Flanders: Five who can surprise

Here are five riders who will look to pounce at Flanders while all eyes are on Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet, and the Quick-Step block.

GHENT, Belgium (VN) — All eyes are on the “big three” to win Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen. Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) and the Quick-Step block start the Tour of Flanders as the riders to beat.

Behind them is a platoon of riders who could deliver a surprise. Defending champion Philippe Gilbert said there are “12 to 15 guys who could win but in the end, it’s the same faces” who rise to the top during the longer-distance monuments.

With forecasters calling for nasty weather, with temperatures in the high 40s, gusting winds, and rain, the race could descend into a hard-man’s battle. Team tactics won’t count as much as brute strength and determination.

The outsider list is long, with the likes of Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo), Michael Valgren (Astana), Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott) and Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) also right near the top.

But there are a few names that have shown the capability and resolve over the past few weeks to seriously challenge the top of the hierarchy Sunday. Here are five who could surprise:

Sep Vanmarcke (EF-Drapac)

The brawny Belgian is looking back at his best following a few fits and starts over the past few seasons. A Flanders podium finisher in 2014 and 2016, Vanmarcke looks as strong as he’s ever been. At 29, he’s reaching a maturity that should see him be at the top for the next few years. Staying upright and finding the right wheels to follow will be key for Vanmarcke’s prospects on Sunday. He’s shown glimpses over the past few races of having the legs to be able to attack and split up the bunch. Belgian legend Johan Museeuw tips him as the man to beat on Sunday.

Approach to Flanders: The big Belgian has been posting consistent results across the northern classics, with podiums at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Dwars door Vlaanderen with third. Seventh at E3-Harelbeke and 21st in Gent-Wevelgem following a final-kilometer attack confirms he’s ready.

Flanders record: Eight starts, six finishes, with third-place podiums in 2014 and 2016

Key teammates: Matti Breschel and Sebastian Langeveld are experienced classics hands while Mitchell Docker and Taylor Phinney are ready to pull.

What he needs to do to win: It’s not that Vanmarcke cannot sprint, it’s just that he’ll lose those sprints against Van Avermaet or Sagan. He needs to lose those guys if he wants a chance to win.

Quote: “The period where Boonen was really the best and everybody looked to him is gone. Last year, it was open racing and this year, it’s even more.”

Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal)

Fifth in his Flanders debut as a neo-pro perhaps set the bar too high for such a young pro. Still only 24, Benoot is proving that he’s no flash in the pan. A stunning victory at Strade Bianche put him right back on the radar. He’s one of the leading lights in a new generation of Belgian riders emerging in the post-Boonen era. He has the legs to ride for the podium Sunday.

Approach to Flanders: One of the most consistent performers across the classics this spring. His dramatic victory at Strade Bianche was his first pro win. He’s backed it up with fifth at E3-Harelbeke and seventh at Dwars door Vlaanderen, results that confirm his condition.

Flanders record: Three starts; best with 5th in 2015 debut, DNFs past two editions

Key teammates: The team is missing a few key men with injuries, but he still has Lars Bak, Marcel Sieberg and Jens Debusschere to keep him in the fray.

What he needs to do to win: Like many of the second-line favorites, Benoot’s weak point is his finishing sprint. To have any real chance of victory, he’d need to finish alone. A big ask, but not impossible with his form this year.

Quote: “I’ve shown I am in good condition. My victory at Strade Bianche was a big prize for me and it helped ease the pressure. Flanders is my favorite race and we’re ready for the big fight on Sunday.”

Oliver Naesen (Ag2r-La Mondiale)

If he hadn’t crashed heavily on his left knee in Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen, Naesen would be higher on the list. Van Avermaet’s training buddy and friend made a breakthrough in 2017, and might have hit the Flanders podium last year if he hadn’t tangled up with Sagan and Van Avermaet while chasing Gilbert. That’s a lot of “ifs,” but the reigning Belgian champion is next in line among the second-tier riders. His 23rd in 2017 did not reflect the depth of his performance. It’s unclear how he will be feeling Sunday. Doctors gave him the green light to start after a two-hour recon of the Flanders course Friday. A bum knee never bodes well before a major date like Flanders.

