JUMBO-VISMA ARE THE TEAM TO BEAT, WITH OR WITHOUT VAN AERT
No doubt about it, this has been Jumbo-Visma’s spring so far. Wout van Aert has been the star of the campaign, winning both Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and E3 Saxo Bank Classic, while his newly hired team-mates Christophe Laporte and Tiesj Benoot have been revelations, Laporte finishing second alongside Van Aert at E3 SaxoBank Classic and then again behind Biniam Girmay (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Materiaux), and Benoot relishing a leadership role on Wednesday to also place second at Dwars door Vlaanderen.
But they’ve been handed a significant blow on the eve of the race they’ve all been building up towards, with Van Aert’s participation at Flanders under huge doubt due to a bout of illness.
The Belgian had been the clear favourite to add what would be a second Monument to his palmarès to all of the other major Classics he has picked up in recent years, from Gent-Wevelgem and Amstel Gold in 2021 to Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and E3 Saxo Bank this season. But even if he is able to ride, it’s unclear whether he’ll arrive in top shape so soon after being ill.
However much of a blow this might be for Van Aert, and for the Belgian public, who were putting their faith in Van Aert to prevent the nation’s barron run at the Tour of Flanders from extending to a record-long five editions without a home winner, all is not lost for the Jumbo-Visma team. Benoot and especially Laporte have been so strong themselves this spring that victory in the manner of how Stijn Devolder triumphed in both the 2008 and 2009 editions in the role of decoy to team-mate Tom Boonen had looked on the cards, and could well flourish as co-leaders in Van Aert’s absence.
With or without Van Aert, Jumbo-Visma could well still be the team to beat.
ANOTHER WOMEN'S WORLDTOUR SPRINT FINISH?
Will the women’s Tour of Flanders continue the trend this spring’s Classics by finishing in a bunch sprint, or will the attackers manage to finally drop the sprinters? That’s the big question heading into the Tour of Flanders.
World champion Elisa Balsamo has been the huge benefactor of this pattern winning Trofeo Alfredo Binda, Classic Brugge-De Panne and Gent-Wevelgem back-to-back from sprints in groups at least 20 riders large, to establish herself as runaway leader in the WorldTour.
As great a job as she has done to survive the climes in those races, the parcours of the Tour of Flanders will ask even greater questions of her resilience, especially with addition of the iconic Koppeberg to this year’s route. No Tour of Flanders since the one won by Coryn Labecki in 2017 has ended in a bunch sprint — although, in a good sign for Balsamo, her current team-mate Ellen van Dijk was largely responsible for keeping the race together that year. The Dutchwoman has been in similar form this spring, and will once again be tasked with chasing down any attacks, while Elisa Longo Borghini will also be on hand to cover moves.
Trek-Segafredo may find some allies at other teams who could also be gunning for a sprint finish. This is likely to be the strategy of DSM, whose leader Lorena Wiebes is one of only riders to have beaten Balsamo in a sprint finish so far this season. And it might also be a scenario that Jumbo-Visma’s Marianne Vos given her quick finishing kick, especially at the end of such a wearying race, while UAE Team ADQ may also seek to chase for their respective sprinters Marta Bastianelli (who won the 2019 edition) and Wednesday's Dwars door Vlaanderen Winner Chiara Consonni.
But it certainly won't be defending champion Annemiek van Vleuten’s plan, nor that of other aggressive riders like Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) and the fearsome FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope trio of Grace Brown, Marta Cavalli and Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig. These riders will surely do everything in their power to put the fast finishers out of contention, and watching them attempt to do so will make for a thrilling race.
IN FORM YOUNGER RIDERS VERSUS WANING OLD-TIMERS
In recent years, the result of the E3 Saxo Bank Classic has proven to be remarkably prophetic in terms of what the outcome of the men’s Tour of Flanders will be. With the exception of 2020 (when it was not held), no rider since 2016 has won the Ronde without either soloing to victory at that race the week before, or making the top four as part of the select leading group that makes it to the finish together.
The Jumbo-Visma team-mates Wout van Aert and Christophe Laporte finished first and second at this year’s race having ridden away from the rest, illustrating Laporte’s favourite status even if Van Aert does miss Sunday’s race. But the small chasing group that trailed them contained plenty others who can consider themselves potential winners.
Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ) was third that day, the highlight of what has been the best classics campaign of his career, although his historical troubles at the Tour of Flanders — a race he has yet to crack the top 40 of — suggests he might not be as competitive on Sunday.
By contrast, the man who finished behind him in fourth that day, Matej Mohorič (Bahrain-Victorious) generally performs better the longer a race is, which, on top of his form, puts him in a strong position to add a second Monument to his Milan-San Remo title earlier this spring.
