The holy week of spring classics is finally here — the Tour of Flanders is Sunday, April 1, and we aren’t fooling.
De Ronde, as it’s known in Flanders, always serves up some of the season’s best racing with its combination of explosive, cobbled hills, long distance (266.5km in 2018), and stacked field (as you’ll see below).
Of cycling’s five monuments, Tour of Flanders isn’t quite as unpredictable as Milano-Sanremo or Paris-Roubaix. The strongest man often wins. Yet, a healthy dose of luck and careful tactics are key to victory in Oudenaarde, Belgium this weekend. Here are 10 riders who will likely make the final selection and could very well go on to win.
10. Wout van Aert (Veranda’s Willems-Crelan)
Three-time world cyclocross champion Wout van Aert is the odd man out on this list. Of course, he’s more inclined to win 60-minute ‘cross races on slippery, muddy fields, but more notably, he’s the only man here riding for a Pro Continental team. That hasn’t stopped the 23-year-old from stunning the WorldTour with a third-place finish at Strade Bianche and 10th at Gent-Wevelgem. In large part, his team is invited to Flanders (as well as Paris-Roubaix the following Sunday) due to van Aert’s star power. It seems likely the Belgian reciprocates with a strong showing for his countrymen.
9. Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo)
Once a classics powerhouse with Fabian Cancellara, Trek-Segafredo has been looking for a signature spring classics victory since the Swiss retired. Jasper Stuyven might be the man to make it happen. Winner of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne 2016 with an audacious solo attack, the Belgian has found his way into the front group at most of the key one-day races so far this spring: fourth at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, 10th at Milano-Sanremo, sixth at E3 Harelbeke, 9th at Gent-Wevelgem, and 10th at Dwars door Vlaanderen. That’s consistency! Based on how he has been sprinting so far this spring, his best chance at a win will come from a lone attack, like he did at Kuurne.
8. Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors)
What’s the deal with Niki Terpstra? Is he truly a classics ace or always the joker to play beside a true king? He won Paris-Roubaix 2014 — a great result — but most favorites were fixated on Terpstra’s teammate Tom Boonen that day. This year, Terpstra won E3 Harelbeke, a harbinger of Flanders form. He did so in a long-range breakaway that was protected by watchful teammates in the chase group. If history is any guide, the Dutchman has a chance to win if Quick-Step gives him leash for a long escape. It seems unlikely he will be entirely protected for the finale.
7. Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky)
The shapeshifting Michal Kwiatkowski is looking more like a stage racer this season, winning Volta ao Algarve and Tirreno Adriatico. He’s also never had a successful outing at Tour of Flanders. It seems unlikely the former E3 Harelbeke winner has forgotten how to ride the stones, though. The former world champion is a bit of an unknown quantity for Sunday, not having ridden any of the tune-up one-day races in Belgium. His best chance to win likely hinges on his potential to out-climb rivals on the steep final bergs of Flanders, like Sagan did in 2016.
6. Zdenek Stybar (Quick-Step Floors)
You knew you’d see several Quick-Step men on this list, didn’t you? Zdenek Stybar is yet another strong card the Belgian team can play Sunday. With top-10 races in the last three Belgian one-day races, the Czech champion clearly is on form at the perfect time. Stybar has yet to win a cobbled classic and at 32 years old, time is winding down. The team should give him the best possible opportunity. If Terpstra is caught after a long-range attack, Stybar could be the next man in blue to ride off the front at Flanders. Rivals can only chase down so many breakaways before something sticks.
5. Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First-Drapac)
It isn’t easy being the “nearly man,” but for now that seems to be Sep Vanmarcke‘s lot in cycling. The Belgian has seven podium finishes at the major spring classics, including two thirds at De Ronde … and just one win: Omloop in 2012. Again this season, he’s been consistently close with a third at Omloop and seventh at E3 Harelbeke. Yet he’s still dogged by bad luck. Last year, he crashed out of Flanders. This season, he was caught behind a major crash at E3. He got out-foxed by his breakaway companions at Dwars door Vlaanderen Wednesday. Above all, Vanmarcke needs good luck Sunday. He also would do well with a solo attack, rather than a sprint finish.
4. Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal)
Tiesj Benoot has been a buzzworthy rider since his fifth-place finish at Tour of Flanders 2015. The weird thing is, his first pro win was this spring at Strade Bianche, three years later. It was worth the wait. Benoot proved his grit on a terribly wet and muddy day in Italy. He’s also been flaunting his climbing legs, riding to fourth at Tirreno and fifth at E3. The compact Belgian is suited for De Ronde’s tough climbs. He is not, however, the man to out-sprint a rival like Greg Van Avermaet or Peter Sagan. If we are treated to a cold rainy day, Benoot might be able to channel the moxy that won Strade and escape on one of the race’s toughest climbs.
3. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing)
This time last year, we were raving about Greg Van Avermaet‘s romp through the Flanders tune-up races. This season, he’s been a bit more incognito, floating through Dwars and Gent-Wevelgem in the top-15, briefly showing himself with a third-place finish at E3. Don’t be sleeping on Golden Greg, he’s ready for a shot at the only race he truly yearns to win. To get that Flanders title, he’ll need to keep his house in order. BMC rode a messy chase in E3, as Terpstra took the win — it remains to be seen if they can control the race if Quick-Step starts to fire off attacks. Should Van Avermaet make it to the finish with a small group, he’s as good as anyone in the sprint after a brutal day of racing.
2. Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe)
The 2016 Tour of Flanders champion is a favorite in nearly every race he starts. The difference here is that his motivation will be at an absolute peak on Sunday. Nothing will be left to chance. And coming off a win in Gent-Wevelgem last weekend, the three-time world champion should have ample confidence. What makes Peter Sagan such a threat is that he can win in practically any scenario. He took that Flanders title in a solo break, executed on the Paterberg (apologies to Vanmarcke). He won his first world title with a similar solo flourish. He’s won numerous large bunch sprints, including his two subsequent worlds titles. And he can outfox a small breakaway in the sprint, as he did in Gent-Wevelgem 2016.
1. Philippe Gilbert
Yes, it’s a bit facile to name the defending champion as the top favorite, but damn Philippe Gilbert looks good this spring. He was in beast-mode last weekend, driving the front group at Gent-Wevelgem. He also sprinted to second (ahead of Van Avermaet) at E3. And, as if it hasn’t been said enough already, his Quick-Step team is really strong. To continue the scenario proposed earlier, if Terpstra goes early and is caught, then Stybar attacks unsuccessfully, Gilbert will be ready to deliver a coup de grace.