worked out in Paris-Roubaix where several riders have earned themselves a ticket to the finale of the race by attacking early and so forcing Cancellara on the back foot.

 

Many riders have indicated that they want to try a similar move in 2016. Tiesj Benoot has openly spoken about his plans and Roelandts will be keen to repeat the success. Etixx-QuickStep have so many cards to play but miss the top rider to go with the best. Their strength in number means that they can allow themselves to play some of their cards from the distance.

 

Already from the very beginning, we can expect the early foundations for such moves to be laid. In 2013, Lotto Belisol kept sending riders up the road to have assistance for Roelandts later in the race. Many teams will be keen to a rider in the early break and so the very start of the race could be a very fast and tactical affair. When the peloton reaches the hilly zone, we can expect more attacks, with teams trying to prepare the moves from their main riders.

 

The podium contenders probably won't try their hand until the final, very difficult circuit. The moment for the riders to go on the attack may not necessarily be on the climbs but could easily be on the flat stretches where the pace briefly goes down. Some riders will definitely attack a bit earlier but the Kwaremont-Paterberg-Koppenberg-Taaienberg quartet will make a huge, natural selection that only leaves very few riders in the group of favourites. The following mostly flat 20km are perfect for attacks as the biggest names will have very few domestiques left and the race will be difficult to control. This could be a very important part of the race. We expect this part to be rather animated, with Trek and Tinkoff trying to keep things together for the final time up the Kwaremont and the Paterberg while teams like Etixx-QuickStep and Lotto Soudal will be keen to attack.

 

Last year the race didn’t have any big favourites and it was a bit unclear which teams would control things from the start. Sky took the responsibility as Geraint Thomas had just won the Tour of Flanders. This year things will be much clearer. Trek and Tinkoff are the clear favourites and it will be up to those teams to keep things under control in the early part of the race. They are likely to get a hand from Katusha as Alexander Kristoff wants to honour his status as the defending champion. Then the real tactical battle will start when we get to the hills where it will again be left to Trek and Tinkoff to control the many attacks.

 

If they manage to do so, Fabian Cancellara stands out as the big favourite. It took some time for him to learn how to tackle De Ronde but in recent years he has been almost unbeatable in this race. In fact, he has won every edition he has finished second he took his first win in 2010 apart from the 2011 edition where he was clearly the strongest rider but played with the muscles way too early.

 

It is no wonder that Cancellara is so hard to beat in Flanders. The Swiss has all the skills to do well in a grueling race. He is stronger than most over the very long distances and he has an unmatched power on the climbs. He has excellent time trial skills which have often allowed him to take solo wins and at the end of a long race, he can even beat sprinters in a final dash to the line.

 

After his disastrous 2015 season, many were questioning whether he could return to his former level but he has firmly silenced his critics. He won the hardest race in Mallorca already in January at a time when he is usually far from his best condition which clearly showed that he has probably trained more dedicatedly than ever for what will be his final year in the pro peloton. He went on to win the time trial in Algarve and then took a hugely impressive win at Strade Bianche before crushing the opposition in the Tirreno TT.

 

His classics campaign has been a mixed affair. He was clearly the strongest rider in Sanremo but he was a marked man in what ultimately turned out to be a very easy race. His crash in E3 Harelbeke cost him the chance to win but he could still take confidence from that race. His comeback was simply impressive and even though we never got the chance to see him going up against the best on the climbs, it was hard to be left with the feeling than Cancellara was a step above the rest.

 

He proved it again in Gent-Wevelgem where Sagan and Cancellara were the strongest on the Kemmelberg. He used too much energy in the flat run to the finish and suffered from cramps in the sprint but there is no doubt that he was the strongest in that race too.