Jonathan Narvaez and Dylan van Baarle were also present in the group, giving Ineos Grenadiers plenty of options to play on Sunday, although the latter’s remarkably consistent record of placing in the top ten of four of the last six editions might make him their best chance.
Defending champion Kasper Asgreen rounded off that group, and currently looks like the only QuickStep-AlphaVinyl rider with the form to compete for victory.
Other riders who were off the pace at E3 Saxo Bank Classic but have been in good form elsewhere include Milan-San Remo runner up Anthony Turgis (TotalEnergies), Victor Campenaerts (Lotto-Soudal), who impressed mightily to place fourth at Dwars door Vlaanderen, and the familiar Trek-Segafredo duo of Jasper Stuyven and Mads Pedersen, who have each had top 10s in other Classics.
Interestingly, all of the aforementioned riders are under 30 years old, while the tricenarians of the peloton have all generally struggled to keep up. Greg van Avermaet, Oliver Naesen (Ag2r Citroën), Alexander Kristoff (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Materiaux), Matteo Trentin (UAE Team Emirates) and Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl’s Zdeněk Štybar and Yves Lampaert will all be hoping that experience trumps form come Sunday.
SD WORX FACE CHALLENGE TO DELIVER YET ANOTHER FLANDERS VICTORY
If the pattern of recent years is anything to go by, then SD Worx are due a win at this year’s Tour of Flanders. Since 2014 they’ve won the race every other year, each time with a different rider, from Ellen van Dijk in 2014, to Lizzie Deignan in 2016, to Anna van der Breggen in 2018 and most recently Chantal van den Broek-Blaak in 2020.
The recent form of their riders is, however, not encouraging. So far they’ve managed just three wins all season, of which only Lotte Kopecky’s victory at Strade Bianche came at the highest level. For a team used to dominating the peloton, that’s a very underwhelming return.
They’ll face a twin threat of sprinters who would likely get the better of them in a large group finish, and of attackers capable of dropping all of their riders on the climbs — specifically, Annemiek Van Vleuten, who may well be eyeing up the Kopperberg as a launchpad for one of her trademark long-range attacks.
Kopecky is a quick finisher, but not as quick as a rider like Balsamo, so it is essential that she and others are taken out of contention. And unlike at the 2020 Tour of Flanders, where Anna van der Breggen managed to neutralise Van Vleuten by covering her attacks, none of SD Worx’s riders have managed to consistently match Van Vleuten this spring, suggesting the race might play out like it did last year when no-one could follow her racing-winning attack on the Paterberg.
SD Worx will therefore have to try to engineer a scenario where either Kopecky can sprint from a more selective group absent of the faster finishers, or one that puts them at a numerical advantage, and therefore provides a chance for Marlen Reusser, Chantal van den Broek-Blaak or Demi Vollering to slip clear.
Things haven’t gone their way so far this spring, but they still have the talent to claim what would be a fifth Tour of Flanders title in nine years.
As important as form often is at the Tour of Flanders, sometimes riders who have gone under the radar can spring a surprise.
Two of the riders who would have been tipped as likely winners of this race in the offseason have been mostly absent this spring but appear to be coming into form at just the right time. Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) claimed victory on his very first day’s racing in Belgium this season at Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday, so suddenly looks capable of repeating his 2020 victory at the Ronde, while Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) sprinted for third behind him, indicating that he’s gotten over the stomach problems that were bothering him.
Other riders like 2019 winner Alberto Bettiol (EF Education-EasyPost) and sixth-place finisher Michael Matthews (BikeExchange) enter Flanders having so far ridden (and impressively so elsewhere away from the cobblestones, while others like Florian Sénéchal (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl) and Florian Vermeersch (Lotto-Soudal) have been afflicted by back luck with crashes and mechanicals, so it’s hard to know exactly where their form is at.
And then there’s the elephant in the room — Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), who the cycling world is itching to see what he can do on the cobbles. We had a glimpse during his first outing on the cobbles on Wednesday at Dwars door Vlaanderen, where the results were mixed, with him impressing by dropping riders on the cobbles, while also missing out on the key selection, perhaps due to bad positioning and a lack of experience.
Some of the world’s biggest names in the women’s peloton have barely raced ahead of the Tour of Flanders, and therefore their form is a bit of a mystery. Demi Vollering has only raced once since placing second behind Van Vleuten at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, but if she is at her best, then SD Worx will have a potentially decisive card to play on Sunday.
Marianne Vos has also limited her 2022 appearances to just two, although the way she sprinted for second at Gent-Wevelgem suggests she’s not lacking any race sharpness. And finally last year’s runner-up Lisa Brennauer (Ceratizit-WNT) should not be written off as a potential winner despite only having races one day this year, given her exceptional record of having placed in the top eight in each of the last four editions.
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