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Tour of Flanders: The other favorites

Behind the top few riders in Sunday's race are several others who could climb the cobbled roads to victory.

GENT, Belgium (VN) — OK, so everyone knows Peter Sagan or Greg Van Avermaet or one of the riders from Quick-Step Floors (take your pick) are going to win Sunday at the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Right? Right.

The dictum of the monuments is that the strongest man wins. And in a race as demanding and challenging as the Ronde, there have not been many of what could be called “surprise winners.” And based on what we’ve seen so far this spring, Van Avermaet and Sagan are clearly in top form. But starting the race with confidence and a strong base is certainly no guarantee of success. Crashes, punctures, and being caught behind the wrong split can always spoil the fight for even the strongest and most determined riders.

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On Sunday morning in Antwerp, there might be just two or three “five-star” favorites, but there is a long list of would-be contenders, all of them capable of riding deep into the race with chances to win. In fact, as the classics racing season continues to grow into one of the calendar highlights that is only eclipsed by the Tour de France, more and more teams are putting in the investment in riders, materials, and staff to seriously challenge for the classics. No longer are the classics simply a battle between two or three Dutch and Belgian teams like they were a generation ago.

Here are five teams who could easily disrupt the stranglehold BMC Racing, Bora-Hansgrohe, and Quick-Step have on the peloton.

Orica-Scott: The overlooked Aussies

When pundits think classics, they typically overlook Orica-Scott, much to their own detriment. The plucky Aussie outfit is like that bench player you call into the game when you need a big score. They might not deliver year-in, year-out, but they have hit some real doozies. The merry band of Aussie pranksters is one of the few teams that can consistently perform across all monuments, boasting riders who can shine on the pavé and in the hills. In fact, Orica as a franchise has won four of the five monuments over the past decade: Milano-Sanremo and Liège-Bastogne-Liège with Simon Gerrans, Paris-Roubaix with Mat Hayman, and Giro di Lombardia with Esteban Chaves. What’s left for the monument sweep? Flanders.

Who leads: On Sunday, Orica will bring the best Flanders team yet, with budding classics talents Luke Durbridge and Jens Keukeleire, not to mention Hayman and Mitch Docker.

What needs to happen: As Hayman proved last year at Roubaix, the simple tactic of “going for it” can pay huge dividends in the northern classics. Orica won’t have the pressure, so it will look to slot riders into late moves and hope one of them sticks. Keukeleire, second at Gent-Wevelgem, and Durbridge, fourth at both Dwars door Vlaanderen and E3 Harelbeke, have the engines to follow the moves. You know they will go down swinging.

Trek-Segafredo: Many cards to play

Quick-Step brings the deepest squad to Flanders, but Trek-Segafredo is not far behind in terms of options. The longtime home of classics legend Fabian Cancellara is changing its tune this year, lining up in Antwerp with a team that’s no longer riding for one singular captain, but rather a chorus with a few cards to play. Quick-Step has consistently proven that this swarming tactic (though risky if commands are not executed perfectly) can deliver.

Who leads: Taking the captain role is John Degenkolb, who looks to be close to his winning form when he won the Sanremo-Roubaix double in 2015. Right behind him will be improving Belgian rider Jasper Stuyven and even Edward Theuns, all backed by solid support riders like Gregory Rast, Koen de Kort, and Fabio Felline.

What needs to happen: Degenkolb needs to ride into the winning group coming over the final climbs. If he can hang with the likes of Sagan and Van Avermaet, he would have a very good chance of beating them in the final sprint. He could also have teammates to pull in late-race attacks, but that is easier said than done at a race as hard as the Ronde.

Katusha-Alpecin: All-in for Kristoff

Just two years ago, it appeared as though Alexander Kristoff was poised to emerge as one of the best classics riders of his generation. Following his Flanders win in 2015, however, Kristoff has been unable to confirm that with another big win. A fourth at Sanremo revealed he’s building coming into Flanders week.

Who leads: The arrival of Tony Martin, who dabbled in the northern classics last year for the first time, brings some added firepower. Marco Haller and Michael Morkov bring some depth, but it’s all for Kristoff on Sunday.

What needs to happen: Much like Degenkolb, Kristoff has the finishing speed to challenge Sagan and Van Avermaet if it comes down to a small, elite group. Whether he has the legs to go that deep late on the final climbs is the big question mark for the Norwegian star.

Cannondale-Drapac: Dreaming for Sep

Sep Vanmarcke is the Belgian star who is strong enough and big enough to battle the likes of Tom Boonen and Peter Sagan in any Belgian race. Already a podium man at Flanders and Roubaix, most believe it’s only a matter of time before “Big Sep” punches through to victory. Backed by the plucky Cannondale-Drapac team, which has delivered some big classics results, including Roubaix in 2011 with Johan Vansummeren, Vanmarcke should be right in the thick of the battle.

Who leads: Cannondale has a few options behind Vanmarcke, with Dylan Van Baarle, Sebastian Langeveld, a resurgent Taylor Phinney, and rising star Patrick Bevin expected to play their parts. It’s Vanmarcke’s big motor, however, that should rise to the occasion.

What needs to happen: Vanmarcke needs a bit of luck. Though some have questioned his late-race tactical acumen at times, he’s more often been undone by a late puncture or a crash. He clearly has the brawn and the Belgian pedigree to stay with the elite riders. The harder the race, the better for Vanmarcke, who will simply try to ride everyone off his wheel.

Lotto-Soudal: The ‘other’ Belgian team

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Belgium has a second WorldTour team during Flanders week. With Quick-Step eating up most of the oxygen in the media atmosphere, especially in what’s Boonen’s final stampede across the pavé, Lotto-Soudal is often relegated to supporting-role status.

Who leads: Tiesj Benoot is the media darling who will be under pressure to deliver on his promise. Jens Debusschere, Tony Gallopin, André Greipel, and Jurgen Roelandts all give Lotto a few cards to play across the race.

What needs to happen: Lotto needs to put some men into an early breakaway, perhaps Greipel or Gallopin, taking pressure off the team to chase, and then hope that one of its top riders will have the legs to follow the inevitable accelerations from the big bosses.

Other wildcards: Take your pick

Behind these “second-tier” options is another row of wildcard candidates who could pull off the big win. There is no shortage of riders lining up Sunday with dreams of glory, and that reflects just how seriously more and more teams are taking the northern classics. It’s been a long time since the race was dominated by just a handful of Dutch and Belgian teams. These days, nearly every WorldTour team brings at least one rider with a real chance. Only a few will make it to Oudenaarde with their dreams not shattered.

It will be interesting to see how Stijn Vandenbergh, who was long a loyal Boonen workhorse at Quick-Step, goes now that he has liberty at Ag2r La Mondiale. Remember it was Vandenbergh who was ordered to sit-on the attacking Van Avermaet in 2014, only to open the door to Fabian Cancellara’s third Ronde win. Teammate Oliver Naesen, with four top-10 finishes in classics so far this spring (including a third at E3 Harelbeke), is clearly on good form.

Team Sky cannot be overlooked, with Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe leading the British outfit into the season’s second monument following its stunning win at Milano-Sanremo with Michal Kwiatkowski — who is not racing at Flanders. Edwald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data), Matti Breschel (Astana), Lars Boom (LottoNL-Jumbo), and Arnaud Démare (FDJ) are all quality riders who should not be overlooked. And, hey, if we’re dreaming, why not Filippo Pozzato (Wilier-Triestina)? Sometimes lightning can strike.