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GHENT, Belgium (VN) — The expectations and stakes couldn’t be higher. The Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) is cycling at its best. Grit, courage, strength, tactics, and emotion are served up in super-sized portions. As the event’s 100th edition, set against the backdrop of brutal terrorist attacks in Brussels less than two weeks ago, Sunday’s race should deliver on several levels. The storylines are numerous: Fabian Cancellara’s farewell Ronde. Tom Boonen and Cancellara in line for a record fourth victory. Peter Sagan hunting for his monument, wearing the world champion’s rainbow jersey. Greg Van Avermaet and Sep Vanmarcke riding for their major classics victories to confirm their place in Belgium’s long list of champions. Etixx – Quick-Step and Team Sky hoping strength in numbers will work against the clear advantage of Sagan and Cancellara. Here is a snapshot of the major favorites for Sunday’s big battle:
Peter Sagan (Tinkoff)
Flanders best: five starts, second in 2013
“The Tour of Flanders is a really important race for me. I confirmed last weekend that I am on the right track, and I’m satisfied with my current form. This day is also important for the whole team, and I know that I can trust my teammates in supporting me.”
What’s at stake: No one’s won the Ronde in the rainbow jersey since Boonen in 2006. Considered among the best racers of his generation, Sagan needs to win a monument to confirm his status as a major champion.
Approach to Ronde: Sagan’s first win in the rainbow jersey couldn’t have come in a more emphatic way, taking the flowers with a crafty win at Gent-Wevelgem to get the second-place monkey off his back. Second at E3-Harelbeke, and strong at Milano-Sanremo where a late-race crash disrupted his sprint, Sagan looks in top shape.
How he can win: Sagan will be setting the rhythm of the race, so expect him to attack hard on the Kwaremont to make the first major selection. With his fast sprint, he has the confidence he can win out of a small group, forcing others to try to drop him.
Fabian Cancellara (Trek – Segafredo)
Flanders best: 12 starts, three victories (2010, 2013, 2014)
“I look forward the race. I’m fully concentrated. I am 100 percent ready. I race to win, not for the podium. Arriving at 100 percent top shape was my goal. I will do everything in my legs to push for result.”
What’s at stake: The expectations couldn’t be higher. Cancellara is best-positioned to win what would be a record fourth Ronde victory in what will be his final charge across the bergs. The Swiss superstar can confirm his status as one of cycling’s greats with another heroic ride.
Approach to Ronde: Cancellara confirmed he was in top shape with a win in his opening race at the Mallorca Challenge, then took two time trial victories (Algarve and Tirreno-Adriatico) before winning Strade Bianche with an exclamation point. At E3-Harelbeke, Cancellara confirmed he is in top shape when he had a mechanical and waited minutes before taking up the chase again, still managing fourth. Cramps impeded his final sprint at Gent-Wevelgem, where he finished fourth out of the race-winning move.
How he can win: He is the only rider strong enough to go with Sagan, and the pair could ride away from the entire pack, setting the stage for an epic battle of generations.
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing)
Flanders best: Nine starts, second in 2014
“Finishing second or third is not good enough. I am not happy with second or third places anymore. My only goal is winning those classics, and if I do not win, it’s not good enough.”
What’s at stake: Though he’s still very popular in Belgium, a victory Sunday would secure him a place alongside Tom Boonen and Philippe Gilbert at the top of the current generation. Everyone agrees Van Avermaet has the engine to win. The time is now.
Approach to Ronde: Van Avermaet showed great early season form, winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblat in his first major Belgian classic victory of his career, and then out-sprinted Sagan to win a stage at Tirreno-Adriatico. Thanks to a mountain stage cancellation due to snow, Van Avermaet even won the overall by one second over Sagan. Fifth at Milano-Sanremo was further confirmation, but he did not start E3-Harelbeke because he got zapped with a stomach bug. Ninth in Gent-Wevelgem (fifth in the bunch sprint), Van Avermaet should be in top condition Sunday.
How he can win: Van Avermaet cannot afford to miss any moves featuring Cancellara or Sagan. His strong kick will give him chances in small groups, but the dream scenario would be to drop those two, and square off against lesser rivals.
