Apr 2, 2015 – Since the Tour of Flanders drastically changed its course three years ago, with the iconic Muur at Geraardsbergen being omitted, the season’s second cycling monument has been dominated by the big names of the spring classics.

John Wilcockson/Yuzuru Sunada

Tom Boonen won in 2012 by out-sprinting the Italians Filippo Pozzato and Alessandro Ballan; Fabian Cancellara took a majestic solo victory in 2013, 1:27 ahead of a sagging Peter Sagan, with Jürgen Roelandts in third; and Cancellara repeated last year, taking a rare sprint win from the Belgians Greg Van Avermaet, Sep Vanmarcke and Stijn Vandenbergh.

Because of their recent injuries, neither Boonen nor Cancellara will be on the start line in Bruges this coming Sunday morning for the 99th running of the Ronde van Vlaanderen. As the respective team leaders of Etixx-Quick Step and Trek Factory Racing, the absence of these three-time winners will have a profound effect on the race (as it will on next week’s Paris-Roubaix), giving much greater prominence to team strength and overall tactics. And judging by the results of the seven Belgian classics and semi-classics that have been contested in the past month or so, the winner looks sure to come from one of four squads: Belgium’s Etixx or Lotto-Soudal, Russia’s Team Katusha or Great Britain’s Team Sky.

Before briefly analyzing those seven races, it’s worth noting that this year’s Flanders is, on paper, one of the hardest in its history. The course, at 264.2 kilometers, is 5 kilometers longer than last year’s edition; and there are two more climbs, making 19 in total, most of them cobbled, including eight in the final 55 kilometers, along with six flat sections of cobblestones. The key climbs in the final hour are the Koppenberg (44.5 kilometers to go), Kruisberg (26.5 kilometers to go), Oude Kwaremont (16.7 kilometers to go) and Paterberg (13.2 kilometers from the finish in Oudenaarde).

Being longer and tougher than all the season’s previous cobbled Belgian races—six of which were won by riders on the four teams mentioned above—Flanders imposes an extra element of endurance on top of all the other challenges. So men who are competitive over 200 kilometers may not be competitive in a tougher race that lasts one more hour.

Take Belgian Kris Boeckmans of Lotto-Soudal, who won this year’s two lesser semi-classics, Le Samyn (201 kilometers) and the Nokere-Koerse (198 kilometers). He did well in Le Samyn to go clear with three others on the last of 13 sections of cobbles and out-sprinted Gianni Meersman of Etixx—who had three teammates in the group just behind, including last year’s Paris-Roubaix winner Niki Terpstra. In the Nokere-Koerse, Boeckmans won a mass uphill sprint. But Boeckmans’ best finish in the Tour of Flanders is 95th and he didn’t make the team’s final Flanders selection—that will be led by Roelandts (who was on the Flanders podium two years ago) and Belgian champion Jens Debusschere (who’s having his best spring in five pro seasons).

There are no distance limitations on the two Team Sky riders who have won Belgian classics these past few weeks, Ian Stannard and Geraint Thomas. Although the opener, the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, was only 200 kilometers long, it featured 11 of the infamous Flemish bergs and Stannard won it for the second year running—out-sprinting Etixx’s Terpstra after a 60-kilometer break with the Dutchman and his stand-out Belgian teammates Boonen and Vandenbergh, five minutes ahead of the peloton. And Stannard has finished top 10 in previous monuments.

ohn STANNARD Ian

As for Thomas, he won the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, which was 215 kilometers long and featured 17 climbs, after instigating the winning 37-kilometer break on the Oude Kwaremont—which is also the “crunch” climb for Flanders. And his late solo effort at E3 to drop Zdenek Stybar of Etixx and Peter Sagan of Tinkoff-Saxo was superbly executed. Thomas averaged 50 kilometers per hour over the final 4 kilometers—an effort that reminded us that in 2009 the Welshman recorded one of the fastest-ever individual 4,000-meter track pursuit times of 4:15 (at 56.470 kilometers per hour). Two days after E3, Thomas raced with distinction in last Sunday’s wind-ripped Ghent-Wevelgem over 239 kilometers and nine climbs. He took third place after Italian veteran Luca Paolini of Katusha made a late tactical move from the winning six-man breakaway to win by 11 seconds over Terpstra and Thomas, with the peloton trailing home almost seven minutes back.

Thomas wins E3 Harelbeke

With Thomas on top form and teammates such as Stannard, Brad Wiggins, Luke Rowe and Bernhard Eisel all riding well, Team Sky has a strong chance of winning Flanders. Stannard says the multiple climbs may rule him out of winning, and Wiggins is reserving his main effort for next week’s Paris-Roubaix (for which his chances are sky high after winning the time trial this Thursday at the Three Days of De Panne), so Thomas has everything going for him.

As for the Etixx-Quick Step team, it has taken only one of the seven big Belgian races this spring, and that was a mass-sprint victory for Mark Cavendish at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, which, despite featuring nine climbs in its 195 kilometers, is nowhere near as demanding as E3, Wevelgem or Flanders. And besides the second places of Terpstra (at Het Nieuwsblad and Wevelgem), Stybar (at E3) and Meersman (at Le Samyn), Etixx was also close at the seventh race, Dwars door Vlaanderen (Across Flanders), over 200 kilometers and 12 climbs. That’s where world champion Michal Kwiatkowski was the strongman of the winning break but was outmaneuvered by two riders from the second-tier Topsport Vlaanderen squad, which took the win through Jelle Wallays.

Jelle Wallays

Neither Cavendish, nor Meersman or Kwiatkowski is racing at Flanders, and with Boonen being the team’s only other fast finisher, Etixx riders will have to dominate as a team if they want to spring Terpstra, Stybar or Vandenbergh for the victory. And that task will be a tough one, not only because Sky and Lotto will be attempting the same thing, but also because Team Katusha has the ace in the pack: Alexander Kristoff. The formidable Norwegian came close to a repeat victory at the year’s first monument, Milan-San Remo—he underestimated the slightly uphill finish and lost to Giant-Alpecin’s John Degenkolb—and he has placed top five at the past two editions of Flanders. He may not have won any of this year’s classics (yet!), but he showed incomparable form this week: he won the opening stage at De Panne on a Flanders-like course of 201.6 kilometers over 13 hills after bridging to a small breakaway group; and he then won the other two road stages in field sprints before clinching the overall title with third place in the time trial won by Wiggins.

Kristoff

Without Boonen or Cancellara, the only other former winner on the start list is Trek’s Stijn Devolder—who won solo in both 2008 and 2009, when his Quick Step leader Boonen and teammates “blocked” for him behind. Devolder, who has had erratic form ever since, will not get similar protection this year. But his local knowledge and ascendant form (second overall to Kristoff at De Panne this week) should make him a true challenger.

Other outsiders include Astana’s Lars Boom, BMC Racing’s Van Avermaet, FDJ’s Yohan Offredo, IAM Cycling Sylvain Chavanel and Lotto NL-Jumbo’s Vanmarcke;
but Kristoff is the popular pre-race favorite. If a small group does sprint it out on Sunday, the Katusha star’s main challengers will likely be Sagan Degenkolb, Debusschere or MTN-Qhubeka’s Gerald Ciolek. But given the preponderance of long breakaways and tactical winners in the past month (Paolini, Thomas, Wallays and Stannard), the smart money is not on a sprint win by Katusha’s Kristoff (who will be heavily marked) but on a winning rider reaching the finish alone from one of the other three dominant teams—Roelandts (Lotto), Stybar or Terpstra (both Etixx) or Thomas (Sky).

# # #

You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson