The Tour of Flanders, or Ronde van Vlaanderen, is one of the most anticipated races of the year. Some of Flanders’ most challenging cobbled climbs await the riders on Sunday 4th April. The race returns to a more familiar slot on the calendar after it was postponed until October in 2020.
Like all of cycling’s Monuments, the Tour of Flanders is etched deep into cycling's history — the first edition occurred in 1913. No rider has won the race more than three times, with six achieving that feat.
The Men’s 2020 edition was set to be one of the most anticipated three-way battles in recent times, with Mathieu van der Poel, Wout Van Aert and Julian Alaphilippe duking it out. However, three were reduced to two when Alaphilippe collided with a moto. The two remaining crested the Paterberg, the final cobbled effort of the day with a healthy lead which proved unassailable for the rest. In the end, Mathieu van der Poel narrowly sprinted to victory ahead of Van Aert to claim his first Monument on the road. The first of many, we suspect.
The first kilometres of the race are typically used to establish a breakaway. However, soon enough the riders will reach a plethora of cobbled climbs.
We can expect a similar course to 2020. Here, we witnessed three ascents of the Oude Kwaremont. The first ascent, which occurs with 120km remaining, has the potential to be the first serious selection process of the day.
The Paterberg and Taaienberg are two more climbs synonymous with the Flanders Classics which will be ridden here. Both efforts are under 1km in length but provide brutal gradients and tricky cobbles.
Following the final climb of the day which is the Paterberg, there are 13km of flat road to the finish in Oudenaarde, where we could see attacks go off the front or reeled in for a sprint.
Mathieu van der Poel and Wout Van Aert in the 2020 edition of the Tour of Flanders (Image credit: CorVos/SWpix)
The story starts with Wout Van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel. They entered as the two predominant protagonists last year and delivered — going to the line side-by-side. We mean that literally. The two could hardly be separated and as they crossed the line, neither knew for sure who had won. It was a battle of the titans and we are all for seeing a rematch this season.
Their sprinting ability is an interesting topic — who is stronger? Wout Van Aert has won mass-sprints before, he won stage one of Tirreno-Adriatico ahead of Caleb Ewan earlier this season. On the other hand, Van der Poel often rides for his teammate Tim Merlier when it comes to a mass sprint. On paper, this suggests that Van Aert is more confident in his sprint finish, yet it was Van der Poel who led-out and defeated Van Aert last season at De Ronde. The two are very evenly matched in this regard, and should it come down to a sprint between the two again this year, it'd be difficult to call the winner.
It could have been three, though. Julian Alaphilippe was desperately unlucky to crash out after looking supremely strong on the Taaienberg to move clear alongside VDP and WVA. Of the three out front, the world champion would’ve felt less comfortable in a sprint, although he too has won sprints before. Nonetheless, Alaphilippe can take a lot of confidence from his debut at De Ronde. He’ll be back for revenge this season after preparing at Dwars door Vlaanderen.
As always, he’ll be backed up by a Deceuninck-Quick-Step team with exceptional depth. Among them: Yves Lampaert, Zdeněk Štybar, Kasper Asgreen and Florian Sénéchal. Kasper Asgreen won the E3 Saxo-Bank Classic last week in a Deceuninck tactical masterclass. The team sent the Danish champion up the road early and gained a numerical advantage in the chasing group, meaning multiple DQS riders could mark opponents. The tactical flexibility of having many riders that can attack to victory or work for Alaphilippe is invaluable.
The INEOS Grenadiers have perhaps been lacklustre on the cobbles in recent times but enter the Tour of Flanders this year in strong form. Tom Pidcock has been a tremendous addition and at the age of 21, he'll only improve with time. However, it is Dylan van Baarle who enters Sunday's race in the form of his life. The Dutchman finished strongly at E3 and Gent-Wevelgem before winning Dwars door Vlaanderen in stunning style — he attacked with over 50km remaining and was never seen again. He now enters the Tour of Flanders as a major contender.
Dylan van Baarle (Image credit: William Cannarella/Cor Vos)
Looking further along the provisional startlist, AG2R Citroen have realigned their objectives to focus on the classics. After allowing Romain Bardet to leave, the signing of Greg Van Avermaet to partner Oliver Naesen demonstrates this. Both have shown good legs in Flanders this year, achieving top-20s in E3, Gent-Wevelgem and Dwars door Vlaanderen. Further, they both made it into the final selection at E3 and were only outnumbered by Quick Step, the team may have been disappointed not to claim a podium given their strong position. Nonetheless, they can be satisfied with their form ahead of De Ronde.
Alberto Bettiol hasn’t started his 2021 campaign in red-hot form, he’d have been somewhat downbeat with his performance at Strade Bianche. He has recently suffered with an illness too which kept him out of Dwars door Vlaanderen earlier this week, not the preparation he'd have hoped for. However, the Italian has garnered a reputation for doing well at De Ronde. He won in 2019 after perhaps being underestimated by his competitors. Don’t count him out just yet.
Michael Matthews is perhaps one of the most accomplished riders in the peloton that is yet to claim a Monument. In seventeen attempts, Matthews has six top-10s in Monuments which he’s gained at Milan-San Remo, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Tour of Flanders. He’s only been on the Flanders startline once in his career, he managed sixth place in 2019. The Australian performed well at Gent-Wevelgem last week too, claiming a top-5 finish. If Matthews can tackle the likes of the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg whilst staying at the sharp end of the race, he’ll be one of the premier favourites in the sprint.
Michael Matthews in yellow at Paris-Nice this year (Image credit: Presse Sports / Offside)
The Tour of Flanders is not just a race for pure cobble specialists. It provides chances to those that are typically strong on hilly terrain too, Julian Alaphilippe being the prime example of this. Jakob Fuglsang of Astana Premier-Tech had planned to start the Tour of Flanders this year but has since chosen to skip the race to focus on the Ardennes Classics.
Speaking about the Tour of Flanders earlier this year, Fuglsang explained, "Anything can happen at the Tour of Flanders. I think that Flanders is one of the classics where you can win it as a climber or a more pure cobble classic guy”.
Warren Barguil is similar in style to Fuglsang and could provide a surprise. Barguil rose to prominence as a pure climber at the Tour de France earlier in his career and hasn't started at the Tour of Flanders before. However, the former French champion was comfortable at Dwars door Vlaanderen earlier this week when tackling the likes of the Taaienberg so shouldn't be written off.
Although their squad doesn’t include any key favourites, Groupama-FDJ feature some interesting options. Stefan Kung is perhaps their leader, although he would need to go solo as he isn’t the quickest sprinter in the peloton. Kevin Geniets has developed into a superb young classics rider. Still just 24, Geniets was top-10 at Omloop and was also strong at Strade this year. The French team also have Valentin Madouas in their ranks, he claimed a top-15 finish in his Tour of Flanders debut last season.
Favourites: Wout Van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel, Deceuninck-Quick Step, Dylan van Baarle, Greg Van Avermaet
Outsiders: Michael Matthews, Valentin Madouas, Warren Barguil. Christophe Laporte
Cover image: Image credit: CorVos/SWpix