Alexander Kristoff (Katusha)
Flanders best: Four starts, one victory (2015)
“I am not the big favorite. Cancellara, Sagan, and Greg are maybe bigger favorites than me. I won last year, but seeing how strong the others are last week, I think it will be hard for me to follow on the climbs. I hope to have the same feeling as last year.”
What’s at stake: Kristoff’s fragile health coming into the Flanders week reveals how tough it can be for teams who put all their eggs into one basket. Having an entire team working for one leader means a fresh and protected captain, at least when they’re in the race. Another win would confirm Kristoff’s arrival as a new cobbles powerhouse.
Approach to Ronde: Five early wins in the Middle East seemed to camouflage the sense that Kristoff might not be in the same shape as he was in 2015. Second at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, and leaving Paris-Nice without a win seems to fuel those doubts. Getting sick after Paris-Nice didn’t help. Kristoff admits he’s not at 100 percent, and it’s hard to win Ronde at anything less.
How he can win: It would be wrong to discount his chances, but he would need a few things to line up in his favor. He’d likely lose against Cancellara or Sagan, so he will try to work into a group without either of those two in it. Easier said than done.
Tom Boonen (Etixx – Quick-Step)
Flanders best: 13 starts, three victories (2005, 2006, 2012)
“If I am honest, I will not be the big favorite. I think we have seen a very strong team. I don’t think we made any tactical errors, and I think everyone is improving. We can expect everyone to be on the top level this week, and myself included. I don’t what to expect as a goal, but if I am like I was last week, I can be up there on the climbs.”
What’s at stake: Like Cancellara, Boonen could win a record fourth Ronde title, but another Paris-Roubaix victory is looking more realistic. Hobbled by his crash at last year’s Abu Dhabi Tour, Boonen called his latest comeback the hardest of his career. Few have the same experience and depth to race Ronde. Boonen will race on pride, and will go down swinging.
Approach to Ronde: No wins in 22 days of racing, which is as many as Boonen could pack into his schedule. He doesn’t look as sharp as in other years, but avoided any major crashes or illnesses that could disrupt his approach.
How he can win: Only two top 15s in the early-season classics doesn’t bode well for his chances, so Boonen and Etixx could turn things upside down.
Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL – Jumbo)
Flanders best: Six starts, third in 2014
“After Gent-Wevelgem, suddenly I am one of the big favorites. I wasn’t before that. It doesn’t change anything in my mind. I’ve been working for these weeks, and I’ve shown that I am in good form. The key is to be there in the right moments of the race, and have the legs.”
What’s at stake: Victory will confirm the hype surrounding him a few years ago when many hailed him as the next Tom Boonen. Bad luck and crashes have taken the wind out of his sails, but he looks to be back in top shape for Holy Week.
Approach to Ronde: No victories, but not major setbacks, either. He came out of a very cold Paris-Nice in good shape. Second at Gent-Wevelgem boosts his confidence.
How he can win: More so than some of the other favorites, Vanmarcke needs to either ride away alone, or force his faster breakaway companions to do more work. Never afraid to attack, Vanmarcke might try to go before the Kwaremont to drive an earlier selection, then force the others to chase, and wear them out.
Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky)
Flanders best: Two starts, 40th in 2013
“I’m happy with my condition right now. I was sick in February, and I wasn’t able to race in Algarve. To win my first cobbled classic of the year was amazing. I don’t know what to expect from myself at Flanders, but I am happy to be a leader.”
What’s at stake: His victory at E3 Harelbeke in a battle against Sagan, the top riders of the new generation, provided a stunning preview to the Pole’s Ronde potential. Spritely enough to get up the bergs, he has the power to follow the accelerations, Kwiatkowski will want to try to drop faster opponents like Sagan or Kristoff.
Approach to Ronde: Under the radar, Kwiatkowski revealed his form at Tirreno-Adriatico, when he was third behind Van Avermaet and Sagan to Cepagatti. He skipped Gent-Wevelgem to head to a training camp to come into De Ronde firing at all cylinders.
How he can win: Team Sky brings perhaps its best ever classics team to this year’s Ronde. Ian Stannard and Geraint Thomas give Sky three options for the race, so the team will be at a major advantage against most of the rivals, with the possible exception of Etixx – Quick-Step.