Approach to Flanders: No wins in 2017, but he was on an upward trajectory before Dwars. He was fourth at E3-Harelbeke, finishing just behind Gilbert and Van Avermaet in the sprint behind winner Niki Terpstra.

Flanders record: 3 starts, best with 22nd in 2016

Key teammates: Ag2r has quietly bolstered its classics team to support the emerging Naesen. Former Tom Boonen helper Stijn Vandenbergh and Gediminas Bagdonas provide the brawn, while Tony Gallopin is a Plan-B option.

What he needs to do to win: Naesen has the proven strength to go deep in the long races, so he needs to follow the right moves. Though not the fastest rider in the bunch, he still has a pretty good finishing kick.

Quote: “A fall is never ideal before a big event. I did not want to miss the Ronde while wearing the champion’s jersey. We had a hard time at Dwars, but the whole group wants revenge Sunday. Since the beginning of the classics, we have shown we are strong as a group. I have confidence.”

Wout van Aert (Verandas-Willems-Crelan)

If Belgians weren’t already enamored with van Aert following his three straight world cyclo-cross titles, they’re now over the moon in the wake of his stunning classics debut this year on the road. He’s been consistent in seven classics starts this spring, finishing in the top-30 in every one except for Wednesday’s Dwar door Vlaanderen when he collided with a race marshal. Third at Strade Bianche, with his emotional finale into Siena when he had to unclip out of his pedals, reveals the 23-year-old’s grit. A star is already born. Sunday’s performance will be a bonus.

Approach to Flanders: Van Aert has been the revelation of the northern classics. His electrifying performance at Strade Bianche was confirmed with 10th at Gent-Wevelgem. On Wednesday, he was able to shake off a high-speed impact with a marshal with little more than a sore back and neck.

Flanders record: Debut

Key teammates: Zico Waeytens has WorldTour experience while two-time former Flanders winner Stijn Devolder at 38 keeps on trucking.

What he needs to do to win: With the way he’s riding, he will be a marked man. Rivals won’t be in the giving mood if he tries to ride into an early breakaway. If he has the legs to follow the likes of Sagan or Van Avermaet, a podium could be in the cards.

Quote: “I don’t consider myself a favorite. I am in good condition and I am excited about racing in my first Ronde. After my crash [Wednesday] I had some back problems, but it seems OK. The team helped me a lot. Now I am looking forward to Sunday.”

Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida)

Another Flanders rookie, Nibali continues to deliver surprises out of his bag of tricks. His stunning victory at Milano-Sanremo demonstrated that persistence and daring tactics can sometimes rewrite the script. It’s unlikely to expect Nibali to win in his first ever Flanders, but no one will be counting him out, either. Nibali’s real goal this spring is to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège, so it’s hard to imagine that he will take any unnecessary risks. But if he smells blood in the water, you know the Shark will take a bite.

Approach to Flanders: Nibali has been clocking some big miles as he built toward the spring classics without notching a win. His thrilling victory at Milano-Sanremo has heightened expectations for Flanders.

Flanders record: Debut

Key teammates: Bahrain-Merida has a solid core group for the classics, with Heinrich Haussler, Sonny Colbrelli, Kristjan Koren and Borut Bozic ready to pull.

What he needs to do to win: It will be interesting to see how Nibali approaches the race. He won’t be taking risks in his first crack at Flanders, but much like Alejandro Valverde, he cannot resist once he’s in the flow. A long-distance solo attack seems unlikely, so Nibali will be looking to try to hitch rides on brawnier cobble-bashers and see how far he can go.

Quote: “I’ve wanted to race Flanders before, but it never happened. I am going to be attracting a lot of attention here. There are often crashes that can impact the rest of your season, so I am not going to take unnecessary risks. I don’t think I am a favorite. The favorites are Gilbert, Vanmarcke and Sagan. These are the men of Flanders.”