Wout Van Aert is the clear favourite to win the coveted rainbow jersey in Flanders on Sunday, and for good reason. The Belgian seemingly has no weaknesses, and although his runner-up place in the time trial last week may have been a blow, it further demonstrates his fine form.
Nonetheless, anything can happen over 270km. With an abundance of world class riders on the start line, we analyse some of the outsiders to keep an eye on in the men's road race on Sunday.
Neilson Powless - USA
Neilson Powless defeats Matej Mohorič and Mikkel Frølich Honoré to win the 2021 Clásica San Sebastian (Image credit: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
Neilson Powless won the 2021 Clásica San Sebastian to add his name to an elite list of recent winners, which includes Michał Kwiatkowski, Julian Alaphilippe and Remco Evenepoel. Although the Flandrien course throws up very different challenges, the San Sebastian route features uber-steep hills, and is more than 220km in length. As well as his skills on uphill terrain and over long distances, Powless proved that he is a capable sprinter when defeating the in-form Matej Mohorič and Mikkel Frølich Honoré.
After six weeks away from racing, Powless returned this month to tune up for the World Championships in Italy. Two top-20s, including a respectable sixth place at the Coppa Sabatini, show that Powless’ form hasn’t faded since his victory in July.
The American team features multiple riders who could have an outside chance, including Quinn Simmons and Matteo Jorgenson, who showed plenty of attacking intent at the Tour of Britain.
Markus Hoelgaard - Norway
Markus Hoelgaard wins the first stage of the Arctic Race of Norway (Image credit: Alex Broadway/SWpix)
Although none of the Norwegian team are key favourites, we think Markus Hoelgaard has a chance of causing an upset.
Hoelgaard has enjoyed a consistent 2021 campaign, which started with a series of impressive results in Belgium, highlighted by an eighth place finish at the E3 Saxo Bank Classic. Since then, Hoelgaard has won a stage of the Arctic Race of Norway, before an exceptional seventh place at the European Championships in Trento. Here, Hoelgaard finished in a reduced group including Matteo Trentin, Marc Hirschi and Tadej Pogačar. Hoelgaard’s performances have tempted Trek Segafredo into signing him for the 2022 season.
Norway’s squad features a range of potential underdogs, including Rasmus Tiller. Tiller is teammates with Hoelgaard at Uno-X, and has recorded some good results in Belgium this season — he was second to Tim Merlier at Le Samyn and won Dwars door het Hageland. Few are talking up Norway's chances prior to the race, but don’t count the Vikings out.
Mikkel Frølich Honoré - Denmark
Mikkel Frølich Honoré (Image credit: Mark Van Hecke/Getty Images)
There can be no doubting the strength in Denmark’s World Championship squad. Kasper Asgreen won the Tour of Flanders this season, so naturally is a primary protagonist. Elsewhere, Magnus Cort demonstrated exceptional form to win three stages at La Vuelta, whilst Michael Valgren won two races in Italy this month, defeating the likes of Sonny Colbrelli in the process.
However, we think Mikkel Frølich Honoré has a chance of upsetting the odds. The Deceuninck - Quick Step rider has been supremely consistent throughout the second half of the season. He was third, just behind Powless, at the Clásica San Sebastian, before finishing fifth at the Tour of Poland and third at the Bretagne Classic. His form has continued into September with fourth at the Primus Classic and the Tour of Britain, despite working for Julian Alaphilippe regularly.
Honoré isn't Denmark's leading option, but he could be utilised by following early attacks, or attacking himself to force other teams into chasing.
Christophe Laporte - France
Christophe Laporte at the 2019 World Championships (Image credit: Charlie Forgham-Bailey/SWpix)
France begin with the defending champion Julian Alaphilippe in their ranks. Loulou’s searing attack in Imola enabled him to escape and win solo, becoming the first French World Champion in the men’s road race since Laurent Brochard in 1997. Alaphilippe has demonstrated skills in Flanders before — notably at the Tour of Flanders in 2020, where he followed Wout Van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel before colliding with a moto. However, he’s not France’s only option.
Christophe Laporte has enjoyed one of the most prosperous seasons of his career. The Cofidis man won both the Circuit de Wallonie and the Grand Prix de Wallonie, adding to a couple of victories on French soil too. Laporte is a fast finisher, but he is more than capable on short hills and cobbled climbs — he was second at Dwars door Vlaanderen and eleventh at the Tour of Flanders this season. His season has been impressive enough to tempt Jumbo-Visma into hiring his services over the next two seasons.
Aside from Laporte, France have a number of other options in Florian Sénéchal and Benoît Cosnefroy. Sénéchal won the Primus Classic last week, whilst Cosnefroy was third at the European Championships.
Cover image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix