2011 Tour of Flanders/Ronde van Vlaanderen – Preview

Photo by Luc Claessen/ISPA Photo


After his dominant performance in last Saturday’s E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, Leopard Trek’s Fabian Cancellara is the undisputed top favorite for Sunday’s Tour of Flanders.  So the question remains: can anyone defeat him?

Here’s a rundown of ten riders I feel have the best chance to upset Spartacus in his bid for a second-consecutive victory in Vlaanderens mooiste.

1. Likely to be the only rider unafraid to attack Cancellara, Omega Pharma-Lotto’s Philippe Gilbert is the antithesis of the Swiss star. If Gilbert races the Ronde with the same attacking style we’ve seen him use to win other big races, he might just prove able to wear down Cancellara and his team. Last year, Cancellara proved able to power away from Boonen on the Muur—I’m not sure he’ll be able to do the same to Gilbert. But to get there, Gilbert and his team need to remain attentive, for as we’ve seen, an inch for Cancellara can quickly become a mile.

2. Tom Boonen responded to Cancellara’s E3 win with a victory of his own in Sunday’s Ghent-Wevelgem—but is it enough? His Quick-Step team took a major hit Thursday, when Niki Terpstra crashed during the ITT at the 3-Days of De Panne. As a result, Boonen heads to the Ronde with only Sylvain Chavanel at his side, a worthy lieutenant, but hardly enough to counter the depth and power of Cancellara’s Leopard Trek squad (even without Robert Wagner). Boonen has less bullets in his gun than Gilbert, so he’ll need to employ a similar strategy in marking Cancellara’s accelerations and choosing the right moment for an attack of his own. Then again, Boonen seems to have found his sprinting legs again—dare he ask the team to work for a sprint in the hopes that he takes his third Ronde victory?

3. Team Sky’s Juan Antonio Flecha has been largely overlooked since his second-place finish in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. But he’s ridden well in every race that matters and has a team with the depth, talent, and experience to rival Leopard Trek. Too strong to be considered an underdog, Flecha would be smart to try and capitalize on the hype surrounding Cancellara, Gilbert, and Boonen. Should these three mark one another too heavily, the aggressive Spaniard could profit.

4. Nick Nuyens finished second in the Tour of Flanders in 2008, then faded into obscurity. This year he heads to the race as the leader of Saxo Bank-Sunguard, hoping to finally put the past two underwhelming seasons behind him. Nuyens won last Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen, an impressive win its own right considering how he aggressively he raced. After racing both the E3 Prijs and Ghent-Wevelgem this past weekend, he should have the form he needs to contend Sunday. Another rider exisiting a bit outside the limelight, Nuyens could play a role similar to Flecha as an immensely talented and experienced “outsider” who sneaks away for the win.

5. Garmin-Cervelo’s Heinrich Haussler is a bit of wild card. He rode well in the E3 Prijs, but was unable to follow Cancellara when he made his winning move. That said, Haussler had spent the previous hour off the front—it was Thor Hushovd who should have been on Cancellara’s wheel from the Kwaremont to the finish. A bit too hilly for Hushovd to be the captain, Haussler should have the benefit of an entire team at his beck and call at Flanders Sunday with Hushovd and Tyler Farrar giving opposing teams two good reasons not to reel back any break containing Haussler. And to those who claim Haussler’s at a disadvantage due to the lack of a grand tour in his legs from last season, let me remind you: Tom Boonen doesn’t have one either.

6. BMC’s Alessandro Ballan won the Ronde for Lampre in 2007 and looks as if he’s found the form he needs to do it again. He’ll share the captainship of his team with Greg Van Avermaet and George Hincapie Sunday, and if the three play their cards right, they could bring the team its biggest win to date. Ballan’s ridden a smartly quiet program since Milan San-Remo after an aggressive early-March that saw him at the front of several races. He rode Ghent-Wevelgem but stayed mainly in the field and started the first two days in De Panne before wisely abandoning when the weather turned. He’ll be ready for Sunday.

7. Two years ago, Katusha’s Filippo Pozzato won the E3 Prijs before heading to Flanders and Roubaix as arguably the races’ strongest rider. Then tactics (sometimes his opponents’ and sometimes his own) took him out of contention for both races. Last year, he looked as if he might have been the only rider able to contend with Cancellara and Boonen before the flu knocked him out of the Ronde days before the event. And this year? Well, let’s just say no one’s certain which Pippo we’re going to see. If he wins, everyone will give credit to his patience and the conservative approach he took to arrive at the Ronde at the top of his game. Should he fail to contend, we’ll be scratching our heads, wondering if this talented rider will ever put it together.

8. Vacansoleil’s Bjorn Leukemans has kept his fitness under wraps. Either he’s got a big surprise for everyone Sunday, or he has nothing to show after a string of top finishes in last year’s classics. Yet another rider who could benefit from lurking within the shadows of the higher profile favorites, Leukemans could surprise his more-favored compatriots.

9. Leukemans’ teammate at Vacansoleil, Stijn Devolder has two wins in the Ronde on his resume. That said, it’s becoming apparent that those might have been more a product of Devolder’s team than anything else, as the Belgian has failed to impress thus far this spring. Then again, if riding as an underdog suits the Belgian Champion, he’s done a good job putting himself in a position to play that role Sunday. Will we see the tenacious, aggressive Devolder of 2008 and 2009, or the “at the back and/or on the ground” Devolder of 2010?

