Welcome to Flanders where millions this Sunday will be hoping for home win from Wout van Aert but he’s got to deal with Mathieu van der Poel, Tadej Pogačar, the rest of the field, the course and forecast crosswinds.
A start in Bruges and then 273km. A dash south-east to the hellingen, the small hills and ridges and where the race twists and turns like a tangled ball of string in an area no longer than 20km and no wider than 10km but where 170km of the racing happens with three climbs of the Oude Kwaremont, a long drag of a climb that’s rarely steep and part tarmac, part cobbles and it’s where the pavé begin that the slope kicks up. Later it’s the Kwaremont again chased by the Paterberg, much shorter but a wall of cobbles that hits 20% and begins with a sharp right turn.
The Koppenberg is a crucial climb, arguably the hardest of them all because of the gradient and the rough cobbles and if someone stalls then plenty are forced to walk and it’s often where a crucial selection happens over the top and it’s used sparingly, just once. Then come more bergs leading to the final Kwaremont-Paterberg combo in the final 20km. It’s not all about the climbs though, the portions in between are suitable for attacks as riders catch their breath and where those who lose the race often hesitate as rivals slip away.
The Finish: left over the top of the Paterberg and the gradual descent and then that long road into the outskirts of Oudenaarde for a flat finish.
Which of the big three, or the Grote Drie in Dutch? At the time of the Milan-Sanremo preview Mathieu van der Poel had won 23% of the races he’d started, Tadej Pogačar 22% and Wout van Aert 17% so picking another rider was going out a limb. And now their combined percentage win rate has gone up a point between them.
Mathieu van der Poel has won the Ronde twice already, is in form, packs a big sprint and can make all the right moves. So far so good but his Alpecin-Deceuninck team aren’t formidable, they’ll help him but he will be isolated when rivals can have strength in numbers, and Søren Kragh Andersen is more a joker to play than a workhorse. Also his sprint saw him beaten in the E3 last week, will this worry him? Probably not, it’ll come down to who has the most energy in Oudenaarde and he’ll back himself.
Wout van Aert doesn’t have to win but all the same, the two big lines missing on his prolific palmarès are the Ronde and Roubaix. It wasn’t long ago his problem was being isolated in the finale of a race but Jumbo-Visma have been on a shopping spree and now his team are so strong that they won’t just carry him, some have got a shot at winning themselves. He looked a little short on the climbs in the E3, an off-day or is he still chasing top form after illness interrupted his training and race schedule? Of course he won but Sunday’s course is more selective. The team will miss Dylan van Baarle because of illness but Christophe Laporte is an obvious outside pick and his finishing speed gives the team more options while Tiesj Benoot is strong but not such an obvious winner, he might be best deployed sapping the others.
Tadej Pogačar is the third of the Grote Drie because in a sprint with the two above, how can he win? We saw this when he finished fourth in a two man sprint last year. He’ll have to hit the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg as hard as he can with the hope of taking five metres on the Paterberg because if the likes of MvdP and WvA are just behind, which of them wants to lead the chase? Easier said than done but just as he refined his tactics in Sanremo, he should be smarter here. His UAE are strong but even Matteo Trentin and Tim Wellens seem to be workers for their leader.
Mads Pedersen has a potent sprint and can get over the climbs, plus he’s backed by a strong Trek-Segafredo team but how will they race, do they gamble on going early or back Pedersen to match the top favourites?
Tom Pidcock is back after concussion in Tirreno-Adriatico. Able to dart up the climbs and with strong team support he’s a contender but how to win? As mentioned before, he’s been beaten in cyclo-cross because he lacks the brute force of the two “Vans” although at least here he can draft them better. Ben Turner and Magnus Sheffield give Ineos more options.
Valentin Madouas was on the podium a year ago and was strong in the Strade Bianche this year but fell ill after Tirreno-Adriatico but is back in form and was kopgroep material in the E3. Groupama-FDJ team mate Stefan Küng is always strong and would be hard to pull back if he can get away solo but it’s this that’s hard, many will want to follow and he’s not explosive enough to barge clear.
Matej Mohorič could place although he’s not thrived in this race in his previous two attemps, but how to win? For him some kind of sneak attack could pay off when the others are watching. Not for him a “burn all the matches in one go” attack, instead he could drift away during a lull late in the race, much like Bahrain team mate Fred Wright did last year.
Soudal-Quickstep come with a stacked team. They maybe struggling for results this year but between the seven of them they’ve won more spring classics than many rival teams combined. Julian Alaphilippe is having a run of bad luck. Compared to last year it’s not so bad but illness here, a mechanical there means he’s not had a clear run at things. But the form seems ok and he was looking lively in Dwars Door Vlaanderen. The problem is many can shine on a climb or two, it’s sustaining this to the finish and we saw this with Kasper Asgreen on the Stationsberg in the E3 who briefly looked strong. Yves Lampaert will always struggle in a sprint so Roubaix looks better for him.
Neilson Powless has been one of the best riders of the season so far. We might wonder if he can keep this up but he made the podium in Dwars on Wednesday and has ambitions to win here and in the upcoming Ardennes races too. EF-Education will miss Alberto Bettiol so it’s all for Powless.
Then there’s everyone else. Almost everyone else knows they can’t sit tight and hold on, many will want to get ahead of events. The tactic of anticiperen isn’t new but this time it’s crucial to so many teams and riders which creates a self-fulfilling momentum where if more teams try to take on the race early and fire riders up the road as late as possible but before the Koppenberg then they can get an option on the finish. Here Ag2r Citroën and Lotto-Dstny come to mind, firing riders like Oliver Naesen and Caleb Ewan forward.
Anthony Turgis (Total Energies) has plenty of stamina but few wins. Movistar sometimes beat expectations because we all think of them as a squad for the summer stage races but Ivan Garcia Cortina was 5th in the E3. Sep Vanmarcke (Israel-PremierTech) is in form and not on many radars but his problem is the climbs, maybe next weekend’s Roubaix suits more, with Dylan Teuns perhaps with an eye on the weekend after that. Biniam Girmay (Intermarché-Circus-Wanty) started the season well but hasn’t weighed on the classics yet, sometimes seeming to talk himself out because of bad weather but this Sunday’s dry weather should help. Michael Matthews (Jayco-Al Ula) has the pedigree but has he got the hustle?
Weather: dry and sunny, a top temperature of 10°C and a northerly breeze of about 20km/h but which could gust to 40km/h which makes the weather a factor. The course twists and turns this wind direction means a headwind for the long finishing straight.
TV: live from start to finish, 10.00am CEST with the finish around 4.30pm CEST. Get settled by 3.00pm to catch the Koppenberg.
Women’s Ronde: it starts at 1.30pm and the finish is for 5.30pm CEST. You’ll find a good preview over at procyclinguk.com