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‘Expect the unexpected:’ Four things to watch at the Tour of Flanders

Van der Poel and van Aert no longer invincible, Deceuninck-Quick-Step hot and then not, no Roubaix adds intensity: Get set for De Ronde.

The only thing that is certain ahead of this year’s Tour of Flanders is that the bergs will be steep and the beers will be strong. Settle into the sofa and get set for fireworks, because there’s a sense that anything could happen at this Sunday’s cobblestone clash.

No sooner had we gotten into the groove of Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert and Julian Alaphilippe winning all the races, all of a sudden they’re not. Deceuninck-Quick-Step was invincible, then it went AWOL. Ineos Grenadiers was a grand tour team, then Dylan van Baarle won Dwars door Vlaanderen. Paris-Roubaix was back after a one-year hiatus, now it’s been postponed until October.

The landscape is looking blurred and unsettled ahead of this weekend’s cobblestone clash. This is why we should expect the unexpected at the 2021 Ronde van Vlaanderen:

Doubts over the three top dogs

75th Dwars Door Vlaanderen 2021 - Men's Elite
Van der Poel was off his game at Dwars door Vlaanderen. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Rip up the script. Just one month ago we were all asking how many monuments van der Poel would win, reveling at van Aert’s versatility, and glorying in the attacks of Alaphilippe. The last week of racing has pumped the brakes on that.

Also read: A surprising parity as peloton powers toward Tour of Flanders

Van der Poel and Alaphilippe huffed and puffed their way through Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen, looking a shadow of their typical selves. Alaphilippe suggested a hard block or racing in Italy had left him lethargic, while van der Poel just lost his legs. Van Aert wasn’t racing at Dwars but blew spectacularly at E3 in a rare showing of fallibility.

Just one month ago, the “three tenors” of the classics were the top of any list of favorites for almost any race. But now their slots at the very top of the form guide is at threat. Alaphilippe’s own teammate Kasper Asgreen stands toe-to-toe with his world champ teammate. Jasper Stuyven and Matteo Trentin have found their cadence. And heck, what about Peter Sagan? Never forget that guy.

The past month of racing has shown there are chinks in the big three’s armor after all. Add the chances of a late-race mechanical or mishap, and there could be at least a half-dozen crossing the line first on Sunday.

“As we’ve seen in other classics, you can always have these favorites and you can have what everybody thinks is going to happen, but these races can turn on their head very quickly,” team BikeExchange sport director Matt Hayman told VeloNews. “Expect the unexpected.”

Script? What script?

Deceuninck-Quick-Step is hot and then not

Quick-Step dominated E3 then hit a divot at Gent-Wevelgem and Dwars. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s classics season has had more highs and lows than the parcours of Sunday’s De Ronde.

Also read: Asgreen leads Deceuninck-Quick-Step tactical masterclass at E3 Classic

One day there was a full press at the E3 Saxo-Bank Classic, 48 hours later an untimely split saw Sam Bennett isolated and on the edge at Gent-Wevelgem. And 72 hours after that, the team went AWOL at Dwars door Vlaanderen as Alaphilippe and Davide Ballerini struggled, and Asgreen got caught up in crashes.

“This does not say much in the run-up to the Tour of Flanders. On Sunday we get a completely different race,” Yves Lampaert assured after Dwars on Wednesday. “Be sure of that.”

What to expect from Quick-Step on Sunday? Nothing but an all-out assault. Having missed out at the highly prized Strade Bianche, Milano-Sanremo and Gent-Wevelgem, expect to see Quick-Step’s pack as fierce as ever Sunday in what makes for its home monument.

However, rivals will have taken note – it’s not impossible to unseat Asgreen, Alaphilippe & Co.

Shadow teams step up

UAE Emirates and Ineos Grenadiers are clawing into contention. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Slowly but surely, teams are blipping onto the radar screen after sitting off-grid for the start of the season.

Also read: Classics team forecast unpredictable and unsettled season

Trek-Segafredo has emerged as a legitimate challenger to Quick-Step as a classics powerhouse with Stuyven scoring big at Sanremo and Mads Pedersen leaner and meaner than ever.

Ineos Grenadiers – that squad that rides up and down mountains in summer – scored a first classics victory since 2017 with van Baarle on Wednesday and will have firecracker Tom Pidcock adding unpredictability to the party at Flanders. Golden boy Greg van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen showed some sparkle at both the E3 Classic and Dwars door Vlaanderen. UAE Emirates has seen Alexander Kristoff and Matteo Trentin come close.

Get the picture?

As the season has rolled its way from Omloop Het Nieuwsblad toward the big showdown in Oudenaarde on Sunday, more and more squads have thrown their casquette into the ring. With more teams packing confidence and looking to score, jerseys of all colors will be fighting for the front groups of De Ronde.

Paris-Roubaix cancelation fans the fire

All of a sudden, Flanders is the end of the northern classics this spring. Photo: Stephane Mantey-Pool/Getty Images

Now that Paris-Roubaix has been slashed from the spring calendar and shuffled back to October, the Tour of Flanders marks the grand finale of the spring cobblestone season – and for van der Poel, the last race of his road program before switching to MTB mode as he builds toward the Olympics.

Also read: Paris-Roubaix postponed until October

With the finale of the northern classics shifted forward seven days, riders will be throwing every last watt they have at the hellingen of De Ronde. Those without a result will be looking to score. Riders with form will be looking to cash in.

“The cancellation of Roubaix means the approach to the Ronde is different,” van Aert warned Thursday. “I want to do more with the form that I’ve currently got.”

The loss of the French pavé could mark a gain for the cobbles Sunday. The finish line in Oudenaarde has become the end of many riders’ first peak of the year, and every drop of sweat will be spilled.