 

On the Kemmelberg, Cancellara clearly had to dig deep to follow Sagan but things are likely to be different in Flanders. That race is a lot harder and most importantly it is longer. While Sagan loses the edge at the end of a long race, Cancellara benefits from the distance as he only gets stronger. Furthermore, the tougher course means that it’s more about attrition than explosiveness and this favours the Swiss over the world champion. Finally, the climbs in the finale are different. Oude Kwaremont is more of a long, gradual ascent than a punchy wall and this suits Cancellara excellently. As opposed to this, Sagan has done nothing to hide that he doesn’t like the climb which is likely to play a crucial role in the race.

 

The challenge for Cancellara will be to keep things under control. His preferred scenario is to have things together at the start of the final two climbs where he can make the decision with the legs. In the last few years, Trek haven’t been very strong in the classics and he has often been left isolated in the finale, meaning that he has been forced to do a lot of work himself. The harder course will make things much harder to control as there won’t be many left after the Koppenberg and the Taaienberg.

 

However, Trek have really improved and they were actually one of the strongest teams in both E3 where they paced Cancellara back to the front and had Jasper Stuyven there in the finale, and in Gent-Wevelgem where they had almost the entire team with their captain after the race had split in the crosswind. For once, Cancellara can really expect to have support very late in the race, most notably from Stuyven and Edward Theuns – provided that his poor showing last Sunday was just a bad day. It won’t be easy to control things as Lotto Soudal, BMC and Etixx-QuickStep will have strength in numbers and try to send riders up the road but this year, Cancellara should be a lot fresher when the real final starts at the bottom of the Kwaremont for the final time. We doubt that anyone will be able to stay with him on the two key climbs in the finale and we expect Cancellara to end his Flanders career on a high by taking a record fourth win.

 

His biggest rival will be Peter Sagan. The Slovakian has been close to victory in Flanders which is clearly the monument that suits him the best. While Milan-Sanremo is too easy for him and Paris-Roubaix is less about explosiveness, the Flemish race has all the ingredients that make it one for Sagan. He is probably the rider with the best kick on short, steep climbs and he has the sprinting skills to beat most.

 

However, Sagan has had mixed experiences in the race. In 2013, he went into the race as one of two big favourites and managed to follow Cancellara on the Kwaremont before losing contact on the Paterberg. However, that was his last big classics performance as he suffered in both 2014 and 2015. He may have finished fourth in 2015 but it was obvious that he was far from his best during the entire classics season 12 months ago.

 

Things have turned around for Sagan. Since last year’s Tour of California, he has been back at the level that made him the most talented classics rider a few years ago. Like in 2013, he now joins Cancellara as one of two favourites for the race.

 

Sagan has proved his strength in the two key build-up races. In E3 Harelbeke, he played a strange waiting game and briefly looked like he was in difficulty. However, he made a big surge near the top of the Kwaremont to prove that he was the best on the climbs in that group and only regretted later that he hadn’t gone earlier. He still went away with Kwiatkowski on the Karnemelkbeekstraat in the finale. In Gent-Wevelgem, he made a fantastic attack on the Kemmelberg and clearly forced Cancellara to dig very deep.

 

However, that race also proved why there are some doubts about Sagan. In the first few years, it was evident that he found it hard to handle the long races. He has clearly improved since then and last year’s win at the World Championships was the final proof. However, that can’t erase the memory of his many spectacular blow-ups late in long races and he has often been beaten in sprints by slower riders. That happened in Het Nieuwsblad and E3 Harelbeke and it is clear that unlike Cancellara, he doesn’t get stronger as the race goes on.

 

Sagan is clearly aware of this and he is now much better at gauging his effort. In the Worlds road race, he only made one searing acceleration and played a careful waiting game for most of the race. In 3, he didn’t go with the first attacks and made a bit of a gamble that allowed him to get back to the front when he had initially missed out on the Taaienberg.

 

However, the Tour of Flanders is longer than E3 and harder than the Worlds so it may not be enough to gauge his effort more carefully. Furthermore, he has a big disadvantage when it comes to team support. Only Oscar Gatto is strong enough to be there in the finale but the Italian is clearly no longer in the form he showed in Milan-Sanremo. If both Sagan and Cancellara are isolated after the Taaienberg, they may have to work a lot to keep things under control like it happened in 2014. That will be more costly for Sagan at the end of a hard race.

