The Tour of Flanders isnâ€™t until Sunday, but itâ€™s already claimed itâ€™s first victim as Filippo Pozzato has been sent home with the flu. By now youâ€™ve read about the changes to the routeâ€”the riders face a new sequence of the climbs with the 5 climbs from the Oude Kwaremont to the Taaienberg all crammed into an 18 kilometer stretch (and yes, the Koppenbergâ€™s one of them). As for the weather, the latest report calls for 40-degree temperatures and a 70% chance of rainâ€”not terrible, but not great either.
Even without Pippo Pozzatoâ€”he will be missedâ€”thereâ€™s a star-studded filed taking the start in Bruggeâ€™s main square on Sunday morning, with several riders and teams able to call themselves legitimate contenders for the a victory in the Ronde. Letâ€™s take a look:
Tom Boonen won the Tour of Flanders in 2005 and 2006 and were it not for his teammate Stijn Devolder he might have done the same in 2008 and 2009. He comes to this yearâ€™s event in what some are calling the best form of his careerâ€”anyone who witnessed his ferocious attacks in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and E3 Prijs is hard-pressed to disagree. The only knock against Boonen is that heâ€™s not been shy about demonstrating his fitness to the rest of the peloton, something that will certainly make him the most heavily-marked rider in Sundayâ€™s race. As a result, the responsibility to make the raceâ€”and quite possibly the glory for winning itâ€”might fall on one of his talented and experienced teammatesâ€”if Boonenâ€™s opponents are glued his every move. Opponents will need to be careful though, for by marking Boonen out of the race, they might be marking themselves out as wellâ€”just ask Filippo Pozzato about last year.
For my money, Phillippe Gilbert has the best shot at breaking Quick Stepâ€™s impressive record in the Ronde (Patrick Lefevereâ€™s boys have won 4 out of the last 5 editions). One of the most aggressive riders in the peloton, Gilbertâ€™s not afraid to attack andâ€”perhaps more importantlyâ€”heâ€™s not afraid of Tom Boonen. Gilbertâ€™s won races with attacks in the last 40 kilometers, the last 20 kilometers, and the last kilometerâ€”heâ€™s truly willing to take his chances whenever he feels the moment is right. And Gilbert possesses one more slight edge: a talented group of teammates devoted entirely to helping him win. With several men within his own team eyeing the win as well, such dedication might be something Boonen wishes he had too.
Fabian Cancellara impressed everyone with a terrific win in last Saturdayâ€™s E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, showing the best and perhaps only way to beat Tom Boonen out of small breakaway: surprise him with a powerful attack within a kilometer or so of the finish line, preferably just before tight corner. That said, while the win was impressive, I still rate Spartacus a slight step below Boonen and Gilbertâ€”for this weekendâ€™s race only. Call me crazy, but I just donâ€™t see Cancellara as explosive of a rider as Boonen and Gilbert on this terrain. Heâ€™s incredibly powerful and knows these roads well, but Iâ€™m not convinced heâ€™ll prove able to respond to the sharpest attacks. One more question mark for the Swiss Champion: his teammate Matti Breschel would be a favorite in his own right were he riding for another team. Will Breschel prove to be a loyal domestique, or will he play his own card, forsaking his captain? Cancellaraâ€™s success depends on the answer.
Like Cancellara, Juan Antonio Flecha rates a slight notch below the 5-Stone favoritesâ€”and for largely the same reason. While Flecha has indeed performed well at Flanders in the past, I think he lacks a bit of that â€œsomething extraâ€ possessed by Boonen and Gilbert when it comes to the quick, powerful accelerations that form the basis for many of winning moves in this race. But donâ€™t get me wrongâ€”like Cancellara, Flecha will be present and active in the finale, especially with a team completely dedicated to getting him there in as fresh shape as possible. Flechaâ€™s best chance for a win might come from the fact that people still donâ€™t seem to take him all that seriously. Maybe itâ€™s his history of making bad decisions in big races; maybe itâ€™s because heâ€™s Spanish. Regardless, Flecha always seems overlooked, something he could exploit come Sundayâ€”if his competition makes the same mistake.
Whichever rider emerges from BMCâ€™s pre-race meeting as their protected man deserves to be considered a 4-Stone Favoriteâ€”most likely either Marcus Burghardt or George Hincapie, although Alessandro Ballan seems to be starting to peak just in time. Theyâ€™ve all ridden different races in preparation for Flanders with Burghardt riding Dwars and the E3, Hincapie Ghent-Wevelgem, and Ballan a mixture of them all including the 3-Days of DePanne. Flanders will be the first race in which all 3 will ride togetherâ€”in a race they all might be targeting. If they set clear boundaries early and stick to them as the race develops, BMC could prove to have one of the strongest teams in the race. If they leave it to chance to sort things out though, it could spell disaster for the American squad.
Matti Breschelâ€™s been arguably the most impressive rider of the past ten days, winning Dwars Door Vlaanderen and then flatting while in the winning break in Ghent-Wevelgemâ€”a race in which he was without a doubt the strongest. The biggest knock against Breschel is the presence and current form of his team captain, Fabian Cancellara. To their credit, both riders have said all the right things in the build-up to Sunday. But one canâ€™t help but wonder what will happen should Breschel find himself in a Devolder-like situation with 30-40km left to race.
Nick Nuyens was looking as if he were on-track to be one of the top favoriets for Sundayâ€”until he crashed 3 times in the E3 Prijs, almost knocking him out of the Ronde entirely. He heads into Sunday sharing leadership with Sebastian Langeveld, a talented young Dutchmen who has steadily shown heâ€™s deserving of a chance to ride for himseld. Regardless, Nuyens is a better rider, knows the race well, and was certain to be the undisputed kopman at Rabobank until his unfortunate E3 hat trick. Weâ€™ll have to wait until Sunday to see just how much his injuries have affected him, but if the forced time-off proved to help him more than hurt himâ€”as it sometimes often doesâ€”Nuyens could certainly find himself on the podium once more.
Sergei Ivanov might just be the most dangerous rider in the race now that his teammate Filippo Pozzato has been sent home. Ivanovâ€™s a bit older than most of the favorites, but heâ€™s no slouchâ€”remember when he won last yearâ€™s Amstel Gold Race? Ivanovâ€™s been enjoying Flemish classics since his earliest days as a professionalâ€”he won the E3 Prijs in 2000 and now lives in the Belgian town of Bekkevort. With a squad eager to prove it deserves to be mentioned among the sportâ€™s better teams, Ivanovâ€™s just the sort of rider to shock us all like Rolf Sorensen did in 1997.
Sylvain Chavanel and Stijn Devolder are two more riders not to be overlookedâ€”despite their bossâ€™ comments to the contrary. Chavanel appeared to be taking-over Devolderâ€™s spot as the teamâ€™s #2 behind Tom Boonen until a rather anonymous string of performance in the important build-up races. As for Devolder, the two-time returning champion has left it all until the last minute, showing nary a glimmer of fitness before this weekâ€™s 3-Days of DePanne. That said, if Chavanel gets a chance to go for the win it will likely come from within the strategy of the teamâ€”if Devolder gets a chance, it might be by working against it.
Thor Hushovdâ€™s been suffering through a less-than-stellar start to the season. Throw-in the absences of Heinrich Haussler and Andreas Klier and you get a Cervelo team thatâ€™s several steps below where it was this time last year. That said, Thorâ€™s a rider capable of holding his own in races of this sortâ€”he essentially did it for years while riding for Credit Agricole. While he might not have the same top-level fitness as some of the other favorites, heâ€™s a threat should he hit the finish as a member of a select group. Better still, the Ronde might just give Thor the last bit of training he needs for another run at Paris-Roubaix. Watch-out for the big Norwegian; he hasnâ€™t had his last word yet.
Enrico Gasparotto and Maxim Iglinsky have been doing their best all season to prove that Astana has more to it than just Alberto Contador and his entourage. They race aggressively and have demonstrated an ability to ride cohesively in a variety of conditions. Throw-in Andrei Grivkoâ€”fresh from a solid ride in DePanneâ€”and youâ€™ve got a talented, aggressive team that few people are taking seriouslyâ€”all the ingredients for an upset.
Tyler Farrar might be a year or two away from a big win in the classics, but he still deserves mention as a dark horse for a top-5 resultâ€”especially if a small group fights-out the win, leaving a larger group to sprint for the remaining placings (like last year). Farrar has an experienced team behind him including Martijn Maaskant and Johan Vansummeren. David Millarâ€™s another teammate whoâ€”fresh from his overall win in DePanneâ€”merits some attention. He could play an important role in keeping Farrar out of trouble early in the race, and might just have the legs for a good result of his own.
Manuel Quinziatoâ€™s been knocking on the door for a while now, scoring several top-10 results in cobbled classics and semi-classics over the past few years. But heâ€™s 30 now, and will need to score a big win soon if he wants to continue to lead his team in these races. He has a talented supporting cast including sprinter Daniele Bennati, Aleksander Kuschynski, and the increasingly impressive Daniel Oss. If these men can give Quinziato a relatively stress-free ride to the finale, the Italian might just score the best result of his career.
Several men come into Sunday hoping to play a central role in Vlaanderenâ€™s mooiste. They include three young Dutchmen striving to become their countryâ€™s next great hope for the cobbled classics (Tom Veelers, Sebastian Langeveld, and Niki Terpstra), two Frenchmen at the opposite ends of their careers (Frederic Guesdon and Steve Chainel), three men from a team fighting for relevance following the departures of several star players (Marcel Sieberg, Bernhard Eisel, and Matthew Goss), two domestiques eager for a chance to make a name for themselves while helping their captains take the win (Jurgen Roelandts and Carlos Barredo), a former cyclocross World Champion hoping to continue his evolution to a star on the road (Lars Boom), and last but not least, Bjorn Leukemans, a familiar name for PavÃ©â€™s veteran readers. Expect to see many of these names in the dayâ€™s more important breakaways and possibly one or two of them sneaking into the top-10.
As for my prediction, I think we might have to wait a week for the big showdown weâ€™ve been expecting. Boonen, Gilbert, and Cancellara could easily mark one another too closely, ultimately choosing to watch one another while their teammates ride to glory. The pressure will fall on Flecha, as the loss of Edvald Boasson Hagen leaves his team without a super-domestique on par with Chavanel, Devolder, Hoste, and Breschel.
Looking into my crystal ball, I see a break forming by the top of the Taaienberg including Devolder, Breschel, Quinziato, Ivanov, Burghardt, Van Avermaet, Boom, and just for fun, Leukemans. With so many major teams represented, the break will stay away, with Breschel taking the biggest win of his career. Burghardt and Ivanov will fill-out the rest of the podium while Quick Step and Omega Pharma-Lotto will be left facing another week of criticism.
And you? Whoâ€™s your top favorite for Sunday? Share your comments below.