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Tour of Flanders: 10 riders to watch in the men’s race

VeloNews picks out 10 riders to keep an eye out for in the second monument of the men's spring classics campaign.

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The Tour of Flanders is firmly in view with both the men’s and women’s editions taking place on Sunday. Several high-profile riders from Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) to Peter Sagan (TotalEnergies) are set to miss out through illness — Jumbo-Visma has not confirmed van Aert’s absence but said it was highly likely — but that doesn’t mean that the men’s race is lacking in stellar names.

Defending champion Kasper Asgreen leads the way for Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl, while Mathieu van der Poel, Tom Pidcock, and Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar will all be on the start line. VeloNews has handpicked the top-10 riders to watch for what promises to be another epic race on the cobbles of Belgium.

Kasper Asgreen

Team: Quick-Step AlphaVinyl
Age: 27
Tour of Flanders pedigree: He won in 2021, beating van der Poel in a two-up sprint. Not many riders can say they’ve done that.
Why can he win? Asgreen has the entire Quick-Step team at his disposal on Sunday but that’s not saying much given the current state of Patrick Lefevere’s walking wounded. The Belgian squad is off the pace and in relative disarray at present, and the races have come so thick and so fast this spring that there’s been little to no chance to right the situation.

Asgreen could yet make the key selection in Flanders on pure ability alone, but asking him to contest for the win at this point feels like a stretch. He was third in Strade Bianche and tenth in E3 Saxo Bank, so it’s not a complete lost cause, but the collective powers that Lefevere’s squads have prided themselves on previously simply aren’t there, and they’ve shown no signs of being able to adapt to the dominance of Jumbo-Visma or their diminished resources. The hope is that Asgreen can find the missing few percent that he’s lacked so far in the spring and pick up a win his team will be desperate for.

Also read:

Tiesj Benoot

Team: Jumbo-Visma
Age: 28
Tour of Flanders pedigree: Finished in the top 10 a number of times but his best result was back in 2015, when he was fifth.
Why can he win? He may have only won two races in his career but Benoot, at 28, is clearly in a rich vein of form. He has not raced a single stage race in 2022 but he was ninth in E3, and second in Dwars door Vlaanderen after almost taking the win with a late attack that only van der Poel could match. The form is there, and the longer the race, the more Benoot seems to come into his own. The rapid consistency of the climbs gives Benoot — a more adept ascender — a possible edge over his teammate Christophe Laporte but his sprint is weaker than the Frenchman’s. The obvious loss of Wout van Aert deprives Jumbo-Visma of its ace and its strongest card, but there are advantages as well as disadvantages to that situation.

On the plus side, Benoot will have more freedom to move, and with van Aert missing he can race with a more simplified approach. He’ll never get a clearer shot at victory. The downside is that van Aert was the perfect antidote to mark and match van der Poel, and now Benoot will have to race with expectancy on his shoulders. Van der Poel versus the highly capable Jumbo riders is a tough proposition but with van Aert out of the equation, the odds tilt towards the Alpecin rider. Jumbo-Visma is still in a fantastic position, but can it shoulder the responsibility of the race without the number one favorite?

Tiesj Benoot (Jumbo-Visma) in action
Tiesj Benoot of Belgium and Team Jumbo – Visma in action at Dwars Door Vlaanderen 2022  (Photo by Peter De Voecht – Pool/Getty Images) (Photo: Getty)

Victor Campenaerts

Team: Lotto-Soudal
Age: 30
Tour of Flanders pedigree: Raced it once and finished 38th.
Why can he win? There’s just something inherently likable about a rider who finishes races with missing teeth and on a gear that has Tom Pidcock’s legs spinning like Road Runner. Campenaerts is fast becoming a bit of a cult hero because he feels relatable, humble, and quirky both on and off the bike. Heck, he even made the Hour Record interesting for a while.

However, the fact is that Lotto Soudal needs a savior right now and Campenaerts could be that man. The team has won nine races this year but it is also in real danger of losing their WorldTour status, and while there are legitimate questions over their recruitment over the last few years, their management rifts, and their current roster, Campenaerts has been a rare glimmer of sunshine. He’s been top-10 in three Belgian one-day races this year, and in Dwars door Vlaanderen only a late chase snaffled out his chance of escaping with a win.

There are questions over his staying power in monuments and races over 280km but the form is decent, he seems to race with a sense of freedom that many classics riders don’t have, and there’s always the chance that if he attacks there will be a moment of hesitation.

Mathieu van der Poel
Team: Alpecin-Fenix
Age: 27
Tour of Flanders pedigree: He won the race in 2020 and finished second last year.
Why can he win? He’s the number one favorite now that van Aert is likely to miss the race, and all the signs point to van der Poel taking his second title in three years. He has been in imperious form since his accelerated return in March at Milan-San Remo, and although his form is not at the unbeatable best that we’ve seen before, he seems to have matured to a new level. In previous years he would have been too excited in a race like Dwars door Vlaanderen and done too much before being outfoxed in the final. This time around he raced with a sense of experience and calm and took a well-deserved win. He’s complete.

There’s still a slight question over his form given his quick return from injury, and the fact remains that Milan-San Remo is not the same as Flanders, and Dwars is 100km less than what van der Poel will face on Sunday, but we’re clutching at straws at this point. Can he win? Yes. Should he win? Also yes.

Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) won the 2022 Dwars Door Vlaanderen
Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) won the 2022 Dwars Door Vlaanderen. (Photo: ERIC LALMAND/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images)

Tadej Pogačar

Team: UAE Team Emirates
Age: 23
Tour of Flanders pedigree: Call the double Tour de France winner a newb. I dare you.
Why can he win? Pogačar has taken everything journalists like myself thought they’d known about cycling and turned the world upside down. What he’s done makes no sense; whether it’s his record; his art of recovery; his ability; or the fact that we’ve still not seen him have a bad day on the bike since he moved into the WorldTour. It’s just unreal.

For all those reasons, despite his clear lack of experience, Pogačar heads into the Tour of Flanders with a fighting chance of winning. His lack of experience is the only weakness in that impregnable armor, so his rivals will need to isolate him and then prey on his lack of knowledge when it comes to the key points along the course. Pogačar has the ability and guile to get himself out of a corner once or twice in a race, but after that, he could be found wanting if he makes too many errors.

That means his best chance of winning might be to go for another excruciatingly long break in a bid to blow the race apart and force Jumbo-Visma and Alpecin-Fenix to look at each other. Or that he drags one or two rivals with him and then grinds them down on the last set of climbs. He could finish in the top 10, he could win by three minutes. As I said, everything has been turned upside down.

Mads Pedersen

Team: Trek-Segafredo
Age: 26
Tour of Flanders pedigree: Finished second in 2016 but hasn’t done much in Flanders since.
Why can he win? Pedersen’s sparkle has faded somewhat since a blistering start to the season but the Danish rider remains a threat for Sunday’s second monument of the season. Top-10s in Milan-San Remo and Gent-Wevelgem can’t be achieved through fortune, and the former world champion looked impressive on the Kemmelberg during Gent-Wevelgem as he tracked the moves from Wout van Aert. It’s difficult to pick between Pedersen and Stuyven at this point – they both look relatively even in terms of form – but the Dane has a marginally better sprint.

Tom Pidcock

Team: Ineos Grenadiers
Age: 22
Tour of Flanders pedigree: Made his debut last year and came home outside the top 40.
Why can he win? The form at 200km is certainly moving in the right direction and in Dwars door Vlaanderen the British rider put in his best one-day performance of the season so far. It was a slugfest in the end, and anyone from the front group could have come away with the win, but Pidcock marked moves, worked well alongside one of the revelations of the classics in Ben Turner, and secured his first podium of 2022.

That said, there’s a massive difference between 187km midweek and the near 300km Pidcock will test himself with on Sunday. If the stomach bug that ruined his early spring campaign is still lingering, and he’s struggling to feed during six- to seven-hour efforts then he will be found out in the last hour of racing when the terrain at Flanders reaches unforgiving levels of difficulty. If he’s 100 percent healthy and the bug is out of his system then Pidcock should be right up there and competing for the win. The team around him, including Turner, Magnus Sheffield, and Dylan van Baarle is one of the most complete units in the field.

Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers)
(Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

Matej Mohorič

Team: Bahrain Victorious
Age: 27
Tour of Flanders pedigree: The Milan-San Remo winner has only raced Flanders once before, back in 2019.
Why can he win? Despite a lack of experience in the race the Slovenian winner of Milan-San Remo is an obvious candidate for an excellent result come Sunday. He’s held onto his form from a few weeks ago with top-10s in his last two outings, and his durability and diesel-like qualities mark him out as a key contender. The sprint isn’t as strong as some of the riders on this list but the 27-year-old’s overall pedigree and power for the short climbs are ideal. Experience and saving energy at key moments will be crucial though. A rider hasn’t won both San Remo and the Tour of Flanders since Eddy Merckx in 1975.

Christophe Laporte

Team: Jumbo-Visma
Age: 29
Tour of Flanders pedigree: 11th last year but that’s the outlier at present.
Why can he win? Laporte was a mid-pack sprinter with a decent back catalog of results but a move to Jumbo-Visma and single winter later and the Frenchman has become a classics animal at the age of 29. It’s simply been a phenomenal step-up, and the former Cofidis rider heads into Flanders looking to become the first French winner since Jacky Durand in 1992. The loss of van Aert is certainly a talking point, and the Dutch team may well attempt to alter their approach but there’s no denying that Laporte heads into the race with a chance of winning. Second in both E3 and Gent-Wevelgem, he’s been flying, and the only doubts are over his staying power at 300km of racing. He picked up a top-10 in Paris-Roubaix last year but that’s his best result in the monuments, which suggests that while he’s incredibly strong he’s not quite elite. However, that assessment is based on the 2021 Laporte and not what we’re witnessing this year.

Christophe Laporte took the stage win ahead of his teammates
Christophe Laporte took the stage win ahead of his teammates (Photo: Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images)

Jasper Stuyven

Team: Trek Segafredo
Age: 29
Tour of Flanders pedigree: Fourth a couple of years ago.
Why can he win? Our last spot on the list was a toss-up between Stuyven and the incredibly consistent and perennial nearly man Stefan Küng, but in the end, the Belgian gets the green light. Stuyven is built for races like the Tour of Flanders and it’s somewhat of a surprise that he hasn’t made the podium in the past. Fourth was his best result back in 2021 but the former Milan-San Remo has been knocking on the door all season without taking a win. He was a disappointing fourth in Gent-Wevelgem, which might suggest that he’s still not 100 percent back to his very best after illness, but after missing Dwars door Vlaanderen the 29-year-old should be nudging towards his full capacity. Along with Pedersen, he forms one of the best one-two punches in the race, and the pair naturally complement each other when it comes to racing styles.