By Stephen Puddicombe published
Familiar climbs, unfamiliar atmosphere
The Tour of Flanders is usually something of a Flemish national holiday, when thousands of locals flock to the roadside to watch the race while snacking on frites and sipping on beer, but Covid restrictions will make the 2020 edition a far more subdued affair, with fans being barred from convening at the route’s most notorious points.
Still, all the familiar bergs will still be tackled by the peloton, and hopefully will still provide some spectacle minus the roar of the crowd.
These iconic cobbled climbs, which feature at relentless intervals during the second half of the race, are what makes the Tour of Flanders such a special race, and virtually any of them could bear witness to what will become the defining moment of that year’s edition. Even the Muur van Geraardsbergen, despite these days featuring 100km from the finish in the men’s race and 75km in the women’s, still saw Philippe Gilbert make his first crucial move towards winning the 2017 edition.
After the Muur comes a flurry of bergs such as the Kanarieberg and Taaienberg, plus, in the men’s race, the Koppenberg, a throwback to the past with cobbles so uneven that riders are still known to have to dismount and walk up.
The third-to-last climb, the Kruisberg, has been especially decisive in recent editions, with the likes of Niki Terpstra (2018), Anna van der Breggen (2018), Elisa Longo Borghini (2015) and Alexander Kristoff (2015) all making their race-winning moves either on it or immediately after it; last year, by contrast, it was the following climb, Oude Kwaremont, that saw Alberto Bettiol and Marta Bastianelli launch victorious attacks.
Usually the ultimate selections have already been made by the Paterberg, but, if not, it provides yet another inviting launchpad to attack, as Peter Sagan did to win in2016. About 14km of flat roads still remain after its summit, but it’s usually guaranteed that whoever is out front alone by now will cross the finish with arms held aloft in triumph.
A mouth-watering showdown between three of the world’s most exciting cyclists
Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) have already been involved in some thrilling battles this year.
Van der Poel and van Aert attacked and ultimately cancelled each other out at Ghent-Wevelgem last weekend; Alaphilippe and van der Poel placed first and second at Brabantse Pijl having relentlessly animated the race throughout; and Alaphilippe and Van Aert together rode away from the rest of the peloton on the Poggio to sprint for victory against each other at Milan-San Remo, before more recently winning gold and silver at the World Championships in Imola.
However, the Tour of Flanders will be the first time in 2020 that all three compete against each other in while on top form, and the prospect is mouth-watering. Each has been on jaw-dropping form in the last few months, and compete with a refreshing lack of constraint, meaning the race could ignite early on.
Although Van Aert and Van der Poel weren’t quite able to distance the rest of their rivals at Ghent-Wevelgem, both looked imperious climbing the Kemmelberg, and the more selective Tour of Flanders parcours will play more in their favour. Alaphilippe, by contrast, may not be so experienced on the cobbles, having never before ridden the Ronde, but ought to love the steep gradients of the bergs.
There’s been little between all three this season, and watching them go toe-to-toe could be one of the highlights of the season.
Anna van der Breggen and Annemiek van Vleuten resume rivalry
Whereas the three favourites for the men’s race, the rivalry between the two frontrunners for the women’s race, Anna van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans) and Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott), has a long history.
Since van Vleuten fractured her wrist in a crash at the Giro Rosa, the pendulum has swung firmly towards van der Breggen, who in September enjoyed an extraordinary run of successive victories at Giro Rosa, Flèche Wallonne and both the road and time trial World Championships.
However, van Vleuten has now had more time to allow her wrist to recover, and will be a force to be reckoned with should she retain the pre-crash form that saw her string together a remarkable winning streak of six victories over 10 race days during the summer.
Both riders love to take on races early and make bold, long-range attacks, such as the move made by Anna van der Breggen 27km from the finish to win the 2018 Tour of Flanders. The dream scenario would be to see both riders open hostilities early, and do battle over the final climbs.
The two Dutchwomen had many memorable duels over the past, and the stage is set for another classic on Sunday.
Trek-Segafredo threaten the established order
For many years now, two teams have dominated the cobbled classics — Deceuninck-Quick-Step in the men’s peloton, and Boels-Dolmans in the women’s. Between them, both teams account for half of all Tour of Flanders victories over the past four years, boasting enough of a numerical advantage over all their rivals to dominate.
This year, however, Trek-Segafredo has emerged to threaten their hegemony. There have only been two cobbled classics on the men’s WorldTour so far this season, and Trek-Segafredo have won both, with Jasper Stuyven triumphing at Het Nieuwsblad before lockdown, and Mads Pedersen winning Ghent-Wevelgem last Sunday.
Pedersen and Stuyven are both due to line-up together again at Flanders, and make for a fearsome partnership as two riders who can win both from a long-range attack or from a sprint. Deceuninck-Quick-Step probably still have more strength in depth than any other team, with last year’s runner-up Kasper Asgreen, Ghent-Wevelgem runner-up Florian Sénéchal, Yves Lampaert and the experienced Zdeněk Štybar all lining-up, but neither they or any other team boast a pair of riders as strong as Trek-Segafredo’s.
Trek-Segafredo’s women’s team boast an even more dynamic duo in Lizzie Deignan and Elisa Longo Borghini. The pair have worked brilliantly together this season, with Borghini’s work in particular helping to set up Deignan’s triumphs at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, La Course and GP de Plouay, and all eyes will be on them to make the race on Sunday. Add 2014 winner Ellen van Dijk to the mix, and even Boels-Dolmans formidable roster of van der Breggen, Chantal van den Broek-Blaak and Ghent-Wevelgem winner Jolien D’hoore will have a hard time containing them.
The Tour of Flanders is always an open, unpredictable affair with several potential winners, illustrated by the fact that each of the last six men’s editions, as well as the last 11 women’s editions, have produced different winners.
Last year’s surprise winner Alberto Bettiol (EF Pro Cycling) will be hoping to put an end to that run, and produced a performance at last Sunday’s Ghent-Wevelgem to suggest that last year was no fluke. Just ahead of him at Ghent-Wevelgem in third-place was Matteo Trentin (CCC), who has over the years gradually improved as a Classics rider to the point where he’s a major favourite for the Ronde, while Lotto-Soudal’s John Degenkolb showed something like the form that saw him win both Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix five years ago to drag himself over the climbs with the very best to finish sixth.
Degenkolb will be a force to be reckoned with in a sprint should he be part of a group to make it to the finish, but others — such as Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ), who’s in the form of his life right now having placed third overall at the BinckBank Tour and won bronze at the Worlds time trial race; and Søren Kragh Andersen (Sunweb), who for his two stage wins at the Tour de France demonstrated the kind of tactical savviness that could see him catch out the others at Flanders — possess the kind of rouleur engines that could see them solo away to victory if given any leeway.
Grace Brown (Mitchelton-Scott) and Lotte Kopecky (Lotto-Soudal) have been two of the revelations of the women’s peloton this season, the former producing back-to-back career-defining performances recently to finish second at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and first at Brabantse Pijl, and the latter starring in sprints, and has shown herself to be more capable than most sprinters of surviving tricky climbs.
Liane Lippert (Sunweb) has also come of age this year, and looks capable of landing a first ever major Classics win provided she’s recovered from her crash at Ghent-Wevelgem, while Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope) has now firmly established herself as one of the top riders in the peloton and could better the third place she managed here last year.
Class can’t be written off
Other contenders might not be bringing such hot form into the Tour of Flanders, but have enough pedigree so as not to be written off.
Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) has an extraordinarily consistent record at this race, having only once in the last seven editions finished outside of the top five, and always poses a threat with his sprint finish. Of those lining up at this year’s Tour of Flanders, possibly only Niki Terpstra’s run of five top six finishes between 2012-2018, including victory in 2018, has a record that compares, although he hasn’t been the same since moving from Deceuninck-Quick-Step to Total Direct Energie last year.
Normally Oliver Naesen (Ag2r La Mondiale) would be a top pick for Flanders, and did indeed show some form to finish second on the stage at the BinckBank Tour that finishes on the Muur van Geraardsbergen, but he has recently been blighted by crashes. It’s for a similar reason that Greg Van Avermaet (CCC), who crashed out of Liège-Bastogne-Liège earlier this month, isn’t being talked about as a contender, and the Belgian is yet to confirm if he is even going to ride.
As former winners, both Coryn Rivera (Sunweb) and defending champion Marta Bastianelli (Ale BTC Ljubljana) merit a mention, and will be dangerous if given the chance to sprint for victory. However, recent form suggests that neither is climbing well enough to stay with the favourites on Sunday.
Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) might not have been as strong as she usually is in the Ardennes Classics, but has improved year-on-year at the Tour of Flanders. Then there’s Marianne Vos (CCC), who might have barely featured at the Ronde since winning it for her first and only time in 2013, but endures as a devastating competitor on her day, and would be difficult for anyone to beat in a sprint.
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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