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Flanders preview: Generational shift in wide-open Ronde

GENT, Belgium (VN) — It’s rare that an entire nation embraces the sport of cycling as fervently and passionately as Belgium. In the Flanders region, cycling is nothing short of an obsession. The sport thrives, the fans line the roads, and the winners are lionized as gods. The Belgians hoist a beer to what they call “cycling’s cultural heritage.”

Add in some mud, wind, cold, and rain, not to mention miles of bumpy cobblestones and spirit-busting bergs, and the ingredients set the stage for one of cycling’s most compelling and intriguing races. The Tour of Flanders, called the Ronde van Vlaanderen by the locals, is the best of what competitive cycling has to offer.

“There is nothing else like the classics in cycling,” said Astana sport director Stefano Zanini, a former classics specialists. “Racing in Belgium is the university of cycling.”

Others agree the allure of the northern classics is unlike anything else in the sport.

“The one-day classics are pure cycling. There is no discussion, no hiding. You need to be the strongest. It is full gas,” Trek Factory Racing general manager Luca Guercilena said. “That’s why the classics generate such huge emotion. The GC is something you build up, but in the classics, there is no debate.”

Nearly 200 riders from 25, eight-man teams line up Sunday morning under the Medieval clock tower in downtown Bruges. The stage is set for an epic, generational-changing battle. To the brave go the spoils.

A Flanders in transition

This year’s Flanders marks the first time in more than a decade without the presence of either Tom Boonen (Etixx-Quick-Step) or Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing). Boonen crashed during Paris-Nice (and this week, team management ruled out a possible Paris-Roubaix start) while defending champion Cancellara was an early victim at E3 Harelbeke, cracking some vertebrae in a crash.

Between them, Boonen and Cancellara have won six of the past 10 editions of Flanders. When they’re at the line, they are considered the favorites and the wheel to follow. Without either of them, their absence completely alters the dynamic of the 2015 Ronde.

“It’s totally open now,” Cannondale-Garmin sport director Andreas Klier said. “It’s a chance for other people to go. They are younger and fresher, and maybe they make mistakes, but it’s totally open. It’s not, ‘go to the Kwaremont, open the gas, and go!’ This doesn’t exist anymore. It’s a new way of racing. Because the two biggest stars so far had bad luck. It’s sad they are out, because I love to see them racing, but this year’s Flanders will be very different.”

That doesn’t mean their respective teams are suddenly non-factors. Etixx has raced aggressively across the classics so far, snagging second and third at Harelbeke with Zdenek Stybar and Matteo Trentin, respectively, and second and fourth at Gent-Wevelgem, with Niki Terpstra and Stijn Vandenbergh, respectively.

“It’s very different, but it’s not necessarily easier for us during these classics,” Etixx technical director Rolf Aldag told VeloNews. “We have a super strong team for the classics. We can still frustrate others, because of the numbers we can have at the front. We hope we can maintain that strength with the team, even without Tom. The only thing that counts is to try to win.”

Things are a little more complicated at Trek Factory Racing, which built its entire classics campaign around Cancellara. The team lost Gert Steegmans to crashes caused by the heavy wind at both Gent-Wevelgem and Three Days of De Panne. Two-time Flanders champ Stijn Devolder will now try to step up to fill the Cancellara vacuum, but that won’t be easy, though he did take a morale-boosting second overall at De Panne this week.

“We’ll try to make the best of it, but it won’t be easy,” Trek classics director Dirk Demol said. “It’s a pity, and it’s a shame, because Fabian was in great condition. When you lose a leader, it’s hard to take.”

Filling the void

Many sense that this year’s Flanders presents an opportunity of a lifetime, as well as a generational change. Younger riders are already elbowing their way to the top of the pecking order. Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), 27, Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo), 25, and John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin), 26, are all poised to fill the void.

“The race will be hard even without those guys in it,” said Kristoff, referring to Boonen and Cancellara. “The Ronde is the big objective this year. I’ve been close the past two years. I hope this year I can reach the podium, and maybe more. That is my goal. We’ll see what happens Sunday.”

Degenkolb took an emotional victory at Milano-Sanremo, and is looking to be on the best form of his career. Sagan will be under huge pressure for a big result, but remains somewhat of an enigma following an uneven approach to the classics.

Right there among the top-ranked favorites is Geraint Thomas (Sky), 28, who has come into his own following his powerful and affirmative victory at E3 Harelbeke, when he rode the likes of Stybar and Sagan off his wheel. Sky’s classics program has reached a new level this season, and the team is hungry to win its first “monument” to go along with its growing collection of GC victories in stage races.

“Winning Harelbeke gives me a huge confidence boost for Flanders,” Thomas said. “These races are all about experience and confidence. I’ve reached a new level this year. I am stronger, and I’ve had a bit of luck, too. The entire team is very motivated for Sunday.”

The Belgians: The ‘Three Vans’

Without Boonen, three Belgian riders will be trying to make the most of the opportunity to fill his shoes. Topping that list are Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) and Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo).

Both have been on the Flanders podium (Van Avermaet was second last year, and Vanmarcke was third), and both are looking to be on solid form. Van Avermaet crashed at Harelbeke, but raced at Gent-Wevelgem, and should be firing on all cylinders Sunday. Vanmarcke was struggling in the gusting winds of Gent-Wevelgem, but he has the tenacity and the experience to find the winning moves. Will they have the legs?

There is huge pressure on both of them to deliver a Belgian victory. Being on the podium at Flanders just isn’t enough. If they want to cement their palmares and confirm their status as real classics heroes, they have to deliver the victory.

