Flanders looms large, with this Sunday bringing the second Monument of 2017. Sagan, Boonen, and a flying van Avermaet collide with history.
The 101st Tour of Flanders is the center of the cycling world right now, with all due respect to the incredibly exciting Three Days of de Panne. Many of the big names have elected to double-up with E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem last week, rather than take on de Panne Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. That should make for an interesting and exciting Classic, with a lot riding on the results.
The race was born amidst the whispers and rumbles of the First World War. Six men contested a sprint finish in 1913. After the war, the race started to take on a bigger profile. It became the voice, face, and even the symbol of the Dutch-speaking Flanders region of Belgium, a region as devastated and grim as the roads of Paris-Roubaix and Northern France. Belgians dominated the event, even as more and more international riders began to take notice. Italian Fiornzo Magni, the British rider Tom Simpson, and the famous Frenchman Louison Bobet all took win in the 50s and 60s, before a certain Eddy Merckx and his rival Rik van Looy established a rivalry unmatched in the Classics until Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara were on the scene nearly 50 years later.
Some are already comparing the Greg van Avermaet/Peter Sagan duels to both of those sets of rivalries, but it may be another few years until the modern battle is on the same level. This Sunday should be a good indicator, with GvA becoming just the third rider to win Omloop, E3 and Gent-Wevelgem in a single season. He admitted to being the favorite for Sunday, something he’s had a long history of avoiding in his career. The Belgian was a sort of secondary protagonist until 2015, a year dominated by Alexander Kristoff and with even the biggest names frustrated. Now, GvA is the rider on the hot seat, even with last year’s winner Peter Sagan back to defend, and back to defend in rainbow stripes in his second season as world champion.
The G-W feud with Quick-Step is perhaps as telling as anything about the respect and fear the peloton has for Sagan. As the eventual winning move of Jens Keukeleire and Greg van Avermaet inched away, QS’s Nikki Terpstra let a gap open, and Sagan refused to fill it. The pair coasted out of contention, and couldn’t close the gap in the remaining 16km to fight for the win. It was a mistake from Terpstra, but a statement from Sagan. He won’t be played for a fool, and his string of top tens and even podiums aren’t satiating. He’s paid to win, and he will expect nothing less from Sunday.
As always, Quick-Step has all the numbers and options, and still nothing assured. As aggressive as they were at E3, eventually winning with Yves Lampaert and second with Phillipe Gilbert, who also won the first stage of de Panne, they’ve yet to match Sagan when the gas is pressed. They’ll also have one of the most successful Classics racers of all time in Tom Boonen, making his final appearance at Flanders before retiring after Paris-Roubaix. They’ll need to put winning with anyone ahead of counting on Boonen, and it’s a sign of the depth of the team that he’s only one card to play in a pretty full deck that also includes Matteo Trentin, Zdenek Stybar, and Fernando Gaviria.
They are plenty of other names to mention, including Edvald Boasson-Hagen, Alexander Kristoff, and Sep Vanmarcke. We’ll cover two new names to the list, instead. Luke Durbridge is just 26 years old, but it feels like he’s been a pro for Orica for a decade. This spring, he’s come alive in the Classics, putting himself in the mix in every race and now sitting second at de Panne after the first stage. He and Jens Keukeleire give Orica an unheard of and unrivaled depth in the Classics, with the ageless Mat Hayman the defending Paris-Roubaix champion riding as road captain.
How will it go down? Somebody will have to punch first, and it’s hard to expect it to come from anyone but Sagan from the favorites. He’ll want to go on his favorite launch pad, the Paterberg, but other teams will want to throw riders up the road well before that. Watch for Boonen to make his move on the Tainenberg and play the long game, while Orica, Sky (with Ian Stannard) and BMC (likely the on-form Daniel Oss) make similar moves from around the 80-100km to go range. This year, it will be enough, to stretch Sagan, and we’re picking Stybar to win from a small move, with the bigger favorites all marking themselves out of contention, not unlike Johan van Summeran’s win at Paris-Roubaix.