After his dominant performance in last Saturdayâ€™s E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, Leopard Trekâ€™s Fabian Cancellara is the undisputed top favorite for Sundayâ€™s Tour of Flanders. Â So the question remains: can anyone defeat him?
Hereâ€™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-Lottoâ€™s Philippe Gilbert is the antithesis of the Swiss star. If Gilbert races the Ronde with the same attacking style weâ€™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 Muurâ€”Iâ€™m not sure heâ€™ll be able to do the same to Gilbert. But to get there, Gilbert and his team need to remain attentive, for as weâ€™ve seen, an inch for Cancellara can quickly become a mile.
2. Tom Boonen responded to Cancellaraâ€™s E3 win with a victory of his own in Sundayâ€™s Ghent-Wevelgemâ€”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 Cancellaraâ€™s Leopard Trek squad (even without Robert Wagner). Boonen has less bullets in his gun than Gilbert, so heâ€™ll need to employ a similar strategy in marking Cancellaraâ€™s accelerations and choosing the right moment for an attack of his own. Then again, Boonen seems to have found his sprinting legs againâ€”dare he ask the team to work for a sprint in the hopes that he takes his third Ronde victory?
3. Team Skyâ€™s Juan Antonio Flecha has been largely overlooked since his second-place finish in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. But heâ€™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 Wednesdayâ€™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 â€œoutsiderâ€ who sneaks away for the win.
5. Garmin-Cerveloâ€™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 frontâ€”it was Thor Hushovd who should have been on Cancellaraâ€™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 Hausslerâ€™s at a disadvantage due to the lack of a grand tour in his legs from last season, let me remind you: Tom Boonen doesnâ€™t have one either.
6. BMCâ€™s Alessandro Ballan won the Ronde for Lampre in 2007 and looks as if heâ€™s found the form he needs to do it again. Heâ€™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. Ballanâ€™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. Heâ€™ll be ready for Sunday.
7. Two years ago, Katushaâ€™s Filippo Pozzato won the E3 Prijs before heading to Flanders and Roubaix as arguably the racesâ€™ strongest rider. Then tactics (sometimes his opponentsâ€™ 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, letâ€™s just say no oneâ€™s certain which Pippo weâ€™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, weâ€™ll be scratching our heads, wondering if this talented rider will ever put it together.
8. Vacansoleilâ€™s Bjorn Leukemans has kept his fitness under wraps. Either heâ€™s got a big surprise for everyone Sunday, or he has nothing to show after a string of top finishes in last yearâ€™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. Leukemansâ€™ teammate at Vacansoleil, Stijn Devolder has two wins in the Ronde on his resume. That said, itâ€™s becoming apparent that those might have been more a product of Devolderâ€™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, heâ€™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 â€œat the back and/or on the groundâ€ Devolder of 2010?
10. Like Devolder during his Ronde heyday, Quick-Stepâ€™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: Iâ€™ve been wondering since February if weâ€™re about to witness a bit of a Van Petegem-esque awakening for Juan Antonio Flecha. After winning last yearâ€™s Omloop, the Spaniard seems to ride with more confidenceâ€”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 donâ€™t see it happening this year. Cancellaraâ€™s win last Saturday was so impressiveâ€”his teamâ€™s performance so dominantâ€”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 Ninoveâ€”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 listâ€”an oversight, or a wise decision?