At last, it’s nearly time for the classic we’ve all been waiting for: the Tour of Flanders. Every one of the many cobbled Classics that have taken place since Omloop Het Nieuwsblad five weeks ago has been building up to this day, the first Sunday of April, which every year sees seemingly all of Belgium come to a standstill to witness the biggest event on the national cycling calendar.
Team Jumbo-Visma have been the undisputed winners of the Classics so far this spring, with Dylan van Baarle winning Het Nieuwsblad, Tiesj Benoot Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Wout van Aert E3 Saxo Bank Classic, and most recently Christophe Laporte both Gent-Wevelgem and Dwars door Vlaanderen.
But at the Tour of Flanders the Dutch squad must reckon with a plethora of talent all hungry for success — most notably, Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), riders who, along with Jumbo’s Van Aert, have looked so superior to everyone else that they’ve been deemed The Big Three.
At last year’s Ronde, Van der Poel and Pogačar went clear together on the Oude Kwaremont, before embarking in a risky cat and mouse game on the finishing straight that, in thrilling circumstances, enabled Van Baarle and Valentin Madouas to catch them. Van der Poel still managed to win from the sprint, while Pogačar floundered in a frustrated fourth.
With such a stacked line up, we’re bracing ourselves for more unpredictable drama this year.
Mathieu van der Poel
No rider competing on Sunday can claim to have as strong a Tour of Flanders pedigree as Van der Poel. Not only is he defending champion, he’s been the main protagonist of all three of the last Tour of Flanders, narrowly fishing runner-up to Kasper Asgreen the year before, and getting the better of Wout van Aert in another two-up sprint to win the 2020 edition.
Van der Poel's two wins make him the Ronde favourite (Zac Williams/SWPix)
He’s kept his racing to a minimum this spring, but has been in top form in his last two appearances, winning the third monument of his career at Milan-Sanremo, and finishing second at E3 Saxo Bank Classic.
His tactics in the latter race, where he attacked early and attacked hard to take Van Aert’s Jumbo-Visma teammates out of contention and turn the race into a straightforward three-way contest between himself, Van Aert and Pogačar, may well be a blueprint for how he is to approach the Ronde, even if he did lose out in the climactic sprint that time. Jumbo-Visma have been unbeatable on the cobbles this spring, but Van der Poel poses a huge problem for them.
Wout van Aert
After so frustratingly missing last year’s race due to an ill-timed Covid positive having been the man of the spring up to that point, and having previously lost out so narrowly to Van der Poel at the 2020 edition, Wout van Aert has unfinished business at the Tour of Flanders. He’s won virtually every other major Flemish Classic on the spring calendar, and seems perfect for a race like the Ronde, but the very biggest races have eluded him of late — it’s now been over three years since his one and only Monument win, the 2020 Milan-Sanremo, in which time he has made the podium at the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liège–Bastogne–Liège, the World Championships and the Olympic Games, without winning any of them. Miss out again on Sunday, and this run will start to look like more than just bad fortune.
It was a race of three at the E3 Saxo Bank (Getty Images)
Interrupting the familiar Van der Poel vs Van Aert showdowns is Tadej Pogačar, who, since venturing onto the cobbles last spring, has proven to be their equal (perhaps we should start calling him Tadej Van Pogačar?). Even by his standards the Slovenian’s form this season has been sublime, with him racking up seven wins and two general classification titles by mid-March; but has lost out both times he has faced Van Aert and Van der Poel (at Milan-Sanremo and E3 Saxo Bank).
To get the better of them at the Tour of Flanders, he can’t depend on his sprint, and will therefore need to drop them at some point and ride to the finish solo. The way he came so close to doing so on the final climbs of last year’s edition suggests he certainly has a chance of doing so, and we’ve learned that nothing in cycling is beyond Pogačar’s capabilities.
For all the talk of The Big Three, the on-form rider heading into Sunday is Christophe Laporte, following his triumphs at Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday and Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday. While it’s true the former was gifted to him by Jumbo-Visma teammate Wout van Aert, and that Laporte was clearly weaker than the Belgian on the climbs, he still had extremely strong legs to escape with Van Aert in the first place, and seemed to take confidence from at last winning a career-first major Classic by adding a second mere days later.
Laporte took two major victories in four days (Zac Williams/SW Pix)
His best chance of winning will be if the race turns into a tactical affair, and Jumbo-Visma successfully leverage their numerical advantage to snooker the other teams. With Benoot, Van Baarle and Nathan van Hooydonck, all riding, the team have one of the strongest line-ups ever assembled for a Tour of Flanders, and with his ability to both sprint and ride solo, Laporte might be their most dangerous option after Van Aert.
The wildcard pick for victory on Sunday is Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers). He would have been a shoo-in as a top favourite had a concussion sustained at Tirreno-Adriatico not disrupted his Classics campaign, but now there are questions as to whether he has enough racing in his legs, while 11th-place on his return to racing at Dwars door Vlaanderen was solid but unspectacular.
Pidcock was forced to take time out after Tirreno-Adriatico, but still has the talent to compete in Flanders (Chris Auld)
If he’s at his best, though, the 23-year-old is perhaps the only rider with the pure talent to genuinely ride mano y mano with the big three, and the stunning ride he produced to win Strade Bianche before the concussion setback should serve as a warning against underestimating him.
As the likes of Alberto Bettiol (2019), Nick Nuyens (2011), and Jacky Durand (1992) all attest to, the Tour of Flanders isn’t always the preserve of the top favourites, and outsiders have a chance of springing a surprise victory.
It might be a little harsh to label Matej Mohorič (Bahrain-Victorious) an outside favourite given his status as a former Monument winner, but the 2022 Milan-Sanremo winner would need to find something extra to turn the top-eight finishes he’s regularly achieved this spring into a victory.
Stefan Küng is another rider who typically struggles to graduate from high finishes into victories, but will form part of a dangerous Groupama-FDJ double-act with last year’s third-place finisher Valentin Madouas, both of whom looked good and made the selection at E3 Saxo Bank Classic.
Best of the rest behind The Big Three at that race were, surprisingly, the Movistar duo of Iván García and Matteo Jorgenson, while 23-year-old Oier Lazkano registered the team a surprise runner-up finish at Dwars door Vlaanderen. It will be intriguing to see if this new crop of Classics breakthrough talents can all retain that form during the longer, more arduous Tour of Flanders.
Oier Lazkano was a surprise runner-up and Dwars door Vlaanderen (Getty Images)
The challenging parcours of the Ronde makes it a difficult race for the sprinters, but some have the resilience to potentially stay in contention. Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) is the pick of the bunch, while Biniam Girmay (Intermarché-Circus-Wanty), Caleb Ewan and Arnaud De Lie (both Lotto-Soudal) look short on form.
While Jumbo-Visma have the most options, Alpecin-Deceuninck and UAE Team Emirates have other options in Søren Kragh Andersen and Tim Wellens respectively. And for all their travails this spring, Soudal - Quick-Step still have a very strong line-up on paper — they just need one of Julian Alaphilippe, Kasper Asgreen, Yves Lampaert or Florian Sénéchal to make a timely return to form.
Men's Tour of Flanders 2023 prediction
It’s hard to see past one of Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert and Tadej Pogačar taking the victory, but which one will it be? The trio have been virtually inseparable in their two previous contests so far this spring, and have appeared almost evenly matched.
Ultimately, what's likely to swing it is the strength of Jumbo-Visma, which will make the race much more complicated for Van der Poel and Pogačar. Therefore we’re backing home favourite Wout van Aert to take the Ronde van Vlaanderen title he seems destined to achieve.