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Asking the pros: Who are the Flanders favorites?

We asked top riders and sport directors who they think will win the Tour of Flanders and who could pull off a surprise victory.

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GENT, Belgium (VN) — Forget the pundits, the fans, and the Twitter consensus. The best way to gauge the favorites for Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) is to ask the riders inside the peloton.

The racers see who’s strong, who’s not, who’s hiding, and who’s pulling hard. The sport directors, mostly former pros themselves, can see whose legs are “light in the pedals,” whose faces cannot hide the suffering, and who has the spark and depth to go the distance in a race as long and as difficult as Flanders.

Over the past few days, VeloNews queried riders and sport directors on who they see winning the 100th edition of the Ronde. The consensus? Two names: Fabian Cancellara Trek – Segafredo and Peter Sagan of Tinkoff.

“You can’t look past Cancellara,” said Sky’s Ian Stannard. “He was standing on the side of the road two or three minutes [at E3 Harelbeke], and for him to come all the way back to the front group shows the kind of form he is in.”

Astana’s Lars Boom: “Sagan is the top, and there is a big group behind him.”

Cannondale’s Jack Bauer: “The favorite? Sagan, for sure. Who else? Cancellara is in fantastic shape. [Alexander] Kristoff is coming good. Greg [Van Avermaet] is coming good, but Sagan is always good. I think he’s the man for Sunday.”

Here are the results of an informal poll of riders and sport directors ahead of Sunday’s big race. We asked about the favorites and the outsiders who could win.

Five-star favorites: Sagan vs Cancellara

Two names were repeated often: Sagan and Cancellara. Flanders could see an epic battle of generations. Sagan is the peloton’s ascendant rider. The reigning world champion was second at E3 Harelbeke, a winner at Gent-Wevelgem, and was poised for a podium charge at Milano-Sanremo when a crash by Etixx’s Fernando Gaviria disrupted both Sagan and Cancellara.

And the soon-to-be-retired Cancellara looks to be on winning form coming into Flanders. Victorious at Strade Bianche, Cancellara was fourth at both Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem. Stannard pipped him in the bunch sprint at Harelbeke, and he looked to have cramps late in the breakaway at Gent-Wevelgem, but it’s clear “Spartacus” is on winning form for Flanders. The consensus inside the peloton is that they are the two wheels to follow.

Right on their heels: Van Avermaet and Kristoff

Earlier this season, both Greg Van Avermaet of BMC Racing and Alexander Kristoff of Katusha were looking unstoppable. But like other major favorites in the peloton, the pair was stricken by colds that came at the worse possible moment. Van Avermaet did not start Harelbeke, and Kristoff pulled out of Gent-Wevelgem after struggling to 53rd at Harelbeke.

Both look to be coming back to full health for Flanders, but the peloton will quickly find out Sunday. Van Avermaet was ninth in the first chase behind the Sagan quartet at Harelbeke, and Kristoff won a stage but lost the overall at the Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde.

“Kristoff is my big favorite,” said Cannondale sport director and 1990 Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner Eric Van Lancker. “If you go with him to the line, Kristoff is so fast, you have to be strong enough to drop. That is not so easy.”

Sky and Etixx – Quick-Step: Strength in numbers

Both teams are stacked with possible winners. Sky brings perhaps its best ever team for Flanders in its quest to win the franchise’s first monument. E3-Harelbeke winner Michal Kwiatkowski, Stannard, and 2015 Harelbeke winner Geraint Thomas will be able to use tactics so often employed successfully by Quick Step over the years.

In contrast, Etixx has huge pressure to deliver a victory. Its last Flanders win came in 2012, but it’s hard to read who’s on form. Zdenek Stybar, hot earlier this spring, faltered in the opening classics, and Tom Boonen seems to be in a race against time to gain top form. Niki Terpstra won Le Samyn in early March, but that’s hardly monument level. Etixx sport director Tom Steels admitted things are more complicated than they used to be.

“It’s no longer Cancellara and Boonen,” Steels told VeloNews contributor Gregor Brown. “It’s a very competitive field. You can at least count 10 riders with different qualities and tactics that can change the way of the course.”

‘Big group behind’: Boom, Vanmarcke, Benoot

As Steels suggested, the depth of the classics field is much deeper than it’s ever been before. A decade ago, it was largely a question that could follow the wheel of Cancellara or Boonen, and see how long they could hang on. Today, nearly every major team brings heavy hitters to the classics. LottoNL – Jumbo packs Sep Vanmarcke, who seems destined for a major classics victory. Lotto – Soudal brings the duo of Jurgen Roelandts, third at Milano-Sanremo and seventh at Gent-Wevelgem, and Tiesj Benoot, fifth in his Flanders debut last year. Fifth at Harelbeke, Jasper Stuyven is Trek’s second card behind Cancellara, and Dimension Data is betting on a revival of Edvald Boasson Hagen. Astana is backing Lars Boom, who sums up the feeling of the second-tier favorites.

“There is a really big group behind Sagan and Cancellara, and I think I belong in that group,” Boom said. “Friday was good for me, I had a good feeling on the cobbles. I am motivated for the classics.”

Outsiders: Haussler, Pozzato

It’s rare that a complete outsider wins a race as selective and difficult as Flanders, but it has happened. The most recent example was Nick Nuyens in 2011. No one wins Flanders on a fluke, but sometimes a solid but second-tier rider like Nuyens, who was second in the 2008 Flanders, can outfox the five-star favorites. In 2011, he out-kicked Boonen, Cancellara, and Sylvain Chavanel. Two riders who might pull off the miracle include Heinrich Haussler of IAM Cycling, who was second at both Sanremo and Flanders in 2009. He’s showing signs of life, with a seventh at Sanremo and a 16th at Harelbeke.

The other is Italian veteran Filippo Pozzato, a winner of the 2006 Sanremo and runner-up at both Flanders and Roubaix. Now on Pro Continental team Southeast – Venezuela, he won’t race Roubaix, so it’s all or nothing at Flanders. Eighth at Sanremo and fourth at Dwars door Vlaanderen, “Pippo” is the darkest of the dark horses.