Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step): The 32-year-old Belgian star is the most decorated cobbled classics rider of his generation, and perhaps the best classics rider of all time. Though he’s large by bike-racing standards (6-foot-4, 180 pounds), Boonen can power his frame over the climbs of Flanders, which he’s been riding since he was a teenager. That same build packs a strong finishing kick, and as he proved at last year’s Roubaix, where he soloed off the front for 55km, he’s fully capable of holding his own against the wind in a time trial across the cobblestones.
In 2010 Boonen was outmatched by a superior Fabian Cancellara on both the climbs of Flanders and on the pavé of Roubaix. However, last year the Omega rider won a pair of bunch sprints at Harelbeke and Ghent-Wevelgem and then took advantage of Cancellara’s misfortune to win Flanders and Roubaix. Boonen withdrew from Milano-Sanremo on Sunday, both to preserve himself for the cobblestones and also, he said, to make a statement about the horrible conditions racers faced. Whether or not that decision will help him or hinder him remains to be seen, but with teammates like Stijn Vandenbergh, Niki Terpstra, Sylvain Chavanel, and Mark Cavendish, and Boonen’s innate knowledge of what it takes to win these races, he stands as good a chance as anyone to stand atop a podium in the coming weeks.
Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard): In 2010, Cancellara dominated the cobblestones, winning solo at Harelbeke, Flanders, and Roubaix — each time by a larger winning margin than the last. His wins were so forceful, so convincing, that he was half-seriously accused of riding with a motorized bike, and it appeared he might dominate the cobbled classics for the next five years, if not more. But Cancellara’s tactic of winning by brute force hasn’t worked since the 2011 Harelbeke. He finished second at Roubaix that year, the victim of team tactics that saw Thor Hushovd’s Garmin teammate Johan Vansummeren take the solo win. Cancellara finished third in 2011 to Nick Nuyens and Sylvain Chavanel at Flanders, after a long-distance attack failed and Cancellara was brought back on the slopes of the Kappelmuur, the long, iconic climb that is no longer used at De Ronde.
Last year, Cancellara’s attempts to solo away from the field failed at Milano-Sanremo, Harelbeke, and Ghent-Wevelgem before he was carried off the Flanders course on a stretcher with a broken collarbone after nailing a water bottle in the feedzone. His third-place finish at Milano-Sanremo and fourth at Strade Bianche this month show that he’s again a serious contender, though he doesn’t appear to be on the unstoppable form that he carried in 2010. Cancellara will be backed by two-time Flanders winner Stijn Devolder, compatriot Gregory Rast, and Kiwis Hayden Roulston and Jesse Sergent.