Saturday, 30 March 2013

Tour Of Flanders: Who Will Win?

Finally, the Tour of Flanders is upon us and Belgian roadsides like the one pictured will be transformed tomorrow as one of the biggest bicycle races of the year gets into full swing but I'm not going to do a big preview this year - for one of those head over to Inner Ring - instead I'm going to try and answer the big question: Who will win the Tour of Flanders?...

I could do a 'contenders' style piece here but though on the face of it several names clearly stand out, I could literally argue the possibilities of any rider winning - this is Flanders, a race fought on demanding cobbled climbs in often cold and wet conditions, literally anything could happen, but this is reality and I suppose it's only right that we look at some of those big names and possible scenarios though I stress not to head to the bookmakers based on anything I say here!

Like Milan-San Remo this race could easily be presented as a two way battle between Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellara but also like Milan-San Remo, if these two spend the whole race watching each other and getting marked out of contention somebody like Gerald Ciolek could easily pip them to the post. Cancellara and Sagan are undoubtedly the two 'strongest' riders in this race but both have weaknesses and those weaknesses are remarkably similar - team support.

It's unlikely that Sagan will wheelie to
victory here.
Cancellara is a man amongst boys this season at Radioshack, it's a shame to say it but its true and already this season he has found himself out front without any team support whatsoever. There just are not enough names on the Radioshack roster that are capable of riding in the company of Fabu, let alone play a supporting role. Sagan likewise has a Cannondale team build on stage races and Grand Tours not one day Belgian classics though riders like Moreno Moser are capable of riding and winning both, except of course Moser isn't in Flanders to play the 1-2 game with Sagan. Sagan does have some strong riders like Viviani and Ted Kind in support but nobody really stands out as a cobbled specialist.

The strongest team this year (and most years) is likely to be Omega Pharma-Quick-Step who bring a team full to the brim of classics specialist with multiple options for victory. Tom Boonen has suffered early season with injury and setbacks and admits himself that he's not in top form. Never count Boonen out though, especially in these Belgian classics because he will not let go of the chance of victory lightly. Literally anybody in the OPQS team is capable of winning this race though possibly their best chance is likely to come from the very in-form Sylvain Chavanel. He's always there or thereabout whether he's attacking himself or playing a supporting role. Look out for Niki Terpstra and Kwiatkowski too...

BMC Spent the cash but have their
riders performed?
There are some notable absences this year and two of the biggest are from the BMC team - Philippe Gilbert and Taylor Phinney will both miss this race, the former with a cold - though I suspect more through lack of form, again - the latter through a knee injury he picked up in Gent-Wevelgem. Gilbert signed for BMC at the back end of one of, arguably, the greatest seasons in any cyclists career but has he bee a good return on their investment, undoubtedly not would be my guess. Yes he's in the World Champions jersey but the majority of his season last year was a write-off and his start to 2013 hasn't really been any better. BMC's hopes then will lie mainly with Thor Hushovd and Greg Van Avermaet. Hushovd ended up at BMC in much the same way as Gilbert and his career has headed in much the same direction though he has shown a few glimpses of his former self this season, is he a contender to take victory in Flanders though? I wouldn't say so but you can never totally write the god of thunder off. Van Avermaet is far more consistent than both Gilbert and Hushovd and I certainly wouldn't count him out of victory and definitely not a podium place.

Team Sky. An article this week suggested they would be prepared to die for each other to win this race and they certainly have a team capable of something big here, but it's a question of which card do they play? Or do they play all of them? Eddy Boss, Geraint Thomas, Bernie Eisel and Ian Stannard all start the race and all, on their top form, are capable of winning. Boasson Hagen looked to be struggling with the distance again in Milan-San Remo and it's a question that has long been asked of him, if he is to prove his doubters wrong he really needs to perform well in Belgium this year. Stannard has been in fantastic form but he's a big lad and there is a lot of climbing in the Ronde, perhaps Paris-Roubaix would be better suited to his strengths. Eisel has long been talked about as a big classics hopeful but is he running out of time? It could be now or never for the Austrian. If I was to pick one name out of the Sky hat it would be Geraint Thomas. Apparently he has put in a lot of hard work over the winter to make certain that he is up there in the classics and he has shown good form since the Tour Down Under. He's looking VERY lean and Dave Brailsford has talked Thomas to death since Sky's early days so it's fair to say he has the complete confidence of the Sky team and backroom staff. On a personal note, although Sky are not my favourite of teams I do really like Thomas and would love to see him pull something out of the bag here.

My favourite rider, but is Geraint Thomas a favourite for the race?

The rest? Well as I mentioned earlier I could bang on and on about pretty much every rider in the bunch but I will mention just a couple of others. I'm not much of a betting man but I will let you into a secret and tell you that I have put money down on this years race. I don't like to bet on riders that I want to succeed because inevitably I jinx them and they won't win - of the names above there are a couple who I would like to see have a good race so this year so listening just to my brain and not my heart I have had a bet on Jurgen Roelandts. He's in good shape, he's a hard-man, he's Belgian and he rides for Lotto-Belisol - a home Nation team and one that would dearly love to win a classic. They often go all out attack in these race, though not often with much success, so there is no reason to think that they will not do the same again this year. Blanco. A Dutch team with a vested interest in one-day classics - another team that make it their sole aim to go all out attack in March and April and this year have started the early season with great success. If I was pushed to say a name it would be a name I always use at this time of year: Lars Boom. Another rider who likes the long hard races and makes a show of attacking is FDJ's Yoann Offredo. He missed much of 2012 due to suspension thanks to lax whereabouts and missed tests so will be looking to make amends here. One more - Pippo Pozzato, just because.

Whatever happens we are likely to be kept guessing as to who the winner will be right until the closing moments and really that's the way most of us surely would want it. If like me you will be watching from the UK then don't forget to turn your clocks FORWARD because coverage starts quite early at 10:45 on British Eurosport and spans 5 hours 15 minutes right through to 4pm. All that's left for me to say is: Crack open some Belgian beers, put your feet up and enjoy a bloody good bike race!

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