They call them Flandriens, these titans of the road, the rare few cyclists that can stand up and conquer the cobblestone classics of the north. Topping the list this year are Belgians like Tom Boonen, Greg van Avermaet and Philippe Gilbert. They are joined in their elite circle by rare talents like Peter Sagan and Alexander Kristoff. All of them have won this year, and more importantly all of them have shown that they can win one of cycling’s “monuments.”
Greg van Avermaet
Greg van Avermaet has been on an early season tear, seemingly winning at will. He’s already won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, E3 Harelbeke, Gent–Wevelgem and heads the UCI World Tour rankings. The question is will his incredible form stretch to this weekend for Flanders?
Peter Sagan is the defending champ and despite wins at Tirreno-Adriatico and Kuurne-Brussles-Kuurne he has made more news for the races he hasn’t won due to riders being unwilling – or unable – to work with him. The one exception? Greg van Avermaet and they may get a chance to work together over the final Flanders kilometers if they reach the top of the Paterberg together.
Philippe Gilbert is no stranger to monument victories, but his have not come on the cobbles as his usual spring focus as been the hillier Ardennes classics. This year he has changed his program hoping for success in the earlier cobbled classics. His form is tested and proven with a victory in this weeks Three Days of de Panne but does he have the brute power to match up to Sagan or van Avermaet on the Paterberg?
Tom Boonen, in his final Flanders and just a week from his announced retirement after Roubaix is the sentimental favorite, but with strong rides at Gent-Wevelgem and E3 and a win on stage 2 of the Vuelta a San Juan earlier in the season Boonen may have the legs to make the Sunday truly magical. He certainly has the team to do it. With Gilbert, Terpstra and the rest of the Quick-Step squad, Boonen has the strongest team in the race, but he may be working for Gilbert who will return the favor at Roubaix next week.
Alexander Kristoff is a bit if a dark horse here. Still thought of as predominantly a bunch sprinter, the big Norwegian has proved he can win the monuments with his 2014 win at Milan-San Remo and 2015 flanders win. If Kristoff is still in attendance on the final ascent of the Paterberg, Sagan will do his best to shed him as he is perhaps the only rider – with the possible exception of Boonen – that could beat him in a sprint finish at Oudenarde.