10. Like Devolder during his Ronde heyday, Quick-Step’s Sylvain Chavanel could be the rider who stands to profit the most should Cancellara, Boonen, and Gilbert mark one another too heavily Sunday. The Frenchman seems to be rounding himself into shape at just the right time, and could easily win the race from a last-hour breakaway. In fact, he almost did in 2009, before Devolder came charging back to repeat his title.

My Prediction: I’ve been wondering since February if we’re about to witness a bit of a Van Petegem-esque awakening for Juan Antonio Flecha. After winning last year’s Omloop, the Spaniard seems to ride with more confidence—the same can be said of his team. And as much as I would love to see Cancellara, Boonen, and Gilbert riding up to the foot of the Muur together, I just don’t see it happening this year. Cancellara’s win last Saturday was so impressive—his team’s performance so dominant—that I have a feeling we could see some negative racing as the top riders mark one another a bit too heavily.

Enter Team Sky, a team as capable of animating a race as Leopard Trek is of controlling it. I see riders like Hayman, Stannard, and Thomas covering moves and setting-up their Spanish captain to surprise the top trio of contenders. After a surprise attack, look for Flecha, Chavanel, and maybe one of the Vacansoleil boys to duke it out for the win in Ninove—where Flecha will take the biggest win of career and become the first Spanirad to win the Tour of Flanders. Chavenel is second, Leukemans third.

Share your picks and comments below. For example, I left Matthew Goss off the list—an oversight, or a wise decision?


About Whit

My experiences might easily fit many cycling fans' definitions of “living the dream.” Since getting hooked on the sport watching Lance Armstrong win the 1993 U.S. Pro Championship, I've raced as an amateur on Belgian cobbles, traveled Europe to help build a European pro team, and piloted that team from Malaysia to Mont Ventoux. As a former assistant director sportif with Mercury-Viatel, I've also seen the less dreamy side of the sport – the side rife with broken contracts, infighting, and positive dope tests. These days, I live with my lovely wife in Pennsylvania and share my experiences and views on the sport at Bicycling Magazine, the Embrocation Cycling Journal, and at my own site, Pavé.
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8 Responses to 2011 Tour of Flanders/Ronde van Vlaanderen – Preview

  1. MattyVT says:

    I tend to agree with your assertion that most likely the winner will be a strong rider, but not necessarily Cancellara, Boonen or Gilbert. Devolder benefited from the field heavily marking Boonen to take his back-to-back victories, and Pozzato eeked out his San Remo victory in much the same way. That said, I'd love to see Chavanel, Haussler or Nuyens pull it off and would put even odds on any of the three taking the top step of the rostrum. I'd also put Thor Hushovd in the mix as a highly-touted dark horse.

    In some respects it seems that the peloton races Flanders and Roubaix very differently; where Flanders is more tactically negative racing while Roubaix is more straightforward. It's possible that Boonen and Cancellara revisit their cobbled duel this weekend, but I think most likely we'll have to wait for Roubaix to see it.

    Last but not least, it would be great to see Pozzato pull off the bug win he's been flirting with for years. I don't think this is his weekend however.

  2. cthulhu says:

    I agree with Matty, Roubaix is like a long and hard elimination race while Flanders is much more tactically. That's why I believe a strong team makes more of a difference there than in Roubaix. That favours Garmin and Sky. Cancellara looks really strong again, stronger than the rest but that might be his disadvantage,everybody will be marking him.Still very troubling pick, the contender list seems so much longer than the one for Roubaix.
    So my head says Cancellara, but my heart says
    1. Gilbert
    before a sprint from a small group
    2. Haussler
    3. Chavanel
    while Boonen and Cancellara neutralise themselves.

    I dunno if leaving out Goss is an oversight but I personally think his chances and form are better than Pozzato and Ballans' chances. Depending on the race, they might end up higher in the rankings but I cannot see any scenario where one of them wins while i can imagine one where Goss might win. But they can go out and prove me wrong.

  3. Alex Donald says:

    Crazy – Thomas to win from a break after the favourites mark each other out of it.
    Sensible – hard to see past Cancellara, The Swiss Bear or Spartacus.

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  6. Matt Walsh says:

    Those are some bold picks, Whit, but I like that you went out on the limb. Love Flecha, a classy guy and a classy rider. If Cancellara is the favorite then Chavanel is the favorite dark horse. He's also an attacking rider that can throw the whole race into chaos. I like his chances too. But all that said, I see Cancellara winning again and only strong man Hushovd with a real chance to stop him. Shoot me on Sunday.

  7. Big Mikey says:

    Man, that's a who's who list if I've ever seen one. It should be a great race, if all those guys are in form and mixed up in the action.

    Not sure you can pick anyone other than Cancellara, team or no. Those moves he pulled last weekend indicate that he's the strongest in the peleton by a significant amount. I suspect everyone else is fighting for second place, as FC is likely to win alone in the picture.

    That said, if he has mechanical, crash or other trouble, then the race becomes more exciting with the rest of the list fighting for a huge win.

  8. Chet says:

    Nice job picking Nuyens in your top 5. I too had my own pick today and was dead on. However, my pick was a little different. As Whit knows, I depise Trek – yeah, I sell Specialized. So my prediction was that someone (anyone) on a Spec would beat Cancellara, in a sprint, on his crappy (really I said flexy) Trek. Dead on!! Go big S.

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