Let the metaphors fly! Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen is the World Series/Super Bowl/World Cup Final/etc… of Flanders (and maybe all of Belgium). With 16 climbs spread over 260km, the Ronde is truly the highlight of the year for Belgian fans.
The course remains realtively unchanged from last year, save for the deletion of the Kluisberg and the Nokereberg and addition of the Eikenberg and the Varent.
At this point, weather reports are good—sun and fair weather. For the riders, this is welcome news; for fans hoping for another legendary race, this is somewhat disappointing. But we’ll get over it.
Aside from the absence of 2007 winner Ballan and the off-form Cancellara, several riders this year are peaking just at the right time:
Quick Step: Notice I said “Quick Step” and not just Boonen, Devolder, and/or Chavanel. In fact, any of these three could win the race outright if given the final green light. Everyone claims to be working for Tommeke, but I can’t help but believe that Chavanel and Devolder would ride for themselves if the opportunity presents itself. As it is, Devolder took a bit of criticism last year for launching such a devastating attack in the race’s final stages. Had Boonen not won a week later I think we would have heard much more. This is clearly Quick Step’s race to lose; they will have to work together to ensure that doesn’t come to pass.
Filippo Pozzato: Katusha’s “Hollywood” seemed to be the only rider with enough talent to break Quick Step’s Flemish stronghold—in fact, he did in Harelbeke. But then he went to De Panne and promptly crashed in the final road stage. He says he’s fine (and so does his team), but I can’t help but think that it might set him back a bit. I’m not saying he can’t or won’t win, but he certainly didn’t do himself any favors. Aside from that, Pippo’s biggest challenge will be holding his own over the entire 260km. He won Het Volk in 2007 and E3 this year, but those races were barely over 200km. There’s a big difference between 200 and 260km—especially with the caliber of the terrain over the final 50-60km in Flanders. And yes, I’m aware that he won Milan-San Remo. But would you really compare the two? He will be much more exposed here than he was in San Remo.
George Hincapie: I have a REALLY good feeling about George this year. His preparation has been perfect. He’s rested. He has a team around him with experienced riders (Eisel and Burghardt) capable of protecting him well into the race’s final phases. Every rider in the peloton would be happy to see George finally bag his big win in a classic. However, there will be no gifts. One teammate to watch: Edvald Boasson Hagen.
Silence-Lotto has several capable riders, but I’m thinking they’re still a week too early. Yes, they’re starting to show their form, and yes, they have 3 men capable of winning. But I just think it might be a case of too little, too late. Don’t get me wrong, they’ll be in the front. But for the win? I can’t say so with confidence. Yes, riders have come from nowhere to win before, but I think Roubaix might be a better chance for them. To win this Sunday they’ll have to play their cards perfectly and save their top efforts for the race’s most decisive moments. They’ll have to determine a leader early and do everything they can to support that rider to the fullest. Getting a strong rider in an early break is critical too, allowing them to sit-in while the rest lead the chase. As I said in an earlier post, a win here and all earlier criticism is forgotten.
And what about Haussler? He’s been under the radar since Dwaars door Vlaanderen. To me, that’s a good sign. I was beginning to suspect that he was riding a bit too au bloc. Some well-deserved rest might be just the trick to keep him at a high level of fitness. With Hushvod and Klier, he has the support of riders with the experience to get him to the win (or even win themselves?).
Saxo Bank’s hurt with Cancellara’s poor form and O’Grady’s absence due to a crash in San Remo. They’ll be pinning their hopes on Karsten Kroon. Can’t say I’m too confident.
My final thoughts are reserved for Rabobank. Nuyens and Flecha have always played prominent roles in this race, and I look for more of the same this year. Flecha tried as best he could last year—as did Nuyens—but in the end succumbed to tentative racing and Quick Step. (Oh, and a teammate who he thought wasn’t working for him.) Now he and Nuyens are together, and I can’t see how it could possibly work. But it might, you never know, right?
Who are your favorites?
No matter who wins it will certainly be an exciting race. I’ll do my best to get some live coverage info up as soon as it becomes available.