 

Nonetheless, Sagan is one of the two big favourites. He has proved his skills on the climbs and the strong Trek team could be an ally in the finale. We doubt that he will be able to drop Cancellara but even if he has been beaten in several sprints recently, he is still faster than the Swiss. Of course things are different at the end of a hard race but if he can be allowed to make a short sprint like he did in Gent-Wevelgem, we doubt that the Swiss will be able to beat him. It may finally be time for him to win a monument.

 

When it comes to skills on the cobbled hellingen, Sep Vanmarcke is one of the biggest talents. He has more punch than most of the favourites and this means that he can easier make a difference. He really showed his class in the 2014 edition of the race where he was the only rider who could follow Cancellara when he attacked on the key climbs in the finale.

 

Vanmarcke has slipped a bit under the radar. His 2015 season was a bit of a disaster. He was clearly the best rider in Omloop but he was set back by bad luck which continued to mar him during the rest of the classics. Mechanicals took him out of contention in both E3 and Paris-Roubaix and he had a bad day in Flanders.

 

Furthermore, he hasn’t had many results in the classics yet. Unlike in past seasons, he has had a much slower start to the year, skipping the opening weekend to be ready for the big races later in the year. He wasn’t at his best in E3 but was clearly a lot better in Gent-Wevelgem where he make it back to Sagan and Cancellara on the descent from the Kemmelberg. That even came after a long day of chasing after inattentiveness had made him lose out when the race split in the crosswinds. If he had been fresher in the finale, he would have been even stronger. There is little doubt that his form is growing and as he gets closer to his 2014 level, he stands out as one of the big favourites.

 

Vanmarcke’s main asset is his explosiveness on the climbs but he has more weapons. He benefits from the longer distance and he is fast in a sprint. The big problem for him is a lack of team support as he will probably be isolated already after the second passage of the Paterberg. He will have to rely on other teams to control things.

 

The big danger for Vanmarcke is that he always spends way too much energy. If he is isolated, he has a tendency to follow almost every attack and that’s too costly at the end of a hard race. There is little doubt that Vanmarcke has the strength to win but he needs to gauge his effort more carefully.

 

Greg Van Avermaet is the most consistent classics rider in the world but the big win is still missing. His victory at Omloop Hei Nieuwsblad was a first step and it signaled an important chance for the Belgian. In the past, he was known for his many places of honour but in the last two years he has turned into a winner. He rides much wiser, gauges his effort carefully and seems to have become faster at the end of a hard race as he can now beat most in a final dash to the line.

 

As usual, Van Avermaet has been in great form since the start of the year and there is little doubt that he will be his usual consistent self in Flanders. However, he has not had the perfect build-up as he had to skip E3 due to illness. He bounced back with a solid ride in Gent-Wevelgem where he nearly managed to follow the best on the Kemmelberg even though the stomach issues made it hard for him to eat during the race.

 

We can expect Van Avermaet to be stronger in Flanders and he generally likes the longer races. Furthermore, he is backed by a strong BMC team and can expect to have Daniel Oss and Jempy Drucker at his side very late in the race. That will allow BMC to follow the attacks or chase down any dangerous move.

 

Van Avermaet is not afraid of going on the attack himself and that’s what earned him second place in 2014. He may try to do so again in 2016 but he will now be a marked man with less freedom. He probably has to go with the best in the finale and that’s definitely not impossible. At the end of a hard race, he can beat almost everybody in a sprint even though he has actually never beaten Sagan in a flat sprint. Van Avermaet has all the skills to finally win a monument.

 

It has been a disastrous classics campaign for Etixx-QuickStep. The Belgian team have been in chase mode in all the big classics and are still empty-handed. The team is impressively strong but their leaders have lacked the edge to go with the best. After E3, they discussed how they could avoid being on the defensive and there is little doubt that they will have a much more offensive approach than usual for this race. Their best chance is to anticipate the favourites.

