By Stephen Puddicombe published
Exciting racing expected from the standout teams
The best Classics specialists from around the world will assemble in Flanders this Sunday for what is one of the biggest events of the season, making for what is a mouth-wateringly star-studded start list.
Yet for all the talent on display, two teams are so strong that they could shape how both races are fought: Deceuninck-Quick-Step in the men’s race, and SD Worx in the women’s.
Both teams would most likely benefit from a messy, uninhibited race, so expect them to animate the race with attacks early on. The key will be to fire riders up the road early on, in order to isolate their rivals and make them work, as well as ensuring that the race becomes a numbers game, where the best individual on the day does not necessarily win, but rather someone who’s a part of the strongest team.
Over half of Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s line-up look like possible winners, but none of them have been victorious in past editions of Flanders. Kasper Asgreen has been on the podium before, and Zdeněk Štybar and Yves Lampaert are usually up there, but the team’s last two successes in 2018 and 2017 came courtesy of the now-departed Niki Terpstra and Philippe Gilbert.
Julian Alaphilippe stands out as their most likely winner, especially clad in his world champion’s jersey, but the truth is that all three of the aforementioned riders are capable of winning if they can get into the right break.
SD Worx have won the women’s Tour of Flanders every other year since 2014 (as Boels-Dolmans), and the riders responsible for the last two wins, Chantal van den Broeck-Blaak and Anna van der Breggen, are both present this year, along with the runner-up on both occasions, Amy Pieters.
As a trio of co-leaders, they complement each other brilliantly, with each excelling at a distinct role: Van der Breggen is the strongest on the bergs and can accelerate on them, defending champion Van den Broek-Blaak is a specialist at attacking during lull periods in between the major climbs, and Pieters can hang back and threaten with her sprint finish.
The team might have never before defended a Tour of Flanders title, but no reason to believe they can’t do so this time.
Favourites Van Aert and Van Vleuten in flying form
Despite being one of the most selective races of the season, the Tour of Flanders can also be one of the hardest to predict. There are always a whole host of quality riders in contention for victory, and the parcours is such that varying different scenarios can play out on the road, from a long-range attack from a rouleur to a small group sprint finish.
Consequently, the last seven men’s editions have each thrown up different winners; in the women’s race, that run stretches to the last 12 editions.
Form is always a good guide though, and in that respect there is one man and one woman who could be tipped as the favourite.
Wout van Aert was runner-up behind Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) at last year’s Tour of Flanders by a memorably close margin, but will be much happier of the two with how his final race before the Ronde went this year, especially after winning Ghent-Wevelgem with a commanding performance on Sunday.
As exceptionally consistent as he has been in recent years (he’s made the top four in eight of his last 10 one day races), Van Aert has just the one Monument on his palmarès — he’ll look to double that on Sunday.
For much of the last few years Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) has been a favourite for just about every race she’s entered, and victory at Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday suggests she’s coming into her best form.
The 38-year-old has a remarkable record at the Ronde, making the top seven for seven successive appearances between 2013-2019, but hasn’t won it since back in 2011. She’s an even stronger rider than the one who won that day a decade ago, so is more than capable of a long-awaited second Flanders victory.
Question marks having over Van der Poel and Sagan
Should we be worried about Mathieu van der Poel heading into the Tour of Flanders? The Alpecin-Fenix rider had been imperious from the cyclocross season during the winter to making the podium at E3 Saxo Bank Classic last week, but suddenly looked well out of sorts at Dwars door Vlaanderen, where he was dropped early on by riders he had spent the rest of the spring putting the sword to.
Was that ride just a one-off, or a sign that fatigue is starting to set in having held his form for so long? The Dutchman had no explanation for his shortcomings besides saying that he simply didn’t have the legs, but did say that he “expect[s] a different race on Sunday.” Fans salivating over the prospect of something like a repeat of last year’s battle between him and Van Aert at Flanders will hope he’s right.
If there are doubts whether Van der Poel might be losing his form, the question hanging over Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) is whether or not he is finding his in time. The effects of a Covid positive test were clear to see during his first ride of the season at Tirreno-Adriatico, and prompted him to skip all the cobbled Classics prior to the Tour of Flanders so he could build his form with more race days at the Volta a Catalunya instead.
The approach might have worked, as by the penultimate day he was strong enough to sprint to a stage win.
It’s a big ask for someone who has not raced on the cobbles all year to win the hardest Flemish race of them all, but Sagan is a rider capable of special things, and might flourish in circumstances where the usual pressure and expectations that weigh down virtually every one of his rides is lifted.
Trek-Segafredo to unsettle the top teams
If any team is capable of taking on SD Worx on Sunday, it’s Trek-Segafredo.
Since the beginning of last year the American team has emerged as the biggest threat SD to Worx’s dominance, and they’ve asserted themselves in the cobbled Classics this spring, being the chief instigators of attacks at both Classic Brugge-De Panne and Ghent-Wevelgem. Neither race ended in victory, but did demonstrate their strength-in-depth going into the Tour of Flanders.
Their best hope for victory appears to be Elisa Longo Borghini. The Italian looks to be in the form of her life, having won the Trofeo Alfredo Binda with a dazzling solo attack, and almost repeating that feat with another lone attack in the closing stages of Ghent-Wevelgem. Neither Lizzie Deignan nor Ellen van Dijk have reached the same level of form this spring, but could play a crucial supporting role to help their Italian team-mate overcome the might of SD Worx and win on Sunday.
The men’s Trek-Segafredo team might play a similar role in combating Deceuninck-Quick-Step. In Jasper Stuyven and Mads Pedersen they boast two of the few riders to have broken the hegemony of Deceuninck-Quick-Step, Van Aert and Van der Poel victories in the classics, and both have proven themself capable of winning races that are over 250km. Provided they’re in good enough shape after Covid positives in the team forced them to miss some racing, they’ll both be among the top contenders.
Can anyone upset the top favourites?
The likes of Greg Van Avermaet, Oliver Naesen (both Ag2r Citroën) and Matteo Trentin (UAE Team Emirates) have all performed consistently well throughout the spring, and are likely to be there or thereabouts again on Sunday, but have all lacked the X-factor needed to win a classic, especially one as competitive as the Tour of Flanders.
Dylan van Baarle would have been considered in that same category up until Wednesday’s
Dwars door Vlaanderen, but his superb long-range attack to take victory there suggests he’s also capable of winning on Sunday. He’ll also benefit from a strong Ineos Grenadiers team that also features Tom Pidcock making his Ronde debut and Michał Kwiatkowski taking on the cobbles for the first time this spring.
Michael Matthews (BikeExchange) and Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) have a quicker finishing sprint than most other cobbled specialists, but the Tour of Flanders tends to be won either from a solo attacker or a small group, so the pair are more likely to be sprinting for minor placings.
A similar fate may befall Emma Norsgaard (Movistar), although the 21-year-old’s breakthrough the spring has been characterised almost as much by her ability to make the selections as by her lethal sprint finish.
Both Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma) and Lotte Kopecky (Liv Racing) would also be very difficult to beat in a sprint from a small group, and are both perhaps less likely to be dropped on the climbs.
Other riders such as Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope), Grace Brown (BikeExchange) and Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) may have to go solo if they’re to win, but are capable of doing so if on a good day — Brown won Classic Brugge-De Panne earlier in the spring in such a manner, while Niewiadoma was on flying form at Dwars door Vlaanderen.
Stephen Puddicombe is a freelance journalist for Cycling Weekly, who regularly contributes to our World Tour racing coverage with race reports, news stories, interviews and features. Outside of cycling, he also enjoys writing about film and TV - but you won't find much of that content embedded into his CW articles.
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