BMC has been more active than ever in the opening classics, with the distinctive red and black jerseys at the nose of the action. Van Avermaet will see solid protection, and he’s hoping to push the repeat button on last year’s performance, except finish one step higher on the podium.

“If [Etixx] had ridden a different tactic, maybe I would have already won a Flanders,” Van Avermaet said. “Last year’s performances only give me more confidence for the classics. I’ve taken that step up. I’ve been close, and now I know I can win. The victory is all that counts.”

That same kind of confidence is oozing out of Vanmarcke, who’s emerged over the past two years as a legitimate classics contender. Like Van Avermaet, he knows he needs to win something big this year, and Sunday is his best shot.

“It’s only normal there is pressure. I put myself under pressure. Since last year, I feel that I can win this race,” Vanmarcke said in a team release. “I think there are five, a maximum of 10 riders who can win Sunday. Flanders is such a heavy race that the favorites will always be there in the end.”

And the third “Van?” Etixx rider Stijn Vandenbergh, 30, is perhaps the most overlooked classics rider in the bunch. He’s often the one softening up the bunch, and inevitably sacrifices his own chances to set up his captains. The most blatant example of that was last year’s Flanders, when he marked Van Avermaet’s early aggression. The team told him not to work, with the hope that Boonen or others could come up. Instead, it was a savvy Cancellara who exploited the situation, leaving Vandenbergh wondering what could have happened had he been given wings to fly.

The story looks to be repeating this year. In Gent-Wevelgem, rather than taking a long-distance shot similar to Paolini, he was clearly working for Terpstra. Without Boonen, could Vandenbergh finally get his chance? It all depends on what happens in the heat of the race.

The outsiders: Every team brings a candidate

Every race has its unexpected heroes and protagonists, and Sunday is sure to deliver an interesting storyline or two. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) was making noises about racing Flanders, but he opted for a pair of one-day Spanish races over the weekend. Cannondale got some good news Friday when it announced that Sebastian Langeveld, who crashed hard at Harelbeke, will be able to make the start.

So who could come out of nowhere? Lars Boom (Astana) is no hack over the cobbles, winning stage 5 in the Tour de France last year, and he’s keen to prove he can be a reliable classics strongman. Maybe one of the French riders, such as aging warrior Sylvain Chavanel (IAM Cycling) or Arnaud Démare (FDJ). Second-tier teams will be throwing bombs, with the likes of Bjorn Leukemans (Wanty) or Topsport Vlaanderen amped to shine on home roads. MTN-Qhubeka will be missing Edvald Boasson Hagen, and will be hoping Gerard Ciolek or Tyler Farrar can step up. WorldTour teams without five-star favorites, such as Lotto-Soudal and Orica-GreenEdge, will be looking to place men into early breakaways. And what about Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida)? Why not.

The course: 19 bergs to paradise

The Flanders route is strongman stuff. There’s no hiding, no room for pretenders. Only the strongest will survive. It’s rare for anyone who wins Flanders to be called an undeserving champion.

The 264-kilometer route from Bruges to Oudenaarde is where legends are made. From its frenetic start in the historic square in Bruges to the stadium-like finish, the route is challenging at every turn. The opening two hours or so of racing trace the flatter West Flanders region, where wind and a nervous bunch can cause problems. This is where the early breaks will form, and where the favorites will be looking to conserve as much energy as possible.

“De Ronde is the king of the classics, and it’s always decided amongst the biggest favorites,” said Tinkoff-Saxo sport director Tristan Hoffman in a team release. “A strong team is crucial in order to arrive at the last 50km fresh before the race explodes on the two times up the Oude-Kwaremont and Paterberg combination, and the Koppenberg in between.”

There are 19 “bergs” pocking the Flanderen countryside, and while nothing is terribly long, the steepness and roughness of the cobled climbs definitely take their collective toll on the pack. Positioning and pacing is key to surviving the opening climb, from the first climb at Tiegemberg, at just under 90km, all the way to three, race-deciding passages over the Oude Kwaremont.

The battle heats up in the closing 60km, with the first of two passages over the Kwaremont-Paterberg double-whammy at about 210km. From there, there are six more climbs, including the final Kwaremont-Paterberg pairing, ahead of the closing 13km of flats to the finish line in Oudenaarde, giving some room to regroup and counter-attack before the final run to the line.

The first rider across the line will never have to buy a beer again in Belgium as long as he lives.

The weather: Brutal winds letting up

Following harrowing conditions for the opening northern classics, the cycling weather gods are taking pity on the peloton. The weather forecast looks rather spring-like for Sunday’s battle. Gone are hurricane-like winds that punished the bunch in Gent-Wevelgem and Three Days of De Panne. Forecasters are calling for crisp, morning temperatures in the 40s and an afternoon high in the upper 50s, with mostly sunny skies, almost no chance of rain, and a 10mph breeze out of the north, with some gusting possible. That doesn’t mean wind won’t be a factor, it’s just that the riders will be able to stay upright on their bikes and not get blown off the road.

Flanders fever: Bigger than the Super Bowl

More than one-quarter of Flanders’ 6 million residents line the roadside during the race. At least that’s the unofficial estimation from organizers, who peg the number of fans lining the road at 1.5 million. Most of them are Belgian, although more and more foreign fans are making the trip to watch the race in person. And TV ratings are just as impressive, with the key moments of the race garnering more than a 60 percent market share in Flanders, putting it on par with the media reach of the NFL’s Super Bowl.