In this years’ Tour of Flanders there are two contenders who are head and shoulders above the rest. Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma Quick-Pedal) and fabulous Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack Nissan Trek) are clearly riding at a higher level than anybody else in the race.
Below these two titans there are a number of contenders and dark horses but we find it hard to imagine most of them winning the Ronde.
Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) is on form, confident and has the services of bodyguard Daniel Oss. This guy is a massive talent but we still look at his relative youth and grow doubtful this is the year and race where he has his cobblestone breakthrough. Given the brutality of the race — where positioning is everything and experience a priority, we expect him to make a costly mistake or two. A huge talent but a podium seems like a big ask.
Filippo Pozzato (Farnese-Vini Selle Italia) is back on the contender list after two dark, cold years in Russia. In the past we’ve made fun of Pozzato but the way he’s handled himself this season after breaking his collarbone in Qatar has really impressed us. Same goes for his results so far: 9th in Gent-Wevelgem, 6th in Dwars door Vlaanderen and 6th in Milan-San Remo.
We are now firmly behind Master P and we think he has a definite shot at the podium just based on form and talent. However, his long climb back to the top isn’t quite finished. We expect a great ride from the Italian but not the win. He has spoken of not wasting his talent anymore but we think he needs that last bit of anger to nail a big win. If he can channel the disappointment, frustrations and fury over his Katusha years, he will make that podium and scare the crap out of Boonen and Cancellara.
Matti Breshchel (Rabobank) is also returning to form after years of injury. He’s a popular choice as a contender or dark horse but we’re not buying the hoopla just yet. He himself admitted he’s still lacking that last 5% and you don’t win Flanders if you’re not 100%.
Twisted Spoke always pulls for injured riders working their way back to the top — it’s such a demanding sport and the mental strength required to deal with injury is even more challenging. We wish the Dane well but our gut tells us he won’t even make the top 10. It’s going to take a few more races before he finds that last 5%.
Sylvain Chavanel is red hot and coming off an impressive overall win in the Three Days of De Panne. We love and respect Chava’s aggression and Omega-Parma tactics might put him in a position to win but we just don’t see it. Boonen and Cancellara skipped De Panne to rest up for Flanders but obviously Chavanel has a different idea of preparation. Hard to argue with that when he came in second last year. Still, we suspect he’s going to lack that crucial snap in the legs. He’ll be a huge benefit to Boonen but we would be surprised to see him up on the podium.
Greg Van Avermaet and Alessandro Ballan are the two hopes of BMC Racing. Already you’re talking about the plan C and D with superstars Thor Hushovd and Philippe Gilbert not firing on all cylinders. At the end of last season Gilbert told the media that he was The Man and that Avermaet should be “realistic.” That wasn’t too cool as far as team unity but we’d agree that realistically GVA has only an outside shot at Flanders. If Cancellara is run over by a car and Boonen is struck by lightening on a sunny day then yeah, Van Avermaet has a shot.
We can’t even get excited about Ballan’s fortunes. Every Spring for the last three seasons he rides under a cloud of Mantova doping suspicions. He’s always struck us as a guy who can consistently make the top ten but never has the killer instinct to go any higher. In our book, he still rides with the curse of his old rainbow jersey. If he wins Flanders I will eat my Sidis.
We’ve now crossed out most all the favorites and contenders besides Boonen and Cancellara. You have to be a beast to win this race and we think there are only three real dark horses besides those two stars: Stijn Devolder(Vacansoleil), Sep Vanmarcke (Garmin-Barracuda) and Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma QuickPedal).
First off, Devolder knows this race inside and out, having won the the 2008 and 2009 Ronde Van Vlaanderen. It always cracked up Twisted Spoke that Devolder’s old QuickStep boss Patrick Lefevere would openly complain about Devolders’ focus on Flanders. Hey, its a monument, he won it two times, what are you complaining about? In any case, Devolder hasn’t done too much of late but that just adds to the dark-horse factor. Like Nick Nuyens, he’s going to stay up front, conserve as much energy as possible and then, BAM, make the one move that counts. Call us crazy but we think Devolder has a decent shot at the podium.
It seems like Sep Vanmarcke has come out of nowhere but Jonathan Vaughters knew this guy was a huge talent two years ago. Vanmarcke nailed a 4th in E3 and 20th at Roubaix in 2011 and impressed the Hell out of everyone with his win in Omloop. If he stands up at the dinner table the night before Flanders and says he’s going to win, watch out.
Now there’s a lot of buzz around Vanmarcke and some of it is misplaced hype. But we like the guys’ confidence and we tend to believe what Vaughters says about his potential and talent. We’re expecting a great ride at the Ronde from Vanmarche. A realistic shot at the top three.
Terpstra represents the third dark-horse possibility and tactical wildcard. Many still believe that Fabian Cancellara is the strongest man in the race. That alone dictates a team strategy to break down the chances of the Swiss star. You have to out-number him and work him over. That job goes to Sylvain Chavanel and Terpstra and if the Dutchman is thrown up the road and Cancellara lets him go, well, you’ve got the Johan Van Summeren effect. With a first place in 1st Dwars door Vlaanderen, anything is possible depending on strategy.
The wrap up: The strong man wins in Flanders and Roubaix — we amend that to the strong man with the strong team. It’s just too hard to argue against Tom Boonen not winning this race. He’s got the form to stick with the killer accelerations of Cancellara and the superior sprint to take the win. Daniele Bennati has been excellent this season but that’s not enough firepower to help the Swiss star.
That’s the one-two with Devolder, Vanmarcke, or Terpstra — or our personal fav Master P taking the final spot. We tremble with anticipation and glee.