Can anyone spring a surprise in Flanders?
Can Tom Boonen win in Flanders? (Image courtesy Wikimedia)
As the peloton enters Belgian cycling’s Holy Week, does anyone else have a prayer apart from the in-form Belgian Tom Boonen and his old Swiss foe Fabian Cancellara?
Following a fortnight of minor warm-up races in Belgium, the nitty gritty gets underway this Sunday with the Tour of Flanders and then, a week later on Easter Sunday, the mythical Paris-Roubaix.
Both cobblestone classics are included in cycling’s list of five monuments – and a win in either would be enough to cap the career of most professionals.
With Australian Simon Gerrans upsetting the party a few weeks back in Milan-San Remo, the first monument of the season, the question on everyone’s tongue ahead of this weekend’s ‘Ronde van Vlaanderen’ is whether or not anyone else can come from nowhere and pull off an unlikely victory.
The short answer is probably no – certainly if we’re looking at Australian prospects.
Gerrans is sitting this one out, while GreenEDGE’s Australian veteran Stuart O’Grady will probably have his eye on Roubaix, a race he won back in 2007.
Another Australian, Heinrich Haussler (Garmin-Barracuda) doesn’t appear to have the form or staying power, while the race’s unrelenting combination of hills and cobbles seems to discount the pure sprinters – meaning we can probably look beyond GreenEDGE’s Matt Goss, as well as the likes of Oscar Freire (Katusha), Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol), Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre), Tyler Farrar (Garmin) and Daniele Bennati (RadioShack-Nissan).
On paper it appears to be a two horse race: Boonen – back-to-back winner in Flanders in 2005 and 2006 – is the bookmakers favourite after his E3 Grand Prix-Gent Wevelgem double last weekend, even if he insists that the mighty Cancellara is the man to watch.
This is, however, Flanders – and as legend goes, anything can happen in a 255km race that can be changed in an instant with an untimely puncture or crash.
Last year, both Flanders and Roubaix were won by outsiders in Belgians Nick Nuyens (Saxo Bank) and Johan Vansummeren (Garmin). What’s more, there are changes to this year’s Flanders route which make it all the more tricky to predict.
Gone is the decisive climb and fan favourite, the Muur van Geraardsbergen (or Kapelmuur), and the mythical Bosberg – both climbs being replaced (controversially) by a combination of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg, which will each be tackled on three occasions before a new finish in Oudenaarde.
While this decision by race organisers has caused great consternation in Belgian – one sports commentator described the race as having been “decapitated” – it would be wrong to say De Ronde will be a watered down, easier affair.
The 1km Kapelmuur may have been much longer than the 360m Paterberg, but the new climb has a punishing average gradient of 13.7% compared to the former’s 6.8% gradient. Throw in the Oude Kwaremont, which is 2.5km long and has a maximum gradient of 11%, and then multiply this by three times inside the final 75km, and you have the ingredients for some explosive racing.
Indeed, some coaches and commentators have even suggested that the new double climb combo will actually make the race harder than before, with a “spicier” finale that should appease the irate traditionalists.
So, what else do we have to take into consideration? Well, the location of the race is key. In Belgium, cycling is practically a religion and the Tour of Flanders is arguably the main sporting event of the year.
With this in mind, Belgians usually do well here: in fact, in the past seven years only two non-Belgians have won the race – Cancellara in 2010 and Alessandro Ballan in 2007.
While Tom Boonen in recent years has been Belgian’s brightest talent on two wheels (he has won Flanders twice and Roubaix twice) in 2011 Tommeke was eclipsed by Philippe Gilbert, who pretty much won every race he entered on his way to becoming the Belgian sportsman of the year.
Twice third in De Ronde, Gilbert has never won the race and enters the 2012 edition short of form after his big-money move to BMC. Never one to be discounted, however, Gilbert could surprise a few on Sunday.
The hilly finale will be more to his liking than either Cancellara or Boonen, and a win for Phil Gil would certainly be well received by the home fans (even if they appear to be all rooting for Boonen).
Other Belgians to be watched include Gilbert’s team-mate Greg Van Avermaet, although his confidence is low after a succession of crashes in the closing stages of recent big races. Youngster Sep Vanmarcke, who beat Boonen in the Omloop, has been a consistently high finisher this year and will line up in a strong Garmin squad that also includes Vansummeren.
Vacansoleil-DCM boast two-time Flanders winner Stijn Devolver as well as the dark horse Bjorn Leukemans (not to mention the feisty Italian Marco Marcato) while Boonen’s strong Omega Pharma-Quick Step squad also includes fellow Belgian Gert Steegmans, who like his team leader is enjoying something of a mini revival of late.
There are some ridiculously strong teams taking to the start in Brussels.
OPQS will also have last year’s Flanders runner-up Sylvain Chavanel of France as a card to play as well as the in-form Dutchman Nikki Terpstra; BMC look set to field former world champion Thor Hushovd alongside Gilbert, Van Avermaet, Ballan and veteran George Hincapie – and although recovering from illness, the Norwegian is a stayer on cobbles; Team Sky have all-rounder Edvald Boasson Hagen and – fingers crossed – the experienced Juan Antonio Flecha; while we have already touched on the strength in depth of both Vacansoleil-DCM and Garmin.
What of the outsiders? Well, Filippo Pozzato’s form this year with Farnese-Vini is mixed, but the Italian is usually good at holding the wheel in the Belgian races, while German youngster John Degenkolb (Project 1t4l) impressed in Milan-San Remo.
But the man to watch outside the Big Two is no doubt Slovak sensation Peter Sagan. Granted, the 22-year-old is largely untested as a professional in the Belgian classics, but he’s been in scintillating form this season – and he looks to be creeping closer and closer to a maiden monument win.
Sagan is one of those rare breed of riders who has the confidence to mix it with the best despite his tender years. He won’t hold back and he’ll be eager for a win after coming so close in San Remo.
If Boonen and Cancellara mark each other out, Sagan – with help from his Liquigas team-mate Daniel Oss – could well be in a position to pick up the pieces. He’s such a talent, he wouldn’t even need to put his hands together in prayer.
Felix Lowe is an English photographer, writer and Arsenal fan with a penchant for pro-cycling. Eurosport writer and blogger, Felix has covered the major cycling races in the pro calendar for the past decade and is now taking up the sport himself, at the ripe age of 31.
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