For the first time in a few seasons, it’s not all eyes-on-Sagan at De Ronde.
No team has been as successful on the pave as Quick-Step over the past two decades. From Maipei to its current guise, the team has consistently won the biggest races each spring, but those wins often came from the incomparable Tom Boonen. The team’s talisman for over ten years, “Tornado” Tom was the be-all end-all, at times with such a furious commitment that it actually worked against the squad.
It’s a situation that the Real Madrid galacticos era should have served as an example to avoid. Quick-Step was labelled as having too many chefs in the kitchen, with Boonen, Mattero Trentin, Roubaix winner Nikki Terpstra, Phillipe Gilbert, Yves Lampaert, Zdenek Stybar, Stijn Vandenberg and others all more than capable of winner a Classics race, but awkwardly balancing riding for themselves and only kind of riding for each other. And in their defense, that confusion could be blamed on the team car. Maybe the best example was Ian Stannard’s three on one win at Omloop Het Niewsblad in 2015. In the last 7km, the team pittled off just one attack with Tom Boonen, who Stannard simply bridged across to and then promptly outsprinted in the finale. There were a million ways to play it, even with a chasing group on their heels, but somehow, they managed to do everything wrong.
Flashforward to the team’s current mood, and they seem to only be able to do right. They’ve won all but one of the semi and full-on cobbled classics, with Peter Sagan’s sprint romp at Gent-Wevelgem spoiling the perfect streak. What’s more, they’ve done it with a number of different riders, including new signing Elia Viviani, the youthful Yves Lampaert, and Nikki Terpstra. They haven’t even picked up wins from two of the team’s very best riders, 2017 Flanders champ Phillipe Gilbert and the perpetual possibility that is Zdenek Stybar.
Their domination is a result of having a strong team that’s willing to ride as a team, and the results only go to promote more of the same as we near De Ronde and Paris-Roubaix. They’re so strong that from their seven-man line-up, we can’t pick a team leader, only riders that fit a slightly different scenario. Lampaert and Terpstra are the long-range bets, with Gilbert capable of going from 60k or 6km with the same success rate. Stybar, too, can win from nearly any scenario, although he might be the teams’ best bet against the likes of Sagan or Greg van Avermaet in a sprint.
That strength takes a bit of pressure off 2016 Flanders winner and 3 time World Champion Peter Sagan. He’s won plenty in 2018, including that impressive sprint in G-W, but after coming up short again at Milan-San Remo, Flanders 2016 remains his only Monument win. His track record at Flanders is much more consistent than at Paris-Roubaix, and it seems like this Sunday is his next best chance to win before a break ahead of the Tour de France.
After an unforgettable 2017 campaign, Greg van Avermaet has impressed with his aggression but not his results. So far, GvA has missed the winning moves and committed to the failed ones, and until he finds the right timing, he’s not a rider like Sagan or the former champion here, Fabian Cancellara, who can rely on his legs to get him back into races. Still, after winning his Monument at Paris-Roubaix, Flanders is the sole obsession of a rider with plenty of ability and the squad that’s good enough to support him. He will be missing Daniel Oss, who moved to Bora to lieutenant the ship for Sagan this season.
Seeing Vicenzo Nibali on the start list shouldn’t be a surprise. The Italian has always had an eye for one-day races, even as he became one of the few riders in the world to win all three Grand Tours. And perhaps that’s because he’s been equally good on the pave as many of the riders on this list. He beat a host of them in 2014’s Roubaix-inspired (and thoroughly rain-soaked) stage while in the yellow jersey, well on his way to winning that year’s Tour. He’s also just added Milan-San Remo to his Monuments haul that includes two wins at Il Lombardia. Just how much of a leash he’ll be given remains to be seen, but Nibali is the most instinctive, smart and tactically-sound rider in the peloton now that Alberto Contador is retired.
There are a dozen more riders worth mentioning, but we’re most eager to see how Tiesj Benoot fares after a strong spring and a Strade Bianche win last month. Flanders is tailor-made to the smallish, spindly Belgian, and especially if the weather gets ugly, he will be a rider to watch, and root for. It’s also time to see something from Tony Martin. The big German has said he’s shifted away from time trials to the Classics, following the blueprint of Cancellara. But he’s going to need to put in some results, and until now, he’s consistently missed the winning moves or found himself isolated in a second group. He’s going to need help, and Katusha’s Nils Politt might be the key to Martin’s Monument run.
Our BOLD PREDICTION of the race is centered on one key point. Quick-Step will need to stay off the front, especially with teams being reduced from 8 to 7 riders this season. If they want all their riders in the hunt late, they may need to commit one up the road and avoid chasing and burning up their star line-up. If they have a rider in the break with 80km to go, they’ll win. If they don’t, they’re going to bear the brunt of the chasing efforts, along with BMC, and they’ll run out of options quick.
Easy Pick: Peter Sagan. He’s shown great form and average luck, and while you need both at Flanders, he tends to be able to make his own when it really matters.
Man-Crush Pick: Michal Kwiatkowski. Team Sky’s Classics squad has spent most of the campaign stuck in the spectator seats. While Luke Rowe has been amazing returning from a broken leg, he’s not been in it when it matters, and Ian Stannard today isn’t the Ian Stannard of 2015. Enter Kwiatkowski, the most versatile rider in the world. He’s won two mountainous stage races and immediately becomes Sky’s best in Belgium Sunday. He’s been in more than a few moves over the years, including helping to power Sagan’s ultimately winning break at Flanders in 2016. Kwiato imploded that year, but he’s at a whole new level since his revival of 2017.
Nostolgia Pick: Heinrich Haussler. We thought Heino would have a half-dozen monument wins by now. Since his breakout season with Cervelo Test Team and second place finish at Milan-San Remo, he’s bounced around teams and suffered numerous setbacks and injuries. The clock is ticking, but we’d love to see him have a strong ride.