AFP / Yuzuru Sunada
Some of the greatest cyclists in the world will begin the battle for the main Spring Classics when the Tour of Flanders gets underway on Sunday. The likes of Fabian Cancellara, Tom Boonen and Peter Sagan will be among the favorites in some of the oldest and most prestigious races on the professional cycling calendar. While the Spring Classics cannot match the prestige of the Tour de France, they can surpass it in terms of excitement. And they do so with a largely different cast.
Tour champion Chris Froome as well as Grand Tour specialists such as Alberto Contador, Vincenzo Nibali or Nairo Quintana won’t be there challenging for victory but the fields are no less impressive for their absence. Swiss Cancellara and Boonen, of Belgium, as ever, will start as two of the main favorites having claimed between them 12 of the last 18 editions of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix since 2005.
Of the six occasions when it wasn’t either who won, three times it was one or the other’s teammate who did so. Their main competition this time around should come from Slovak Peter Sagan, a hugely talented cyclist who has already won the Tour de France green jersey twice and is tipped to one day take an overall triumph at a Grand Tour. But first he must prove himself on the grueling Spring Classics, starting with the two Northern Classics on the cobbles: Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
In reality, the Spring Classics began with Milan San-Remo a few weeks ago and last weekend’s Gent-Wevelgem but it is only with the advent of the Flanders-Roubaix double on successive weekends that these historic races really kick into gear. Cancellara, Boonen and Sagan come into these two races having already stretched their legs and showed their form at San-Remo, where Cancellara was second, and Gent-Wevelgem, where Sagan was third and Boonen fifth. Sagan also won E3 Harelbeke and that makes him the favourite in terms of current form, although his two main rivals have the experience and history to ensure they can never be overlooked. But it won’t just be about those three as several other riders have showed their potential.
German sprinter John Degenkolb won Gent-Wevelgem and will be confident if he can last the pace over the 260km of either De Ronde or the Hell of the North to be still in with a chance when the line approaches. Alexander Kristoff won a sprint finish at San Remo where British sprint king Mark Cavendish went too soon and could finish only fifth, while Sagan was down in 10th. One Briton who had been expected to challenge at the Spring Classics was Team Sky’s Ian Stannard, someone thought capable of making a breakaway stick. But a fractured vertebra in a fall at Gent-Wevelgem last Sunday means he misses out.
Instead, though, 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins has been drafted in and has the ability, if not the previous success, to be a dark horse. Perhaps more realistically would be a tilt by the in-form Geraint Thomas, who was third at E3 Harelbeke last Friday and was leading Paris-Nice a month ago until a crash robbed him of his chances. Other contenders, although not at Flanders, will be Belgian Philippe Gilbert, a twice former winner of the Amstel Gold race. He incredibly won all three Ardennes Classics in 2011 and will be amongst the favorites for those this time around too. He is skipping the cobbles this year but his Belgian team-mate Greg Van Avermaet, fourth in 2012 and seventh last year in Flanders, could be ready to step up to the plate.
Another Belgian, Stijn Devolders, now Cancellara’s Trek teammate, won back-to-back Flanders titles in 2008 and 2009 as Boonen’s main foil at Quick Step, and could again benefit from an illustrious marked team-mate. Also to watch out for are Belgian Belkin rider Sep Vanmarcke, second in last year’s Paris-Roubaix, and Niki Terpstra, the highly-touted Dutch rider. But as ever with the Spring Classics, adverse weather, brutal short climbs and the sheer length of these races ensure that on the day, anything could happen.
Fabian Cancellara (SUI)
Twice in the last four years the 33-year-old Swiss time-trial and classics expert has done the Tour of Flanders-Paris-Roubaix double and he will rightly be considered the favourite once again. The only thing that might hamper Cancellara’s chances seems to be how closely he is marked by the rest of the field, or whether he and Tom Boonen cancel each other out. But with three victories in Paris-Roubaix, two in De Ronde (Flanders) and one at Milan-San Remo, Cancellara has a hugely impressive record in these races. He also finished second three times and third once at Milan-San Remo, and second twice on Paris-Roubaix. If there is one certainty in cycling it is that Cancellara will be there or thereabouts when the victory is decided. He was second behind Alexander Kristoff at Milan-San Remo last month but only ninth at E3 Harelbeke, which he has won three times, last Friday which perhaps suggests he is less a favorite than previous years.
Peter Sagan (SVK)
Although not quite the one-day specialist that Cancellara or Boonen are, Sagan’s all-round racing ability and current form suggests he is the one to watch this time around. Last year the 24-year-old came into the two Northern Cobbled Classics as the clear favorite having triumphed at Gent-Wevelgem and taken second at both Milan-San Remo and E3 Harelbeke. But a second placed finish at Flanders was all he managed. This time there will be fewer eyes on the Slovak who finished only 10th at last month’s Milan-San Remo, although his win at E3 Harelbeke and third-placed finish at Gent-Wevelgem, not to mention an ‘accidental’ win on Tuesday’s first stage of the Three Days of De Panne (before withdrawing early on Wednesday’s second stage) shows he has the legs in the finale to do damage. Already twice a winner of the Tour de France green points jersey and tipped to one day compete for overall Grand Tour victories, Sagan is yet to triumph in one of the ‘Monuments’ and will desperately hope to end that record at either Flanders of Roubaix.
Tom Boonen (BEL)
The only man with a better classics record than Cancellara, Boonen is a true legend of these races. Four times a winner in Roubaix, three times at Flanders, like Cancellara the 33-year-old has twice done the cobbled double. But this is no longer the all-conquering Boonen of two years ago when he did the Gent-Wevelgem-E3 Harelbeke double before coming into the Northern Classics and adding the Flanders-Roubaix double as well. He was the first person ever to achieve that feat but his 2013 campaign was ruined by a broken hip. He was 11th at E3 Harelbeke and improved to finish fifth at Gent-Wevelgem, although he insisted he would have won it by several bike lengths had he not been blocked in the final sprint. The next two races will show whether or not Boonen really can recapture his form of 2012.
John Degenkolb (GER)
He may not be a one-day specialist but in winning Gent-Wevelgem, Degenkolb proved that if he can stick with the pace right the way to the end, then he has the power in a sprint to upset the favorites. Flanders and Roubaix might be beyond him but he could feature in the Ardennes Classics which have a slightly weaker field. The German announced himself to the world with five stage wins at the Tour of Spain in 2012, the same year he finished fifth in Milan-San Remo and sixth at E3 Harelbeke. And should any of these races come down to a bunch sprint, 25-year-old Degenkolb will suddenly rise up the favorites rankings.
Niki Terpstra (NED)
A lot has been expected of the Dutchman these last few years and this could finally be the season he delivers following overall victory at the Tour of Oman, a win at Dwars door Vlaanderen and second place at E3 Harelbeke. What’s more, the 29-year-old will be the main foil for team-mate Boonen and likely try to get himself in a breakaway up the road. In the last 18 editions of Flanders and Roubaix since 2005, only three have not be won by Cancellara, Boonen or one of their teammates. So either Terpstra or Cancellara’s team-mate Stijn Devolder – winner of Flanders in 2008 and 2009 – would be good bets to be in the reckoning if their teammates are marked out of it.