The names to watch if you're after an upset this spring

With Fabian Cancellara retired and Tom Boonen riding his last few professional races, there’s a definitely feeling of the changing of the guard at this year’s Classics.

That said Peter Sagan has stepped into the position of overwhelming favourite for both the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, with the likes of Greg Van Avermaet, Ian Stannard, Sep Vanmarcke, and John Degenkolb also among the main contenders for the two major cobbled Classics.

But away from the big names, which riders can we look to for an upset? We’ve picked out four young riders looking to seize their chance, and four older riders looking for new opportunities who could provide a shock.

Young guns

Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal)

Tiejs Benoot escapes in the 2016 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (Watson)

Having finished fifth in the Tour of Flanders at the tender age of 21 in 2015, Tiesj Benoot looks set to become a regular face in the Classics for years to come, and even though conventional wisdom would dictate that it is too soon to see the young Belgian become the youngest Tour of Flanders winner in the post-war era, we’d all love to see a surprise.

Flanders certainly seems to be Benoot’s best chance of Classics glory, as although at 6’3″ he stands as tall as many over cobbles specialists, he concedes more than 10kg to the likes of Boonen and Stannard, putting him more in the territory of Peter Sagan, even if he doesn’t have quite the same killer sprint.

Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo)

Jasper Stuyven in the 2016 E3 Harelbeke (Watson)

Another great young Belgian hope, Jasper Stuyven really started to step up in 2015, winning Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in spectacular style and following that up with fifth place in E3 Harelebeke.

The Trek-Segafredo rider didn’t have quite the same luck at Flanders where he had a series of mechanicals that forced meant he ended up riding five different bikes over a hectic 30 kilometres in the middle of the race. A bit more luck, and with his new position as team leader in the absence of Cancellara, and Stuyven could hit the jackpot.

Gianni Moscon (Team Sky)

Gianni Moscon leads Geraint Thomas in the 2016 Tour of Flanders (Watson)

No Italian has won the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix since Alessandro Ballan won the latter in 2007,  but Team Sky have not one but two young Italians hoping to end that drought. Salvatore Puccio is the first, with an U23 Tour of Flanders victory on his palmarès from 2011, but Gianni Moscon, who finished second in the same event in 2015, is perhaps more promising.

Riding in his first season as a professional, the prodigiously talented Moscon instantly secured a place at the centre of Team Sky’s 2016 Classics squad, performing well through all races and being unfortunate to crash while leading the front group at the sharp end of Paris-Roubaix. For the time being the 22-year-old will continue to be used as a domestique for the likes of Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard, but if the opportunity arises to go for personal glory, Moscon is the sort of rider who can take it.

David Per (Bahrain-Merida)

David Per in the 2014 World Championships (Photo: Sunada)

The outsider in this list of outsiders, David Per coming into the Classics in his first year as a professional rider, and with very limited experience over the cobbles. The good thing is that this experience includes victory in last year’s U23 Tour of Flanders, where he out-sprinted new Team Sky recruit Jon Dibben, which came on the back of fourth place in the U23 Ghent-Wevelgem.

Of course a look over previous U23 Tour of Flanders winners reveals plenty of riders who haven’t quite made the grade (whatever happened to Gatis Smukulis?), with Nick Nuyens the only rider in recent times to convert his U23 win into a senior Tour of Flanders victory. Per really is an outside shout then, although the fact that he is in relatively weak Bahrain-Merida team should mean he is given some opportunity to ride for himself and get stuck in.

Seasoned campaigners

Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data)

Mark Cavendish in the 2016 Paris-Roubaix (Watson)

Mark Cavendish rode Paris-Roubaix for only the second time in his career in 2016 just “to see what’s possible”, and wound up producing an excellent performance, finishing as the third highest-placed British rider in the race, and only missing out on the winning move going clear after having to break for a crash with 115km remaining.

That performance showed what the Manxman is capable of, and he certainly seems open to looking at new races and new opportunities as he enters the autumn of his career. Cavendish might find himself again called into team duties as Edvald Boasson Hagen goes in search of a major Classics win, but if Cavendish can hold on and make it to the famous Roubaix velodrome in the front group, then it would be hard to bet against him.

André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal)

André Greipel leads the peloton up the Oude Kwaremont in the 2016 Tour of Flanders (Watson)

Like his long-time rival Cavendish, André Greipel is also looking to broaden his horizons in the final years of his career, and has even gone as far as saying that he is looking to specifically focus on the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in 2017.

A powerful sprinter, you would have thought that Greipel would be suited to the flat terrain of Paris-Roubaix, but he’s actually been most active in Flanders in recent years, making his way into a couple of long-range attacks in the last few editions of the race and managing to finish 15th of the race in 2015. His power files also show that he’s got the numbers to challenge, even if he could be held up by the abundance of other options in the Lotto-Soudal team.

Tony Martin (Katusha-Alpecin)

Tony Martin in the 2016 Paris-Roubaix (Watson)

Another man who certainly has the legs to compete over the cobbles, Tony Martin may have only competed in one edition each of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, but he was still able to put in a hell of a shift in last year’s Roubaix as he pulled along the powerful Etixx-Quick Step team for kilometre after kilometre.

Now at Katusha-Alpecin, Martin is still likely to find himself on domestique duties for Alexander Kristoff, but should be a second option for leader – much higher up the pecking order than he was at Quick Step. That could provide an opportunity for the four-time time trial world champion to deliver on the potential he showed by winning the cobbled stage of the 2015 Tour de France.

Imanol Erviti (Movistar)

Imanol Erviti at the top of the Paterberg in the Tour of Flanders (Sunada)

Before last year’s Tour of Flanders, you could be forgiven for not knowing much about Imanol Erviti, but the Movistar rider then produced one of the rides of the season to make the early break then hang on to the leaders to finish seventh, making him only the second Spanish rider in history to finish in the race’s top-10. Then seven days later he followed that up with ninth place in Paris-Roubaix, making him the first Spaniard to take top-10 placings in both races in the same year.

Before that, Erviti’s best placing at either race had been 40th at the 2009 Paris-Roubaix, so he certainly found something extra last year that he will hope to repeat in 2017. Expect to see the Spaniard once again make his way into the early breaks in both races, and if he is able to latch on to the passing leaders as he did in 2016, then there’s always a chance for this 300/1 outside.