Dark horses in Flanders.

 

Fun in Flanders.

 

Read the race previews and you get the distinct impression the podium for the Tour of Flanders is already set in stone: Sagan, Cancellara and Boonen — bad knee and all.

It’s a race for strong men and those three have proven their strength already this season. Sagan just won Ghent-Wevelgem, Cancellara dominated E3 and Boonen is simply Boonen, dangerous even if he’s not 100% but backed by a powerhouse squad.

However, there’s a whole list of nearly-strong men that could surprise and shock the favorites. In our book, Tornado Tom’s teammate Sylvain Chavanel is in fine form and always rides with maximum French panache and aggression. He’s been just off the podium a few times this season and is way overdue for some good luck. The only question will be his role on Sunday but put him in the right break and look out.

Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) is always talked about as a contender but never quite puts it together for the monster win. We’re reminded of Philippe Gilbert’s famous quote when he joined his countryman at BMC. Gilbert let it be known that he was the classics superstar on the team and that “Greg has potential but he has to be realistic.” Well, GVA was third at Gent-Wevelgem and fifth at Het Nieuwsblad but perhaps lacks the killer instinct that Gilbert uses to win big races.

Speaking of BMC, we’re still waiting for Thor Hushovd to show the world he is back from the mystery virus he probably caught from Cadel Evans. An Ethiopian adoption wiped out several riders last year. Hushovd and his coach insist he is back to his old Norse Hardman form so if he’s got the legs, there’s no reason to save them for his beloved Roubaix.

The high point of Filippo Pozzato’s season last year was his second in Flanders. The other high point being his escape from CONI with a light slap on the wrist for consorting with the evil Dr Ferrari. The Italian has been competitive in the early season races but we’ve soured on Master P after his pathetic and cynical excuses on Ferrari. We’ve decided he doesn’t have the balls to close the deal in the Ronde.

Sunday we’ll also be pulling for the man from Blanco, Lars Boom. Who doesn’t want to say this guy power his cyclo-cross ass to a monumental win? Boom isn’t exactly red-hot right now — his best result a 23rd place in Gent-Wevelgem – but he loves the cobbles and on any given day, with fortune smiling down, he could force his way onto the podium.

Why things never worked out for Heinrich Haussler (IAM Cycling) at Garmin is a mystery but it’s clear that returning to his old training routines have paid dividends. He’s just missed out on some placings this season and has been a consistent “animator” in the races. Plus, he seems generally pissed off about not winning yet which in his case is probably a good sign. He’ll be aggressive in Flanders and if any of the top three falter, Heino could take their place.

Juan Antonio Flecha always makes the dark-horse list for Flanders and Roubaix but we have to think at age 35 his time has past. His third place in the Ronde in 2008 may be as far as he gets. Now, he did still manage fourth place in Roubaix last year but we’re going on instinct here. Flecha is a likable and classy guy but the clock says he’s done.

No matter what happens on Sunday in Flanders, we’ve been promised by Chris Sutton of Team Sky that they’re willing to die for Geraint Thomas. That statement was a nice combination of bravado and desperation. While the Sky stage race boys keep racking up big wins, the classics squad is still waiting for their breakthrough victory. Geraint was fourth in both E3 Harelbeke and Het Nieuwsblad so he clearly has the legs to cause trouble. We’re thinking Sky will be hyper aggressive from the gun and have a good shot at a podium sport. Of course all predictions come with the caveat that one of the big three has to have an off-day.

What’s left in the grab bag of potential greatness? Hmm, Luca Paolini, French tough guy Sebastien Turgot and The Man Who Killed Nibali in Liege, Maxim Iglinsky? Sure, roll those dice and see what happens but you’re wasting your time. Everybody knows the podium is already set with Sagan, Cancellara and Boonen — bum knee and all.

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