This season’s second monument appears on the horizon this Sunday, an opportunity for a single rider to guarantee their name is forever entwined with the cobbles and hellingen which make this race so special. The race of course is Ronde van Vlaanderen, the calendar’s most famous contest, only perhaps second to that of Paris – Roubaix. Despite much of the day’s riders having spent the last few weeks riding these roads and hills during the likes of E3 Harelbeke and Dwars door Vlaanderen, little can realistically prepare an individual, whether mentally or physically, for the intense battle which starts immediately after the flag is dropped. Covering a total of 260km through much of Belgium’s Flanders region, a total of 18 official hellingen are to be tackled en route from the new starting point of Antwerp to the traditional finish in Oudenaarde. For many fans, the true race of the day is not instigated until the riders hit the Oude Kwaremont for the second time with under 55km remaining, followed immediately by the ruthless Patersberg which reaches over 20% gradient. The Koppenberg then completes this brutal triumvirate of climbs within 10km of one another, likely to shape the final group which goes onwards to decide the outcome. Though more climbs and cobbled sectors remain, it is the afore mentioned trio of hellish obstacles which should have the greatest impact upon the day’s podium. Ronde van Vlaanderen is certainly not a race which a rider can fluke victory at, everyone hoping to feature late on in the day will need to be able to summon up the form of their life to stand a chance of writing their name into history.
Peter Sagan took the win in dominant fashion last season and is expected by many to repeat this again in similarly comprehensive style. His performances so far this Spring have been incredible, seemingly able to bridge across to any move when required and happy to drop the hammer during some of the hardest parts of a race. Sagan will however be plagued by the tactical headache of the day, no doubt unwilling to carry any passengers into the finish at Oudenaarde, so will surely seek to breakaway solo in order to defend his title this year.
Greg Van Avermaet has enjoyed an incredible start to 2017’s campaign, riding in impressive form greater than that of last year, form which even delivered him Olympic Gold in Rio. He has been comfortable on both cobbles and hellingen so far in the supporting Flandrian races, taking great confidence into the Tour of Flanders, aware that perhaps only Peter Sagan might be able to shake him loose today. Belgium have not had a win since 2012, but will no doubt believe the stars have aligned to remedy that, given the amazing form Avermaet has achieved already.
John Degenkolb is not an obvious choice for today’s race, though has proven to be one of the few riders able to follow both Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet when either have made attempts at race winning moves. The German powerhouse enjoys these arduous affairs and will hope to stay in contention en route to Oudenaarde, as E3 Harelbeke proved that he is still the fastest man left in a bunch after a race like this. If he can lean upon others to cooperate in any chance to close the favourites, conserving some energy in the process, then Degenkolb should be unstoppable in any sprint finish which crowns the winner.
Sep Vanmarcke would normally be one of the first names placed into contention for Ronde van Vlaanderen, but this season has simply failed to click into place for the native rider. A mixture of injury and bad luck at crucial times has seen Vanmarcke fail to really catch the eye during the build up to today’s race, though it would be dangerous to rule him out entirely. Talented at attacking upon the steepest cobbled climbs, Vanmarcke is a major threat to the likes of Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet if allowed to vanish up the road solo.
Zdenek Stybar will race amongst a ferociously intimidating Quick – Step team which appears to have finally begun to shape itself into a coherent race winning unit. Stybar will be given a degree of freedom to animate the race when needed, yet could prove restricted by team orders in favour of Tom Boonen or Niki Terpstra. However, Stybar is a master bike handler and has a brilliant record of converting well timed attacks into victories, marking him out as a man to watch throughout the day.
Philippe Gilbert is enjoying a revival of some of his best form, arriving at the Tour of Flanders as a genuine outside contender for the title. A particularly cunning rider, Gilbert will ensure he exploits any tactical quandaries to maximum benefit, hoping to see off rivals from within a reduced group by putting in another great sprinting display.
Tiesj Benoot secured 5th place on his debut here and has since had to endure the huge hype which gets bestowed upon Belgian riders who show promise in the classics. Still only 23 years old, Benoot is developing as a rider mentally and physically, yet can already prove a thorn in the side of the bigger names today. Despite his build, the Belgian rider suits the course well and will start Ronde van Vlaanderen in very strong form, regardless of his recent results not making that clear. He might struggle to follow all the moves, but can hope to turn in a strong sprint for the line if allowed to.
Oliver Naesen demonstrated his growing reputation for one day races during the last few weeks by finishing in all except one of the supporting Flandrian races. He cannot be far off those in the best form right now and can certainly hope to cash in on the fact that he shall not be one of the most watched jerseys in the peloton. Happy to work amongst a breakaway, Naesen could partner up with some exceedingly strong riders and push on to the finish for victory before the battle amongst the favourites has truly begun.
1st John Degenkolb 2nd Peter Sagan 3rd Greg Van Avermaet