OUDENAARDE, Belgium (VN) — The course for Sunday’s 96th running of the Ronde van Vlaanderen is dramatically different, but the two big favorites for the 255km race, one of cycling’s five monuments, remain the same.
With each man referring to the other as the pre-race favorite, Belgian Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Swiss national champion Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) will take the start in Bruges as the race’s main protagonists.
Boonen has won the race twice, in 2005 and 2006, was second in 2010 and finished fourth last year, just two seconds behind the winning move. Cancellara has won the race once, the victor of an epic 2010 head-to-head duel with Boonen; the Swiss star finished third last year.
Other former Tour of Flanders winners competing are BMC Racing’s Alessandro Ballan, winner in 2007, and Stijn Devolder (Vacansoleil-DCM), a somewhat anomalous two-time winner in 2008 and 2009, who benefitted largely as Boonen’s teammate.
Last year’s surprise winner, Nick Nuyens of Saxo Bank, is not competing due to a hip fracture suffered at Paris-Nice.
The list of four-star and three-star favorites is long (see “The Favorites”), but the title of five-star favorite belongs only to Boonen and Cancellara.
After a frustrating 2011 season, Boonen is riding the momentum of sprint-finish wins at the cobbled Belgian semi-classics E3 Harlebeke and Ghent-Whevelgem last weekend. On Wednesday, following a recon ride of the new-for-2012 route, Boonen told reporters he’d broken his previous power-output record over the Taaienberg, his favorite Flandrian climb. (The Taaienberg comes first among 16 ascents and will not play a role in the finale.)
Cancellara’s spring classics campaign has been less charmed. Though he won Strade Bianche with a trademark solo attack, he was unable to do the same at Milan-San Remo, finishing second. He was the victim of a crash with Rabobank’s Carlos Barredo at E3 Harelbeke, and has spent the last week nursing a swollen knee and bruised back that has required daily chiropractic adjustments. Cancellara this week pointed to Boonen has the rider who must bear the weight of the race, much like he did in 2011.
“[Boonen] will clearly be the five-star favorite,” he said. “I talked to Philippe [Gilbert] during the [Ghent-Wevelgem], and whether he’s at 90 percent or 100 percent, the favorite remains the same. Tom and his team will have to bear the weight of the race. But it is a bicycle race, there are other racers, other teams, a new course and it is a particular race. We’ll see Sunday if he is the strongest, and who wins. This is a classic 260 kilometers, a long, hard and difficult race. I will do everything possible to achieve what I have done in 2010. However, I’m not going to focus on Tom alone.”
As is always the case with Boonen and Cancellara, the race will be a battle between a superior sprinter (Boonen) and a stronger rouleur (Cancellara); Boonen will desperately try to remain glued to Cancellara’s wheel, and Cancellara will powerfully attempt to go to the finish line alone.
“I don’t think [winning Ghent-Wevelgem] changes anything,” Boonen said this week. “I already showed my condition [at Harelbeke]. Fabian is still number one, I think I am one or two percent behind him. Last year, Cancellara was also the super favorite, but he was too excited. He was the strongest guy in the race, but he started out too early. I don’t have the intention to do 50km solo. I don’t have the possibility or the engine that he has. The Tour of Flanders has changed. The new parcours is different, it’s harder, and I think everyone will wait until the final two or three climbs.”
Boonen comes to the start with a stronger team, running high on morale, that includes last year’s runner-up Sylvain Chavanel, who won Three Days of De Panne on Thursday, as well as recent Dwars door Vlaanderen winner Niki Terpstra and strongman Gert Steegmans. Cancellara will be supported by Gregory Rast, Daniele Bennati, Tony Gallopin, Yaroslav Popovych and Hayden Roulston.
On paper, BMC Racing boasts the most stacked squad in the race, with classics stars Ballan, Philippe Gilbert, Thor Hushovd, Greg Van Avermaet, George Hincapie, Manuel Quinziato and Marcus Burghardt. However, Gilbert has not yet shown top form this season, Hushovd continues to recover from an illness that kept him out of Milan-San Remo, Quinziato is also recovering from illness, and Van Avermaet is recovering from bunch-sprint crashes in the final 300 meters at both San Remo and Ghent-Wevelgem.