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Tour of Flanders preview: Wout van Aert vs. Mathieu van der Poel headlines cobbles season closer

This year's Tour of Flanders has plenty of storylines to follow, from the race's prohibition of fans, to the debut of Romain Bardet and Julian Alaphilippe, to the heated rivalry between Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel.

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This one is for all the marbles… err, cobblestones.

Sunday’s Tour of Flanders marks the abrupt end to the 2020 fall classics season, now that Paris-Roubaix and other races have been called off due to Europe’s surging COVID-19 numbers. The truncating of the season has understandably placed extra importance on Flanders for those brawny riders who target the stones. During a traditional season, these riders would spend the entire month rattling away on the rocks, with Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne, E3 BinckBank Classic, Gent-Wevelgem, Dwars door Vlaanderen, the Tour of Flanders, Scheldeprijs, and then Paris-Roubaix providing seven opportunities to grab WorldTour wins.

This year, there are just four: Gent-Wevelgem, Scheldeprijs, Flanders, and then Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne, which is still on the schedule for October 21.

Flanders is the biggest and most important event still standing. And based on last weekend’s Gent-Wevelgem, there are plenty of compelling storylines to follow at this year’s edition. For fans in North America, is your home for the Tour of Flanders broadcast. And, as always, will have all of the news and updates from the event.

Here’s what’s cooking at this year’s race:

No fanfare on the bergs

We cannot imagine the Oude Kwaremont without fans. But that’s what we will see at the 2020 Tour of Flanders. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Like other countries across Europe, Belgium is experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases. Officials in Flanders, as well as race organizer Flanders Classics, are hoping that a series of safety measures allows the event to take place without contributing to the country’s infection rate.

The first safety measure is the shortening of the course — organizers have reportedly removed 24 or so kilometers from the total route. Gone are the iconic Muur van Geraardsbergen, as well as the Tenbosse climb that launched Johan Museeuw to victory back in 1998.

The other big difference this year is strict measures banning crowds of spectators. Organizers are banning fans from attending the start in Antwerp as well as the finish in Oudenaarde. They are also closing the key climbs to spectators, including the Oude Kwaremont, Paterberg, and Koppenberg.

“There will be a race if people stay at home,” said Flanders Classics CEO Thomas Van Den Spiegel. “We must count on people to stay at home, that it will be a Tour of Flanders without an audience.”

The fans who do turn out to watch the race will be required to wear face masks and limit their group size. According to Van Den Spiegel, officials will levy fines against fans who are in groups of four or more along the course. Then, the race’s traditional finishing circuit around Oudenaarde will be a restricted zone for the public.

“As soon as we are in the Flemish Ardennes, where a good 80 percent of the race takes place, everything is virtually hermetically sealed,” Van Den Spiegel said. “Both in terms of mobility and all points of interest next to the course.”

How officials will accomplish this is yet to be seen. But what’s guaranteed is the 2020 edition of the Tour of Flanders will be oh so different, due to the lack of crowds and fans. The race’s mystique is tied in part to the thousands of fans who crowd the beer tents on the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg. What Flanders looks like minus the flapping flags and cheering fans is something we will need to watch to truly appreciate.

Newcomers in the mix

Julian Alaphilippe (center) riding the cobbles this week prior to his Tour of Flanders debut. Photo: DIRK WAEM/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images

The late October date for the Tour of Flanders has opened the door for a few non-traditional cobblestone racers to give the race a try in 2020. Debutantes rarely vault to the top at Flanders, due to the race’s punishing route and complex tactics. But the two, star riders making their Flanders debut are skilled veterans who have all of the skills required to survive a day on the stones.

Atop that list is current world road champion Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck–Quick-Step), who would normally use the Flanders-Roubaix block as final preparation for the Ardennes Classics.

On paper, Alaphilippe lacks the brawny physique of the heavy classics riders — his lithe frame is hardly in the mold of Tom Boonen or Fabian Cancellara. Still, Alaphilippe is among the most versatile riders in the bunch, and his ability to win on climbs, over hilly terrain, and even individual time trials is a sign that he can handle whatever terrain or surface is thrown his way.

Alaphilippe has downplayed his presence in this year’s race, insisting that he’s not a favorite. Still, his recent victory at the cobbled semi-classic Brabantse Pijl is a testament that Alaphilppe is on top form. It’s also a show that the Frenchman can handle the stones

Another Flanders newcomer is Romain Bardet of AG2R-La Mondiale, who might otherwise use the early April period to recover from Paris-Nice before building toward the Tour. Alaphilippe’s world for the last half-decade has been built around the Tour de France, which has left few opportunities to race cobblestones or big one-day races. Like Alaphilippe, Bardet loves to break the mold — something he did at the 2018 edition of Strade Bianche, where he finished second place overall.

While neither man is on the shortest list to win Flanders, neither should be counted out.

All eyes on van Aert and van der Poel

Van der Poel shadowed Van Aert through the final of Gent-Wevelgem Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

The years-long rivalry between Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert has spanned two disciplines — cyclocross and road cycling — and taken up hundreds of inches in newspaper columns in the Low Countries. There were many points when the ‘rivalry’ has seemed more like a curious friendship. But in the last week, MVDP vs. Wout has blossomed into a legitimate rivalry, complete with perceived slights and smack talk in the press.

The flare-up stems from the final kilometers of Gent-Wevelgem, where van der Poel appeared to mark van Aert as the front group of nine riders rumbled toward the finish. Van Aert attacked twice inside the final 10km, and on both occasions, he was chased down by van der Poel. Then, when the decisive attack went at 1.5km to go, the two riders sat up and marked each other out of the finale. Danish rider Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) took the victory in the sprint.

Afterward, van Aert pointed a finger at van der Poel and accused him of negative racing.

“Unfortunately there was no prize this time because someone looked at me all the time; he apparently wanted me to lose rather than win himself,” van Aert told Sporza about van der Poel’s tactics.

Within the calm and cool world of pro cycling, that type of comment is akin to Ric Flair smack-talking Hulk Hogan before a WWF wrestling match.

Bring on Flanders — this is a battle that is truly must-see TV.