De Ronde will put on its very best for the 99th time tomorrow, with some of the best riders of the next generation ready to jostle for one of the most prestigious victories in sport.
Much has been made of the absence of both Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen, and with good reason. The pair have dominated the cobbled Classics for nearly a decade, putting in some of the most memorable duels in the history of a very old sport. Cycling may be timeless, but the clock is ever-ticking on even the best of athletes. Even before Boonen and Cancellara made exits through injury this spring, there was nothing guaranteed in 2015, as the next crop of youngsters had already proven themselves nearing and often on the same level as the two legends.
The theme of handing off a torch is a familiar one in the Classics game, and we only need harken back to Boonen’s predecessor of Peter van Petegem. The Belgian remains a god-like figure in the region, making celebrity appearances and finding himself called on by today’s stars to provide insight, including sheparding Alberto Contador around before the Tour de France hit the bricks in 2010. Similar to the Boonen-Cancellara rivalry, Petegem found himself toe-to-toe with Johan Museeuw. For each, the other provided a rival not only to beat but a rider to mark, with their in-fighting oftentimes providing the stalemate necessary for another rider to take a win. The same parallel, perhaps, has helped riders like Nick Nuyens, Alessandro Ballan or Stijn Devolder to ride away with massive wins at De Ronde.
It is only Devolder on hand Sunday with mulitple wins, with the former Beligan National Champion assuming the mantle for Cancellara in the strong Trek Factory Racing squad. Filled to burst with talent, the team will need to show it can ride without its unquestioned leader on the biggest of stages. Devolder looks recovered from a crash and should feature in the finale if his luck holds up. Trek finds itself fortunate to have a clear leader waiting in the wings, but the result will still be measure relative to the “What ifs” sure to follow in the absence of Cancellara.
The power vacuum in Ettix-QuickStep has been a source of constant irritation for team principle Patrick LeFevre since Boonen crashed out of Paris-Nice. If it can be called a problem, the team seem too strong for its own good, with the issue perhaps highlighted at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in March. After a demonstrative clinic on the early secteurs and bergs saw the peloton demolished, Ettix had Boonen, Nikki Terpstra and Stijn Vandenberg surrounding Sky’s Ian Stannard. Three on one, with a gap of 20 seconds and going out in the final 10km, somehow they were outfoxed by Stannard. The performance was as disjointed as it was disappointing; Boonen attacked without much success at 4km to go, with Stannard marking both Terpstra and Vandenberg before Terpstra finally drew him out…and promptly kicked the wall by leading Stannard out in the finale.
For Flanders, they’ll have nearly all to choose from, which is a luxury and a curse. Without Boonen, often called their talisman, road tactics are less clear and often chaotic. Communication and sacrifice will be the words of the day, with a need for a few to jump on swords for a single cause. The leader looks to be Strade Bianche winner Zdenek Stybar, with the rest of the team rallying, protecting and working. They’ll need to be both the powerhouse squad of the spring and the smart tacticians of years prior to take another win.
The team with no leadership questions is the one everyone would have guessed to have been shooting itself in the foot ever since Bradley Wiggins announced his intention to win Paris-Roubaix. Unpicked for E3 Harelbreke, the team’s heir apparent took the win and was third the next day at Gent-Wevelgem. Geraint Thomas has shown promise on the biggest of stages since his amazing ride on the infamous cobbled stage in 2010, where he went pedal-stroke-for-pedal-stroke with then World Champion Thor Hushovd and a Fabian Cancellara fresh off doubling up Flanders and Roubaix, as well as Cadel Evans and eventual Tour winner by default Andy Schleck. Thomas has been steady strides in the past five years, with a stint on the boards for the 2012 London games putting brief pause on the Welshman’s Classics preparation. He has finally stepped on the same stage of Wiggins and will count the final days with Wiggo in the team as an opportunity to ride with the Tour winner in his support on Sunday. The pair have ridden together since 2008, with Wiggins riding in the same pursuit team to gold in Beijing. Wiggins has already tipped Thomas as the future of Team Sky, and the future seems to be at hand.
Sky will boast a depth only surpassed by Ettix-QuickStep. Luke Rowe is on his best form in years, along with Omloop winner Ian Stannard inching back to form. Christian Knees and Salvatore Pucci will be indispensable on the day, with Elia Viviano perhaps hoping all the while to survive for a sprint.
Peter Sagan was supposed to be doing what Geraint Thomas has already done. Perpetually on the podium but never the top step in the Monuments, Sagan was the heir apparent to the title of Cobble King. After a disappointing spring thus far, the Tinkoff-Saxo circus has only put more pressure on Sagan. As unruffled as he claims to be, the reality is simple. The team has two wins in 2015, it has had its long-time owner and then manager sacked, and Alberto Contador can’t be expected to save the season with a Giro-Tour double that has been done since 1998, and that under very questionable circumstances by a doomed Marco Pantani. If there is a race for Sagan, Flanders is it. He excels on the hellingen, seems immune to crosswind, and has an endurance far afield from what his age would normally provide. He may not have faced a more important Sunday in his short but brilliant career thus far.
Sep van Marke is ‘next’. It seems almost a given that he should be king. He lives with 10km of nearly every famous berg in the race, is known to ride parts of the route 3-4 times a week, and has made a point of riding the cobbles even on Christmas Day. It has been a spring of bad luck for the Lotto-Jumbo man, with punctures, crashes and missed breaks plaguing what has otherwise been two months of incredible form. Flanders or Roubaix, it feels inevitable that it will come together for the team, which itself is deep with Belgian and Dutch riders that have grown up riding in the wind, on the cobbles and in big events like these since before their Junior years.
Luck has certainly been no issue for Katusha, with two riders entering with a chance. The canny win of Luca Paolini at Dwars door Vlanderaan only kept momentum going from Alexander Kristoff’s stellar campaign, perhaps highlighted by a second at Milan-San Remo and no less than a 75% win percentage at Three Days of De Panne this week, where he also won the overall. Paolini is burning a brilliant farewell in the twilight of his career, but Kristoff has time ahead of him and all of the potential in the world going forward.
Finally, there appeared no end to the prospects of BMC’s Greg van Avermaet. Smarter than he was strong, the attacking rider’s legs had caught up to his ambitions last year, where he was in the mix at Flanders and only out of touch as a result of a crash at Roubaix. It’s been too much ground contact again in 2015, and he’s struggled to regain momentum ahead of Flanders. He’ll enter as co-captain with Danial Oss and will likely adopt the anti-Cancellara tactic he pioneered in the past few years; attack first, be up the road already when favorites start to make their moves, and save your last card to play until very late. He’s ridden well but under a doping connection, something he and his team have roundly dismissed as hearsay. There is no better way to move on that win, and he’ll be looking for exactly that with some deep support from BMC.
The list of favorites goes on without a doubt, but these are the riders and teams with the most to gain and the most to lose Sunday, and the ones most likely to put on a great show. Because of the firepower, the fitness and the need for a big result, it’s tough to look past Ettix-QuickStep, and Zdenek Stybar should be the one to deliver out of a team with too much talent to deliver anything but a win. If it’s a long break, Geraint Thomas will be in it and he’ll win it. The dark horse comes from Stybar’s own team. Whatever Ettix pay Stijn Vandenberg, he deserves double. No rider is as consistent, as powerful and as dutiful, and he isn’t beyond sneaking off if the leash is let loose.
1. Zdenek Stybar
2. Geraint Thomas
3. Sep Van Marcke