 

The best card is Zdenek Stybar. The Czech is one of the most skilled riders on the hellingen which he proved in 2015, most notably in Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem. He never really found his best legs for Flanders but his great rides in Roubaix prove that he can handle the distance.

 

Unfortunately, Stybar has not been at his best in 2016. He looked strong in Tirreno but at the end of the race, he looked very tired. He was marred by bad luck in E3 where he had to chase with Cancellara after a puncture and in Gent-Wevelgem, he was with Vanmarcke, Rowe and Van Avermaet at the top of the Kemmelberg.

 

There is little doubt that Stybar has the skills to win this race but it remains to be seen whether he has the form. His biggest asset is the level of team support as Etixx-QuickStep will have lots of riders ready to go on the attack. Stybar may be strong enough to follow the favourites but also knows how to anticipate the stronger riders. He is fast in a sprint but most of the favourites are faster. However, no one knows how to time a late attack like Stybar.

 

Alexander Kristoff goes into the race as the defending champion but he openly admits that he is not as strong as he was 12 months ago. Back then he was unstoppable and clearly the strongest rider in the race after he had completely dominated in De Panne. This year he was ill in E3 Harelbeke and was forced to skip Gent-Wevelgem and he was not as strong in this week’s stage race.

 

However, his form can’t be too bad. He was very strong in Sanremo where he claimed to have felt better than ever on the Poggio and he clearly got better and better during the 3 Days of De Panne. He managed to win what was a very hard first stage and capped it off by doing a time trial that was not far off the one he did 12 months ago. He is only likely to get stronger from now on.

 

Kristoff is usually not able to go with the best on the hellingen and so he doesn’t really have many top results in the Flemish classics. He has his best results in De Ronde which is no big surprise. Kristoff benefits massively from the longer distance as he is probably the best at the end of a very long day in the saddle. Furthermore, this makes it less about explosiveness and more about endurance and that’s what makes Flanders a great race for Kristoff.

 

On the other hand, the level is a lot higher in 2016 and we doubt that he will able to follow Cancellara and Sagan when they attack. For Kristoff, it will be a day of trying to follow. Hence, it is a big disadvantage that Katusha is a pretty poor team and there won’t be much support in the finale. He will have to hang on and hope for other teams to bring things back together for a sprint from a small group. If that’s the scenario, he will be the big favourite as he is by far the fastest rider at the end of a long, hard race.

 

Last year Geraint Thomas went into the race as the pre-race favourite. This year he is the big unknown. The Welshman has turned his attention to stage racing and Flanders will be his only race on the cobbles in 2016. Hence, he has had a much different preparation than his rivals and his focus on climbing means that he is lighter than usual which is not an advantage in this race.

 

However, Thomas has proved that he is one of the very best in the cobbled classics. This year he has been riding extremely well. He took an impressive overall win in Paris-Nice after having already played with the muscles in Algarve where he defended his title. Unfortunately, he was not at the same level in Catalonia and it remains to be seen whether his form is really on its way down. That makes him even more of an unknown. That can’t change the fact that he is one of the very best riders for these races and as he has been stronger than ever in 2016, he is one of the few who can actually win this race, especially if he manages to anticipate the big attacks from the favourites.

 

As usual, Lars Boom flies under the radar which is a bit of a mystery. The Dutchman has so often proved that he is one of the very best on the cobbles. The results have not always matched his strength but when he has had a perfect build-up, he is always up there with the best on the hellingen. This year his preparation has been great and he was clearly one of the strongest in E3. Unfortunately, a mechanical took him out of contention in Gent-Wevelgem but he again proved his class in De Panne where he seemed to be the strongest rider in the hard first stage while playing a support role for Westra and Lutsenko who were both up the road.

 

This year Astana go into the race with a very strong team and Boom may have Westra, Lutsenko, Jakob Fuglsang, Laurens De Vreese and Andriy Grivko at his side until very late in the race. We have little doubt that he will be one of the best on the climbs. The big problem is that most of the favourites are faster than him – even though he is actually very fast – and he needs to get away in a solo move in the finale.

 

Michal Kwiatkowski won E3 Harelbeke and will now make a welcome return to the Tour of Flanders. It was actually this race which really revealed his classics potential a few years ago when he delivered an impressive solo ride in the finale. Since then he has mostly avoided the cobbles but whenever he has made a brief return, he has done really well.

 

Nonetheless, we regard Kwiatkowski more as an outsider than a big favourite. The Pole can definitely handle the distance and he seems to be back to his best after a very poor 2015 season. However, he is still lighter than most of the favourites and is better suited to the Ardennes classics. It is no coincidence that he made the difference on an asphalted climb in E3 while he was clearly struggling when Sagan went full gas on the cobbles of the Kwaremont. The key climbs in Flanders are all cobbled and so we doubt that Kwiatkowski will be able to follow the best. On the other hand, he is a very aggressive rider and if he can anticipate the favourites, he has what it takes to win the race.

 

Niki Terpstra was second in this race last year but he doesn’t seem to be at his best level in 2016. He has been off the mark in all the cobbled races so far. That doesn’t mean that he can be ruled out. The Dutchman is always better in the very long races and last year he was also very inconsistent in the build-up races. However, back then he had had one great ride in Gent-Wevelgem but this year he goes into Flanders without any kind of confidence boost. Furthermore, he is not fast in a sprint so he has to arrive solo to win the race. His big chance is that he is part of the best team and if Etixx-QuickStep have strength in number, there is little doubt that Terpstra will attack relentlessly.

 

Edvald Boasson Hagen has always been destined for classics glory but he has never had success in the biggest races. With his strong performances at the 2012 and 2015 Worlds, he has proved that he can go the distance so it is hard to explain why his results have been so poor. This year he has the best chance ever to make amends as he has been much stronger than usual. He was really impressive in both the Middle East and Tirreno and he was very close to winning Milan-Sanremo. Unfortunately, he has been set back by illness which forced him to skip E3 and he was not really in contention in Gent-Wevelgem. It seems that the health issues have taken their toll. Furthermore, he seems to lose his sprint speed at the end of a long race. To win in Flanders, he will probably have to anticipate the favourites unless he can rediscover the legs he had a few weeks ago.

 

Tiesj Benoot was a remarkable fifth in his debut in Flanders and he has confirmed his potential in the first cobbled classics. However, it has been evident that a few riders are stronger than him on the climbs so he needs to anticipate the favourites to win the race. He has made no secret of his intention to do so and he will still be less marked which could give him options. Furthermore, he excels in the very long races and this means that he will be closer to the best than he was E3 and Gent-Wevelgem. He is fast in a sprint but as most of the favorites are faster, he needs an aggressive approach to win the race.

 

Finally, Tom Boonen deserves a mention. Like Cancellara, he has won the race three times but while the Swiss has maintained a great level, the Belgian is no longer the rider he once was. Things were looking very bad at the start of the year but he has clearly improved a lot and he was pretty solid in E3. Still he hasn’t had a good build-up for the classics since his dominant 2012 season and this year he has been playing catch-up after his crash in Abu Dhabi. That means that he hasn’t been up there in the classics for four years and nobody knows how close to that level he can get. He will probably be better in Roubaix but it will be hard to win in Flanders. He is not strong enough to go with the best on the climbs so like the rest of the Etixx team he will have to anticipate the favourites.

 

***** Fabian Cancellara

**** Peter Sagan, Sep Vanmarcke

*** Greg Van Avermaet, Zdenek Stybar, Alexander Kristoff, Geraint Thomas, Lars Boom

** Michal Kwiatkowski, Niki Terpstra, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Tiesj Benoot, Tom Boonen

* Matteo Trentin, Jurgen Roelandts, Daniel Oss, Ian Stannard, Luke Rowe, Jempy Drucker, Arnaud Demare, Dries Devenyns, Martin Elmiger, Pieter Vanspeybrouck, Filippo Pozzato

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