BRUGES, Belgium (AFP) — World champion Peter Sagan doesn’t believe that any one predetermined strategy can guarantee a win at Sunday’s 100th edition of the prestigious Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders).
The 26-year-old Tinkoff rider will start as one of the favorites following his victory at Gent-Wevelgem last week, alongside the in-form Fabian Cancellara (Trek – Segafredo) and 2015 winner Alexander Kristoff (Katusha).
But maverick Sagan told Het Nieuwsblad newspaper that the 255-kilometer race, with its many cobbled climbs, will be unpredictable.
“Belgian races are more difficult than the others: the right strategy doesn’t exist,” he said. “It’s no coincidence that the record holders for the Tour of Flanders have only won it three times.”
Two of those tied for the record for most wins will be on the start line in Cancellara and Etixx – Quick-Step’s Tom Boonen.
Cancellara is riding his final season as a professional and has already shown good form this year, winning Strade Bianche and coming fourth at both E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem, the latter despite crashing and losing two minutes on the peloton at a crucial stage. He won Flanders back-to-back in 2013 and 2014 but missed last year’s race after crashing in E3 and breaking two vertebrae.
Boonen is also the joint record four-time winner of Paris-Roubaix, which takes place next week, but he’s won neither race since 2012 and many believe the 35-year-old’s best years are behind him.
His last major one-day victories came during a brilliant 2012 season, when he also won both E3 and Gent-Wevelgem. A 2014 victory at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne doesn’t make up for a failure to get genuinely close to winning one of the two cobbled “Monument” races since then.
He too missed out last year due to injury, dislocating his shoulder in a crash at Paris-Nice.
Belgians won’t be short of home hopes to cheer for, though, with Sep Vanmarcke having finished second at Gent-Wevelgem.
“Suddenly, I’m one of the big favorites. I wasn’t before this weekend, but it doesn’t change anything in my mind,” said the LottoNL – Jumbo team leader.
“I’ve been working for these weeks and I showed last weekend that I’m good.”
More often than not it has been a case of close but no cigar for Vanmarcke, who came in third in Flanders in 2014 and finished second at the 2013 Paris-Roubaix.
BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet, so often another nearly man, has come good this year, winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblad before recording a shock success at the Tirreno-Adriatico stage race. He’ll provide Belgian fans with another established rider to root for, while young hopes Jasper Stuyven (Trek – Segafredo) and Tiesj Benoot (Lotto – Soudal) look ready to mature into new stars.
Despite Sagan’s assertion, team tactics can often play a major role, with multiple options providing a huge advantage.
Boonen will have 2014 Paris-Roubaix winner Niki Terpstra as a foil, as well as Zdenek Stybar.
Team Sky will also be strong with Geraint Thomas and Michal Kwiatkowski, the last two winners of E3, as well as Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard. Sky appear to be getting increasingly closer to finally winning their first Monument, although Thomas was a marked man last year.
He’s perhaps passed a bit under the radar this year, winning the Paris-Nice stage race but not featuring prominently in the earlier one-day cobbled classics and semi-classics
Kristoff will probably have to rely on his own powers but he was imperious last year and his first-stage victory at Three Days of De Panne last week showed he’s hitting his straps at just the right time.
Flanders suits him well — he finished fourth in 2013 and fifth a year later before finally triumphing 12 months ago.